Back for more of the ‘agony across the Andes’ are Dutchmen Laurens ten Dam and Thomas Dekker, who punched their tickets for the non-stop category of the 2024 Transcordilleras Rally Colombia.
Affectionately referred to by organisers as ‘the godfather of gravel, Ten Dam returns for a third time to Transcordilleras. He finished second to winner Peter Stetina in the eight-day stage race in 2022, then won the overall last year.
Transcordilleras is a stage race, an endurance test and a bikepacking adventure rolled into one across 985km of the three ranges of the Andes mountains in Colombia, which begins February 11. Returning for the eight-day, self-supported stage race that concludes on February 18 are top Colombians Antonio Donado Calle, who was second overall last year, and Brayan Chaves Rubio, third overall.
Marcelo Gutierrez, Colombian mountain bike national champion and downhill legend, will also be hoping for a better year after a late DNF in 2023 following a crash and resulting fractured clavicle that ended his week in the last 10km from the finish line on stage 8.
US-based newcomers for the eight days of racing include Russell Finsterwald, who won Big Sugar Gravel in 2022, Whitney Allison, who was second overall at the 2023 Belgian Waffle Ride Quadrupel Crown, and Griffin Easter, who was third at Rebecca’s Private Idaho last year and on the road won the queen stage of the 2017 La Vuelta a Colombia.
On the start for the non-stop category is Canadian road veteran Rob Britton, last year’s Belgian Waffle Ride British Columbia winner with top 10s at SBT GRVL and BWR California.
The full version of nearly 1,000 kilometres takes in a staggering 23,650 metres of elevation gain, most of it on remote dirt roads and washed-out gullies. Category winners will be recognised in Santa Fé de Antioquia for the top individual men and women, as well as two-rider teams, composed of one woman and one man.
For the week of suffering, organisers provide a navigation device with live tracking and overnight accommodations each night. Participants must carry their own supplies, from bike repairs to apparel and nutrition.
It can be a daunting week, but Finsterwald said it was all about “respect the terrain, embrace the altitude, and just keep pedalling”.
“I’m mostly excited for a new type of challenge and look at this race as a great way to build some fitness for the upcoming race season as well as a way to test out some of the new equipment I’m riding in 2024,” he said, adding that his biggest challenge before hitting the altitude was selecting “which creature comforts have to come and which ones have to stay home”.
For Allison, it is not only her first time riding Transcordilleras, but her first time in South America. She’s done a lot of gravel racing since moving from road racing after 2019, and is eager to take use the heavy volume of gravel riding to set a solid base for a big US calendar, which starts in a March with Belgian Waffle Ride Arizona and Mid South.
“I think what is going to be the most interesting is knowing women tend to not have as great recovery as men, and that repeatability over eight days. It’s a tremendous amount of volume,” Allison told Cyclingnews.
“So for me, it’s also serving as a second training camp. The majority of my season is comprised of one-day gravel races. I’m definitely gonna go as hard as possible, but with the idea that it’s eight days, so I’m not entirely sure what that looks like.”
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In 2022 only 12 riders took on the non-stop bikepacking effort, and this year the number almost tripled to 30 individuals, three of them women.
This time Ten Dam opted for the non-stop category, joined by fellow Dutchman Thomas Dekker. Former teammates at Rabobank, the two have combined for 30 years in the pro road peloton, both moving to pave the path with off-road adventure cycling for the past four years.
“I decided to do Transcordilleras non-stop instead of the eight days like last year because of training for Tour Divide. I want to put myself in certain situations where you can’t plan.”
Ten Dam plans to take on the multi-day Tour Divide following another Gravel Locos-Unbound Gravel doubleheader in the US. He also has an assortment of global events on his calendar including his LtD Gravel Fest (April 27) and another opportunity for UCI Gravel World Championships (October 6).
The preparation for his endurance rides goes back to 2020, he recounted, at the Tour of the Pyrenees, and, most recently completed the 450km Further Elements in Scotland, a 24-hour race in October, with Dekker. He was ‘sort of experienced’ for the non-stop, do-it-yourself ride, and remembered mainly what not to do.
“I made so many mistakes. I was on my gravel bike with 38cc tyres, I took a shitload of stuff because I was used to bikepacking with my dad,” he said with a laugh.
“You know, I just love riding my bike in the mountains. And it really brings me back to my memories of me with with my dad bikepacking, exploring the world. Back in October [Scotland], I noticed I’m not afraid in the night. That was a 24-hour race and I couldn’t sleep at all, but here I aim to sleep in order to keep it fun. I don’t like sleep deprivation part of the ultra cycling.”
He built his Tour Divide set up at home in his garage, a Specialized S-works Epic with World Cup full suspension and Shimano 12-speed, no Di2, and “the heaviest tyres I could find, because I hate flat tyres”, plus aerobars, lights, a Purepower nutrition in various bags. It was ready for a maiden voyage at Transcordilleras.
“In terms of nutrition, you just eat whatever you can find on the trail. I’ve done this race already two times, the eight-day stage, and here in Colombia you can find food. I am not ready to bonk too much. There are gas stations and small shops in every town,” he said. “I try to keep it smart and keep it fun and enjoying Colombia again.”
He said he’d try to get two or three nights of sleep, using the ‘Lachlan system’ of six hours off and 18 hours on, which he wants to replicate at Tour Divide. Last August, Lachlan Morton completed the 2,670-mile Tour Divide route – from Banff in Canada’s Rocky Mountains to Antelope Wells in New Mexico – in an unofficial new fastest known time for a self-supported rider in 12 days, 12 hours and 21 minutes. To reduce sleep deprivation, Morton used a formula of 12 hours of sleep for every 48 hours, and called it a game changer in his endurance feat.