Cerro Abajo in Valparaíso, ‘a killer place to have a race’

The Santiago Times newspaper reports from Chile’s beloved port city as the best downhill riders in the world compete in the 10th edition of the famous annual race.  

Narrow, rickety stairs and stomach-churning jumps await the riders at every turn. An initial decline sits so steep that even cars risk burning their brakes with each descent. One gap propels cyclists over a 15-foot ledge and leaves no room for error.

Some areas of this course are so quick, they seem impossible to the amateur eye. One thing is certain, the Valparaíso Cerro Abajo downhill bike race is not for the novice rider—and that’s probably why it attracts many of the top cyclists in the world.

On a good day from atop Cerro Cárcel, the twisting avenues in the hills of Valparaíso offer an intriguing walk for tourists and locals, with a view fit for a postcard. On Sunday, the spectators will have to ignore the tranquil blue waters of the Pacific below if they want to catch one of the most extreme bike races on the planet.

To ride to the top of the hill with Victor Heresmann is to receive a history lesson. Turn left up the hill — and this was a feature of the course in 2006. Look over this ledge — that was a gap in 2003.

Though he hates taking credit for the idea, Valparaíso Cerro Abajo is Heresmann’s brainchild. This year is the 10th installment of the race, and Heresmann is close to securing a long-term contract with the city to continue his project.

“It was kind of an urban legend,” Heresmann told The Santiago Times. “Everyone thought this would be a killer place to have a race, but we were the ones to do it.”

The urban legend began to materialize in 2002 when Heresmann was working on a cycling magazine with a friend. They were having trouble increasing readership and attracting attention. They saw an opportunity to do both in the hills of Valparaíso.

The race debuted in 2003 when Heresmann and his friends constructed the course and organized the event. It was well received by riders, organizers, and city officials alike, but that was just the beginning.

“We had a three-year plan for Cerro Abajo,” Heresmann said. “In year one we wanted to test the course and see how it was received, year two we wanted to hold the event to a higher standard, and in year three we wanted to add it to the International Cycling Union (UCI) calendar.”

That vision became a reality in 2005 when Red Bull sponsored the event and for the first time it was held in essentially the same spot as it will be on Sunday. In the years since 2005, the course has changed little, but that doesn’t mean riders can get comfortable.

On Wednesday, four days before the race, the course was nonexistent. Due to the fact that the race essentially shuts down part of the city, construction on most of the course doesn’t begin until Saturday, preventing riders from seeing the course until late Saturday or early Sunday.

“The thing about this race is that since it’s through a city is that we don’t get to pre-ride,” Katherine Short, a rider from Canada, told The Santiago Times. “So we are basically going into the jumps blind since they probably won’t even test them until Sunday.”

Short did say that although it is intimidating to face the unknown, she is confident because the riders are all at the same disadvantage.

Some riders have been quick in picking up the course though. Filip Polc, a rider from Slovakia, won in 2010 and 2011. This year, he’ll face more than 50 riders – half Chilean and half foreigners – and all will try to stop him from winning a third consecutive title.

Sunday will see the field of riders take the mile-long course at least twice. The first will be a qualifying round, which will cut the field in half. Then riders will climb the hill again for the main event.

Racers descend the hill one-by-one, competing only against the times of other riders. The rider with the best time will be crowned winner of Cerro Abajo 2012.

In 2011, it was estimated that 12,000 people lined the streets of Cerro Cárcel to watch the best riders in the world tackle a course unlike any other on the circuit. Of the spectators, Heresmann said that up to 2,000 of them are tourists.

Organizers are expecting a larger turnout this weekend, and are hoping to secure a three-year contract with the city of Valparaíso to extend the race.

“We are hoping to announce the signing of this contract by Sunday,” Heresmann said. “If we can get this contract, we can land live network TV coverage and continue to grow this race.”

By Payton Guion. To read the original article on The Santiago Times, click here.