Hammering Copper: Born to Ride By Ryan Steers and Al McWilliams

In a remote valley long familiar with the thump of huaraches we are a cacophony of slapping chains and squealing rotors. Ceramic freehubs drown out the cooing doves and echo through the Copper Canyon. Donkeys scatter. The grazing cows just raise their heads. Finally fattened again after decades of drought the animals and the people have regained their heft. The temperature hovers around eighty degrees as we reach Rodeo but the Garmin reads ninety-five in the sun. A dusty, cactus studded, outpost, Rodeo is situated in a large tributary canyon and comprised of a school, several adobe walls containing a few head of cattle and five or fifty houses; depending on what one would consider habitable. We’d been hoping to grab a bite. There’s not even a faucet.

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We’d set out with the sun at 6am and it had taken us two hours to travel the seventeen miles from Batopilas. A four-thousand foot pass separates the two towns and the dusty road alternates between Total Recall red and surface-of-the-sun white. It’s difficult to see the fist size rocks that make up the easy line on the road. Forty-millimeter tires spin out on the twenty-percent grade. This is the main artery from Batopilas in Chihuahua to Sinaloa and Gulf of Mexico; a deserted gravel highway. The passing police trucks reminded us that the route probably carries more than people.

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We flip it in Rodeo and ride out of the valley and back over the pass to beat the heat of the afternoon.  With descents more suited to full DH rigs than gravel bikes, we’re still unable to break ten miles-per-hour average. It’s slow going, even for gravel racing veterans. I’m unable to coax any more speed from my Revolt. I tried, twice, and I found myself four Dynaplugs and a bottle of sealant lighter. Lesson learned. It’s a good excuse to slow down and look around. Eight-thousand-foot peaks rise in the distance. Some are scarred with dirt roads that mark the route to a remote rancho, or another route out of the canyon. Are they rideable? We’re planning our next trip already.

The previous day we had ridden from Samachique to Batopilas. It was a road that seemed impossibly remote on our last visit in 2017 but was now marked with fresh fluorescent paint that guided the 60km mountain bike race a week prior to our visit. With a starting altitude of 7,500 feet and a finish line at 1,500 feet it would be a mistake to assume that it’s a descenders dream. Somewhere in the route there’s 7,300 feet of climbing and getting to the drop before dark is half of the challenge.  Put it on your calendar.

Tips for Cycling the Copper Canyon

We’ve been exploring the Copper Canyon by bicycle for a few years and we’ve learned a few things.

It’s Really Hard: You can do it, but the riding is very hard. Take it easy. We recommend cutting your distance in half… at least. That is, if you think you can do 60k, plan for 30k. If you think you can do 100k, shoot for 50k. Remember professional cyclists took almost seven hours to go 85 kilometers. The descents are hard and unforgiving. Don’t be afraid to take them slow, or get in the van. The Copper Canyon will make you pay for your ego in blood if you get cocky, so just ride chill, have fun, and know your limits.

Destination: Chihuahua Int. Airport (CUU) There are some direct flights, however, most require a connection. Last time we flew into El Paso and drove down, I wouldn’t recommend it. It takes about 10 hours and there’s a border crossing in Juarez.

Maps: Your phone probably won’t work in most areas of the canyon. Download the Google Maps for the area so there’s a copy on your phone and you don’t need to rely on connectivity. I thought I’d had one downloaded but it mysteriously stopped at 80% so we were flying blind in a few areas.

Bike: We’ve been using gravel bikes, such as the 3T Exploro and the Giant Revolt. Fire roads are rough to very rough and the more air volume you have the better. If you’re not in tip-top shape, even consider a full suspension mountain bike.

Tires: Don’t go to the canyon on less than 40mm tires. Additionally, mount the biggest tires you can.

Gearing : You’ll want a minimum of a 1:1 gear ratio. Ideally, something even bigger. The climbs are steep and often very rocky and loose. Sure, you can power through a few hundred meters, but these climbs go for hours. You need gears, and lots of them. Al rode a 40t up front on his 1x setup with a 40 in the back, and at 65kg and 300w was still struggling to keep cadence even on the shorter climbs. Ryan rode a gravel 2x setup and found it more adequate on the steep ascents.

Equipment:

Dynaplugs! Carrying a bunch of tubes is for plebes. We’ve been “testing” Dynaplugs for about a year now and they have saved more rides than we can count. They’re tiny, light and work as advertised. It takes only a few seconds to plug a hole and get back on the road (really). Bring a bunch of them.

UV Sleeves: These are those arm warmers that aren’t warm. It’s hot down there, and at 8,000 feet you don’t want to sweat off your sunscreen and fry. UV sleeves will save you.

Brakes: Bring spare brake pads. It’s not unheard of to go through a set in one day (really).

Water: a filter comes in handy. There are springs, rivers, and creeks but you’re rolling the dice. You might find some black tubes carrying water to an unknown “farm” deep in the mountain forests, but it’s risky.

Spare Parts: I suffered two pinch flats with 40mm tubeless tires running 50psi and it took four Dynaplugs to repair, I was very close to using my spare tire. Bring a chain tool, spare link, derailleur hanger, C02, many spare tubes and extra sealant, and even a spare tire isn’t a bad idea to keep at the hotel or in a follow car if you have a guide. The rocks are sharp, and even at a cautious pace it’s easy to slice a sidewall. If you don’t have a support vehicle you could find yourself waiting hours or potentially days to hitchhike back to town. Even with support, a broken chain or torn sidewall could cost you the trip as there are no bike shops in the bottom of the canyon. The nearest spot for a basic repair is Creel, about a three-hour drive back to the top; but don’t count on them stocking gravel tires or twelve speed chains. Note: On our last visit I burned though a set of brake pads in two days. This time I brought spares.

Shops

Chihuahua City has excellent bike shops. We checked out BiciSur and they have everything in stock.  Don’t panic about bringing a bunch of spare stuff with you, if you get in a jam, someone can get it from Chihuahua for you. It’s one of the best reasons to visit the canyon. You’ll be taken care of the whole time.

When to go

October through early April. By mid-April the temperatures in the canyon climb above 100 degrees and riding gets dangerously hot. Most of the rain falls in June and July so a trip in the fall is green, while things are pretty brown in the spring.

Outfitters

We’ve used Maclen Mendoza Tarahumara Tours and Groupo Tara and they’ve both been flawless. 3 Amigos in Creel also rents bikes and offers guided trips into the canyon and surrounding area.

Maclean Mendoza Tours:

(635) 456.05.81

[email protected]

3 Amigos:

https://www.amigos3.com

Where to Stay

Chihuahua: Holiday Inn and Suites Chihuahua

Creel: Best Western Plus Lodge at Creel

Batopilas: The Riverside Copper Canyon Lodge

Also Check Out: The Other South of France