29 April 2021
8 days. 1.100-kilometres. 25.000-metres of climbing. From Yopal to Santafé de Antioquia across the Colombian Andes. How hard could it be? Turns out very. Especially when you underestimate the challenge, like Laurens ten Dam did, before he got the low down (and the fright of his life) from The Angel, Mauricio Ortez.
Stage 1 was almost done. I was second behind Peter Stetina, my fellow gravel pro from the States. I was racing and I just didn’t want to get off my bike again! I didn’t want to get off and push it up another Colombian hill, fully loaded. So, I persisted on the pedals. With the last of my powers, I tried to make it work; grinding the 31 x 34.
Oh, if only I would have brought a 40 sprocket! It would have taken an hour or so to get it on the bike. In a manner probably not entirely as advised by Shimano, but at least I would have had extra gears. But no, last week, I was convinced I would easily conquer those steep Colombian mountains, in thin air, using the 31 x 34. Boy, was I wrong?!
So, I continued pushing the pedals onwards and barely making ground upwards on the 25% gradient goat track. Then, while applying maximum force, my rear wheel slipped and I couldn’t get out of my pedal fast enough. Just like an amateur at the first traffic light, I fell on the ground, in slow motion.
Cramp struck my left foot immediately. All I could do was sit on the ground, stretching it out, While, nursing my cramp I overthought my choices in life. How did I end up here, on Colombian rocks, sitting on my ass at 3000 metres above sea level?
We would have to go back to May last year, during my American adventure. I had just won Gravellocos when their Colombian camera-man came up to me and said: ‘’Laurens, I know you are about to do a 4-day race in Kenya, at high altitude this year (see Kokoto), but did you know that we have a similar challenge in Colombia? This bikepacking race takes you over three of the Andes’ mountain ranges, from east to west. It’s 1 100 kilometers long with 25 000 meters of altitude gain. You get 8 days to finish it. Our last winner was Mauricio Ardilla.”
When he said “three mountain ranges’’, I was intrigued. Moral was high that weekend and, let’s be honest, how bad could it be? When he added the name “Mauricio Ardilla”, he had me. I keep a fond memory of our time as riders for team Rabobank, between 2008 and 2010, helping Menchov to his Giro d’Italia victory. I could definitely see us conquering the Cordilleras of Colombia. The deal was made and I would be there to race it in 2022.
Thomas Dekker, also a former teammate of Ardilla in 2008, and Hossel Dennis, my business companion, love a little adventure too. After our trip to Kenya and the experience of racing on high altitude gravel, we were not afraid. Registration was done, we booked our flights, arranged our bikes and off we went.
Preparation is everything. So, two weeks before the race would start, I flew to Colombia to get used to the altitude. Jumbo-Visma’s Tom Dumoulin and Koen Bouwman had invited me to stay with them and train together. This old guy was flattered; I immediately accepted the invitation. An old school training camp: train, eat, sleep and having fun along the way.
During that trip, I met the organizer and first winner of the TRANSCORDILLERAS race, Mauricio Ortez. His nickname, ‘the Angel’, is no joke. He arranged everything for me and the boys. A new house to stay in, when the first one was impossible to get to by car, info on the best places to eat and all the covid-tests we needed. And he told me the ins and outs of the race, which is when something became very clear to me…
When you say it very quickly, 25 000 meters of accumulated altitude gain seems okay. But when you stop to think… on a gravel bike, over 8 days, it is an immense challenge. The parcour crosses several peaks over 4 000 meters above sea level. The Angel explained to me, that self-supported in TRANSCORDILLERAS, actually means self-supported. No clean outfits and no refreshments at the finish. No ‘Clif Bloks’ given to you during the race. No water bottles. But also, no mechanics making sure your bike is race ready again the next morning. You had to do it all by yourself. From the start until the finish on day 8, you had to take care of everything yourself. You were allowed to leave a 5-kilogram bag in the van, which you would see again 8 days later.
Time was stopped after the finish of every stage, and then the fun could start. Clean and prep the bike, wash your clothes and make sure they dry, get dinner, somewhere, buy snacks for the next day’s racing, sleep and get breakfast, somewhere. For me, Mauricio’s nickname was turning slowly from Angel to Devil. At least until the moment he assured me that we weren’t going to die in the Colombian jungle. Our GPS trackers would make sure we didn’t. That was a big relief!
So here I was, on my ass, Day 1, looking for the courage to get up again and push my Diverge, with all the bags up the hilly road. I must not complain, I repeated to myself. If I was to complain about it, being second in the stage and all, how would the rest feel? Thomas? Hossel? Last time I saw my mates was five hours ago, when Peter, me and a bunch of fast Colombians accelerated on the first climb of the stage.
Of course, I continued. I had no choice, really. It was me who had registered for this race, nobody had forced me. Eventually I arrived, after 8 hours of hard labour, in Mongui, a small mountain village. Dead tired, but the first daily routine was awaiting me. Food had to be poured in this empty body as soon as possible, the bike needed attention and my only set of clothes was filthy. This routine, after every stage, became a sort of mantra. But luckily for me, the Colombian people were really nice to us. They hurried to make me a hot plate of rice, veggies and chicken within 10 minutes after the finish. I was allowed to wash my bike at the same spot where the plates were washed and the lady of the hotel insisted on washing my clothes. She then lit the fire in our room and our jerseys were dry again in no time.
Speaking of hotels, you have to book them yourself. After registration and paying the fee of 350 Euros, you’re are given an old-fashioned tour book, including a list of hotel suggestions. Prices vary between 10 and 40 Euros per night, but only in the bigger cities you can book the more expensive hotels. A full tummy will cost you about 3 to 4 Euros. All told, it doesn’t cost that to suffer for a whole week…
I say suffer, and don’t get me wrong, crossing the Andes is a bit more of a challenge than traversing the Eifel, but luckily it didn’t get as bad again as it got the first stage. I got out of bed on the second morning, broken and a bit afraid of what the stage would bring. During breakfast I heard stories of people getting rescued at 1 o’clock in the morning from the Stage 1 parcour. What would the rest of this week be like?
But in this second stage, the famous BOYACA gravel was served up. It’s the finest gravel in Colombia and reduced the amount of back pain I suffered immediately. We finished lower than we had started too, which helped me to a respectable 26,5 km/h average. Much better than the 15 km/h of Day 1. And that was just me, ending in second place…
There was a nice flow to the race week. Yes, there were really heavy stages; like for instance Day 4, when the heat was also taking a toll on the participants. But after a hard stage, there was always a stage that ended at a lower altitude.
The thing that stayed at the same level, regardless of how high we climbed or how low we descended, all week? The helpfulness of the Colombian people. In every town, we were welcomed as kings and queens. Sometimes there was a local bike shop, where they would fix your bike. Or the boys at the car wash took care of my bike, wax polish included. I sometimes had to wash my clothes under the shower, when there was no washing machine at the hotel. Drying the clothes was the biggest post-stage challenge. You can imagine the joy when I discovered that you can actually dry your clothes in a micro-wave. This produces a dry chamois in 5 minutes! Just don’t over cook it.
When it’s just you and your bike for a whole week the smallest revelations, like the microwave trick, can make you so happy. That, for me, was the beauty of this experience. It’s remarkable how little stuff you need to bring with you and the challenge it produces, of getting through the week with only the items you can carry on your bike. For me, and my 55 fellow racers, having warm food after each day, a lukewarm shower and a bed of warm blankets was all we needed.
What I needed was a week of training, at altitude, to be ready for the upcoming gravel season. Well, I certainly got what I hoped for. I broke my all-time training load in one week record, by a massive 8 hours. My previous best was 37 hours in the first week of the 2009 Giro. This week in Colombia I raced for more than 45 hours, which goes to show how much of an effort this was. I admire my fellow participants, showing the perseverance they did. Some of them literally came in at 10pm every night. And then they had to go through the same routine as I did in the afternoon. Get food, fix their bike, clean and dry clothes, plus get some sleep.
The Colombian people are so resilient too! I have learned so much from them. They have a solution for everything and they don’t worry about it. In retrospect, I now understand the way Mauricio Ardillo behaved 12 years ago, when we were racing together. He never worried about the next day. Here in TRANSCORDILLERAS, I was often preoccupied with breakfast time and the early start of the stage, sometimes as early as 7am. Whereas nobody from the organization was. And if there was a minor problem, we had left-over rice from the night before. Problem solved.
I could really enjoy the final days of the race. Day 7 was a fast one, on tarmac, which allowed the back and arms to have some rest. The last stage was a short one, with 3 000 meters of descent and only 1500 meters of climbing. This way, everybody was back in time to celebrate at the finisher’s party. And I have seen my share of finishers parties. From sad conference rooms in Paris to big nightclubs. But this one was the best!
The organisers had rented a beautiful mansion, with a pool, there was pizza and cold beer. Every participant was asked to go on stage and got an applause. And rightfully so. Whoever finishes this race, gets respect. Conversations kept on going till late, there were 55 stories to tell after-all.
I recognized a feeling I always seem to get after these parties. An empty feeling, a bit depressed even. I know where it comes from. I had experienced an intense week, with no room for resting. After exhausting rides, you were already in a hurry preparing for the next day. And now, there was nothing, a big empty space. What to do next? I don’t have to do anything. And so, you wake up at 4 o’clock in the morning the next day and you can’t sleep anymore. I switched my bed for a hammock in the garden and thought about the whole week. Finally, my brain had time to digest. There was a week, with two months’ worth of impressions, ready to be organized.
The empty feeling was soon gone. When I got home to face normal life’s deadlines and business meetings. But it doesn’t mean I’m not still reflecting on the race. It was the real deal for me. The intensity, the long stages, the minimum of comfort. Maybe, it even resembled the really old days of cycling. When the general classification was counted in minutes, not seconds, and was pointed out with no greater technology than the clock on the church tour.
As in those grand tours of years gone by, groups of riders raided local bars to get snacks and water. Everything you have to fix any problem with your bike is in your bag, on your bike. If you are in for the complete “pre-war cyclist’s experience”, register for next year’s race. Maybe I will see you in Colombia, because I am definitely going back. But don’t say I didn’t warn you. TRANSCORDILLERAS is no walk in the park.
Is packing-stress, familiar to you? The last days before this adventure it consumed me. And this time, it was the normal pre-race stress times ten. Everything I packed had to pass the two golden rules of the Angel. Rule number one: is it light enough? Again, every gram counts when you have to climb that much. And rule number two: make sure to keep your bike intact. All my personal comforts were thrown out of the bag again. Even our diva, Thomas, wore the same shirt 8 days straight, but he did bring that extra inner tube. See the packing list for the complete set-up including weights.
Check out my complete collection page on Komoot, dedicated to Transcordilleras 2022, including the 8 stages, highlights, altitude levels and much more.