Big trip: race with a stuffed animal and other Colombian adventures in Transcordilleras

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Every year I try to participate in at least one international gravel race. While the United States leads the charge in terms of events, dirt road adventures are certainly not limited by our borders and I want to continue to expand my personal frontier of what the gravel encompasses. In fact, most countries have a lot more gravel than car-centric North America, but it’s only recently that organizers outside the United States have started to emulate race organizers in the States. -United.

I had met some South American friends at an event last year and they had mentioned this crazy race in Colombia. I had it in the back of my mind, and as I searched for a new adventure for 2022, the Transcordilleras pushed deeper and deeper into my immediate awareness.

So it was last week that Big Tall Wayne and I met in Bogota a few days before the start of the Transcordilleras. We were having a fun day ride and evening social with our aforementioned friends from 3 Puertos Gravel. It was during this evening that the locals told me how, even in cycling-mad Colombia, the Transcordilleras is considered extreme.

According to statistics, Transcordilleras is a bold challenge. Runners cross three mountain ranges that make up the Andes. For eight days, you climb 91,000 feet over 650 miles.

In addition, the race is more or less self-contained: runners must carry all their accessories, spare clothes and personal effects. It’s basically a credit card bikepacking race: we have an official start and finish village each evening where accommodation and a hot meal can be found, but everything else is your responsibility. of self-sufficiency.

There was also a non-stop category but most riders chose to do the eight day version, myself included!

Tackling the eight-day version was, I hoped, the best way to immerse myself in a new country and really feel the culture. It turned out to be true. Each day that shared experience we all love about gravel was deepened, new faces became familiar, climbs were collectively watched, hazards of the course were shared in a group chat, and logistical difficulty served. bonding moments.

I learned the best ways to purchase certain items, how to interact effectively with these rural communities, and how to generally survive on this land. I learned that Colombians are almost all welcoming, warm and generally say “Yes”. They have a gratitude for us strangers who have come to learn and enjoy their way of life.

This race, however, was not all hugs and smiles. This route is more than demanding. In fact, I can now say with confidence that this is the hardest route I have ever done. Sure, the Tour de France is more intense, but mile for mile and pound for pound, the Transcordilleras takes the cake.

Steep climbing with heavy loads is one thing, but add to that that we were almost always between 6,000 and 12,000 feet in elevation. Also, gravel is generally not fast; it’s steep, chunky and very slow. You have to earn every pedal stroke. I would bet an ATV would be faster on some days.

The complexity deepens with everyday tasks. Logistics took up almost every other waking moment. After finishing late in the afternoon, I hauled my wet, muddy self to a local canteen and fed my starving, calorie-depleted body. Immediately afterwards, you had to go find a car wash and offer money in exchange for a tip. Bike cleaning was a must as every day our bikes took dusty or muddy hits.

Then it was the turn of our accommodations for check-in and the laundry shower. Hot water wasn’t guaranteed, but running water and a bar of soap was, so I hopped in the shower wearing all my clothes and moved slowly peeling soapy lavas like an onion.

The humidity was high every day, so drying the clothes was a slow process. I had brought two kits, so each morning the one that was damp and freshly washed went back into the bags while the one from the day before was finally dry enough to wear.

The last hurdle before dinner was getting to the local market to buy morning oats, sugary drinks, bottled water and candy bars. In fact, carrying decent sponsor race food from start to finish for eight days was impractical. I developed a new passion for syrupy mango juice cut with water, bocadillos (guava pectin snacks like Clif Bloks), and counterfeit Snickers bars called Jumbos.

I was lucky to have Big Tall Wayne with me. Although he cannot be my personal mechanic, he has been asked by the race to be a neutral mechanic for all racers. Riders had to go to the finish each day, but once in town he was available to troubleshoot potential end-of-race issues. He was busy late most evenings replacing brake pads, fixing chains, derailleurs and broken brake lines. He worked for tips and at the end of the week he donated 100% of his profits (a few hundred dollars) to Esteban Chaves’ FUN Foundation which supports young local cyclists here in Colombia.

Fight with LtD

One of my best enemies, Laurens ten Dam, also took part in the race. It was great to have someone like him to fight with every day. We are similar in both the type of runners we are and the mindset we have around balancing racing and lifestyle. A few times the gloves came off and we really hit each other with everything we had, knowing it would make us better for the gravel races to come. Other times we rode in solidarity, choosing to stick together as adventure partners.

I had eaten something bad after the second stage and spent the whole night on the toilet. The next day he didn’t try to break me when he could, a real gentleman. Another day he crashed early and spent the rest of the day skipping gears and hurting his knees. I didn’t attack him, but we stayed together all day and stopped at a stream to use my purifier when we collectively ran out of water. Other days though, we were throwing punch after punch while having fun.

When it was all counted I won the overall title and three stages while LtD won two. The other two legs went to former Orica pro Brayan Chaves (who was third overall) and local KOM master Antonio Dorado.

To keep things fun, there was no leader’s jersey, rather the leader had the honor – or the penalty? — to bring along a stuffed Toucan. I made a big mistake by not securing it well enough in Stage 4 and panicked after realizing I lost it on another tough descent. Fortunately, Mauricio the organizer, who was following his motorcycle, found him and sent him away. My pain was to buy the round of beers that night! “Toucanette” is now safely in my bag, clearing customs, en route to California. I’ve never suffered so much for a damn stuffed animal!

A great example of Yes over No

Stage 6 brought a hiccup. There had been a landslide and the road was very closed. We needed to get to the next town though and a detour was not an option given our current location. While in the US the legal implications would have meant a hard “No, turn around”, the ultimate solution was to have a crew worker help us haul our bikes up an extreme dirt incline (I gave him a Jumbo bar telling him he ‘needed it more than I did), walk across the landslide and then a crew member on the other side would take us down the chute 10 feet into his bulldozer to return to the tarmac! Although I laughed, it really served as an example of the Colombian willingness to go above and beyond to help others.

Final Thoughts

This was one of the coolest biking experiences of my life and I highly suggest it to anyone longing for a gravel-centric cultural adventure. But beware, the route is extreme and more challenging than anything seen in US events. Prepare your body and mind, you will thank yourself later. If you finish, you just crossed the Colombian Andes on a fucking bike!

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