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Cerro Abajo: AQ Feature

Santiago, Chile – Winter 2013 – as published in Americas Quarterly magazine.

Linking “Chile” and “extreme sports” usually conjures up an image of off-road vehicles racing at breakneck speed through the Atacama Desert during the annual Dakar Rally [AQ, Summer 2011], or of high-endurance hikers climbing the Andes.

But downhill racing in Valparaíso, Chile’s bohemian harbor city? In fact, since 2003, romantic “Valpo,” which counted Pablo Neruda among its residents, has played host to the world’s largest urban bike race every summer. This year, the one-day Cerro Abajo (Downhill) competition is scheduled for February 24.

The race takes competitors on a 1.24-mile (2-kilometer) daredevil course that begins on Cerro Cárcel, a cultural park located on one of the city’s many hills. From there, bikers navigate a series of challenges, including a spectacular 26-foot (8-meter) jump known as The North Face, a mind-bending left-hand wall ride and a 13-foot (4-meter) drop through a gazebo, before reaching the finish line at the central Plaza Aníbal Pinto.

When the race is on, Valparaíso’s busy metropolitan center  shuts down. Last year, 15,000 spectators—2,000 of them tourists—lined the course, often within touching distance of the bikers. The devoted fans add character to the Cerro Abajo, says Mauricio Acuña, a Chilean who won last year’s competition with a time of two minutes and 38 seconds. “The bikers feel like true rock stars for a day.”

Would-be racers must receive an invitation from organizers. Roughly 60 competitors from around the world participate each year. Corporate sponsorships plus funding from Chile’s Instituto Nacional de Deportes (National Institute of Sports—IND) cover the costs.

IND has already committed to partially subsidizing the race for the next three years—a move that government officials hope will promote the international aspect of the Cerro Abajo and encourage tourism. Meanwhile, competition organizers are working on a syndication deal that will broadcast the race to its growing fan base.