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"Gravel Grinding" in Mexico

Exploring the wild terrain of Copper Canyon with Giant Co-Factory Off-Road Team rider Ryan Steers

Ryan Steers is a Giant Co-Factory Off-Road Team rider based in Southern California. He specializes in endurance XC and gravel racing. Last month Ryan traveled to the Copper Canyon region to explore the high mountains and uncharted terrain of Northwestern Mexico. With his trusty TCX Advanced Pro bike and a solid crew of other riders, he experienced the adventure of a lifetime. Here's Ryan's account of the trip: 

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We were told that the humidity drops and the temperature begins to reach a comfortable level when you reach an elevation of around 6,500 feet. We’d just hit 4000 feet. My Garmin was encrusted in sweat and barely legible—but I could make out that we’d climbed about 2500 feet from the canyon floor.

Two hours. Eight miles. Forty left to go. 

We’d also been warned about the route. Our guide shared legends of ATVs toppling over backwards from the steep grade and loose terrain. “Impossible to ride,” we were told. But we were stubborn and determined. The only other option to get from Urique to Batopilas was a six-hour drive, something we didn’t even consider. We were riding.

Men with radios and AK-47s hid in the hills. We asked our guide: "Good or bad?" His answer: “Yes, both.” 

Should we succeed in our mission, we’d be the only cyclists to make the whole trek between Urique and Batopilas. 

The “road” was cut six years ago to reduce the time it took the Tarahumara to travel between canyons, turning a seven-day walk into two. On a map it looked like a straightforward fireroad cruise with a really big climb. In reality it resembled a riverbed. Loose rocks and slippery shale kept forcing the rear tire to spin out on every pedal stroke up the 18 percent grade.  Standing wasn’t an option.

The damp jungle air hovered at 97 degrees and the white rocks reflected the heat. Clearly, bringing only two bottles had been a poor choice. We were pushing the limits of what could be ridden on a mountain bike—but it was a gravel adventure and I’d chosen the TCX Advanced Pro 1 for the trip. At least I had put a 2.1 tire on the front, a 40mm in the rear, along with a big cassette. 

Our ride the day before had been rough pavement and smooth, rolling gravel before the road plunged 7000 feet into Urique. A perfect gravel afternoon. Before that we enjoyed a morning shred session at the mountain bike park in Divisadero courtesy of our local Creel cycling guide, Enrique.

Our Chihuahua Board of Tourism host, Rita, told Enrique to show us the local riding but neglected to mention our terrain intentions. “Gravel” must not have had a direct translation. “You know Hans Rey?” Enrique asked us. “He rides here when he comes. Red Bull course!” He gave us two thumbs up and shot down the narrow, loose, rocky, singletrack, disappearing instantly. Exposure to 1,000-foot drops drained the color from our skin as we skidded down the trail. After “riding” for one hour and traveling only 4 miles, Enrique directed us to the beginner route, which was still on par with the hardest trails I’ve ridden in the San Gabriel mountains in California—on an Anthem XC bike with a dropper post.

I guided the TCX down the drops and managed to stay upright, the only rider in the bunch to remain unscathed. The trail eventually dead-ended at a zip line, the world’s longest, with a run close to 2 miles and a vertical drop of over 1 mile. Unfortunately, due to our embarrassing performances, we were too behind schedule to test it out.

Rita was waiting anxiously for us, and our riding credibility had been called into question. “Let’s just drive to Urique," she suggested. Our driver Maclen nodded in agreement. It was clear they did not think we were capable enough to pedal 30 miles before dark. We attempted to explain that we’d be fine once we were on terrain that didn’t resemble a waterfall. Maclen tried to convey that the roads were not a place you wanted to be after dark. After a brief impasse, we won. Our credibility dangled on the line. 

We rolled along the breathtaking north rim of the canyon and hit the switchbacked gravel descent to Urique just as the sun began to slip behind the mountains. The cool pine forest at the top quickly turned tropical as we dropped below a mile in elevation. Oak and fir trees transformed into acacia and plantain. Each rutted gravel turn presented a lesson in cornering. Sharp rocks littered every apex. One rider came in too hot and found himself sliding sideways on the rubble, slicing open his elbow and exposing the shiny white tip of his elbow. The injury would later require stitches and a series of antibiotic injections and cost him two of the four days of riding.

Again, I was thankful for my Thunderburt front tire but wishing I had brought a spare set of brake pads. We finished the rest of the descent and, most importantly, arrived in Urique before dark, fully restoring our damaged credibility. It still wasn’t enough to fully convince Rita that we could cover the distance to Batopilas the next day. 

Somewhere around hour five I was beginning to think Rita was right. We’d climbed a rock-strewn and steamy 8,000 feet in less than 40 miles, were out of food and water, and still had another two hours to ride. At least the temperature had dropped 30 degrees and now hovered in the 60’s as we reentered the cool and mossy pine forest. Abandoned stone ranchos dotted the trail and herds of cattle blocked our path, scurrying as we approached.

At one point I stripped off my helmet and gloves to splash in the creek. When I turned around, a calf was sniffing my bike and frantically chewing. I approached and saw a blue finger dangling out of her mouth. I charged. She threw up a slimy, masticated Ride 100% glove and fled the scene. I’d neglected to bring a spare. After a quick rinse in the creek it was soft and supple and back on my hand, albeit slightly looser than before.

Back on the trail, donkeys in full packs lounged in the shade, their owners watching us from within the forest, nowhere to be seen. We pedaled on. One rocky and rolling 500 foot climb after another passed by until the final descent into Batopilas. It was fun for about 10 minutes.  Again the road was steep and strewn with large sharp rocks and rogue farm animals. My arms and shoulders ached. Another 6,000-foot drop in 6 miles and no brake pads left. Levers to the bars. I could barely hang on but the bike kept itself upright and rolled through the river and into town. We’d arrived with an hour of daylight to spare. 

The next day was a much-needed rest day as we hung out in the charming town of Batopilas and cruised a relatively flat 12 miles and 2,000 vertical feet from town to an old monastery and back. The road was mostly smooth, a relief for our searing quads. We spent the rest of the day purchasing enchiladas, handmade huarache sandals and plenty of cervezas. 

The final day offered a paved climb from Batopilas out of the canyon and I’ve never been so excited for asphalt. The allure of a smooth, seated climb was enticing. We tried to beat the heat out of the canyon but it still hovered in the mid-90s when we left at 9 a.m. We climbed over rollers out of town, following the river and covering ground more quickly than we ever had. The bike rolled smoothly and the 40x11-42 was perfect even when we hit the switchbacks—which offered another 6,000 feet of climbing. 

This time we were better prepared. We had the follow van close behind with water and food. The miles ticked by. One by one the others hopped in the van, under-geared and blown up from the previous climbs, recovering from severe gastrointestinal distress, or still dazed from a minor concussion resulting from a crash on the descent to Batopilas. We were a skeleton crew. There were two of us left on the front determined to finish the whole ride. The tires glided, the cranks spun, and once again we hit that 6,500-foot mark and the air turned cool and dry. 

We looked back down into the canyon at the dozens of switchbacks we had just cleared. Ten miles to go. Another rolling section brought us back into the pines, just shy of 8,000 feet of elevation and back to the van where we loaded our bikes and collapsed, sitting wordlessly as we navigated the winding road back to Creel. We had made it out, bikes intact. The riding adventure of a lifetime, hopefully to be repeated.

If I were to do it over in a perfect world I’d bring a full suspension mountain bike, a road bike, and a gravel bike. But that’s not realistic, especially with seven cyclists sharing one van. Without having a bike buffet, the TCX was the perfect tool to ride every surface that the Copper Canyon threw at us. With the ability to run a mountain bike tire up front and a fat gravel tire in the rear, it was fast, controlled, comfortable, and durable. Not many bikes can hold up to that level of abuse and then go on to race Grinduro two days later—without any adjustments, except for a new set of brake pads. 

To view Ryan's Copper Canyon route via Relive.cc, click here. 

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