Sonya Looney: Brasil Ride heats up

Battling extreme, sweltering heat in stages 2 and 3

Race Coverage Travel
Sonya and Nina sporting the bright orange leader jerseys from their Stage 1 Prologue win. Photo by Sportograf

Sonya and Nina sporting the bright orange leader jerseys from their Stage 1 Prologue win. Photo by Sportograf

Ninety miles is a long way to race a mountain bike, especially when it’s only day 2 of a 7 day stage race; factor in over 10,000’ of elevation gain and extreme heat and that’s a mortal challenge. It was Stage 2 of Brasil Ride, a 7 day stage race in Bahia, Brasil. My teammate, Nina and I were sporting in the bright orange leader jerseys from our Stage 1 Prologue win. The womens’ field was stacked with top riders from around the world and we knew the real racing would begin today.

The race departed Mucuge at 6 AM sharp and was rapidly en route to the finish line in a faraway town on the other side of the National Park. The challenging features of the day would include deep sandy roads, steep climbs, rocky, technical singletrack, and the infamous “Vietnam” section. I knew Vietnam well from my first year at Brasil ride; the year this section coined its nickname due to extreme mud and carnage. There would be carnage again this year in Vietnam. It came 2.5 hours into the stage with sweltering heat, 4 steep hike-a-bikes and technical riding; my favorite part of the race! While I kept my soul, Vietnam didn’t spare other riders.

The “Vietnam” section coined its nickname due to extreme mud and carnage.  This year, the mud was traded for relentless heat and steep ascents.

The “Vietnam” section coined its nickname due to extreme mud and carnage. This year, the mud was traded for relentless heat and steep ascents.

The tales of Vietnam carried on through the later days of the race. The heat was starting to wear on us by hour 5. By the last aide station, I was dehydrated and overzealous with the ice cold Coca-Cola. The bright sun blazed in the afternoon with an air temperature of 120F. The combination of the normally delicious Salty Caramel GU, multiple cups of Coke, and the extreme heat was not agreeing with my stomach and I vomited from the heat. I was a little worried because I was vomiting at Rincon de la Vieja 100 in August from the heat, and I suffered heat stroke. I was able to manage myself with the additional water bottle I grabbed for good measure at the last water point. I rationed the tepid liquid and dumped little splashes on my head. The last climb dragged ahead but we both eventually got our overheated carcasses over the summit and rolled down the rocky descent to the finish line in Rio de Contas. We took the win by over an hour after an 8+ hour day. We’d be in the orange jersey for another day with a solid margin.

Stage 3 was touted the “Olympic” Stage with an XC format. It was a relief to many racers who needed a shorter day. We rode 4 laps of a 7km loop that boasted some pretty legitimate and enjoyable technical riding. The exciting part of the loop was a section with a chunky, steep 3 minute descent from a white adobe church, complete with a priest sprinkling holy water. The first time down the descent, the holy water was sprinkled right onto my sunglasses; it was definitely not helpful. The alternate line was called the “chicken line” or as the Brazilians pronounce it, “Cheek-en line;” that’s the Portuguese word for it. It was recommended that Amateurs take the cheeken line. Who wants to take the cheeken line? A lot of people didn’t want to be called chickens! The hike-a-bike up to the church was more like a 2 minute sprint uphill with your bike on your back. The rest of the loop was very reminiscent of Moab/Fruita. Nina and I grabbed more time in the GC. Orange would be ours for the second half of the race.

We enjoyed frozen Acai Granola bowls that afternoon and celebrated surviving the first 3 days with the lead. I reminded myself that in the next 4 days, anything could happen. We only had raced our bikes for 11 hours. The next 4 days would hold at least 24 hours of racing; 24 hours for something to go wrong, have a bad day, or have a mechanical. Our hour and a half lead over 2nd was barely comfortable.

Host housing in Rio de Contas with “Vovo” which means Grandma in Portuguese.

Host housing in Rio de Contas with “Vovo” which means Grandma in Portuguese.

In Rio de Contas, we elected for host housing and stayed with a tiny 80 year old Brazilian woman. We called her “Vovo” which means Grandma in Portuguese. She didn’t speak one word of English, but her kind demeanor and bright energy were easily translated without spoken words. We stayed with her for 3 nights in her own home. Decorated with old photos and local artwork, Vovo’s little house was warm, welcoming, and modest. Vovo was interested in what we were doing and would excitedly wave her hands trying to portray her words. Even when we didn’t understand, she would keep rambling in Portuguese. She tried to tell us about her life with pictures of her daughter’s wedding, pictures of her great-grandchildren, and she even tried to introduce us to her friends. The introduction was boisterous with several animated old Brazilian ladies talking emphatically and grabbing at our elbows.

The small town of Rio de Contas.

The small town of Rio de Contas.

I tried to sleep after Stage 3. The nights were surprisingly loud in the small town of Rio de Contas. The windows were simply openings to the outside world with rickety shutters and no screen or glass. The street sounds were loud at night, but I was able to drift into a restless sleep. Occasionally, a horse drawn cart with a speaker attached would roll by advertising something and wake me up.

We lined up for Stage 4; hump day of the Stage Race. The day would hold more adventure than I bargained for.

To be continued…


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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