Life on Two Wheels: Yeti Bicycles pro Nate Hills completes an unmapped first attempt in the Bolivian Andes
Special to the Daily
Editor’s note: For countless Summit County residents, a bicycle is more than a machine — it’s a lifestyle. Every week during the summer, we’ll ask our most adventurous residents, “Where has your bike taken you?”
If you’re a pro enduro rider, a cyclist who spends nearly the entire year in the saddle as a fierce competitor, what do you do for a little R&R?
Nate Hills decided a nine-day biking trek across unmapped passes in the Bolivian Andes — all of it at an oxygen-light 15,500 feet or higher — might be a nice break from his regular routine of training, training, racing and more training.
Hills, a pro rider for Yeti Bicycles and a Summit County resident of 19 years, teamed up with fellow Yeti rider Joey Schusler and two friends, Thomas Woods and Carston Oliver, a pro skier from Utah, to tackle an off-the-maps slog across the Cordillera Real last month.
“We started off in La Paz and then followed the mountains that go north and south from there, and we were the first cyclists to attempt it, which was pretty cool,” Hills says. “Some of the routes were mapped and some not at all… There was no cell service anywhere, so we just followed some little scraps of paper most of the time.”
Hills says his non-stop training regimen here in Summit County helped pre-load his lungs a bit, but, with the first day’s rides beginning at 14,000 feet before topping out at 17,500 feet on Pico Austria, oxygen was definitely at a premium and the foursome traveled as lightly as possible.
“Nine days above 15,000 feet was pretty wild,” he says. “I felt OK, mostly because I spend a lot of time riding around here, but I saw other people hiking at the end of the trek and they did not look so good. We felt reasonably ready for it as we’re all professional athletes — it was hard, but it wasn’t like we couldn’t survive.”
Weight and gear considerations were probably the biggest factor in pulling off the trip, Hills says, so he brought along a new Yeti SB5.5c with five inches of travel. The 40 pounds of gear he had to carry, however, made things a little more difficult.
“Unfortunately, we hadn’t budgeted correctly for the distance and we ran out of food on the last day because we were so concerned about weight on the bikes,” he says. “I lost seven pounds on the trip and I’m a pretty skinny guy already.”
The 39-year-old Hills, a Boston-area native who began racing in 2003, started his professional career as a downhill rider, but he says his current calling as an enduro rider certainly helped with the Bolivian trip.
“Enduro started catching on and I made the switch about four years ago. I really like pedaling and descending,” he says. “The first part of the trip was definitely less explored, and for the first three or four days we were just following llama tracks. We sort of knew where we were going, but we were really just winging it.”
Hills says they really were apparently breaking new ground as they saw almost no human travelers for most of the trip, just a whole lot of llamas and alpacas. And, despite some very long days between camps, “we never got darked on, either,” he adds.
You might start seeing images collected by the foursome during their journey in magazines next year, as well.
“We started planning this trip a couple of months ago, and we managed to get sponsors and some money to do it,” he says. “The photography we shot will end up in ad campaigns and social media for Envy, Ergon, Smith Optics, Big Agnes, Outdoor Research and Skratch Labs — lots of Colorado companies included. I figure it will take us a couple of months to edit all the photos.”
Hills says his life as a pro rider is certainly exciting, but he enjoys the opportunity to ski in the winter or spend a bit of non-bike time traveling in other spots across South America.
“I like to take a break from biking and reset a bit, because otherwise I’m training, riding or eating. Really, I’m either training or resting,” he says. “It’s an interesting lifestyle and I love what I do, but I really do have to train and try hard in my events.”
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