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Transcordilleras: Crossing the Andes, via gravel

Laurens ten Dam, Pete Stetina, and Mauricio Ardila highlight the start list of next week's eight-day gravel stage race.

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In Colombia, the Cordillera de los Andes, the Andes mountain range, splits into three sub-ranges. Each range is punctuated by peaks exceeding 4,700 meters, and the mountains march north to south, from Colombia’s border with Venezuela to its frontera with Ecuador. 

“Only in Colombia does it do this,” said Mauricio Ordoñez, the founder and director of the Transcordilleras stage race. “And our main goal is to cross all three ranges. We do this from east to west, almost 1,110 kilometers and about 28,000 meters of elevation gain.”

Transcordilleras = crossing the ranges.

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The 2022 Transcordilleras runs from Feb 20-28 and begins in Yopal, on the eastern plains. (Photo: @aburracolombia)

Related: Colombia is an adventure cyclist’s paradise

On Sunday February 20, about 40 riders will take eight days to traverse the three ranges of the Colombian Andes in the second iteration of the Transcordilleras stage race. Although the start list for the race is small, it’s stacked with some big names. American gravelleur Pete Stetina and two other WorldTour retirees, Laurens ten Dam and Thomas Dekker, will be there.

And, so will ten Dam’s former Rabobank teammate, Colombian Mauricio Ardila.

Also from Colombia, two Chaves’ will be in attendance; Brayan, brother of Team BikeExchange–Jayco’s Esteban, as well as their father, Jairo Chaves.

The Transcordilleras is composed of eight difficult stages, averaging 120-130 kilometers per stage. Riders are on their own as far as support; there are no aid stations or neutral support along the way. The event uses the unofficial rules of some ultra-distance bikepacking races — riders may utilize services that are available to everyone else. Restaurants, bike shops, and the like are all ok.

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If anyone can buy the orange, then the orange is fair game. (Photo: @aburracolombia)

When everyone arrives at the end of the stage, however, they’ll stay in pre-booked accommodations and eat at restaurants in small towns. According to Ordoñez, this is meant to foster interaction among the participants, as well as generate some income for the communities.

“We’re also going into some very small towns,” he said. “If the race goes through there, they’ll have input into the economy. A lot of these towns don’t have any tourism at all, so in a way we’re trying to promote a local economy in these towns, which are very secluded, forgotten towns. Some are 1,000 people maximum, so a caravan of 100 cyclists is the best weekend they’ll have for the rest of the year.”

Related: Welcome to Colombia Week

Stetina, who has never traveled to Colombia, said that the race appealed to him on multiple levels.

“The gravel world is so vast and there’s so many different events and they’re all so different,” he said. “I really do love the gravel stages races. My bread and butter was stage racing. I think it’s a great way to see an area. While gravel is very U.S. centric, I think there’s a lot of adventure to be had abroad.”

Ordoñez hopes that more riders, both from abroad and within Colombia, adopt Stetina’s attitude. Despite its checkered past, Colombia is emerging as a tourist destination. And although it’s already known as the birthplace of WorldTour climbing talent, Ordoñez believes that even more opportunity lies in bringing adventurous cyclists to experience its off-road riding options.

There is very little traffic on nearly all of the Transcordilleras course. (Photo: @aburracolombia)

Although he’s Colombian, Ordoñez lived abroad for 15 years. When he came home, he realized just how lucky he was. Colombia’s topographical gifts, coupled with an abundance of underdeveloped road systems, made for excellent gravel riding. He started patching together routes, and those routes eventually became some of the stages of the Transcordilleras.

“Then I started doing them with friends, then we opened them to the public,” he said. “We thought maybe no one will come but we’ll do the route at least. Turns out that people did want to come. We made it happen and we’re here now with a business opportunity to do more.”

Some riders like ten Dam who’ve trained in Colombia before need no convincing to travel to the southern hemisphere. Others, like Stetina, see the trip as a chance to cram in a big block of high altitude training and travel to a new place.

Ordoñez, aside from safely getting everyone from the eastern side of the Andes to the west, hopes that the race leaves one lasting impression.

“The main goal will always be for people to change their perception about Colombia, not just the foreigners but the Colombians, too.”

 

 

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