A good friend recently told me this joke: “What’s a gravel racer’s favorite type of road?” “One that’s paved.” The racers of the second edition of the Across Andes Ultracycling Race, held November 28 to December 4, 2021, were challenged by a route that traveled through remote Chilean forests, rolling farmland, and seaside villages. Though almost half of the 1,017 kilometers were paved, the larger portion consisted of gravel roads in their most authentic form. These were not fast-rolling hardpacked dirt roads. These were not seldom-used backwoods byways covered with a soft coating of fallen leaves. These were raw, rough roads made of a volcanic silty bed surface mixed with loose, hard-edged rocks and used daily by residents to commute to school and work, farmers moving animals and machinery, and logging trucks hauling massive payloads. Each time a slow, chundery, dusty, gravel road spit me out onto sweet, smooth, silent pavement, I rejoiced. The joke was true.
It didn’t matter where you were on the figure-8 route that circumnavigated Chile’s Araucania region, the gravel road consistency was the same. Alpine highlands surrounding the Llaima volcano and Conguillio National Park, dotted with the Araucaria (Monkey Puzzle) trees provided the same challenging gravel surface as the lush, rolling cattle pastures near Panguipulli. There were about three places throughout the whole race where smooth dirt soothed the soul for several hundred yards before the familiar rock-pinging chatter began again. And, what bikepacking race would be complete without a seaside sandy pit of doom? The respite of walking the bike through the blown beach sand while the waves of the Pacific crashed nearby was brief, but welcomed by my palms, which had been battered by my brake hoods.
Though the pavement offered free miles, speed, recovery, and relief, these are not the pedal strokes I remember most. These are not the miles that made the race, at least not for me. But the high percentage of pavement did cause many of us to choose to ride gravel bikes over mountain bikes, narrower tires chosen over maximum width, discomfort over damping. Yet if the gravel roads were buttery smooth, if you could simply put your head down and push your tallest gear through the lowlands, if you had the traction to crank through all of the 15,000 meters of climbing, and if the wildly curvy, steep descents had been anything but loose and drifty, this race would have been incredibly fast and not nearly as epic.
As it was, Chile’s Timothy Ruedlinger took the overall and solo male win in just 67 hours and 45 minutes, averaging about 15 km/h on his Felt gravel bike. Meanwhile, Sonia Colomo, the female winner of Spain’s Badlands bikepacking race, rode her hardtail Megamo mountain bike. It wasn’t so much the terrain that dictated her choice, but more her comfort level on that bike. While many a rider gave her the side eye at the start, jealousy of her front suspension and wider tires quickly surfaced. She ratcheted up her pace throughout the course, finishing first for the solo female racers at 82 hours and 39 minutes.
Across Andes, in comparison to some other remote international ultraraces, hosted a significant number of local racers. Of the 97 riders to depart from the race basecamp at the Los Pioneros Resort in Melipeuco, 75 were Chilean. Many of these racers hadn’t yet competed in a multi-day self-supported race, so Across Andes provided a uniquely accessible opportunity to try an ultra. Twelve women raced, including five in the solo category. Other countries represented included the USA, Mexico, Spain, Russia, Peru, France, Colombia, Argentina, Brazil, and Belgium. All in, 53 racers completed the entire course, which is pretty impressive considering many competitors’ lack of experience.
It may be because my palms have just now begun to heal, or because I still can’t feel my fingertips, but as you may have noticed, I can’t stop dwelling on the fact that Chilean gravel is rough. It’s what made this race unique beyond the landscape and what posed the greatest challenges for experienced and rookie racers alike. It’s the gravel, the grit, the dust that I remember most clearly from my 100+ hours on the course, even if I could barely see through it at the time. And, though many of the local racers knew each other already, and despite the fact that my Spanish hovers at a kindergarten level, this bikepacking family proved exceptionally welcoming and enthusiastic. Will the 2022 Across Andes see more mountain bikes and fatter gravel tires at the start line? Most definitely. Will the riders, regardless of bike choice, still be treated to epic views, and incredible challenge, and unparalleled camaraderie? Absolutely.
2021 Across Andes Solo Results
- 1st Women: Sònia Colomo (82h 39m)
- 2nd Women: Jackie Baker (102h 0m)
- 3rd Women: Susan Barraza (144h 24m)
- 1st Men: Timothy Ruedlinger (67h 45m)
- 2nd Men: Sebastián Miranda (70h 28m)
- 3rd Men: Ignacio Pellejero (76h 7m)
- 1st Double: Julen Gallastegui / Ivars Grimbers (83h 17m)
- 2nd Double: Pia Sanhueza / Alfredo Irarrazaval (97h 51m)
- 3rd Double: Alejandro Gutiérrez / Rodrigo Aguirrebengoa (104h 14m)
The 2022 Across Andes is already scheduled (and sold out) for November 27th. Head over to AcrossAndes.cc to learn more.
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