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Words and photos by AJ Barlas

A soft spoken man in colorful bike gear and a brace on his right wrist stands in front of the group and introduces himself as Matias. His dark features are overshadowed by a gleaming smile as he welcomes the media circus to Chile, and if his features weren’t enough to verify it, his strong accent confirms he is from this amazing country. Despite Matias’ thick accent, his English is easy to understand as he begins to inform us of plans for the coming days. While he speaks, my mind drifts to the adventure just to get here, which promptly turns to excitement when I catch myself zoning back into the here and now.

"Welcome to Chile. Over the next several days you'll be completing a test event for the 2017 Rally Aysén Patagonia..."

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Transit Games

Getting to Chile from BC, Canada, and for most of the media squids, was quite the journey. The travel itself is pretty well a right of passage into the rally, by most modern standards at least, especially considering that traveling through Canada and the US is pretty straightforward, albeit cumbersome. Check in, dump your luggage with the baggage handlers, take your shoes off, unload your computer and any metal objects, put your shoes back on, pack the items back into your bag, smile and be nice to the customs officers, then wait, and wait, and maybe wait some more. Load the plane, land, repeat some of the above until you arrive at your final destination. Some of this process changes when traveling beyond the boundaries of North America, and despite the security measures being less stringent in Chile - it’s amazing how something as simple as not taking your shoes off can speed things up, and feel so good - there are other elements at play.

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Every one of the media circus goons needed to arrive in Santiago airport in order to board our connecting flights to the final destination of Coyhaique (pronounced coy-ah-kay). For those of us from the Pacific North West this required flights through Dallas, where we boarded our long haul planes to the South American region. By the time we arrived at the Santiago airport we had been in transit for upwards of 20 hours - a solid effort. Nevertheless, minus a couple of slight delays, which are commonplace in travel, the trip to this point had been smooth sailing. Little did we know that our rapidly diminishing layover time (from two hours to 30 minutes) was going to be a rather large problem, with the Santiago airport bursting at the gills with local travelers heading home after their recent holiday break, compounded by the fact we needed to go through customs then re-check in.

An airport staff member jumped into swift action once he noticed we were supposed to be boarding our flight only a few minutes past the time he was helping get our bags through the security check. He quickly rushed us through the airport and out to the flight check-in desk ahead of a sea of people. We sheepishly kept our eyes low and away from the disgruntled gaze of thousands of onlookers waiting in the lines, which were without question an hour or more in the making. Within ten minutes of meeting our tip hunter, we were on our way to the gate for our connecting flight and made it. His gratuities were well deserved.

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The flight from Santiago to Balmaceda was another three hour stretch including a touchdown in the middle, with this route apparently being somewhat of a public transit route with no express lanes. We arrived at Balmaceda airport - which was a shed in a field with a landing strip - boarded our shuttle to Coyhaique, and 45 minutes later our more than 26 hours in transit were complete, along with our transformation into flesh eating zombies…

Coyhaique: Base for the Rally Aysén Patagonia

Coyhaique is the capital of the Aysén Region, an area near the southern tip of Chile surrounded by the beauty that Patagonia is renowned for. Glaciers, aggressive mountains, serene rivers, the largest lake in Chile and much, much more can be accessed within a reasonable drive from town. With all of these sights comes a large amount of activities and experiences, and although the Chilean tourism organization notes mountain biking in the region, the style of riding that we all pursue and dream of - namely flowing, virgin singletrack among wickedly diverse forest - is incredibly new, bringing us to the Rally Aysén Patagonia.

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As Mattias outlined the next four days of participants lives, we stared like excited hyenas at the new Santa Cruz Hightower we were about to rip some skids on. Maps for the route were handed around and stories of the brand new trails in the area began to spill out. It’s one thing to go somewhere new and experience different cultures by bicycle, it’s another to be riding trails so fresh that the builders have only ridden partial runs down them. Thankfully those that were skeptical of the truth surrounding the statements of fresh loamers didn’t need to wait long before they could validate them.

During the brief it was quickly noted that the Rally Aysén Patagonia is not an enduro event. The label of an adventure race is more fitting, with the event including a bit of way-finding due to the shear amount of ground to be covered, and the timed stages truly take every aspect of a rider's skill-set and physical fitness into account. It sounds similar to enduro events Matias organizes, such as the Andes Pacifico, but the Rally Aysén Patagonia will include timed uphill stages as well as descents, and will be better suited to a shorter travel bike, with the trails not being burly as his other events.

The Carrot is Created

With the group feeling pretty good about ourselves after being shuttled up a fair amount of mountain side, we began a relaxed climb through our first real look at the Patagonian forest. Everyone was quickly taken by the beauty of the forest, which consisted of curvy, interesting looking trees absolutely covered in greenish yellow lichen and little in the way of ground cover. After a short climb with some solid pitches, we re-grouped at what was the start line for our first timed stage: a climb in the high alpine that ascended through a scene best described as the surface of Mars. It was long, my zombie legs hadn’t quite transformed back to the living yet, and at the end I stopped rather than rolling into a descent. I’ve done a lot of racing over the years, but never have I been timed solely on a climb, and I’m not sure that I want to again.

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After waiting for some latecomers to arrive (some of the group wasn’t so lucky to make that connecting flight), we anxiously started the first of the fun riding with a quick descent through the sharp, orange colored rock until we hit tree-line. Then we dropped into the first real taste of the potential that Patagonia and the Aysén region has for mountain bikes. As I slid my way through the first few corners I quickly discovered that the dirt, once churned up a little, offered very little traction, forcing some maneuvers and lines more to do with survival than speed or proper technique. The extremely dry conditions resulted in exceptionally fun flat corners guised as berms. Some made the mistake of trusting these berms only to discover the hard way that they were nothing more than a pile of dust and loose dirt.

As the group cheered its way through the Chilean woods, the colors and textures of the forest dangerously taunted everyone to steer their attention away from the trail and take a look. For those able to keep focus, it wasn’t until after crossing the finish line, deep down in the forest, that we were able to fully comprehend the surroundings. After a quick high five and a cheer to those around me, I hastily jumped from the bike, grabbed the camera and took in some digital memories for the road.

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From here the group moved through the unique forest and everyone's jaws were on the floor. Members of the group that have, and do build trail, could not believe the potential for the area and how accessible the terrain is to build in, while everyone else simply day-dreamt of rallying lines through the terrain. This was the first and last time we saw forest forest like this, and while there were plenty of stunning views during the proceeding days, Matias and his team started the event in the best possible way, leaving us all with memories that will be hard to shake for years to come.

After wandering through the woods for a little while, we suddenly popped out on an area of the mountain that was suddenly devoid of trees with great views of the valley floor below. It was here that we were to drop into our next stage and here that we got a real sense of the dust we were riding in. With loads of exposure and little moisture, the upper portion of this slope was as close to skiing in dust as I’ve ever gotten, and the clumps of dirt burst into clouds of dust as we trod on them while examining the first pitch. Riding through it was an interesting mix of drifting with rocks strewn throughout, similar to a surfer trying to avoid dry reef littered along a wave.

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As we descended towards the valley floor the trail went from super deep dust and wide open pitches to bar-grabbing spruce trees, and finally into the canopy, where we ripped down an old, grown over road grade. After over ten minutes of descending, crossing the finish line granted a break for our soft, winter riding hands as smiles gleamed through dusty exteriors, with everyone absolutely coated from head to toe in a dirt tan.

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From here, Pollo, a local teenager that helped build a number of the trails we rode during the event - including the one we had just ridden - took us through his family's farm to the road where our first food break greeted us. Everyone was on cloud nine as we took in as many drinks and snacks as our bodies could handle.

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Once refreshed, the group began the transition through a number of farms until we were greeted by a sea of yellow tents strategically placed in a random field, right in the middle of the valley. As the sun set everyone cleaned off their dirt tans, cutting back to the pasty winter skin many of us live with in the winter months, and made their way over to the food tent where the local Chileans were serving up some amazingly tasty appies. Wood fired pizza, anyone? Dinner was served, we ate, told stories, then passed out from the excitement of our first day in the Patagonian wilderness.

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World Record Fence Hopping Attempt

Day two of the event saw rise to the beginning of our farm fence hopping world record attempt, as the rally made its way, seemingly endlessly, through farm fields and over fences while dodging cows and horses. There was no dodging the cow patties… We rode fully exposed to the southern hemisphere sun and cow shit, and despite the thick dust buildup on our skin by mid afternoon, it wasn’t enough to stop the sun burn. With little in the way of reprieve from the sun's harsh rays, the group soldiered on, still stoked to be experiencing a new place, but personally, longing for more of the singletrack from the previous day.

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That carrot was eventually caught, though it was short-lived, with the majority of the first stage being a climb through open pastures, several short, raw wooded sections, the occasional dried out grassy marsh, and finally an exciting descent of about 40 seconds. The stage took roughly 7-10 minutes to complete. If riding in 30ºC (86ºF) heat and dust wasn’t enough, racing up a steep grassy pitch for the majority of a stage was, with many of the group now cooked from the effort.

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After some much deserved rest in the shade, the group moved back out into the sun and trudged through the countryside for a number of hours before reaching the final stage, a short descent down to Lago Castor and the nights campsite. With fatigue seriously setting in and the heat taking its toll, this stage was almost completely ridden with autopilot engaged, despite a quick run-in with a tree attempting to snap me out of it. If this run-in wasn’t enough, then the pain through my hand as I slid into the following couple of corners definitely was, and I nursed my way through the remainder of the approximate 30 second long final descent for the day.

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Spent, and pretty much back to full flesh eating zombie status, those of us that felt like a freshen up waded into the cold lake. The setting for the campsite was stunning, with old barns, grazing and curious cows, and the lake all within close proximity. Many passed out early in an attempt to shake off the challenging day and prepare for the following adventure, but not all.

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Trendsetters

By the second night a trend became apparent among part of our support crew, and a few of the riders, too. The meaning of the expression “no pisco, no disco” began to make sense as the volume of music increased the later it got and the Chileans grew rowdier from the copious amount of Pisco being inhaled. This trend of ride, suck dust, ride some more, eat, party, and finally sleep happened every day of the event, while those that wanted to catch some zzz’s scurried off early and the Chileans, along with a select group of participants, partied and shared stories well into the night and early hours of the morning.

Another trend that presented itself was in the riding. On day one the Rally threw a good amount of singletrack at us while day two and three were more of a grind, though we did ride some very raw, fun singletrack alongside the border of Argentina and above Lago Castor. Day four involved a shuttle and another long and phenomenal 10+ minute descent from a windy mountain top down into a local farmer's land. This final descent, one which was literally completed only days prior to the Rally’s start, had the entire group buzzing and was the perfect way to end the event. We threw down some "thumbguns" (a manly version of shotgun in celebration, and began the journey back into Coyhaique where we were treated to a classic Chilean BBQ. Meat lovers rejoice, vegetarians handle with care.

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Despite our modified experience of the Rally Aysén Patagonia, we have a good idea of what next year's inaugural event will be like. Our media group of riders still followed the general route of the event, but due to the majority of us not being “XC fit” - thanks to our predominantly keyboard warrior status - the team modified the days to suit. For those looking for a challenge to get fit and spend a good amount of time mixing between the hurt locker and site seeing, the Rally Aysén Patagonia is a no-brainer. The singletrack, while not difficult, is a blast to ride, and the surroundings, people, and culture are nothing short of amazing. Now I am stuck trying to figure out whether I really want to go back into training mode in order to complete the official event when it launches in 2017, and the memories of drifting perfect singletrack in unique terrain from this year are definitely winning the battle toward that happening.

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We cannot say thank you enough to Matias and his team from Montenbaik, Gambito, Pollo, and la Polletas for all of their hard work to build the trails around Coyhaique, as well as Cristian and the team of Terrafirma (Santa Cruz distributors in Chile). The hard work and passion supporting the mountain bike scene in Chile is unbelievable, and given a few years it’s no doubt that the Patagonia region, like Santiago, will be booming with exceptional trails everywhere.

Bonus Gallery: See more photos from our Patagonia adventure

Read our impressions of the new Santa Cruz Hightower

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