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Another Day with JHK: Down Colombia Way

Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski: Post-Pan-American MTB championship report

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With the 2011 mountain bike season firmly underway, it’s time for me to write the first of another season of rider columns here at

As I write, I’m currently enjoying a view of green Colombian jungle and snowy Andean peaks from 36,000 feet as I fly home from the Pan-American Championships in Bogota. It’s possibly the perfect place to begin another year of writing about travel and racing.

I have competed in about a half-dozen Pan-Am Championship races, and I have fond memories of every one of them. Well, almost every one of them; I suppose I could’ve done without the nasty parasite I picked up in the Dominican Republic in 2003. Still, intestinal bugs and tainted tap water aside, I love racing in South America.

The Pan-Am event always has a bit of wild unpredictability to it, both in the surroundings and often the race itself. The lodging, meals and logistics are usually taken care of by the local organizer, which means that you never know what you’re going to get until you’re there. My experiences with food and accommodation south of the equator have ranged from some of the best places I’ve ever stayed, to barely tolerable even for a short weekend.

The XC course had one unique feature — a castle. Photo by Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski

Happily, our Hacienda in Chia, a suburb of Bogota, was on the memorable end of the spectrum — for all the right reasons.

We arrived late, pulling into the Hacienda Guanata just after midnight. Given that Pan-Am unpredictability, it’s always exciting rolling down that last few potholed kilometers in the dark to see what kind of place the team will be staying at. In our case this year, it was a beautiful old hotel/compound tucked in between farmland plots in a rural area just outside of Chia, the local town.

Even though it was after midnight, I walked around a little bit, taking stock of what was obviously a really nice place. It was a mix of old Colombian tile-roofed buildings and stone terraces with a well-done modern interior. An old concrete fountain bubbling in a grassy courtyard added to the late night ambiance. Very cool.

The next day we were able to ride around and check out the surroundings we missed after arriving in the dark. We rode to the race venue, which consisted of the typical urban assault; weaving in and out of heavy traffic with a couple of highway merges thrown in for good measure. There was a local police escort on a motorcycle keeping an eye out for us, but it was mostly everyone for themselves.

Heather Irmiger, Sam Schultz and I explored a long steep paved climb that eventually turned to dirt and descended into the next valley. When I’m in new places I’m always tempted to see what’s around the next corner or over the next hill, and this was no exception. With a race on the horizon I figured I should probably ride the course instead though, so I headed back to the venue for a quick lap.

The course was a difficult one, with a lot of steep climbing and rough dusty descents. The altitude, over 8,000 feet, was definitely noticeable too. It was strange though, being in a jungle-like setting at that elevation. I’m used to alpine vistas and snowy Colorado mountains when I’m breathing like that.

We made a quick loop through Chia on the way home, checking out a mix of small markets, open-air bars and restaurants and newly built brick and glass apartments. We arrived just in time for a late lunch at the Guanata, which was fantastic. I usually don’t eat steaks in the middle of the day, but I couldn’t turn down a full plate of fresh fruit, salad, pesto, rice, and a perfectly cooked beef filet to top it off.

Alas, my quick weekend in Bogota was about more than eating good food and enjoying Colombian hospitality. We were here for a bike race!

The Racing

As is the case with the food and lodging, I have experienced both ends of the spectrum on the race course in my Pan-Am days as well. I’ve had the good fortune to experience the thrill of victory, but have had my share of defeat as well.

In contrast to my memorable surroundings, my Colombian race fell more towards the forgettable end of the spectrum. I had a hard crash on the first lap while in the front group, and spent a lap and a half re-gaining my composure afterwards. I over-estimated my early-season ability to redline it at altitude trying to chase back on and paid dearly for those efforts over the final laps. I ended the day salvaging a top-10 place, several UCI points, and in the end was reminded that, yes, racing is really hard sometimes.

Several Americans had good rides though, and notched podium finishes. Jeremiah Bishop and Todd Wells finished second and third in the Men’s XC, and Heather and Mary McConneloug finished second and third in the women’s race. Colombian riders dominated the top step of the podium in almost every category, and they deserve congratulations for top performances as well as promoting a great event.

Headed North

Our team enjoyed one last excellent meal at the Guanata, and packed up and got ready for an early departure. One last team activity was to compare and try novel varieties of fruit accumulated over the weekend, which was quite a collection. There were the usual guavas, papayas, and cactus fruits. But there were also crusty rock-hard orange gourds full of delicious seeds, yellow spiky grenades with sweet insides and green clustery shapes full of white meat — none of which I had ever seen before.

They were all amazingly good too, and the only thing left uneaten was an avocado looking thing that tasted vaguely like a cucumber. Upon seeing this, one of our gracious hosts amusingly picked it up and enlightened us: “This not fruit! You must cook it!” she told us. Silly gringos.

Throughout my world travels, I have accumulated a short list of places I’d like to return to outside of bike racing. Colombia definitely makes the list. The people were friendly and helpful, the fans at the race were awesome, and Bogota looks like a city worthy of exploration. I’m sure it will be a while before I get the chance though; I’ve got plenty of other places to go in the meantime. Sea Otter will be my next race, and then it’s off to South Africa for the World Cup opener.

While I didn’t turn in the best performance in Colombia, I’ve felt very good this early season and I am looking forward to the challenging races coming up. Check for another update soon, and thanks for following along.

Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski races the domestic cross-country circuit as well as the World Cup on the Subaru-Trek Mountain Bike Team. Follow him on Twitter at jeremyHK