By Rob Quinn
Montana Grande. The first Mountain Bike race in the history of Mexico and how it all went down.
“Arrieros somos y en El Camino andamos” The saying goes. Translated, “We are all mule drivers in a field”. Translated, “Don’t judge others, we all got problems”.
I love quotations. I have noticed in Mexico the common people coin the quotes and most are based on humility, grinding on or better times are ahead. “Hope is the last to die”.
Before moving to Colorado 25 years ago, Mexico was a big part of my life and the 2.0 edition from lemons to lemonaid. You never know what life will bring you if you let it.
To me Mexico is a lady. Stunningly beautiful and morbidly ugly at the same time. Kind and cruel. A place that provides such an array of paradox that the absurd is reality. From the Cathouse to the Cathedral. A place where life can be cheap, yet the dead are mourned and glorified. This lady can charm you and hurt you in the same breath. The first rule is there basically are none. That is why I love Mexico.
I remember the call with my recently widowed mother in 1985. Born in Scotland. “Scotty” pulled no punches in typical Glasgow fashion. The conversation went something like this.
Me: Mom! Great news! I got a job in San Diego! …Actually Tijuana.
Mom: San Diego or Tijuana? (She lived in Coronado Island at the onset of WWII. Her 1st husband Hank was with the famous Black Sheep Squadron. They were known for their daring in the air and in the bars and the Fighter Pilots would take their young wives down and party hardy in TJ. One day he did not return from a Mission. San Diego was always a melancholy place for her because of this).
Me: Sorta both.
Mom: Too bad they aren’t hiring in San Diego.
Another gut punch delivered that made me the man I am today. Totally psychotic!
I didn’t realize it, but I had signed on to the ground floor of what would be the fastest growing media company in the United States (The Noble broadcast group) and a man, John Lynch that would take me to the next level professionally and place an inordinate amount of faith and responsibility on my shoulders.
His son is John Lynch junior, the former all-pro NFL safety and General Manager of the San Francisco 49ers. This man was all about thinking big and he’d attract the best people who could share his vision.
It just so happened the empire would start (and end!) in Tijuana—the gritty city of one million that borders San Diego. Why Tijuana? Because you could take a full power FM and AM transmitter (Owner Ed Noble’s wife ChaChi was a Mexican citizen) and point it at 27 million affluent Southern Californians and literally turn it up. It drove the FCC abiding competition crazy on the U.S. side. In short order we had the hottest stations in the market with 91X, a 100,000 watt FM that pioneered the punk or alternative genre. And XTRA Sports. A 50,000 watt AM monster that was the 1st all sports station in the West. One host used to start his show with a dramatic “from Baja to the Canadian Rockies…This is XTRA Sports”. Our first hire was a zit faced kid from Santa Barbara who Mr. Lynch could not stand at first. Jim Rome was an acquired taste. His first day he said he’d be world famous and this was where he started. I threw him a McDonald’s spot and said “Before that happens can you dub this for production”. If looks could kill I’d be dead. Jim Rome was the hardest working guy I ever had the pleasure to work with and his success is well earned.
Mexican Communications protocol dictated all studios and equipment must be on the Mexican side of the border. Our hosts crossed the border every day and brought with them “carts”, or commercials for their show. Already introduced to the Tijuana nightlife on Revolution Ave, I was eager to discover Baja on a few other levels and would come down to TJ whenever possible and hang out at the studios and offices we kept there. Our main U.S. office was right across the street from Sea World in San Diego. The stations also had an obligation to promote Tourism in Baja and that required some interaction with The Baja Department of Tourism. Through that I met Armando Carrasco, head promotor of The Baja Department of Tourism. It was man- love at first sight. Armando and I even looked like each other. A “weda” or fair skinned Mexican. He was a storied Moto Cross racer that grew up on a ranch in Mexicali and seemingly had a hollow leg and was impervious to the effects of Tecate beer. He and his friends quite frankly reminded me more of my rough around the edges childhood friends from Wisconsin vs. the new breed of Southern California friends we were acquiring. In short order, my wife Jeanne and I were adopted into an extended Mexican family and social circle of people our age who lived 20 miles south of Tijuana in Rosarito Beach. We partied in the beach bars on Saturday then attended Catholic mass on Sunday. We became weekend locals.
Flashback (there are a few of these in this story). It’s 1982. NORBA is in full swing and Big Bear, CA is ground zero. Ned Overend and John Tomac reigned supreme. Probably the high-water mark in overall race numbers. Down south, The Rosarito-Ensenada was attracting 20,000 riders and Baja tourism was at a high-water mark. These were good days in Southern California.
It didn’t take long for yours truly to parlay my new friendship with basically unlimited access to Baja for Mountain Biking and general shenanigans with my hosts that were able to open seemingly any gate and negate any problem with ease. Guns are illegal in Mexico but the ranchers are allowed to carry them for pests…so most guys you saw on a ride were armed. My buddies and I rode mountain bikes, Armando and his buddies rode Motorcycles giving us front and rear support.
Lunch consisted of ice cold Tecates and cold burritos the Moto guys carried. I remember these tough guys would spread a picnic out like Aunt Bea…wanting to impress their American guests and showing the great hospitality of the region. Style points have always counted with me.
When I first moved to SanDiego I looked up La Crosse, WI native Greg “Doughboy” Demgen who was a pro road rider winding down his career, based in San Diego, where in those days the majority of the road pros resided. In short order I was invited to ride with the likes of Greg Demgen, Danny Van Haute and Tom Brozmowsky on their “rest days”. I was a form of amusement: a 6’1 230 lb “Golds Gym Guy” (Golds was located close to the station and I spent my lunches there) I had adopted a San Diego schedule of Waterskiing the Slalom course (you could get dropped off by boat and walk to work) most mornings. Golds gym at lunch, then a road or mountain bike ride after work. Fish Tacos and Corona at night with other carefree friends and neighbors at the beach. Repeat daily. Only interruption were monthly business trips to Los Angeles, New York, Dallas and Miami that read like a Hunter S. Thompson novel. I had established myself has a totally unmanageable employee, but a prolific income generator for the company. When my Manager came to Mr. Lynch and told him that the pain was not worth the price and he was going to fire me (with cause!), Mr. Lynch told him it was too late and I’d been promoted to handle business across the country. After that I really delivered and was even more impossible to manage but I had earned my freedom and basically could do whatever the hell I wanted and answered to nobody. We went from 13th to 3rd in revenue.
This growth attracted investors. This was the story.
Every day I saw my detractor…who was technically in front of me in the Org chart…I’d give him the finger in some way so only he’d see it. Gotta love corporate America. At least I never punched him. But I did steal his weed in Indonesia…and that’s a whole other story.
It didn’t take long for our weekend rides in Baja to become a point of interest with San Diego Mountain Bikers since there’s plenty of land south of the border to ride on…but it’s tricky and only a fool would go down there without connections. There’s an old saying about Baja.
“If you come to Baja looking for trouble, don’t worry. It will find you”.
Armando had been promoting smaller Moto events and had an established trail system cut through the farmers co-ops or “Heilos”.
With the popularity of NORBA, Rosarito-Ensenda and our informal weekend rides…We decided to stage and promote what would be the first organized Mountain Bike Race in not only Baja but all of Mexico.
The “Montana Grande” was set. We ran a fall version that about 15 people attended, but we knew we were on to something. Saturday May 13th 1989 we ran our Spring edition and 250 racers came out from both sides of the border and we were in business. We each made $585 and I spent all my profits that night in the Cantinas with the crew. My wife handled the registration wearing a bikini with our 160Lb Malamute sitting beside her beachside. These were good days in Baja.
The Montana Grande prospered for 8 years, with two editions, Spring and Fall. Some races attracted over 500 riders and it was a must attend for most Southern California racers since the allure of an organized event in Mexico close to the border made sense. Our post-race award ceremonies and Fiesta’s were legendary. Nobody can throw a beach party like Baja! We made hundreds of friends and contacts.
I learned what it was like to be on the other side. The good, the bad and the ugly sides of this complicated lady. My paradigm is forever shifted.
Things changed. Noble Broadcast was sold to an evil corporate entity. I moved to Colorado and gave my half of the event to Armando. The best partnerships, when each partner brings a unique skill set to the party and with Armando and I it was a match made in heaven. He was operations and logistics and I was marketing and sponsorship. A year after I left, Baja broke out in a bitter drug war that sent tourism numbers free falling and The Montana Grande was no more. But when the history books are written, The Montana Grande was the first organized Mountain Bike race to be held in Mexico. Something I’ll be able to tell my grandchildren that I’m really proud of.
A decade later Armando and I would reunite in producing the first and last Baja Epic. A three-day stage race designed in the shadow of La Ruta. But that deserves its own article, because in a sense…It’s a Mexican tragedy orchestrated by that beautiful lady with the perfect smile and no conscience.
To be continued…