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TransAndes Challenge 2023

Phoenix > Ft Lauderdale > Lima > Santiago > Temuco > Pucon :: 39 hours

Pucon > Santiago > Bogota > Mexico City > Denver :: 28 hours

Total Travel Time :: 67 Hours

Trans Andes 2023 finish time :: 15 hrs 27 minutes.

With a ride-to-travel time multiplier of 4.3 this had better been a damn impressive race.

……it was.

Sitting just over my left shoulder was a volcano. Not the 4th grade science project baking soda monstrosity but a real life, bonafide, steaming volcano towering over the the trail I find myself riding. I cannot appreciate it. I cannot revel in its grandeur. I cannot peel away a single second of focus from the challenge ahead. It’s stage 2 of the 5-day TransAndes Challenge and with the recent, and current, rain the “trail” morphs into a raging river complete with front-wheel-swallowing puddles and slippery death logs that must be ridden to 3 foot drops. Chilean, Brazilian, and Peruvian racers yield to this loco American stealing every bit of speed from the river trail in hopes of advancing through the field. I am locked in. I am smiling widely and squinting narrowly, my Bliz glasses rendered useless hours ago. It’s a snowy March in Denver, CO and I am pressing my luck at terminal velocity down the side of a volcano more than 6,000 miles away from home. THIS is an ADVENTURE!

Growing up in Iowa we were a board game family. Every game. Any game. Some games were filled with laughter and playful arm poking and some ended when either my sister or I tossed the board, complete with pieces, across the room. There were rules and strategies thus the sole reason was to win. At all costs. Most games shared similar traits but a single twist defined their place on our Game Shelf. Operation with its buzzing fail. Scattergories it’s dwindling hourglass. Candyland with a dreaded 3 spaces back card. In the pursuit of glory each game holds the power to crush a player’s soul. Little did I know that decades of game playing, mostly winning but just frequently enough being crushed, prepared me for the Trans Andes Challenge. 5 days of MTB racing in Pucon, Chile. The soul-crushing challenges ahead began early in our trek, so early that by the time I lined up on Day 1, I was simply happy to be there. Hopped up on ibuprofen, CBD, caffeine, and CarboRocket, ready to race an unknown course with unknown foes.

February 23 - A failed 20’ gap jump in Tucson, AZ at the Dawn to Dusk MTB Camp, twice, labored me with bruised ribs and a contusion on my lower back.

February 27 - After a 50-mile road spin in a Phoenix, a hearty meal from Whole Foods’ hot bar woke me at midnight with gut wrenching food poisoning. Bruised ribs and violent vomiting. Perfect match.

March 4 - After eating my first full meal in 3.5 days I awake in my van, parked at long term parking at PHX airport, for a groggy flight to FL. My dwindling supply of Blue Sky CBD helping me stand up and sit down with just-bearable pain.

March 4, 11PM - An overbooked flight rendered my discount-website-Kiwi purchased seat unaccounted for and while Brian continued on to Chile, I spent 2 hours navigating a myriad of decision makers, customs officials, and patient ticket agents to secure another route to Chile. By 3AM I am tucking in for 2 hours of sleep in the Lima, Peru airport.

March 5, 9PM - I arrive at Pucon Green Park Hotel and Event Center, the basecamp for the 2023 TransAndes Challenge. Amir reaches for a hug and I simply shrug him off, offer a fistbump, and ask "which bed is mine?"

Bruised ribs, food poisoning, a nutrient-deficient body, sleep derivation, and an emptied patience reservoir. Could I be more race-ready?!

You thought you came here for a MTB race blog right? Hold on to your britches folks, there was a race, but this isn’t Instagram. This isn’t a highlight reel of transcontinental glory seeking. No, this is reality. The truth behind big, hard, outrageous challenges is that they require big, hard, outrageous amounts of persistence. At any one of the hurdles above I could’ve bagged the event. I could’ve walked away from the 9:30AM start line holding on to a valid reason for “maybe next year”. However, we are our actions. We are what we do, how we spend our time and money, and the energy we emit. We are our choices and I’m an adventurous, endurance MTB racer. So when the race director finished his 10-second countdown on March 7th, I clicked into my pedal, pushed off, and rose my head to the racecourse ahead, emboldened by the National Champion stars and stripes jersey pulled tight across my chest and began Stage 1.

Stage 1

“Holy shit this is hard!” Stage 1 began with a furiously paced dirt road climb to the Cerduo Bike Park situated beneath Volcán Villarrica. My heart rate slams into my throat as I try to hold pace with the lighter, stronger, faster climbers around me. I hug onto each wheel begging my legs to stay engaged. As the trail climbs I see more of the volcano ahead and just as I touch onto black volcanic sand for the first time, the route tilts downhill. Fully armed with weeks of technical descending in Tucson I open my suspension on my new Allied BC40 and toss every bit of caution to the rain soaked wind. Let’s GO!

I pass one. Then another. Then a few more. The steep, challenging sendero forces many riders off their pedals but only emboldens my nerve. I push harder. I launch off rocks without knowing what lies on the other side. I don’t so much as “pick my line” as I simply hold onto the rollercoaster and trust my ability. The first descent ends with a river crossing and I turn uphill with one goal: “Don’t get caught.” Unknown to me at the time, but this would be the trend for the next 4 days. My strengths, technical riding and descending, are only strengths if they do not lose to the weaker elements of my riding: sustained steep climbs. To be fair, I am strong in that area but not nearly as strong as my current competitors. These guys can FLY uphill.

The GPX tracks provided, and uploaded onto my Wahoo, did not offer elevation data so I do not know how much longer I have left on this second climb. Fortunately we follow the same route as lap 1 and as I get to the crux of the climb, a 25° series of switchbacks on eroded dirt roads. Able to hold off the closing group of climbers, I crest the now familiar black volcanic sand hill and am reinvigorated with the memory of the descent to come. Let’s GO!

Faster, cleaner, and with more style I launch another attack on the downhill trail and pick off a few more competitors. While this rain soaked day was not what I had anticipated, as I crossed the finish line of Stage 1 the joy on my face screamed, “That was AWESOME!” I crossed 17th on the day and took the first step on my 2023 quest to be a MTB Stage Racer. Brian met me with a matching level of joy and we pedaled the 6 miles back to our hotel together in complete agreement, racing down volcanos is a blast.

Stage 2

Oh, okay, I see what this is all about. Stage 2 begins like Stage 1, a leg battering 3,000’ climb up the side of the volcano. The “neutral start” should be reclassified as a “shoulder bumping dick measuring contest” as racers bob and weave to get closer to the truck that will shortly blast off ahead indicating the race has begun. 2 miles into the route and the flag drops, the race begins. My heart rate assumes its now-familiar position next to my Adam’s apple and I hang on to the wheel ahead of me, again begging my legs to cooperate. They respond valiantly and I hold nearly 400 watts as we climb further up a combination of dirt and paved roads. Confident that I am fully engaged, that I’m really pushing it, I lower my head and drive uphill. That noise behind me? Must be the wind for at this pace I should be dropping anybody nearby, and yet, it’s not the wind. It’s not the constant rain pelleting the asphalt. It’s the wheels of my competitors. Those climb-loving sadists passing me. Seemingly dancing atop their pedals I ask myself, “where is the motor on their e-assist bikes?!”

Singlespeed Mode Activated. Understanding my measly 400 watt seated climbs won’t get the job done I go to my roots. I ignore that sissy-lever (commonly referred to as a derailleur shifter) and stand up. I lock out my suspension and grunt my way back to the pedal dancers. Bridging to the group took effort, passing them by takes heart. I pour mine out and as we crest the first climb I pass the aid station, put on my bib, grab my fork and knife, and look at the juicy, chunky, rocky downhill ahead. Let’s GO!

Passing one rider, then two, then a third. I holler, “Passar! Passar!” The climb-lovers yield trail and I blindly take each turn, drop, and rock roll as I had Day 1, without abandon. The volcanic sand and rock quickly becomes my favorite trail surface. It grabs when I need to grab and it pushes when I need to surf. As I reach the bottom of the first descent my soul is alit in flames but my skin is frozen. I turn uphill and make a pact with my shivering, rain-soaked bones. “You work hard and you’ll warm up. Deal?” With that I repeat my Day 1 charge of not being passed. With singlespeed mode activated I nearly hold true and only a couple of climb lovers pass. If the first descent was awesome, the second was other-worldly.

The trees streak past in a blur. The water beneath my tires racing me downhill. No longer a trail, our route downhill resembles a river. Deep erosion ruts our routes. We twist, surge, and succumb to the fastest way downhill. At times I am riding on a defined path and others I am simply going where gravity pulls me. Hopping from the left bank to the right, dodging deep puddles of unknown depth, and riding atop logs only to be airbound and weightless as the ground comes back to meet me, I’m fully engaged. I pass another racer. Then 2. Then 3. As I break free from the forest a dirt road opens ahead and with a final click of my shifter I am at maximum velocity. Another racer appears ahead and soon becomes a memory. Banking right onto pavement I blindly drive my pedals forward. 23, 25, and soon 30+ miles per hour. “Where is this finish line?!” Again begging my legs to cooperate I try to hold off the racer who just appeared behind me. We exchange positions as the road exchanges profile. He passes me up and I pass him down. The game of leapfrog becoming the only race I care about. The meters turn to miles and I simply cannot hold on. He pulls away and I come across the finish line just second behind him and 16th on the day. A race representative pulls up their phone for a finish line interview and all I can muster is, “What…gasp, gasp… the heck was that?!…gasp…that was the COOLEST DOWNHILL EVER!”

Stage 3

The big day is here and I couldn’t be more excited for it. I awoke with a nagging cough but shunned the thought aside. With a 100K route on tap for the day with 10,000’ of climbing I am ready to flex my strength. The previous stages were short, roughly 2-2.5 hours of maximum effort, and not in line with my race history. This endurance day may be the route I need to push into the top of the field. Let’s GO!

“Wait a second,” I silently beg the racers around me. “Wait guys, wait, we have a long day ahead. Why are we starting with a maximum sprint up this damn volcano?!” Unable to detach from the energy surrounding me, I succumbed to it, I pump my legs, I hit threshold, and I am once again a sprint-climber. The familiar black sand, the site of the volcano now fully revealed on our first rain-free race day. I exchange the vision of the tire ahead of me with the volcano towering above me. We break from the road and transition to trail. We cross the river that we descended on stage 1 and finally enjoy some technical, uphill trail racing. Having fully shown the weakness in my race game to my competitors, it felt good to finally see theirs. The furious pace they hold on the road climbs must be their limit because once on technical trail the fall, one by one, off my rear wheel. I have the power to boost over a section of roots, a slab of rock, or through a twisty rock garden and they slow down. The climb brings us to a familiar crest where we again drop into the descent we learned on Stage 1. This route turns away from the known onto a new trail. I romp over the familiar rock drops and wheel pinching twists renewed by each whoop and holler. I see the photographers ahead and know there must be something special. Just as I scream past their lenses I splash through a river crossing and thrust my shifter into it’s easiest position. The wall ahead of me looks steep.

Back to the uphills. Back to the grinds. The next hour is spent rolling uphill on a seemingly endless quest to reach the moon. Again, without data on my screen, I blindly climb and exchange between seated climbing and my singlespeed, standing efforts. Behind me a familiar face appears. Aubrey Clark, a pro racer from Australia, bridges and we share conversation. Just as we finish our exchange of “must do races” we crest the hill and turn downhill on a furiously fast logging road. As Aubrey pulls away, man he can go down fast, I try my damndest to enjoy the descent but am pulled back into reality as I remember that this section of the course is an out and back. This is going to be hellacious to climb back up!

Flaggers at each intersection direct us racers through fields, suspension bridge crossings, and brief bits of pavement as we surge forward to the sole aid station. Positioned at the base of a lollipop, we’ll see this aid station twice. The group of racers I packed up with on the road sections stop to refuel and I simply grab a granola bar and banana with only the slightest stop. If I can’t drop them on the climbs I must make up ground every way possible.

Each night the race director goes through the next day’s course in detail at the racer meeting. On the first night he made it a point to exchange between Spanish and English directions. By the time we got to Stage 3’s explanation nearly all of it came in Spanish. I capture about 30% of what he says but as I pedaled up the dirt road after the aid station I remembered clearly him mentioning that this next climb offered up a section of 30° switchbacks. So while I blindly battled the racers who continued to leapfrog me I waited in anticipation for these steep turns. …and I waited. “Where the heck are they?!” Reunited with Aubrey, he and I battled to pull away from the group of 6 we’d been exchanging position with and as we reached these fabled switchbacks I locked, once again, into Singlespeed Mode and vowed to push my quads and calves to the brink. Aubrey faded behind and I pulled away with my gutsy commitment to blow out my legs. Losing position to a couple climb-lovers I crested and again turned downhill, ready to flex my prowess!

Where did it go?! Where was my “attack the trail” attitude? I looked down and both brake levers are pulled tight. The descent is so steep that I am cooking my brake pads and rotors as I navigate a freshly cut in bit of trail. With my hands cramping and my confidence waning I simply let go. I let go of the brakes, of the tension, and of the doubt. I let the bike do its job and soon passed the two racers ahead. Then a 3rd. I reassumed my position out in front and fought valiantly back to the aid station. Another granola bar wolfed and a small cup of coke swooshed and I’m back on the suspension bridge.

“Don’t. Check. The GPS.” If I offer one piece of tangible advice in this wordy tale it’s this: Don’t check your stats when you’re tired. The mileage will never be as high as you hoped, the elevation gain as close to the maximum as you desire, or the finish as near as your dream. Nope. So, knowing this, I check my stats, and confirm I am a better teller than I am a doer. Dammit. However, I am just maniacal enough to know how to shun negative thoughts, and I have the tools ready… caffeine. A swig of my caffeine bolstered CarboRocket and I push on toward that logging road excited to be reminded how much more fun things are downhill than up.

Without any gears left, I granny grind up the road. A couple racers catch me. I catch a couple more. We grunt, wind, pant, and climb our way through the forest. I forget how long the road is. I forget how many rolling hills exist on the other side. I forget how many miles we have left to go. I forget everything except the effort directly in front of me. My brief bout of amnesia melts away to reality only when I splash through the river crossing from hours earlier. “Oh, downhill, I love you so.” Back to the original route of Stage 1’s downhill I drive forward tracking down the climb-lovers. 1, 2, and then 3 of them yield my passage. I ignore the clean line and simply launch through the rock garden descent and back on terra firma I pump across the finish line timing mat ending a nearly 6 hour effort. I cycle through my data, learning it is 3:14PM and I only have 46 minutes to get back to the hotel, showered, and to my 4PM daily massage. Let’s GO!

Stage 4

The race director highlighted 2 critical notes on the Stage 4 racer meeting. 1, we would be leaving the hotel at 8AM for a 45 minute ride to the Stage 4 start line. 2, our bikes needed to be loaded the evening prior onto the transport trucks out front. The rest of his directions, in Spanish, told about the course. I blocked out most of what he said and simply memorized the elevation chart. We’d start out on a steep road climb that evolved into a steep single track climb. The route turns downhill to a lake nestled in the valley and a rolling series of hills to the finish. Got it.

The long route on the previous stage helped tamp down the neutral start posturing and we had a pleasant pedal out of the small town of Curarrehue. The local dog gang followed us out of town and took turns threatening the flesh of us riders in the front. Just as the pace truck flag dropped, so too did the hammer. My in-the-fire learning of Stage Race Tactics 101 is making one thing very clear: you better be ready to go every day, like it’s your first day. I pushed my hardest to maintain position at the front but as has become common I lose a few places as the road climbs steeper and longer.

45 minutes later the route turns to single track and I relish the opportunity to gain back a few places and put some distance on the road-climb-lovers. Alternating between granny gear grinds and hike-a-bike sections around fallen trees, we finally top out and I get a taste of real backcountry, single track descending. Knowing I have an advantage over most of the racers on this terrain I keep my eyes 15’ ahead and pump all the speed possible out of the trail. Astonishingly another racer is holding my wheel the entire time. He and I mimic each others hoots and hollers. By the time we reach the mythical lake we’ve bonded. Downhill Brothers. My bumbling Spanish cannot accurately relate how much fun I had sharing the trail with him so instead I extend my gratitude by driving my pedals even harder onto the next section. “How fast can we go?” Becoming my way of saying, “Thanks for riding with me bro!”

And then…more climbing. The race director made it clear, the route back would challenge our already challenged legs. Go figure, he was correct. I tried. I really did. I pushed hard but I am dog tired. Singlespeed Mode is working but not the superpower it was on the previous 3 days. My newly formed downhill friend and I urge each other on with exchanges off the front. I snag a cup of Coca Cola from an aid station volunteer at full speed and we knuckle down for the final few miles. I knew the finish line was close when my new friend took the rear position for a stretch and then slingshot alongside me on a downhill. He disappeared and I understood I’d been had. Chuckling, I tucked in behind my handlebars and rode out the final bit of road to the finish line.

My position in the field is pretty stable. 16th overall and 4th in the Pro Men division. I’m far enough off 3rd place that only a catastrophic event would push me onto the podium. While this would have been a disappointing reality a few days ago, at this point in the event, with all of the hurdles I’d navigated in getting here, I’m okay. I’m truly okay with how this has played out. My goal in transitioning from Endurance XC Singlespeed Racing to Geared Stage Racing was to be challenged in a new way that inspired new skill development. I got what I asked for. As my annoying cough blossoms into a true cold, I bunk down early for the night genuinely excited for the final stage. It’s setting up to be a Chilean standard. A steep, 4,000’ road climb lasting 13 miles and an equally steep 6 mile descent to the finish line.

Stage 5

The downhill. That’s all I want to share. The absolutely badass, made-for-me, grab on to your nuts downhill. So. BAD. ASS. If I only have one more bike ride left in me, let it be the downhill that defined Stage 5.

The climb sucked. The position posturing on the neutral rollout was comically bad. When I looked down at my data and saw that I was holding 387 watts and still being passed I simply shrugged. I teamed up with some new Chilean friends to pump up the paved hills. I expertly navigated around 3 racers on the technical singletrack climb that broke up the two road climb sections. I held off a bridge attack on the final climb using my Singlespeed Mode and broke onto the descent with blue sky ahead.

Then it happened. That smile. That “Holy shit I’m in Chile, and this is a volcano, and this is so cool, and this is what I love about this sport, and this is why I risk it all to come here, and this is what I’m meant to do and this is worth every bit of sacrifice and heartache, and THIS IS LIVING!” smile. It spread across my face, through my veins, and coursed throughout my body like the lava beneath my tires did eons ago. I blindly hopped and jumped. I passed him, and him, and him, but didn’t see them. I didn’t see the race. I didn’t focus on the blue ribbons indicating our route. I just felt it. I felt the energy pulling me from the top of the volcano to the future below and I rode its arc. Crossing the finish line, 13th for the day, I found myself surrounded by my people. Mountain Bikers. Stage Racers. Fast summabitches. I admired Brian’s genuine content and pride in his effort. He won his age group and finished 2nd overall, absolutely crushing the event and labeling himself a champion in this sport. I shared a high five and a hug with Mackey who won the event and may be one of the warmest racers I’ve ever met. The group at the finish line battled for positions over 5 days, 187 miles, and 30,000’ of elevation gain, but now, at the end, we’re a group of smiles hanging out on a volcano. Whoa. What else can we do?

Let’s GO!

The travel was long. The racing was short by comparison. The glue between the two was the event. Situated in beautiful Pucon, Chile we had breakfast, lunch, and dinners provided at the hotel. We were a few hundred MTBers gobbling down every carbohydrate we could get our hands on and our hands were never empty. Amir, Brian, and I came down together and found our group swell with Syd and Mackey and Lo and Jo. We hung out with John, a former 2x National Champion, who shunned the recommendations of 4 doctor’s for the recommendation of the 5th. The last doctor told him to live his life and not let the Stage 4 diagnosis of bladder cancer keep him from pursuing his passion. So he finished the race, at his pace, a champion amongst champions. The father and son duo from British Colombia who do an event like this together each year, in their goofy matching button ups. The people. The racers, the volunteers, the hotel staff, and the traditional Chilean dancers providing nightly entertainment, they all make up this experience. For all of the things in our lives we value, it's the feeling of belongingness that cures over the course of 5 days that overwhelms me. Just before I started down to Chile I finished a book where a character said, “you can lose money, things, and people, but you can never un-live an experience. Nothing can take those away from you.” So true are her words.

2023 TransAndes Challenge

4th Place Pro Men

16th Overall

Brian Elander 1st Place 19-29 :: 2nd Overall

Amir Matityahu 1st Place Stage 2, 2nd Place Stage 1, 3rd Place Stage 3 & 4. Catastrophic rim failure on Stage 5 for 4th Place Master's, Overall.

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