Mountain Biking Oaxaca: A Taste of Local Trails and Culture

April 19, 2022

We convened from all corners of North America. We had our bikes in tow and a voracious appetite for some new trails and new experiences. For many of us, early March doesn’t afford much of an opportunity to put tire to dirt, as the transition from winter to spring can make for varied (see: sloppy) riding, and after some deliberation and discussion, we landed on our destination: the PEARL iZUMi athlete summit was bound for the southwestern Mexican state of Oaxaca for a taste of the local mountain biking trails and culture.

Murals covered several of the walls throughout Oaxaca, adding a great deal of beauty to a city that is already very easy on the eyes.

We arrived in Oaxaca with an appetite for adventure, and it was served up daily.

Among the group were riders Skye Schillhammer and Mark Matthews, both coming from slopestyle and freeride backgrounds, enduro/all mountain athletes Lia Westermann, Alex McAndrew, Dane and Zach Petersen, Korey Hopkins, Trevor Mccutcheon, and myself, Brice Shirbach, as well as the XC and endurance phenom Nina Machnowski.

Founded as a Spanish colony in 1532 but with settlements dating back thousands of years, Oaxaca’s history – like much of Mexico’s – has been an at-times turbulent one, with Spanish occupation coming at the costs of generations of war and conflict. Today, Oaxaca de Juarez experiences relative peace and prosperity compared to neighboring Mexican states with tourism acting as one of the region’s main economic drivers, though it’s worth noting that even today protests and clashes over teacher wages, indigenous oppression, and free press are ongoing.

Lia, Skye, Nina, and Dane explore the city streets in the early morning light.

“This was my first time in Mexico.” Korey Hopkins noted. “I made it a point to not look up the trails or riding before this trip so that I could just show up and experience it without any preconceived notions.”

Trevor McCutcheon was rightfully as excited about the food as the riding. “I knew going into the trip that Oaxaca was known for their delicious food and vibrant city, so my expectations were high. Not only did the food blow me away, but the city itself offered a welcoming feeling even for a bunch of tourists playing on bikes.”

Nina enjoying the scenic route back to her room after a morning coffee.

Our trip to Oaxaca coincided with their dry season, which often leaves the trail “smoking” as we ride through.

Trevor McCutcheon works to avoid touching any and all roots along the trail.

The food and drink were indeed stellar throughout the week. By adventure’s end, the group tally on tacos crept well into the several hundred range, and the gallons of horchata might best be left unknown. Ingredients were often simple and full of flavor, with homemade corn tortillas a prevalent vessel for al pastor, a spit grilled method of cooking pork marinated in abodaba.

The color palette and textures of Oaxaca were equally impactful, with murals telling of Oaxaca’s dynamic history and no two buildings the same color, size, or shape, with several colonial era structures well intact and preserved throughout the city.

“Something that really stood out to me were the small villages outside of the main city.” Lia Westermann notes. “The villages had families that would welcome people into their homes and cook fresh food for them and make coffee. They were so friendly and made delicious homemade meals for us. Definitely a highlight of the trip.”

Mark, Zach, Skye, and Dane take a break from the riding to enjoy an afternoon coffee at a roadside cafe.

One of our riders, Nina Machnowski, brought some fluent Spanish speaking skills along with her, an ability that lent itself very well to the group.

“Because I know Spanish,” she says. “I was able to read the phrases incorporated into the art and a lot of them were protest pieces fighting for worker rights and conditions. One piece, titled ‘El Corazón,’ or ‘The Heart,’ was a huge painting of a heart wrapped in thorned caci which read ‘Que arda todo menos tus ganas de luchar’ which means ‘Let everything burn except your desire to fight.’”

While mornings and evenings were generally reserved for sights, sounds, and flavors that accompany cultural immersion, the days were centered around riding bikes in the Sierra Madre mountains. Javier Salazar, the owner of Oaxaca Bike Expeditions, and his team of guides and shuttle drivers had a well oiled operation, allowing us to split into groups throughout the week which helped us accomplish our filming goals while still allowing everyone to get a good taste of the abundance of trail in the region.

Alex flies through one of the group’s favorite sections of trail all week, leaving a swath of dust in his wake.

Eyes up for Korey as he shimmies and shakes his way through one of many loose chutes we would enjoy.

The riding itself provided a welcome respite from winter for almost all of us. While the infrastructure is still in its early stages with trail access being quite an adventure in and of itself, the local riders are highly motivated when it comes to building and sharing their trails. There isn’t much in the way of local trail associations just yet, but guide outfits like Oaxaca Bike Expeditions utilize their own financial resources earned from trips to pay for much of the work being done on the trails, which are carved beautifully through the forests of the Sierra Madre mountains. Even at an elevation of 10,000 feet above sea level, the temps were warm, the sun bright, and the trails dry as a bone. We spent the days blitzing descents that were no less than 3 km in length, and upwards of 10-15 km. While some of the crew found this dry and loose terrain familiar, most seemed to relish the opportunity to get more practice on what was a decidedly unfamiliar style of riding.

“Riding in Oaxaca is something out of a singletrack dream.” Skye Schillhammer says, a Bellingham, WA local. “Each shuttle to the top unveiled a new trail, with its own flow that uniquely worked its way down the landscape. From moss blanketed forest to 8 foot tall agave plants, it was hard to keep your eyes on the line in front of you.”

Even Mark Matthews, who had been to Oaxaca on two previous occasions, had never seen it this dry. That certainly didn’t seem to stop him or anyone else from rallying.

“Everyone was so stoked on the descents.” he said when asked about the trails. “The ground was loose but once you started to trust it you could dig in and shred!”

By week’s end, we were exhausted, stoked, and full of memories that will likely last a lifetime. Oaxaca allowed for each of us to connect with one another, as well as with a new landscape and culture. Adventure, more often than not, is the beating heart of mountain biking, and this adventure pumped a good deal of energy and life into us. We left with more friends and stoke than when we arrived, and more tacos and horchata in our bellies than we could ever dream of. While we certainly had our fill, you can be sure that we’re already craving some more.

Our photographer for the trip, Sterling Lorence, likes to refer to these shafts of light as “God rays”. Lia looking downright heavenly as she goes full send through them.

Photos: Sterling Lorence©

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