Tour De Frankie: El Infierno del Sur
Last month, more than 60 bikepackers gathered near the Zócalo in the heart of Mexico City to pedal 800 kilometers out of the capital and around active volcanoes, over mountains, and through highlands to the Oaxacan coast. Read more about Tour De Frankie, Mexico’s first and only ultra-endurance bikepacking race, in this reflection from participant Allan Shaw. Plus, find details on the route and a gallery of dreamy film portraits Allan shot before and after the ride…
This April 28th at 1 a.m., 63 cyclists lined up a few blocks from the Zócalo in the center of Mexico City to race 800 kilometers with over 12,000 meters of climbing from the nation’s capital to the Oaxacan coast, crossing the paths of some of the country’s tallest (and still active) volcanoes, expansive central highlands, the Sierra Madre and all the way to the beach.
As the name in Spanish suggests, this race was defined by high temperatures and the famed beauty and hospitality of the Mixteca, the Indigenous people of Oaxaca and Puebla. Tour de Frankie is Mexico’s first and only self-supported, ultra-endurance bike race, in a country that’s greatly misunderstood by the outside world but also rife with its own dangers and a colorful array of pleasant and unpleasant surprises for racers.
For me, Mexico is the perfect microcosm of our world, where you can find examples of the very best and worst of almost everything. Outsiders can have a narrow view of what this country has to offer, but its offerings are about as diverse as you could possibly imagine. I have called Mexico City home for the last two years, though our history goes back much further than that, and in more recent times, I’ve described our relationship as “complicated.”
With enough time here and plenty of risks taken on adventurous exploits, my luck ran out on more than one occasion, sometimes in pretty terrifying ways. The most accurate response I give to people now when they ask me what living here is like is to tell them that the good times are from your wildest fantasies, but the bad times can be from your worst nightmares. You must accept the rough with the smooth. The perspective of this rich and full experience of life from all sides is one I hold onto dearly, unfiltered and seizing each day with both hands.
After a neutral start leaving the city to the south, we started the first of many long climbs as the group slowly began to splinter and separate. I climbed Paso de Cortes as the sun came up and reached the summit of 3,600 meters above sea level to those first few rays of sunshine landing on my face as I watched some early morning eruptions of Popocatepetl, the 5,400-meter volcano you sit in the shadow of. From here, the race had truly begun, and the next few hundred kilometers would take us down into the rolling valleys of the state of Puebla and ever more remote surroundings. A mixture of gravel and tarmac, this part of the route was fast rolling.
As it happened, I’d done this part in last year’s race, as well as on some independent tours, and was determined to eat up as much distance on that first day as possible, while still saving some legs for the days to come. I passed through Checkpoint 2 with relative ease, paid a man to fill my Camelbak with three liters of Ice cold agua de coco in Tepexi as the temperatures touched 40°C (105°F), and I even passed by Checkpoint 3 before sunset and kept on pushing towards the town of Huajuapan before calling it a day. This first day, I covered 375 kilometers and climbed 5,300 meters in 21 total hours and was exhausted but delighted with how far I’d made it.
My alarm went off on day two of the race at 3:30 a.m. to the sound of wincing from my tired body. After just four hours sleep, it was time to attempt to do it all again. Not the same distance, but the same effort. By this stage, the race had truly splintered, with the front group another 40 to 50 kilometers ahead, and I found myself in an enthusiastic and strong chase pack.
I was excited to keep pushing forward and get as close to the final push as early as possible. After the hilltop town of Tamazulapam, the road turned to gravel and into remote and desolate hillside. We would gently descend from green pastures and into dusty dry riverbeds and climb again through tiny villages and farming communities. The gravel was rough in places as the temperatures kept climbing. With the growing fatigue from the previous day, the body’s tolerance to putting up with either wasn’t as sharp.
I walked a few short sections on the rough stuff before we finally rejoined the pavement around the town of Tlacotepec. I chatted with the villagers as I downed iced tea and snacks. They told me the whole climb up to Checkpoint 4 was paved, to my relief, as I wasn’t quite making the time I had been hoping for. By this point, I had crossed paths with fellow racer Juan Sanguineti, an experienced, strong and kind-hearted Argentinian also living in CDMX. We have been on quite a few rides together and have a very similar mentality when it comes to racing. That is, try your very hardest but don’t forget to have fun. He was a humorous and reassuring source of company during this next section, as we climbed another 1,000 meters up to the plateau perched right on the edge of the dramatic Sierra Madre. I passed through checkpoint 4 around 6 p.m. and made a push to the next town another 25 kilometers down the valley. I arrived at 7 p.m. and, knowing that the next section would be absolutely the hardest of the whole race and that the heat would be a huge factor, decided to stop early, get a good (if short) sleep, and start again in the middle of the night.
Day three started at 1:30 a.m., as I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and dragged the same bibs back on and could hear the distinctive noise of a bike’s freewheel rolling down the hall. I flung open the door of my hotel room and was greeted by Roma and Lucy, the first female leading the race, looking surprisingly fresh and ready to roll. We’d also crossed paths multiple times in the previous days, and I was stoked to be able to keep pace with her. I was excited that we would all enter the Sierra Madres close by each other.
This section had been the one I was most worried about, one that looked outrageous on paper: two 1,500-meter climbs back to back, 150 kilometers through the remote mountains and the raging heat, villages lost in time and with very few services, and then the final 100-kilometer stretch along the coast to the finish. It was time to stop worrying and start making it happen.
Slowly pacing my way up the first climb in the middle of the night, I watched small dots of lights spread out across the Sierra like a small galaxy of stars, impossible to judge the scale in the darkness. Distant dogs barked, and the very occasional truck bumped down the trail past me. It was peaceful. As time passed, the first flickers of light crossed the sky, illuminating the seemingly endless mountain landscape into infinity. The scale was unimaginable. The colors were rich and beautiful. It took all my strength to keep moving, and all my willpower to not just stop in total awe at the view.
By the time I reached the summit and down the other side, the landscape had changed from the cool green heights to the dusty green jungle, and as I moved towards the second long climb, we dropped to the lowest altitude of the race so far and the heat that followed was savage. I reached the town of Ixtayutla, the biggest in this part of the Sierra Madre, where people speak more Mixteca than Spanish and are somewhat disconnected from the outside world. But there was pavement, which was the tiniest relief as we still had to climb 16 kilometers at an average grade of 8%, which meant many sections were over 17%, at over 40°C (105°F). It was punishing, but it was nearly over! We had come so far and only had a handful of hours left to endure. I bumped into Juan again a few times fixing punctures, we walked some steep sections of the second climb together, swapping stories, and sampled some great tortas in a small village after the final summit.
This whole day in the Sierras I found myself shouting out into the endless expansive landscape “Mexico! te amo, te amo, te amo!” After a few complicated months of relationship with this beautiful but at times brutal country, this experience of raw beauty, of unspoiled and unchanging Indigenous communities in the hills, of companionship, solitude, challenge and reward was really exactly what I had needed.
After another 20+ hour day, I finally reached Puerto Escondido and crossed the finish line after 69 hours in seventh place, 13 hours behind first-place Sebastian Miranda (who finished in 55 hours and 50 minutes). I was exhausted and sunburnt but absolutely delighted, enriched by the experience of an unforgettable place and its people.
The film photography in this series was shot on an Olympus Mju ii with Fujicolor C200 and Ilford FP4 film. As a photography graduate and a film fanatic for many years, I try to capture as much of my races and fellow racers as possible with film. The romantic, dreamy, and atmospheric quality is reminiscent of the quality of the memories you create.
A few years after I started getting into film, I visited my mum in Scotland, showed her the camera I was using, and told her it reminded me of the old Olympus we had growing up. To which she replied, “The Olympus? That’s still up in the Attic! You want it?” And now I have the great pleasure of creating new memories with the very same family camera that captured almost my entire upbringing.
About Tour de Frankie
Tour de Frankie is Mexico’s first and only ultra-endurance bikepacking race. It’s now in its second year and receives a lot of support from the local cycling community. In its inaugural year, the route was 560 kilometers from Mexico City to the city of Oaxaca, and this year they extended the route out to the coast. The hope is to develop a stronger culture of bikepacking and ultra-distance racing in Mexico, as well as to showcase some of the stunning landscapes we have to offer here. Check out more on their website or their Instagram, and find more on the route below.
- Paso de Cortes – A high volcanic pass in between the two infamous Volcanoes Popocatépetl and Iztaccihuatl with spectacular views and thrilling gravel descent.
- Atlixco de las Flores – Small town sitting below the volcanoes famous for producing flowers and for its charming old town.
- Tamazulapam – Beautiful rolling climb into this small village, a few nice hotels and a chance to refuel on a typical guajolota, a delicious mole tamal sandwich.
- Santiago Yosondúa – Remote and small town on the edge of the Sierra Madre, where a large farmers market takes over the whole town every Sunday. One of the largest waterfalls in Oaxaca sits right on the edge of town.
- Sierra Madre – Rugged and diverse mountain landscape. Remote and isolated, friendly locals, stunning views. Two hard climbs, one paved and one unpaved. Temperatures here can be very high.
- Puerto Escondido – Oaxaca surfers paradise. Beautiful beaches, fish tacos, and micheladas to celebrate your hard effort.
Though there are plenty of road sections in this route, the gravel sections can be pretty rough and extended in places. Most people in this race were running a rigid gravel set-up with tyres ranging from 40mm wide and up. A small minority had front suspension, which would be premium for the longer unpaved descents, but not obligatory.
I rode my Mosaic GT2-X with 2.25″ tyres, a titanium rigid gravel bike with generous clearance but a racey feel. I was very happy with my choice and the bike took on each kilometer with relative ease. There would be many good bike choices for this route, but you will thank yourself if you opt for good tyre clearance and plenty of gear options.
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