Saturday, January 25, 2014

Tacos and Cactus Ass: El Paso Puzzler

The 92Fifty’ Cyclery squadron took a winter hiatus to enjoy the warmth and sunshine of El Paso, Texas in mid-January.  The idea of actually mountain biking, on real, live mountain biking trails, had been haunting me for months; the thought of which nearly brought tears to my eyes.  Unfortunately, those tears were always dried up by mega wind gusts and cold days as I continued to crank out road miles in Boulder.  The realization that we’d be riding bikes in the desert under warm sunny skies was too good to be true.

Before going to El Paso for the El Paso Puzzler I had asked around about why it’s considered such a hard race.  Looking at the GPS files and finish times doesn’t make much sense.  There isn’t a ton of climbing for a 50-mile race, yet finish times were 4-5 hours for Pro riders.  I had heard that its “tough, raw” terrain, but not overly technical.  Something wasn’t adding up. 

Puzzler course and elevation profile.  Strava file.
92Fifty’ Cyclery pros Kyle “Ragamuffin” Taylor, Billy “Tennessee” Wood and myself pre-rode some of the course on Saturday afternoon.  We got a little dose of the pain that would soon be inflicted, all finishing our pre-ride with arms and legs cut up from brushing by any one of the various cactus and desert shrubs that have evolved to hurt/kill you.  What we gathered initially was the trails were rough, rocky, loose, off-camber, rocky, and rockier.  Even the smoother sections of trail were hard to rip through because of the kitty-litter-like nature, and most of the trails were a relentless onslaught of rocks.  That being said, none of us seemed too worried.  We were just happy to be riding our bikes!  And I was super excited to finally rip my new Felt Nine 1 on some trails.

"Puzzler" Mountain from Franklin Peak

Sunday morning was chilly, but once the sun made its way over the horizon the cold air seemed to vanish.  Properly fueled by coffee and my early morning jams (which the others didn't seem to appreciate for some reason), we were ready for the 8am start.  The start went off pretty fast down a ¼-mile long fireroad, with about 10 or 15 riders making a lead group.  Before long Kyle went up to the front.  Billy and I tried to chase, but I decided to conserve energy early and hang back a bit.  Upon hitting the singletrack, in which it would be impossible to pass for the next couple of miles, Kyle was still leading out a 7-man lead group, with me hanging in the rear.  I was content to hang back and gauge how hard the others were working.  The pace up the first climb to the ridge was fast but not painful, and we all crested it together.  On the backside descent Kyle was still out front.  I think this was a good move on his part, and something I was thankful for, as some of the riders with local trail knowledge may have otherwise made some valuable time on this section.  Coming into the Start/Finish after the 9-mile starter loop I was about 20 seconds back of the lead group.  The next loop contained the climb up to Mundy’s Gap, a 1600ft climb up loose rocky fireroad.  It was the biggest climb of the day and a section where the race could break open.  Going into it I was about 2 ½ minutes back of the lead group.  I stayed steady the whole way up, not trying to push too hard.  I passed Kyle a little ways up.  He was trying to conserve energy.  We were both banking on the lead guys to blow up at some point.  By the time I reached the top I had pulled to within 20-30 seconds of the lead group.  Then came the infamous descent of this race that includes the “rock garden”, basically a scree field ¼-mile long of head-sized loose rocks.  I probably didn’t ride it with the speed of others, but had a blast doing it!  The technique was: get behind the seat, let go of the brakes, and let the bike go where it wants; an out-of-control rock-skating session.  I’d climb Mundy’s any day for that descent! 

Rugged Mundy's Gap climb.
Billy Wood rock-skating.  Photo Credit: Devon Balet. Mountain Flyer Article
The rest of this 25-mile lap consisted mostly of rocky, slow-going, twisty, up-and-down singletrack that took you to the north end of the mountain, over the top, and back to the start/finish.  The next 2 or so hours felt like they took forever.  After the Mundy’s descent I started dealing with some major cramping, worse than I’ve had in years.  It wasn’t long before every muscle in my legs was seizing up with every climb.  The course was so relentless that eating and drinking was almost impossible.  I had run out of water and wouldn’t get a drink for about 2 hours until I reached the start/finish again.  In this time I took more cactus cuts to the arms and legs than I can remember, had an over-the-bars into a thorn bush, took a header into a cactus, and got thrown off the bike by another cactus that wasn’t moving when I put my shoulder into it.  I’m pretty sure it actually had arms and grabbed me and threw me off the bike.  I also think it kicked me when I was down and spit in my face.  This couple of hours was a game changer.  I was still pushing hard on every climb to make up time, but the cramping never relented, and the trail continued to eat me alive.  I wouldn’t see anyone the rest of the day.  I rolled into the finish in 5:10, 6th place pro/open.

The Puzzler was just that.  It was puzzling how riding 50 miles with mediocre climbing could take so long, and be so damn hard!  Having not ridden trails for over 2 months was definitely a disadvantage.  My bike handling skills were pretty bad, but I tried to stay strong mentally and physically throughout.  If you get negative on a course as relentless as the Puzzler it will eat you up.  It was a great early season mental and physical test that Kyle, Billy, and I are going to use to become stronger and more resilient for the year to come.   Apart from the race we were still so happy to be riding bikes by the Mexico border in January, camping with friends, and eating REAL Mexican food for days!  There was free beer and a taco truck at the finish line to properly forget the pain just inflicted and wash any sorrows away.  There’s seriously no feeling in the world like sitting around with friends after putting yourselves through such a test, drinking a beer, and talking/laughing about it all. The Puzzler race promoters are some of the coolest people you’ll ever meet, and we hung out by the fire until late in the evening, sharing beers, stories and laughs.  At some point before crawling into my tent someone threw a man-sized cactus into the fire.  Fitting.  I imagined it was the one that threw me to the ground earlier.  Cheers.



  1. Nice summary , I would like to ride it . Nice finish Hoosier

  2. hey Richie-
    It was great having you out here in the desert. We'll have to do it again next year.
    Thanks for the positive words. We enjoyed the heck out of it. say hi to the girl-