The Right Stuff
The Ruta Maya is rated as TDAs hardest tour, and having recently cycled about 90% of the first 20 stages, I can vouch firsthand for the gruelling nature of this trans Central America cycling pilgrimage. Half of the first 22 stages involve between 2000 and 3000 meters of climbing, much of which is on rough off road, and some of the descents that follow can literally shake one to the bone. While cyclocross and hybrid bikes may thrive best on the pavement, it is those riders on suspension mountain bikes who truly are best prepared for all that the Ruta throws at them.
My roommate on the tour was Marek Poplawski, a 64 year old retiree from Kitchener Ontario. Marek emigrated to Canada with 2 suitcases and $200 in the early 1980s after being involved with Solidarnosc in his hometown of Gdansk, Poland. An engineer by trade, he exemplified how hard work pays off, rising to become a Plant Manager in Canada, Europe and East Asia for Magna International, the global automobile parts manufacturer. He and his wife now spend their winters in Panama, and when not travelling together, Marek is either cycling or working on his other hobby, photography, which he also uses to supplement his income. You can view his images here.
Marek discovered TDA in mid 2014 and quickly signed up for the 2015 Tour d’Afrique. I remember well his first really challenging day on tour, when a few of us convinced him to ride in our peleton, battling strong headwinds for the last 65 km of the 152 km stage into Abu Simbel, Egypt. Marek hung tough the whole way, and while he now regrets “only” cycling 10,500 of that Tour’s 12,000 kms, he demonstrated that “when the going gets tough, the tough get going.”
Now, with the last of the truly arduous stages of the Ruta Maya behind him, and seemingly against the odds, Marek and his hybrid bike are still EFI. Typically he finishes the days near the back of the pack, a few hours behind the fastest riders, but always with a smile on his face. His favourite line, often heard, is “I didn’t pay TDA to ride the smelly van.” Then it’s time for a beer, a shower, dinner and editing the day’s photos.
Here’s how he summed up Stage 22: “It was a big day on the tour. I prepared well for this. All my supplements are gone, so I tried to eat as much protein as I could yesterday. I ate a big breakfast before the ride and packed all my energy bars, and drinks that I had left over. The day started at 1200m level, and within first 12km we reached approximately 2100m. This 900m of elevation was a steep uphill battle, and it took over 2 and a half hours to get to the top. The ride out of the mountains was a roller coaster of ups and downs, and we finally reached lunch around the 65km mark. By this point we already completed 1900m of ascent. Then as we cycled away from the lunch stop, the paved roads transitioned into dirt, and we gained another 800m of elevation. I managed to compete this difficult day, before the sun went down. The views from the road were magnificent. It was a hard day but very rewarding; not only from the perspective of the stunning vistas, but also the feeling of accomplishment I had when I completed the challenge.“
Here’s to you, Marek. One thing is certain – you, my friend, have “the Right Stuff.”