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Rosarito-Ensenada 'Fun' Bike Ride Good for More Sweat Than Laughs

August 25, 1991|LYNDON STAMBLER | Stambler is a Santa Monica free-lance writer. and

ENSENADA, Mexico — The music blared from loudspeakers positioned on Rosarito Beach's main drag. A giant inflatable Tecate beer can towered above the street, which was swarming with bicyclists. The smell of barbecued carnitas and bean burritos wafted through the air.

A half-mile phalanx of 3,500 eager bicyclists waited behind the starting line, sitting atop their finely crafted Cannondales, Treks and Peugeots. They wore the latest in biking fashions--from fluorescent green helmets to hot-pink one-piece biking outfits.

This was the beginning of the Rosarito-Ensenada 50 Mile Fun Bicycle Ride, now held twice annually, in April and September. As the starting gun sounded, the bicyclists began a trek that would include laughs, tragedy and endless huffing and puffing over monstrous hills along the old Baja Highway, also known as the Libre (free) Road. For seven hours, the cyclists triumphed over the motorists, thanks to the Federales who held up lines of irate drivers along the way.

The first Rosarito-Ensenada race was held in September, 1980, and attracted 1,350 riders. Last September, the event had grown to about 5,800 riders, and in April there were about 7,800. I entered the race with five of my friends last October, the first and only year the event was held three times. The race has become so popular now that many people make their hotel reservations two months in advance; choice rooms at Rosarito Beach and Ensenada get scarce around ride time.

The ride begins at 10 a.m., but because there are so many riders lined up on the street, it takes a long time for everyone to start pedaling. Unless you're Greg Lemond, there's really no reason to push to the front of the starting line.

During the event, most of the cars heading south from Rosarito Beach to Ensenada travel along the nearby four-lane toll road.

The Federales regulated traffic flow on the old highway by holding cars and trucks back to allow cyclists to ride fairly unimpeded most of the time. However, they urged some of the straggling cyclists such as myself to speed up as the gridlocked vehicles--sending up a concentrated spew of carbon monoxide--honked their horns in anguish. It probably took the motorists three hours to drive the 50-mile stretch.

Still, most locals--traffic inconveniences aside--weren't complaining. Many of them toil long hours for $15 to $18 a day in the maquiladoras (small, mostly U.S.-owned assembly plants and factories on the Mexican side of the border). During the race, they took comparatively easier and higher-paying jobs handing out water to bicyclists. Small children lined up along the route to slap high-fives with the riders. Most were well-behaved, though one man claimed that a kid tried to pull him off his bicycle. Then again, he could have been hallucinating under the hot Baja sun.

Many of the American expatriates living in the Ensenada area came out to view the race. Most seemed to have that leathery-skin look, probably from too much sun. They left their beachside condos, retirement villages and local watering holes--many with beverage in hand--to cheer us on.

For most of the entrants, this was truly a "fun" bike ride, not a race. The primary objective was just to finish. Many came to be seen. There was the man who started the race with an inflatable woman sitting on the back of his bicycle, holding a pennant in hand. I saw another man whose girlfriend was trailing behind him on her bike, holding onto a connecting rope. There was one participant who started the race with his dog on a leash, another who had a cocker spaniel in a handlebar basket.

One man was towing his two sons in a bike trailer. It seemed incredible to me that anyone could pull his family for 50 miles over rugged terrain. Although the roads were better than one might expect, they were indeed rough. And some of the curves and shoulders were downright dangerous. " Peligroso , Precaucion" the signs warned as some of us went barreling down the hills like Mr. Magoo--temporarily out of control.

At times the scenery was soothing: ocean vistas to the west, mesas to the east and south. Much of the course had a brownish hue, lined with scrawny scrubs and prickly pear cactuses. There were some fertile stretches through cattle-grazing lands, vineyards and olive groves. There were also ugly sections that reflected the realities of an economically depressed country: litter-strewn patches and crumbling buildings, the rusted hulks of abandon cars and smells of raw sewage so strong that breathing was difficult.

About 10 miles into the ride, disaster struck. One bicyclist had a blowout on a rough downhill section. At least 10 riders collided, and three were seriously injured. An airborne ambulance was called to the scene, and race officials stood in the middle of the road, stopping the bike traffic. The helicopter landed 50 yards away, ready to evacuate American riders back to the United States, if necessary. Fortunately, it wasn't.

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