Rider Diary: Sonya Looney’s Alpac Attack adventure

It's off to Argentina in search of high times in the big mountains

Race Coverage Travel
Volcanoes in the background. Photo by Sportstock; Monica Arruda

Volcanoes in the background (click to enlarge). Photo by Sportstock; Monica Arruda

Last year, I did a stage race in Chile called the Trans Andes. I was looking for a great adventure in Patagonia. The weather gods were not on our side and it rained for the majority of the race with a few canceled stages (not to mention being trapped in a soggy field for a couple days in leaking tents!) We were greeted with sun and grand views of the dominating Villarica volcano near the end of the race in the lovely town of Pucón, Chile in the sunshine but I felt that I missed out on seeing the Andes due to the disappointing “summer” weather during the race.

Fast forward just over a year later (one month ago) and I was again on my way to the Andes, this time by way of Argentina with high hopes of riding among some of the grand volcanoes around the infamous Ring of Fire. I was headed to a brand new race called the Alpac Attack; the third race of the Extreme World Challenge Series (the other two being the Yak Attack in Nepal and the Rumble in the Jungle in Sri Lanka; both of which I took the top step of the podium and was looking to grab the final race in the series for myself!)

The Alpac Attack was a 700km, 6 day stage race starting in Alumine, Argentina and once again finishing in Pucón, Chile. We were supposed to ride in close proximity to the Lonquimay, Melipeuco and Villarica volcanoes. The race took place in the Fall which was our spring at home. Little did I know that weather systems moving through Patagonia in the fall were even more agitated and unpredictable.

A nice surprise was that the Shimano Latin America office is located in Buenos Aires and I had enough time to pay them a visit!

A nice surprise was that the Shimano Latin America office is located in Buenos Aires and I had enough time to pay them a visit! (click to enlarge)

The travel alone provided adventure with three days just to get to the start line as well was three days of travel to get home. The travel was as long as the race! My husband traveled with me this time which as a major luxury. We would connect through Buenos Aires. I learned after booking our flights that you have to change airports in Buenos Aires when taking domestic flights. The other airport is an hour away without any sort of designated shuttle between the two. You also have to clear customs and re-check in with the domestic carrier at the other airport. I was very happy that I had been refreshing my Spanish so we could survive. The original reservation I booked only allowed two hours in between flights; a guaranteed failure.

After 10 hours on the phone pleading my case with Delta, I was able to change our flights and the result was a 10 hour layover. A nice surprise was that the Shimano Latin America office is located in Buenos Aires and I had enough time to pay them a visit! Mario Beltran is their marketing guru, managing all of Latin America. We did a radio program followed by a city tour. Add in more flights, a very thoughtful airport pick-up in Bariloche from my friend Harry Kikstra, a 3 hour late night drive and we had arrived the quaint town of San Martin de Los Andes. It sits on a lake surrounded by smaller mountains and is a major destination for outdoor lovers. The town was buzzing with the Mountain Hardwear ultra-running race starting over the weekend.

I expected to find many different hamburger and steak houses per the reputation of meat in Chile and Argentina, but the food had more of an Italian influence. Argentineans are like the Spanish, they do not eat dinner at “normal” hour. If you show up at a restaurant at 8:30 PM for dinner, you get an early bird special because people normally eat dinner at 11 PM. Most retail establishments are closed from 12-4:30 in the afternoon.

Surprising how much flat riding there was. Photo by Sportstock; Monica Arruda

Surprising how much flat riding there was (click to enlarge). Photo by Sportstock; Monica Arruda

The race start was in the small town of Alumine. The wind howled that day and just our luck? It would be an extreme headwind! I learned that the course was actually a wide, straight, mostly flat gravel road for 70 miles. My expectations of an epic mountain bike race were squashed for the time being, but I hoped that the later days would provide some adventure. After a working pace during our 40 minute “neutral roll-out”, people were amped for the start. The group quickly split apart. I was in the lead group with about 10 guys. My frustration boiled when only myself and 2 others would do any work into the nasty headwind; such are the thoughts and frustrations of someone who is not a road racer!

I had guys twice my size and double my power lazily sitting behind me on a flat road and refusing to take a pull. I found out later that not pulling is what you’re supposed to do in a road race. It was a long day of disbelief on my part and I was actually relieved when the pack finally split up enough where I could just ride by myself. Apparently, I am not cut out to be a road racer! I did learn some important tactical skills in the process; ones I hope not to need ever again!

Sometimes riding alone is the best. Photo by (c) Harry Kikstra, www.ExposedPlanet.com, all rights reserved.

Sometimes riding alone is the best (click to enlarge). Photo by (c) Harry Kikstra, www.ExposedPlanet.com, all rights reserved.

The remainder of the days were equally teaching me about the “wisdom” and mountain biker frustration of road tactics. If I was a road racer, I’d feel so guilty for not giving it my best effort and pulling! At the race starts, our pack would slow down to 5 MPH because no one would pull. It was always a relief to me when the men’s race leader, Yuki Ikeda would attack and blast the group to pieces. The roads were all wide open, windy, full of washboard braking bumps, and there was no feeling of a mountain adventure. The general feeling of camaraderie that I usually find at stage races also wasn’t there.

I was very happy with my choice to ride a full suspension (I’m riding a Pivot Mach 429SL!) with the jarring washboard roads and thick gravel. After the pack blew up, I usually found myself riding in 2nd/3rd/4th overall with Brazilian Nuno Jorge and Argentinean Guillermo Torres Alvarez. Nuno would attack often when I was in the front, but I could usually pull him back in. In the end, Nuno and Guillermo would ride with smarter tactics than I and leave me in their dust near the end of the stages. After all, they were racing for the men’s podium; I was not technically in their category. There were only a few long climbs during the week, and I enjoyed them.

I always found myself in the chase group going after Yuki who impressively rode most of the race solo. Photo by (c) Harry Kikstra, www.ExposedPlanet.com, all rights reserved.

I always found myself in the chase group going after Yuki who impressively rode most of the race solo (click to enlarge). Photo by (c) Harry Kikstra, www.ExposedPlanet.com, all rights reserved.

The Queen Stage was on the agenda for the next day. It was the day I’d been waiting for. We were supposed to climb up to a high elevation on a volcano. The stage was nearly 100 miles. Maybe I would get a healthy dose of adventure after all.

Check back for the rest of the story later this week.

About the author: Sonya Looney

It’s energy and attitude that have propelled World Champion Sonya Looney on a mountain bike across the rugged Himalayas, through sweltering sand dunes of the Sahara Desert, and through the clammy jungles of Sri Lanka. Sonya Looney is an adventure traveler on a bike seeking out the hardest races in the most remote, beautiful, and interesting places in the world. She believes in pushing limits because that’s when you realize you are far more capable than ever imagined. Sonya is also a professional speaker, keynoting at large conferences and has spoken at TEDx. Don't let her accolades fool you though, she loves craft beer and joking around. Follow her on social media!

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