This Coastal Paradise Is Mountain Biking’s Best-Kept Secret

·13 min read
Photo credit: Alfredo Martínez Fernández
Photo credit: Alfredo Martínez Fernández

At the summit of Old Port I can’t help but shiver a bit, despite the warmth of the sun. The singletrack climb has taken me to a spot on the cliffs above the Pacific—high enough for the water to look impossibly blue, but close enough for me to see to the ocean floor. Crystal clear. As the sea breeze dries the sweat that it took to pedal here, I survey the steep descent in front of me, littered with chunky, volcanic-looking rocks. It’s not dangerous, necessarily; the trail is plenty wide. But looking down at the ocean from the cliffs is enough to make anyone’s stomach flip. Sea lions bark in the background as I gather my nerves for the descent. A few people hike by, but it still feels like I have the whole place to myself. Ruins from a once-thriving sugar mill surround the hills. Whales spout water in the distance.

Todos Santos, Baja California Sur, is becoming a not-so-secret mountain biking paradise, with 40 miles of trails in the foothills and up Mexico's Pacific coast. And it’s growing. At first glance, it seems like just one of many stopoff towns along the coast, a place to get lunch, but then you wander into the bike shop and get directions to several systems of trails that you could have easily missed entirely. The whole experience feels word-of-mouth—like if you didn’t take the time to chat with the locals, you’d miss out on the best tacos, the best hidden beach, and these perfectly laid-out trails up the cliffs and through the sandy brush.

Ann Patsy greets people by name as they pass by our outdoor table at Doce Cuarenta Cafe, a new and impressive cafe and meeting space on the north side of Todos Santos. People know Ann and like her. She’s easy to like—it’s easy to feel as if you’ve known her for years.

Ann and her husband, Dave Thompson, have been in the bike business for a long time; they own a Todos Santos bike shop called Over the Edge, or OTE. And they’ve invested in the community in a way that’s permanent. They build trails, support local racing, and rally excitement about bikes for all ages.

Photo credit: Alfredo Martínez Fernández
Photo credit: Alfredo Martínez Fernández

Of course, it’s not always easy. As Ann sips a double espresso, she turns the blue saucer over to see where it’s from. “I always want to know where items are sourced. It’s tough to get certain things here.” Import laws and taxes make getting bikes, bike parts, and everything else more complicated than it was when they owned a shop in the States.

And while Ann and Dave are fully part of this place now, getting to Todos Santos took a bit of trial and error—and the realization that sometimes you’ve got to attempt life several different ways before you find the best line.

Ann and Dave first came to Baja in 1991 after they both lost their jobs the same week. They had plans to get married, but when the double layoff came they pushed the wedding date back. Instead, they went on an epic three-week camping trip. With their AAA map of the peninsula and Baja Travel Guide in hand, they left Phoenix with a cooler of food (bologna-and-mustard sandwiches), jerry cans topped off with water, and only the slightest hint of a plan for where they’d end up. No Google Maps, no GPS, no Trailforks, just pure adventure. They ended up in Cabo to scuba dive, and the Baja seed was planted.

When Ann and Dave returned from that trip, back to their lives in Phoenix, they felt renewed. Ann continued her career in architecture and environmental design and then marketing. Dave worked in various industries before taking over Flat Tire Bikes in Cave Creek, some 35 miles outside the city. All the while they kept thinking about Baja, making trips down as often as they could afford to.

Then, in 2013, an opportunity arose: A developer was building housing and hotels that included an activity center, The Hub, in Todos Santos. They needed someone to direct all things bike-related. This was it. Dave got the job; they sold their house, sold the bike shop, and relocated full-time to Baja.

But there were complications. Things didn't work out.

So Dave and Ann went back to Arizona, determined to return to Baja on their own terms. Back to old jobs and old routines, talking through ideas on how to move back to Todos Santos and be a positive part of the community.

Photo credit: Alfredo Martínez Fernández
Photo credit: Alfredo Martínez Fernández

Enter Troy Rarick. Some 26 years ago, in 1995, Troy opened a bike shop called Over the Edge in Fruita, Colorado, with the goal of drawing on the features of the land to grow the mountain biking community. Back then, Fruita was a farming community; the downtown was all but deserted. Troy saw a potential for trails and community in a place that was in deep decline. He started hosting mountain bike rides, during which his friends would follow him around the cattle tracks until they’d carved out a system of trails. In the process, they created something equally valuable—a community dedicated to mountain biking, based around Over the Edge.

From there, things just kept growing. Troy certainly didn’t build it all, but today there are hundreds of miles of trails, most stemming from three trailheads in Fruita: 18 Road, Kokopelli, and Rabbit Valley. It’s a go-at-your-own-pace playground for all things biking and post-bike relaxing.

After Troy had established Fruita, building trails with friends late into every summer evening, his vision kept growing. Today, Over the Edge is a chain of five shops on two continents. Troy talks excitedly about bringing on a new store the way a seasoned coach talks about signing a new player. “Every store is locally owned, but we can help with things like land advocacy and how to run a business in a competitive market,” he says. He recognizes the possibilities of a place and knows when it’s ready to support and be supported by a store. It’s a community-led approach that doesn’t work without a deep understanding of a place and the people who live there.

So in June 2017, Ann and Dave partnered with OTE, relocated once again to Todos Santos, and opened their shop on December 1, 2017.

Photo credit: Alfredo Martínez Fernández
Photo credit: Alfredo Martínez Fernández

Like the trails Troy built in Fruita, much of the singletrack in Todos Santos started out as horse and cattle tracks. Largely perfected by expats and locals, Dave and Ann have facilitated expanding the systems and maintaining what’s there. And it shows: In Baja, the trails are often better maintained than the sandy roads. Side streets become rutted and largely undrivable without a substantial truck. It’s very challenging to keep up the infrastructure during the rainy season. Bike trails are more manageable.

And those trails are remarkable. The spectacular ocean views at the top of Old Port make the rocky climb worth every pedal stroke. Just over the hills, on the other side of the “highway,” you can make your way into the Sierra Madre trail system: seven punchy singletrack loops, with small dirt rollers that pop you up into the air—the kind of riding that leaves a huge grin on your face for the entire loop. It’s worth stopping at the top of the first little climb and taking in the whole scene. Blue sky, ocean, and hills in the distance. If you ride in the summer months you’ll want at least two full bottles of water. It’s beautiful and often there’s a little breeze, but it gets steamy pretty fast.

Beyond that, past downtown, the roads lead to Las Tunas, a network of sandy singletrack that tangles around the cardón (giant cactus). With names like Machete Mike’s and Fool’s Trail, you might question what you’re getting yourself into, but they’re surprisingly mellow—no bushwhacking required. On the brief jaunt up from the main road to the trails I encountered a couple of curious dogs, but they seemed happier going back to napping in the sand than giving me trouble.

Photo credit: Alfredo Martínez Fernández
Photo credit: Alfredo Martínez Fernández

Today, Dave’s crew consists of Trino and Alejandro, two locals who have learned to wrench and run the shop as if it were their own. And it is. For Ann and Dave, they’re family. For the past two years, Ann and Dave have sent them to Trek World, an annual product celebration in Mexico City for Trek retailers. Ann and Dave could have attended themselves, but they wanted to give Trino and Alejandro an experience they’d never had before. They also wanted the guys to feel that they could represent the store on their own. This trip was their first time on a plane, and their first time to the mainland. “It’s great,” Ann says, “They gain new wrenching skills and are exposed to all kinds of new products. Plus they get to represent all of Baja.”

The OTE crew and the locals of all ages who make up the store’s race team are incredibly dedicated to maintaining the trails. That’s because they know it’s their playground. “We didn’t create this. Locals and expats have cared for the trails for many years,” Dave says. “We’re just here to foster and expand on what others got going.”

The region isn’t without physical blemishes. In addition to damage that comes with seasonal rains, there are also human-made stains. Sometimes trash pickup doesn’t happen and things pile up. When it gets really bad, everything from glass bottles to broken furniture gets dumped out in the desert. “Nothing bums out a ride like seeing piles of trash,” Ann says. “It’s a problem.” But there are also a lot of people who truly care about maintaining the trails and who work tirelessly to preserve the area.

Photo credit: Alfredo Martínez Fernández
Photo credit: Alfredo Martínez Fernández

Local businesses are also signing on to support the bike scene. Hierbabuena, which serves incredible fresh salads, wood-oven pizzas, and a ridiculous banana cheesecake, sponsors the OTE race team. And when owner Marcos Ramirez isn’t in the kitchen or securing fresh produce for the week’s menu, he’s on a bike himself.

The attitude of the whole region is largely respectful toward cyclists. People use bikes to get around, to run errands. Drivers slow down and even turn on their flashers to escort riders on the road. There’s rarely traffic, and even more rare is the feeling of being in a rush. “No one harasses you. No one yells at you. No one passes within inches,” Ann says. “It never feels like you’re hated just for being on a bike.”

Maybe that’s because Todos Santos is the kind of small town where you see your waiter from the previous night’s dinner in the shop the next morning to get a dropper post looked at, and then again at the grocery in the afternoon. Everyone makes the same rounds, and everyone helps each other out. The pandemic has forced adaptations, of course. “Our original business plan, with a focus on guided tours and rentals, has morphed more into a traditional local bike shop like the one we had in Cave Creek, with more emphasis on sales, parts and maintenance, and customer service,” Ann says. “Even in our little town, interest in cycling is piqued. Like everybody else, we’ve all had to learn COVID protocol and hang tough together. Todos Santos doesn’t fool around, though. We wear our masks!”

Photo credit: Alfredo Martínez Fernández
Photo credit: Alfredo Martínez Fernández

Dave and Ann are looking ahead to their fourth full season of mountain biking. They’re fully settled into a routine. Originally they lived just outside of town, but a few years ago they moved into the apartment above the shop. “It’s both a blessing and a curse,” Ann says. “We’re always here, and…we’re always here.” They take time for themselves, though. They don’t open at all on Sunday—it’s a family day for Trino and Alejandro and a riding day for Dave. Ann rides too, just not as obsessively. “It’s his religion,” she says. “It’s why we’re here.” Dave assesses the trails, rides all afternoon, gets good and dirty, and then relaxes in the evening. “If you’re lucky,” Ann says, “you catch last light on the trail, and even see the famous green flash as the sun meets the ocean.”

That green flash is an optical phenomenon mentioned often in the area. It lasts for just a second when the sun dips below the horizon; the surrounding ocean makes it even more intense. Locals talk about it like an elixir for all worries—a perfect complement to an already-relaxing mountain bike ride.

The shop closes at 4 p.m.; afterward, the crew often rides a few laps of singletrack together. But on a Monday in March at 4:15, Dave answers the phone. “It’s flat flat?” Pause. “Sure, bring it in, I’ll still be here.” Ten minutes later a local strolls in with a hardtail. Dave puts it in the rack and has the tire fixed in a few minutes, all the while chatting about trail conditions. With the doors still open, others trickle in. An older couple, retired teachers from the East Coast, nose around. They end up booking bikes for the next day. Dave asks if they’re familiar with the Trailforks app, the best way to navigate the area. “Just bring water,” Dave says. “We’ve got helmets and accessories.” Everything he rents is set up tubeless—it’s the only way to go, with cactus thorns and sharp rocks on most of the trails.

Photo credit: Alfredo Martínez Fernández
Photo credit: Alfredo Martínez Fernández

Another man comes in and asks about road riding. “You can go out and back that way,” Dave says, and points north. “And you can go out and back that way,” pointing south. “But it gets pretty redundant.” Then he tells the guy about the mountain biking trails, like he’s letting him in on a secret. And he is. The desert foliage is such that if you look out at the hills from the dirt roads, you would never know about the maze of singletrack. You really can’t even see it until you’re right there in it.

As sunset approaches on my ride, colors enhance the trails. Everything gets pink-gold. I descend the Old Road to La Paz, a jeep path that leads back to the main road into town. It requires attention—the dirt is rutted and rocky—but it isn’t as intense as the singletrack. I stop for a while to catch last light, and I can smell dinner starting in the homes closer to the beach. Maybe I’m tired and a bit dehydrated, but I swear I see the green flash as the sun meets the Pacific. A firework that’s there for just a blink and then gone. I’m done for the day, just going through the motions of pedaling. My body is ready to be off the bike, but a big part of me wants this ride never to end.

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