Examining Purpose During 126 Hours Racing the 2023 Across Andes

After thirty-five days spent bikepacking from Bolivia to Peru across three sub mountain ranges of the Cordillera de los Andes, Leo Brasil finds himself with the unique opportunity to explore a completely different part of South America with a much lighter bike. Read on for his race reflections from the 2023 Across Andes 

Why do I ride bikes? This is a question I often reflect on from time to time, and quite frankly, I never reach a definite answer. Is it because I hate driving? Is it because I feel connected to the world when pushing my bike over 17,000-foot passes? Or perhaps, because riding bikes is simply an excuse to experience different places and interact with other cultures.

In September of 2023, Adam, one of my closest friends, and I traveled to South America to make a documentary film about a bikepacking adventure across the Cordillera de Los Andes, a strenuous path that stretches from La Paz, Bolivia to Cusco, Peru.

It was a month-long adventure filled with innumerable mishaps, but it was the most I’ve ever lived. Each sunrise was different, each meal a surprise; the simple and repetitive routine of waking up, packing, eating, riding, drinking, pitching the tent and sleeping was weirdly addictive, and one that’s hard to imagine living without. I was at home. “Home” is an ever-changing place, isn’t it?

For the past ten years, I considered Colorado home. But, days after flying back to Brazil from Peru, the US immigration department denied my work visa renewal, forcing me to abandon the life and career I had built abroad. Without many prospects or a clear path forward, I felt numb and in a semi-depressed state. I’m back in the place I grew up, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; it has never stopped feeling like home, especially if my bike is around me.

A Bikepacking Race in Patagonia

Sometime in early October 2023, I became sick in Cuyocuyo, an incredibly remote village in the high mountains of Peru, from a mix of dehydration, food poisoning and exhaustion, and while mindlessly scrolling through social media, I saw an ad that caught my attention. It was a beautiful photo with the words: Across Andes Ultra Gravel Race. I had no idea how long or how hard it was, but I knew I wanted to participate. This impulse was likely caused by the fear of going back to “real life” after the month-long trip that Adam and I had taken.

As I would learn, Across Andes is a 1,000-kilometer (620-mile) self-supported bikepacking race with 14,177 meters (46,512′) of elevation gain. It starts and ends in the charming town of Coyhaique, Chile, and takes riders through a variety of distinct landscapes and terrains of the majestic Patagonia region. It had been an unusually wet and cold spring (November is the last month of spring in South America), and while the local farmers were very happy for their crops, the riders were undeniably concerned about their race plans and gear choices. Me included. It was my first time in Patagonia and I had absolutely no idea what to expect from the course since the organizers had changed it completely from the previous edition. But I guess this was a good thing since I had just spent the last two months leading up to the event bikepacking from La Paz to Cusco instead of doing interval training. Improvising in South America was essentially my specialty at this point.

Arriving in town the day before the start was probably the wrong idea. There was so much to do in so little time. Driving from the airport in Balmaceda to Coyhaique brought an extraordinary amount of excitement into my already sleep-deprived head. The rugged snow-capped mountain scenery combined with lush green forests reminded me of springtime in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, my favorite place on earth.

The city was filled with cyclists of all types, from big hitters who had absolutely nothing on their bikes to over-prepared folks carrying all but the kitchen sink. I was in the middle. I tend to avoid conversations about gear the day before a race so I’m not easily influenced by other people’s unwelcome opinions on what I should and should not carry; I’ve made that mistake in the past. My kit was solid and I was fully confident in everything I was carrying.

I’m not used to big bike events with tons of services, a mandatory gear list and an afterparty, and although I’ve participated in the Unbound XL twice, my preferred style of racing is usually free to enter and self-supported, with very little organization other than a Trackleaders account and a Ride with GPS route. Undoubtedly, I was spoiled in this regard by having lived awhile in Colorado where events like these are abundant, but I was excited to try something new.

And So It Begins

I showed up to my first (and only) race of the year without any “real” training other than traversing an incredibly difficult route by bike in the previous months, an experience that shaved twenty pounds of muscle mass from my already slim frame. What could possibly go wrong? While in Brazil, I focused on ingesting as much food as I possibly could, estimating that I would lose another eight pounds by the end of the race. Even so, I lined up at the start line with my small-size jersey still fitting loosely.

The race began as the sun started to rise. It was cloudy and the outside temperature felt perfect, just cold enough to wear layers without overheating. Rolling hills, carpet gravel, 200 + blinky lights illuminating the roads for miles—I was happy…for a while.

Do you know those moments when your mind and emotions make a complete 180 in the matter of just a few hours? At six in the morning I was ready to fight for top ten; four hours later, I was ready to quit. I couldn’t find a sense of purpose or the motivation to ride my bike, and that’s something quite unusual for me. I felt like a fraud. My mind ran:

“Fuck This. Why am I even here? If I feel this bad on kilometer 80, what makes me think I can get to 1000? If I can’t be competitive, I might as well not race at all.”

Suddenly, the sound of a waterfall in the distance broke interrupted my negative thoughts.

Water has a soothing effect on me, maybe it’s because I grew up living just a few blocks away from the ocean, but at that moment I knew that being near a stream would help to calm my running mind. I sat by the shore for a few minutes while trying to squeeze the water out of my clogged BeFree filter that had just survived 35 days of riding in the middle of nowhere but was now begging for retirement. I closed my eyes and focused on the sound of the waterfall. I felt at peace.

As I pushed my bike over the hill back to the road, I heard a familiar voice coming my way. “Bora Leo!” (“C’mon Leo!”) I looked back and saw Vinicius Martins approaching with his bright orange rain jacket. Vinicius is a very strong and experienced rider, and an even better human being. He’s one of the main reasons I was able to be at the race in the first place. We began riding together at a solid pace, re-passing everyone who had dropped me in the last hour or so.

My state of mind slowly began to improve as the day went by. I started riding solo again and entered into a long conversation with my inner self about purpose. The conclusion I came to was, from that moment on, I’d look at the race as a fast-paced bikepacking trip, where I’d appreciate the landscape, chat with people, sleep well and take as many photos as I saw fit. Pushing my already fragile mind into a sleep-deprived state would have likely resulted in a DNF on the second day.

I plugged my iPod Shuffle in and got lost in the sound of 70’s and 80’s rock tunes. There’s something nostalgic and comforting about that music that transports me to my childhood; Iron Maiden, Rush, Bad Religion, The Cult, INXS—they have all played an important role in my upbringing. Listening to them through this 2013 device while riding ultra distances has become a ritual I look forward to every time.

Under the influence of heavy metal, I made ground and finally arrived at the first checkpoint at kilometer 220 under pouring rain. It had been raining for hours and the temperature had dropped considerably. My feet and hands were numb, but my body was completely dry, making me thankful for my choice of mountaineering waterproofs instead of race fit clothing. I got my race passport stamped at 21:15, and hurriedly asked,

“¿Hay comida?”
“Si, mucha!” a lady replied with an excited smile on her face.

I entered a barn-like structure filled with straw on the floor and animal heads hanging on the walls. There were about forty “semi-dead” cyclists laid on the ground, probably regretting their life choices while failing to fall asleep. I stood in line for almost an hour to order food, shaking from the cold and wet.

“Buenas noches. Para mi una sopa, una hamburguesa italiana y un espagueti a la boloñesa porfas…tengo mucha hambre, jaja”.

I had made it to where I’d hoped to end day one. I found an empty floor space in between the tables on the soft strawy ground and laid my emergency bivy and inflatable pillow. I removed my bibs and passed out without setting an alarm.

A Change in Purpose

Continuing on the route without the self-imposed pressure to perform felt liberating to say the least. My once dead eyes and confused mind were replaced by a smile and a renewed motivation to explore.

The ride began to feel just like any other bike tour I’ve done. The wide landscape and new-to-me terrain kept me fully present in the moment without losing interest or debating a DNF; this was big progress compared to the previous 24 hours.

It rained consistently during the next three days and temperatures were quite low, but what’s interesting about Patagonia gravel is that it doesn’t create too much build-up on the drivetrain, unlike the destructive peanut butter mud of the American Midwest. Hypothermia was the theme for many participants who had either chosen improper rain/cold weather gear or had miscalculated their strategies, causing a good chunk to abandon the event within the first 72 hours.

Only a few of us had the chance to see blue skies while on course. At times, I rode with arm and leg warmers plus a waterproof jacket, pants, gloves and overshoes and didn’t feel like I was overheating. Those who bet on an ultralight approach definitely had a harder time out there.

While riding, I was reminded of a daily joke between my friend Adam and I on our bikepacking adventure through Bolivia and Peru; we laughed and agreed that we needed to pitch a “vacation bike touring project” to recover from all the struggles that we encountered on that assignment. A recovery tour in which we wouldn’t lose twenty pounds of body weight each, and there would be hotels spread out every two or three days with restaurants and espresso. Across Andes proved to be just it (minus the espressos). Although I was used to sleeping in very unglamorous spaces and using nature as a toilet, I was thankful for this more ‘civilized’ form of travel.

It took me a total of 126 hours to complete the course. I was the last one to cross the finish line in the solo category. In normal circumstances, I would feel demoralized and ashamed, but not this time. Riding through the Chilean region of Patagonia was one of the most beautiful experiences this Brazilian has ever had. I slept in hotel rooms every night, ate proper meals at restaurants and had meaningful conversations with locals on a daily basis. It made me realize that my purpose in riding bikes for days on end transcends the simple mechanical movement of spinning the cranks, it has to do with what the bike represents. A machine that breaks barriers between people, brings freedom to go anywhere you want under your own power, and most importantly, lends itself perfectly to storytelling—my biggest passion in life.

Riding photos courtesy of Clemente Diaz Pavone