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Groad Trip: Racing with a stuffie, and other Colombian adventures at Transcordilleras

Eight days, 91,000 feet of climbing, and 650 miles of gravel in what is basically a credit-card bikepacking race. Ooph!

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Every year, I try to get to at least one international gravel race. While the USA is leading the charge in terms of events, dirt road adventures are most definitely not limited by our borders and I want to continue to expand my personal frontier of what gravel encompasses. In fact, most countries have way more gravel than auto-centric North America, but it’s only recently that organizers outside the U.S. have been starting to mimic the race organizers stateside.

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

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

Just by the statistics, Transcordilleras is an audacious challenge. Riders cross three mountain ranges that make up the Andes Mountains. During eight days you climbs 91,000 feet over 650 miles.

Furthermore, the race is more or less self supported: Riders need to carry all their fix-its, spare clothes, and personal items. It’s basically a credit card bikepacking race: We have an official start and finish village each night where one can find lodging and a hot meal but everything else is on the onus of self sufficiency.

There was also a nonstop category but most all riders elected 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 truly feel the culture. That proved true. Each day that shared experience we all love about gravel was deepened, new faces became familiar ones, climbs were collectively gawked at, course dangers were shared in group chat, and the logistical difficulty served as bonding moments.

I learned the best ways to purchase certain items, how to effectively interact with these rural communities, and how to generally survive in this land. I learned the Colombian people are almost all welcoming, warm, and usually say “Yes.” They have a gratitude for us foreigners who’ve come to learn and appreciate their way of life.

This race wasn’t all hugs and smiles, however. This route is beyond demanding. In fact I can now confidently say it’s the hardest route I’ve ever done. Sure the Tour de France is more intense, but mile for mile and pound for pound the Transcordilleras takes the cake.

The sheer climbing with heavy loads is one thing, but add to that we were almost always between 6,000 and 12,000 feet above sea level. Furthermore the gravel generally isn’t fast; it’s steep, chunky and very slow moving. You have to earn every single pedal stroke. I’d wager that a mountain bike would be faster some days.

The complexity deepened with daily chores. Logistics took up almost every other waking moment. Upon finishing late in the afternoon, I’d haul my wet, muddy self into a local cantina and feed my starved calorically depleted body. Immediately afterwards, you needed to go find a car wash and offer some cash in exchange for a hose. Cleaning the bike was a must, as every day our bikes took a dusty or muddy beating.

Then it was over to our accommodations for check-in and the laundry shower. Hot water was not guaranteed but running water and a bar of soap was, so I’d hop in the shower wearing all my clothes and lather up all of myself slowly peeling off sudsy clean-ish lavers like an onion.

The humidity was high every day, so drying clothes was a slow process. I’d brought two kits, so each morning the damp, freshly washed one would go back in the packs while the one from the previous day would finally be dry enough to wear.

The final hurdle before dinner was heading to the local market for some morning oats, sugary drinks, bottled water, and candy bars. Actually carrying sponsor-correct race food from start to finish over eight days was impractical. I developed a new passion for syrupy mango juice cut with water, bocadillos (guava pectin snacks like Clif Bloks), and knock-off Snickers bars called Jumbos.

I was lucky to have Big Tall Wayne with me. While he couldn’t be my personal mechanic, he was invited by the race to be a neutral mechanic for all riders. Riders needed to get themselves to the finish each day but once in town he was available to fix would-be-race-ending issues. He was busy late into most evenings replacing brake pads, fixing chains, derailleurs, and ruptured brake hose lines. He worked for tips and at the end of the week he donated 100 percent of his profits (a couple hundred bucks worth) back to Esteban Chaves’ FUN Foundation that supports local cycling youth here in Colombia.

Battling with LtD

One of my top frenemies, Laurens ten Dam, also came down for the race. It was great to have someone like him to battle with each day. We’re similar in both the type of riders we are and the mindset we have around balancing racing with 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 subsequent gravel races to come. Other times we rode in solidarity, electing to stay together as partners in adventure.

I’d ate something bad after stage two and spent all night on the toilet. The following day he didn’t try and break me when he could have, a true gent. Another day he crashed early, and spent the rest of the day with skipping gears and sore knees. I didn’t attack him but instead we stayed together all day, and stopped at a stream to use my purifier when we collectively ran low on water. Other days however, we threw punch after punch all in good fun.

When all was tallied up, I took home the overall title and three stages while LtD took two. The other two stages 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 penalty? — of bringing a stuffed Toucan en route. I made a grave mistake in not securing him well enough on stage 4 and panicked after realizing I’d lost him on yet another rough descent. Luckily, Mauricio the organizer, who was following on his moto found and returned him. My penalty 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 prime example of Yes over No

Stage 6 brought a hiccup. There had been a landslide and the road was very closed. We had to get to the next town, however, and a detour was not an option given our current location. Whereas in the USA, the legal implications would have meant a hard “No, turn around,” the ultimate solution was for one crew worker to help us haul our bikes up an extreme dirt slope (I gave him a Jumbo bar telling him he’d need it more than I), traverse the landslide by foot, and then a crew member on the other side would give us a ride down the 10-foot drop in his bulldozer scoop back to tarmac! While I had a hoot, this truly served as a prime example of Colombian’s willingness to go above and beyond in helping others.

Final thoughts

This was one of the coolest bike-experiences of my life and I highly suggest it to anyone yearning for a cultural gravel-centric adventure. But be warned, the route is extreme and is more difficult than anything encountered in U.S. events. Prepare your body and mind, you’ll thank yourself later. Should you finish, you’ll have just traversed the Colombian Andes on a friggin’ bicycle!

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