Sonya Looney: More than a race, Brasil Ride adds color to life

Two-woman team settles in and charges Stage 1 time trial

Race Coverage Travel
Photo by Sportograf

Photo by Sportograf

“It’s more than a race, it’s a stage in your life.” It’s the motto of Brasil Ride and when I first raced the event in 2010, I didn’t realize it’d have such an impact on my life. The little slogan I secretly snickered at like an unruly teenager four years ago swiftly became a reality.

In the fall of 2010, Brasil Ride was my first international stage race. I was a newbie to endurance racing and aside from the Breck Epic just months before, I had never done a mountain bike stage race. I remembered it being one of the hardest things I had done and recalled wondering if I would collapse in the race from fatigue. Once I survived the Brasil Ride, I craved more extreme multi-day challenges and launched myself into a full international stage racing career. Pushing my limits was addicting, and I learned so much about myself after each event.

The next stage race I did after the 2010 Brasil Ride was the Yak Attack in Nepal. I was the first female to ever race across the Annapurna Circuit over the infamous Thorong La Pass (17, 769’) and complete the event on a mountain bike. I overcame fear and extreme physical challenges. Races like Brasil Ride and the Yak Attack changed my life and taught me who I wanted to be.

Brazil would hold much to explore. Photos by Sonya Looney

Brazil would hold much to explore. Photos by Sonya Looney

Fast forward four years and I have stage raced in more than 10 countries, took on some high-caliber domestic stage races, and collected some career highlights and life-defining memories. A few weeks ago I returned to the Brasil Ride. It was special to return to an event that opened the door to a major breakthrough in my career and defined my personal discipline of racing.

It’s still one of the hardest stage races on the planet but with my veteran experience, it was not as jarring as my first time, and I had some new experiences at this edition. Throughout my career I’ve mostly raced as a solo rider, but Brasil Ride requires a teammate. I partnered with my great friend Nina Baum and discovered racing as a two-person female team was an amazing experience I can’t wait to repeat.

Nina Baum would team with author Sonya Looney to do the epic Brasil Ride race. Photo by Sportograph

Nina Baum would team with author Sonya Looney to do the epic Brasil Ride race. Photo by Sportograph

I’ve known Nina since my second bike race 10 or 11 years ago and she was a great mentor when I was new to the sport and has always been like a big sister to me. For a race as hard as Brasil Ride, it would be important to race with someone I knew well and with a similar mindset. We both have the same attitude toward riding—be tough, have fun, ride like hell, and laugh.

After traveling for nearly 30 hours, I arrived at the Salvador airport on the east coast of Brazil. A new friend named Wagner “Guine” Figueiredo Silva was kind enough pick me up at the airport and spent the next two days with myself, a German racer named Agnes, and Nina who arrived the next day.

The Brazillian beach life would be short-lived as our intrepid racers got down to business.

The Brazillian beach life would be short-lived as our intrepid racers got down to business.

We toured the historical district of Salvador and visited Praia de Forte, one of the most famous beach towns in Brazil. It was hard to believe we would be starting a hard race in a few days. Nina and I were eating like food champions. In Brazil, the food is served buffet style and they charge by the weight of the food on your plate and there were definitely some raised eyebrows at the two skinny female cyclists with mountains of food tipping the plate scale. With the special beans made with manioc flour, all the cakes, the various types of rice, and juicy Churrascaro style meats, we needed to race just to use the calories we consumed. Between the food and wandering around like tourists, we almost forgot that the primary reason we were there was to try to win Brasil Ride.

The food and the sights in the race’s start town of Mucuge were an added bonus for our racing duo. Photos by Sonya Looney

The food and the sights in the race’s start town of Mucuge were an added bonus for our racing duo. Photos by Sonya Looney

Brasil Ride is a seven day, long format stage race that stretches 373 miles with more than 40,000-feet of climbing. The first and third stage would be short; between one and two hours, with the remaining stages ranging from five to eight hours. With about 30-percent technical singletrack, and the rest a mix of steep, dirt roads, pavement and sand, the event favors the all-arounder. The extreme heat, desert terrain and world class competition would make this the most challenging Brazil Ride ever.

After an eight hour bus ride from Salvador to Mucuge, we arrived at ground zero of the stage race. Mucuge is a quaint little town that was exactly as I remembered four years ago. The streets consist of large, jarring cobbles with a few single-file sidewalks. The buildings are all connected and painted bright colors. The windows don’t have screens, and people lean on the window sills looking outside to the lazy streets. With the race in town, Mucugue had come alive with bike enthusiasts from all over the world.

After registering for the race and securely affixing our number plates for the week, we sat in a coffee shop and ate Acai granola bowls and tried to shift our focus to race mode. We would line up the next morning for a 12-mile time trail stage. The course had very technical riding and would be very intense

Teammates Looney and Baum (rear) would blast the Brasil Ride opening TT to take the leader’s jersey of the seven day stage race. Photo by Igor

Teammates Looney and Baum (rear) would blast the Brasil Ride opening TT to take the leader’s jersey of the seven day stage race. Photo by Igor

The time trial flew by. As soon as the whistle blew, we were off at what felt like hypersonic speed. Nina and I caught and passed all the women who started in front of us, rode the sand and rocks without any problem, and hooted and hollered with laughter and glee for the entire hour and six minutes we raced.

At times my arms felt like Jello because I was laughing so hard at Nina’s enthusiasm. We were happy to start the race strong and take the leaders jersey with force. However, we had six more days and many, many more hours to go. A leader’s jersey after a short time trail meant basically nothing. The next stage would be the opposite type of riding and would be more of an indicator of how the week would play out; 90 miles, grueling heat, and nearly 7,000 feet of climbing. We rested that night and wondered what Stage 2 would hold for us in the morning.

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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