Owen Vermeulen Race Recap: Trans Cordilleras

Owen Vermeulen Race Recap: Trans Cordilleras

We started our descent from 2700 meters altitude into the Chicamocha Canyon, dropping down the loosest, chunkiest "gravel".  My hands and arms already numb only one quarter way into the descent to the pit of the canyon at 400 meters. I came to a halt stopping to see a friend who had crashed halfway down, covered in blood. He was in a bad way. I stayed with him briefly till help arrived then I got on my way.  Only halfway through stage 1 the beautiful but brutal terrain had already claimed its first victim. It would definitely not be its last. 

My end almost came shortly after.  At the bottom of the canyon while stopping for water my bike had fallen on the drive side. I re-mounted not knowing that my rear derailleur hanger was cracked. At the bottom of the canyon with temperatures reaching 48/49 degrees Celsius.   I needed my weak mechanical skills to solve this issue and get moving again before the heat took its toll.  I then realized I had accidentally packed the derailleur hanger for my Canyon Grail, not my Canyon Grizl. A big rookie mistake that would cost me my attempt for a good general classification result, and almost ended my race entirely. So after too long in the bottom of the canyon in scorching heat it was now time to ascend the 2200 meters back out of the canyon on some of the loosest unpredictable terrain imaginable, without my top 2 climbing gears. Needless to say, the climb took its toll, forcing many people, me included, to hike a bike the 20/25 percent steep sections exposed to the unbearable heat. Having not done heat adaptation like I did last year and using this event as a third week in a very difficult 3-week training block at altitude, stage one completely cracked me. Did I bite off more than I could chew?  Did I train too hard in Medellin these last two weeks? Did I not do enough training at home before I got here? These are questions and worries that ran through my mind.  The answers would come out on the gravel roads day by day.

For those unfamiliar with Tran Cordilleras, it is a 8 day bikepacking stage race. Which means it is self-supported.  You need to pack everything you need for the whole eight days on and off the bike but with hotels every night. So basically, bikepacking setup minus sleeping and cooking gear. This year's race was 1030 kilometers with 23,000 meters of elevation gain. Racers get quite particular on what to sacrifice bringing to keep the weight of the bike low up such steep loose terrain and long gravel climbs. It is such a unique event in that way as it combines bikepacking, stage racing, and all-out gravel racing. It is basically like doing an extremely hard gravel race every day for 8 days but whilst carrying bags of gear and getting your own snacks and water. The hotels accommodate all the racers, which results in a unique community and connection between racers and is a huge part of the event. Experiencing new towns with fellow racers and participants looking for the adventure of a lifetime. Enjoying dinners/breakfasts and chatting and hearing about each other's experience every day is something extra special. Lifelong bonds are created here. It really does embrace the "spirit of gravel". 

The race route changes every year, crossing the Cordilleras de los Andes from different directions to take in new parts of the country every year. When I did it last year, we went across the largest paramo in the world (the Paramo de Sumapaz) inpouring rain at 4000 meters above sea level on stage 7. Like I mentioned, this year we went through the second largest canyon in the world at the highest temperatures imaginable. So, each year has its element of difficulty beyond the race parkour, loose unpredictable terrain, and amount of climbing meters. Last year was the high altitude racing above 3000 meters most days. This year was the heat with temperatures of 35-50 degrees Celsius, depending on the altitude. We crossed the Magdalena River which has such a storied history in Colombia as it was the main trading river that ran completely through the entire country. Being able to see these incredible landmarks and learn the history of the country and culture is a great addition to the whole experience. 

On stage 3, thankfully the last stage on my minimal gearing, I enjoyed a fun day riding with former world champion, Olympic gold medal winner, and absolute legend, Annemiek Van Vlueten. This was a great day of no stress and knowing it was a long and difficult day.  Whilst still having fun, despite my mechanical limits, riding with Annemiek made my day.  Stopping for drinks, enjoying great company, and hearing awesome stories from her life as the most dominant rider in the women's pro peloton was something I (or many others) would never think I would have chance of doing. My morale from my mechanical limits was lifted from her excellent and unexpected company. The opportunities to interact with great people are what make a long and attritional course like Trans Cordilleras so great day in and day out. 

About midway through the race, I was approached by a young Dutch guardian angel by the name of Twan Altorf.  Until his point my derailleur hanger situation had forced me to race conservatively.  Twan knew I needed a new hanger and was kind enough to give me his spare.  This completely lifted my spirits and changed my race entirely. I hope I conveyed how grateful I was. With the queen stage coming up at 165km and 4300 meters of elevation gain I needed all my gears and all the luck. That was exactly what happened, with newfound motivation and watts on the queen stage I was able to attack about 60km into the race on a short rise knowing we had a left turn that would take us up a very long gravel climb. I was joined with former retired road pro Coulten.  We got a gap but were later reeled in by the chasers which was the remainder of the front group of about 10 or so riders.  I was able to keep in contact but got dropped off the back with friend, world cup MTB’s and downhiller Marcelo Gutirez.  We had raced last year's event together, so we worked very well together to stay in reach of the lead group. The final ascent of 1300 meters about 18km long was exposed and the heat forced me to stop for water therefore losing touch completely and rolling at a respectable 7th or 8th place. 

 While the first half of the race might have been easier, the conservative pace I was forced to maintain exposed me to a lot more time and heat.  My bike and shifting were now working properly, ironically setting me up to have my best days on the hardest stages.   Being able to race full gas with no distractions and having no suspension on such chunky gnarly terrain I was grateful for my Spinergy GXX wheels as I could confidently descend the brutal racetracks without fear of cracking a rim or breaking a spoke. It felt good to be towards the front of the bike race again. These were some of the hardest days racing I have had on a bike. On stage 8, the final stage. O the race profile looked flat, but as it sits beside towering climbs 20+ kilometers long it was not flat at all. Rolling roads was what we had in store and with racers fighting to solidify their overall positions or make up positions it was an all-out attacking road race. My friend and fellow Spinergy rider, Brayan Chaves started off with a flurry of attacks trying to make up minutes that would jump him from fourth to the podium.  I had concern for my good friend, roommate throughout the race, and fellow OpiCure/Spinergy rider and overall GC leader, Griffin Easter. He had not yet won a stage despite having a very comfortable lead in the overall General Classification. So as much as I did not enjoy chasing my friend Brayan down, after every attack, I needed to bring him back so I could at least try to help Griffin be in a good position to take the stage win. I had people coming up to me asking why I was chasing down my friend Brayan (sorry buddy). I had to stick to my guns and not let him get away.  I knew from his performance and stage one win that he had the speed and power to stay away. The rolling roads did not do him any favors and it all came back together time and time again.  Finaly a small group of five got away with Griffin in it. I was able to sit up (not that I even had the legs left to follow, haha) and enjoy a spectacular final day of racing with a good, really fast chasing group.  The stage was 120 kilometers.  We averaged 40 mph on packed gravel bikes without having a sprint, especially after 8 days of brutality.  I tried a couple attacks myself to try and get away before the final which came to nothing. With the finish line placed out of town for safety, everyone could race full gas to the line, as we did each stage, with no disruptions from traffic or road furniture. Rolling across the line completely empty, having left every ounce of effort on the Colombian gravel. 

The bonds that are created out of these extremely hard gravel races are so strong and bring each rider together in a way I have never experienced before. Riding slowly through the finishing town heading for the hotel with the whole group of racers, which I now call friends after having shared such an epic eight days of suffering across the Colombian Andes. There is something way beyond just racing together. Imagine one of the hardest gravel races you could do.  Now do that every day for eight days. That is Trans Cordilleras. In that time being able to spend time with each other off the bike every night and share each other's experience is unforgettable. The best part is finishing together with everyone at the same hotel and having a pool party with drinks, good food and good beer. That is a finishing party like no other. Sunburnt racers cheering each other on, singing and clanging bottles of well-deserved beer and cocktails. For some people fighting for a top place, being able to relish their victories with rivals out on the road. Others who are there just to experience the country, have fun, challenge themselves and others are just amazed at the fact that they just finished the hardest thing they have ever done to date and checked off something from the bucket list. For everyone it is the experience of a lifetime. One quarter of the field abandoned this race.   Whether you finish in the top 45 hours or the bottom 80, just to complete this challenge is a victory in itself. It takes a strong will and a very strong bike rider just to do so. The race takes us through some of the best, most beautiful parts of Colombia with the most incredible community. There is no better way to experience these amazing places than by going off the beaten path on unknown, unpaved roads on a gravel bike.

-Owen Vermeulen


Owen races on Spinergy GXX gravel wheels. As he notes in his recap the wheels allowed him to attack the grueling terrain of the Trans Cordilleras with the added confidence thanks to Spinergy's unique PBO damping characteristics.