[Editor’s Note: pro cyclist and recent Crosshairs Radio guest, Cole Oberman, checks in from the dirt road with his first installment of a new feature on cxhairs.com. We’re still coming up with a name for Cole’s for now unnamed column and hope to crack that code soon. If you have an idea for a name send it along, but know in advance, all of your coal puns will be ignored. Before handing it off to Cole, we want to give a shout out to Julbo for making his trip possible. If after reading Cole’s column you want more info on the La Leyenda del Dorado event, check out legendofeldorado.com/en.]
It’s funny how some of the most incredible opportunities in life seem to drop in out of nowhere. This was certainly the case with my trip to La Leyenda del Dorado MTB Stage Race in Colombia a few weeks ago. About a month before the event I received an email from Dave Crothers at Julbo Eyewear USA asking if I was interested in going to Colombia to do a 7 day mountain bike stage race. A bunch of thoughts immediately ran through my head; I haven’t done a stage race in 2 years, I’ve only been training for XC, I speak like literally 4 words of Spanish, and I won’t know anyone there. Obviously I replied with an emphatic, SOUNDS PERFECT!
Four weeks later I stepped off the plane in Bogota. Was I ready for this? I really hope so because 7 stages, 56,000ft of climbing, and 360 miles all above 6,000ft is no joke. I had done a two week training block at altitude in Durango to prepare for USA XC Nationals, but this was a whole different animal.
After a few days in Bogota taking care of logistical odds and ends, we transferred to the race start in the town of Guades. On the drive there, I got to know my race partner Jonathan Montes, a top U23 XC rider in Colombia. Many MTB stage races are done as duo races, where riders are paired in teams of two that must stay together at all times. This adds not only an additional tactical element to the racing but also a layer of security for the riders on courses that are often extremely remote. As we were both more XC focused riders, Jonathan and I made a good pair. We could both climb well but definitely rode in a punchier style.
For me the opening 25km prologue was definitely a target of the week. The course consisted of 3 climbs which circumnavigated the mountain ridge behind the start/finish town of Guades. Jonathan and I put our XC strength to work, going out hard and immediately began to catch other teams. We kept the pace high throughout the stage and finished strong. After a technical last kilometer, which included a trip through a school yard (complete with students) and a ride literally through a colonial era house and courtyard, we were spit back out into the town square and crossed the line in 2nd. A great way to start off the week of racing and my first international podium!
The first proper stage of the race was a 98km affair beginning with two 30 minute climbs and concluding with a 60km romp through the desert. Jonathan and I rode well through the first climb before being gapped near the top of the second. When we finally crested the second climb, my jaw about hit my stem. We were looking into the most massive valley I have ever seen, with the Rio Magdalena 6,000ft below and snow capped volcanoes in the distance. After nearly an hour of descending, we reached the river and motored our way through desert. It was a lonely and windy day of riding but we eventually reached the Colonial river port town of Honda. We finished the stage in 6th place and moved into 4th overall.
Stage 2 was our first taste of real Colombian climbing with 10,400ft of elevation gain in 84km. The route traveled through an endless string of steep-sided coffee plantations and the racing was full gas from the gun. My back was locking up on the rough descents but Jonathan put in a strong effort and kept us moving forward. After 80km of racing we dropped into the Colombian downhill national championship track and shredded our way into the town square of Libano in 4th place.
The third stage of the race was a single, completely insane 10,000ft climb over a volcano. Yeah. Due to a peak altitude of over 14,000ft, the stage wasn’t timed towards the overall and was more of a extended transfer day. We took our time on the 5hr ascent, stopping for a gratuitous amount of picture and Aguapanella breaks. This was one of my favorite days as we were able to really savor the mind-blowing landscape of the Colombian country side.
By the fourth stage of the race I was starting to feel like a machine with a singular purpose; wake up and climb. From the gun thats exactly what we did with a 90min ascent through the rainforest up to 13,500ft. We climbed above tree-line, above the clouds and into a high-alpine terrain that looked like something out of a Dr. Seuss book. After the peak we descended for nearly two hours through high altitude meadows into the town of Salamina. The crowds at the finish were the rowdiest of the race so far with thousands of spectators lining the finish chute.
Stage 5 of La Leyenda happened to fall on my 26th Birthday and the race organizers—my new Colombian friends—made sure it was incredibly memorable. There were 26 weapons-grade bottle rockets at the start and the whole town square sang me Happy Birthday at the finish in Abejorral. Jonathan and I lost some time on the insane 6.5hr queen stage after getting gapped off somewhere amongst the 12,500ft of climbing. We slid back to 5th on GC but the birthday beers that night more than made up for it!
The final stage started with a high speed and extremely dusty 30km descent into the final major climb of the race. We were hitting speeds of close to 50mph in between skidding through loose switchback corners and the result was chaos in the field. As we entered the climb I could tell Jonathan and I were both feeling great. We quickly caught up to the chase group and remained there for the majority of the two hour climb. The closing 20km of the race was on rolling terrain and we spent the time fighting with Team Buff of Spain for the final spot on the podium.
In the end Buff got the best of us by just a few seconds. We narrowly missed 3rd place on the final stage but managed to distance another rival team and finished the race in 4th place overall. The entire week had been an incredible experience and I was feeling a lot of different emotions as I sat under the finish banner in El Retiro. I met so many incredible people in Colombia, had my mind blown open by the landscape, and really expanded my notion of what I’m capable of as rider. I get to travel to a lot of really great places to race my bike but its rare when a trip is actually life changing. I’m fairly positive this is going to go down as one of the more unforgettable trips of my career.
Huge shout out to Julbo USA for this opportunity, Leonardo and Patricia at Julbo Colombia for taking care of me all week, Jonathan Montes for being a solid racing partner, to Bryan, Dave, Rohan, and everyone within the La Leyenda organization for putting on a unique and world class first year event, and to all the new friends I made in Colombia. It was an incredible experience and I cannot wait to go back next year.