Titan Tropic by GAES – Stage 5: Vinales to Cayo Jutias

Written by: Shannon Boffeli

After 5 stages, 4 nights of tent camping, 271 miles, about 100 stream crossings, and countless gallons of bottled water we had finally reached the final stage of Titan Tropic.

The final day of any stage race has always left me with mixed emotions; excitement to sleep in a bed again and give my butt a well deserved day off, but sadness that tomorrow I’ll wake up and not be racing my bike, instead I’ll be packing and returning to the real world. There really is nothing better than putting all your focus on racing your bike and recovering for the next day.

Sadly, all stage races must end and I was thankful that I woke up Friday morning feeling good. No stomachache. No vomiting every time I looked at food. I wasn’t shoveling in breakfast like normal but I got in some cereal and bread. Way better than yesterday.

Photo courtesy of Titan Tropic by GAES

The final stage took us out of the Vinales Valley, out of the shadows of the mogotes, and up to the northern coast to finish on the pristine, white-sand beaches of Cayo Jutias.

Ourselves and the small contingent of U.S. riders in Titan Tropic were looking to cap off a successful week. We held the lead in the mixed duo category, despite losing time the previous day. Mountain bike super-legend Tinker Juarez (Cannondale) was wowing the field by leading the senior 50+ category but more impressively hanging on to fifth in the overall GC. Tinker was accompanied by second-placed senior rider and Cape Cod resident Kevin Hines (Corner Cycles) who sat in the top-10 on GC. While Selene Yeager (Bicycling) was solidly placed in 4th in the women’s competition. Everyone was looking forward to a good final day and that refreshing dive into the Atlantic following the finish.

Today’s roll out was fast, heading downhill on a paved road. Without warning the lead car sped off and riders ripped down to the first section of singletrack. The course bottlenecked quickly with riders battling for position.

The lead group crosses a river on stage 5. Photo courtesy of Titan Tropic by GAES

After the first few climbs and trail sections we began to settle in and tackle the progressive rollers that stood between us and the coast.

The final stage was shaping up to be a good one. The first 60km was almost entirely dirt with steep, short climbs making the legs burn. The second-place mixed duo team had gotten in front of us on the opening downhill road start as Jen was spun out with only a 30-tooth ring up front. We climbed our way back into the lead with some fancy trail navigation in the early singletrack and then hooked onto a group of drafting partners when the singletrack turned to logging road.

We were going good now and cruised past the final mogotes saying goodbye to the high cliffs and hanging gardens making our way into palm forests as we approached the coast.

With 10km left we exited the last of the dirt and entered a long causeway that would take us to our final destination. The road was dead flat but the wind was mercifully light and cool as it came off the water on both sides of us.

Finally, we made the turn off the road and onto the untouched sand. I dropped into the surf a little too deep and was immediately gobbled up by a wave that came almost up to my handlebars – my bike is not going to be happy with me tomorrow.

Jen Hanks on the beach at Cayo Jutias. Photo by: Shannon Boffeli

Higher on the shore now, we scrambled through the mangroves and palms dotting the sand and made the final turn toward the finish line arch.

It’s always a great feeling crossing the line after days and days of hard efforts, even more special we would get to enjoy taking the overall win, for the first time, in a multi-day stage race.

Just one last thing to do. We both dropped all our gear and raced into the clear turquoise water of the Atlantic.

It seemed like everyone had a great last day and a memorable week. The Titan Tropic was like nothing we had done before. The unparalleled cultural experience of Cuba fused with a week of bike racing and the excellent support of the Titan Tropic promoters combines to make a wicked stew of challenge, enjoyment, and unforgettable memories.

Once we complete a stage race Jen and I don’t typically do the same race again, always looking for a new experience and challenge, but Titan Tropic may change that for us. We are already looking forward to another week in Cuba, December 2017.

Us at the finish. Photo courtesy of Titan Tropic by GAES

Titan Tropic by GAES – Stage 4: Vinales to Vinales

Written by: Shannon Boffeli

We had been looking forward to stage 4 all week; 84 kilometers of dirt! The excitement was high going in and we felt like we would have fun and probably open up our lead a bit more doing it.

Unfortunately, that plan quickly went down the toilet as I woke up with a nasty stomach ache and some unfriendly diarrhea. I thought maybe I could power through but once I sat down for breakfast the mere sight of food made me want to barf.

First placed mixed duo team of Jen Hanks and Shannon Boffeli on stage 4. Photo courtesy of Titan Tropic by GAES

I nursed down a glass of orange juice and went back to the tent to get ready for the stage.

Yesterday had been long and hot with a humid night of sleep to follow so I wasn’t sure if I was suffering some dehydration or a stomach bug. Just in case I started taking an antibiotic I brought down.

I was excited to start the day because sitting on my bike was actually easier than trying to stand or walk. The first 10km went by mercifully quick but I had pretty much burned any matches I had at that point.

Race leader Diego Tamayo controls the front of the field from Vinales to Vinales. Photo courtesy of Titan Tropic by GAES

I was walking all the climbs. Jen took my heavy pack with all the tools and let me carry her lighter one but that barely helped. The second-placed team quickly passed us and I could tell by their urgency they wanted to put some time into us.

When I could ride Jen would push and pull me the way I do for her most stages but I still couldn’t keep up with her. Finally, after about two hours of suffering and harboring serious doubts that I could finish the day I managed to get some Honey Stinger energy chews in, the first calories I had eaten all day. I followed that with a little water and things were looking brighter.

Racers power past a tobacco drying barn in the Vinales Valley. Photo courtesy of Titan Tropic by GAES

I could at least keep up with Jen on the flats. After a bit more time we actually passed a few people and were getting a good chuck of kilometers behind us.

At the third and final aid station I was feeling good enough to drink and force down a banana. We were off again. I gulped down one final drink and that put me right over the edge. Everything came back up. My mouth was like an uncontrolled fire hose ejecting every bit of water and food I had eaten the entire day all over my bike.

Shannon Boffeli rolling his way through stage 4. Photo courtesy of Titan Tropic by GAES

With nothing left in me I actually felt the best I had all day. The final 20 kilometers of the day weren’t fast but I could easily keep my legs moving unlike earilier in the day.

We crossed the line having lost just 18 minutes to our rivals. I immediately headed for the medical station.

Upon seeing me they put me on a stretcher and carried me into their makeshift clinic. My color was pale and skin was dry despite the 90-degree temperature and matching humidity. The team quickly placed an IV and started giving me fluids to replenish what I had lost.

Stage 4 offered up the most dirt of any stage in the 2016 Titan Tropic. Photo courtesy of Titan Tropic by GAES

It helped. A lot! After 2 hours, a liter of saline, and something to help with nausea I was feeling much better.

Today was a real struggle but also a great test of the mixed duo team category. Today it was the female partner pulling her teammate along. Doing everything possible to put in the fastest time and it worked. Without Jen’s help I very well may not have finished and definitely would have lost a lot more that 18 minutes.

Now I just need to get some food in me before tomorrow. It’s the shortest stage of the week but 68 kilometers could be impossible on two days without food.

IV fluids and oxygen after the finish. Photo by: Jen Hanks

Raul Hernandez and partner Laura Ortiz look to pick up time on stage 4. Photo courtesy of Titan Tropic by GAES

Titan Tropic by GAES – Stage 3: Soroa to Vinales

Written by: Shannon Boffeli

I apologize in the lapse in coverage from Titan Tropic 2016 but internet service on the interior of Cuba is fleeting at best. The experience is unparalleled however. We saw incredible sights while crossing the Cuban island from north to south before turning to the northern, Atlantic coast again for the finish.

Day three was the queen stage taking the race from the lush gardens of Soroa to the hidden valleys and floating islands of Vinales.

Race leader Marlies Mejias (Cuba) leads her teammate and defending champion Olga Echenique through the early river crossings. Photo courtesy of Titan Tropic by GAES

The entire stage is roughly 114 kilometers with over 2,000 meters (6,000 feet) of climbing spread out along the way.

A long neutral lead out got us going, extended by the overall race leader, Diego Tamayo (Team Tamayo), stopping to pee before the control car could pull off.

Once the group was released it was clear today was going to be another fast ride, despite the extra miles.

Tinker Juarez wowed the crowds this week in Cuba. Photo courtesy of Titan Tropic by GAES

After a handful of early road miles, we dropped off into some of the most remote riding we had done thus far. Rock strewn, beaten, forest tracks, cross cut by streams and muddy fords traveled over hundreds of years by nothing but horses and ox drawn wagons now provided passage for 150 mountain bikes.

Dropping deeper and deeper into the interior of Cuba we passed homes that rarely see visitors and must have thought the alien invasion was finally happening as gaunt beings in brightly-colored spandex, steadily streamed by. If indeed they thought the aliens were upon them, they were exceedingly nice about.

After the dirt ended, we climbed to a high ridge that traversed endless valleys. An absolutely marvelous road that feels like your riding the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia with forests of palms taking the place of the old growth hardwoods of North America.

The preferred beast of burden in Cuba. Photo by: Shannon Boffeli

For kilometer after kilometer we followed the winding road without encountering a single car that wasn’t affiliated with the race. It’s no mystery why the area around Vinales is quickly becoming a road riding destination.

Finally, we dropped into the Vinales Valley with it’s 1,000 foot mogotes, giant haystack shaped mountains, standing guard. A more unique and varied landscape would be difficult to imagine as lush greenery and palm trees sit atop limestone monoliths with sheer-vertical walls on all sides.

Sightseeing had to be put aside as our focus returned to reaching the finish line. Jen and I had ridden hard all day almost exclusively by ourselves. My feet were on fire the last 30km as the early morning creek crossings had softened my shoes and allowed to feet to float around.

Former Formula 1 driver Jaime Alguersuari rides in the shadow of the many mogotes of the Vinales Valley. Photo courtesy of Titan Tropic by GAES

We picked up Jaime Alguersuari, a former Formula 1 driver, who passed us earlier in the day but was now dealing with some serious dehydration. He was riding with just bottles and lost one on a downhill section. He elected not to go back for it and it was costing him at this point. Jaime tucked in for the final road sections to the finish.

Stage three proved to be our best day as we put almost an hour of time between us and the second-placed duo mixed team, who we also learned are the former winners of the Titan Desert in Morocco.

Tomorrow, promises to be one of the best days for riding. The scenery of the Vinales Valley combined with a 100% off-road course should make for great riding and fun racing action.

Keeping the bikes clean and ready to go was important throughout the week. Titan Tropic workers power-washed hundreds of bikes a day. Photo by: Jen Hanks