Manizales is a city of around half a million people in the mountainous coffee-growing region of Colombia. The city is most known for its agriculture, rich cultural history, and views of the Nacado del Ruiz volcano. From October 11th to the 14th, the city of Manizales hosted the 2018 Pan American Continental Championships for downhill mountain biking. American rider Max Morgan and Spanish photographer Sergi Barnils traveled to Manizales to compete and cover the event along with everything Colombia has to offer. This trip was supported by Industry Nine, Julbo Eyewear, and Worldwide Cyclery.
The Pan American Championships is always such a special race for me. The first time I competed in this race was back in 2012, where the event was held just outside of Mexico City, Mexico. At first, the Pan American championships seemed like a good way for me to get a hold of enough UCI points to compete in a World Cup. Even now that I have more than enough points, I look forward to this race every year. This is the seventh consecutive time I have competed in the Pan Amercian championships and I am so thankful it has brought me to some amazing places to meet some great people!
All throughout the 2018 World Cup season, I had the pleasure to travel with Ivan Jimenez, Rafael Gutierrez, Sergi Barnils, and the whole IJ Racing team. Now that the PanAmerican championships were taking place in Rafael’s hometown, Sergi and I both flew to Colombia to see what Manizales is all about and finish off this year with a bang.
A week before the PanAmerican championships, Chiguiro Extreme was hosting a national level race on the same course. I figured it would be a good opportunity to get to know the track in advance and spend some more time in Manizales. I was surprised to see many of the other racers I was expecting see in the PanAms also there a week early. There was strong competition right from the get go! With local legends Rafa Gutierrez and Steven Ceballos, Mario Jarin from Ecuador, along with the Brazilian powerhouse team of Roger Vieira, Douglas Vieira, Markolf Berchtold, and Frederico da Costa Vieira, there were plenty of racers aiming for gold the following weekend.
If you ever need any work done on your bike when in Manizales, Bisoño Mechanics bike shop is the place to be. Rafa’s dad, Hernando Gutierrez also known as Bisoño, has every tool you could possibly imagine. This homegrown shop doesn’t need any fancy display shelves, it doesn’t even need to sell bikes. If he doesn’t have the tool in the shop or even if that tool doesn’t exist on the market, Bisoño will just make it himself. With a lathe and drill press in the shop, Hernando has plenty of tools he has designed and machined himself. From custom aluminum tire lever handles, to a complete bearing press and removal kit, Bisoño’s handmade tools had me drooling! I got to visit the shop a few times during my time in Manizales, and every time Hernando was working on a project you wouldn’t find in a regular bike shop; machining a new hub axle, or making one off parts to fix and tune a rear shock. It was such a pleasure to be around someone so passionate about their work.
In between race weekends, we got a big group together and drove towards the Nevado del Ruiz volcano. We first stopped right where the Caldas department meets Tolima, before turning off onto the gravel towards the Hoyo Frio trail. A quick breakfast stop at a local shop got us fueled up and warm, ready for the 2 hour descent ahead. I have to give a big thanks to Camilo Salazar for letting me borrow his trail bike for the ride. Right when we all got to the top of the mountain, while we were unloading the bikes I realized I had forgotten my own pedals. What a bonehead move. Camilo’s bike had SPD pedals and my Afton shoes had Crankbrothers cleats. It was a battle trying to keep my shoes on the pedals but it ended up being so much fun slipping and sliding down the trail! It was a whole different world being in the mountains of Tolima after spending the last five days in the city streets of Manizales.
The people and the community behind this race is what makes it a highlight of the year. The level of competition is high but more importantly, there is so much compassion and kindness with this group that it feels like family. Everyone has each other’s back and that makes the race atmosphere a bit different than some of the other races out there. Having competed with and against a lot of these same racers at previous PanAmerican championships in Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Peru, and Colombia, building these friendships makes the race that much more enjoyable. After traveling all year with Rafa, Steven, Sergi, Pollo, and Ivan, we always joke and say that I might as well be Colombian now! What a great time it was hanging with my Colombian family.
The terrain here in Manizales could probably be best described as a rainforest. Everything is incredibly green, the dirt is dark and when the terrain is wet, it feels like you are riding on ice. The weather was ready to change for us at any minute. From overcast skies to the sun baking down, and back to torrential downpour, the conditions on the course throughout the weekend were always changing. After finishing third in the national race the weekend before, I was excited to get back out on the track, make a few adjustments, and try to put down my best run when it mattered most.
Only one more race run left for 2018. I really felt strong on the track and was ready to let it hang out. The sun finally came out on race day and the dirt was perfect! It was nice to see a lot of spectators that came out to watch on Sunday and the pressure was on. After qualifying third behind Roger and Rafa on Saturday, I was the third from the end to drop down the hill. I put together a strong run, rode with confidence and aggression, and crossed the line in the hot seat with a 3:06.19. Rafael was the next rider down and put in a smoking time with a 3:03.64 pushing me back to second. Roger Vieira was the last rider down the hill and crossed the line with a 3:07.02.
What an amazing feeling finishing on the podium with a silver medal here at the Pan American Championships. There were so many emotions flowing at the finish line and during the podium: pure joy, a sense of relief, and love for my friends who all went out there and gave it their best. Of course, I was hoping to win the race, but it felt just as good finishing second behind Rafa and seeing him win in his home town.
Keep up with all of Max and Sergi's race adventures at @mxmorgan77
Big thanks to Industry Nine, Julbo Eyewear, and Worldwide Cyclery.