The 5-Day Epic Race in Patagonia

with KAYSEE ARMSTRONG

The Trans Andes Challenge is a stage race of epic proportions through the mountains of the Cordillera, Los Rios and Araucania regions of Chile. The race began on January 17, 2018 in Huilo Huilo where 350 competitors will set out to race over 300 kilometers with more than 9,000 meters of climbing in 5 days.

Liv athlete Kaysee Armstrong from Knoxville, TN, USA has competed in the Trans Andes Challenge twice before, 2018 would be her third year. After a 2nd place finish her first year, Kaysee came back to win the event in 2017. After a recent injury that resulted in a broken hand, the race would be Kaysee’s first time on a mountain bike in over two months.

With determination, a positive attitude, and enjoying every moment in the beautiful Chilean landscape, Kaysee crushed the 2018 Trans Andes Challenge course. She finished first in the Pro Women Solo category in every stage, accumulating nearly an hour lead over the second place finisher by the final stage. Out of 324 finishers, Kaysee finished 48th overall. We caught up with Kaysee to get a behind-the-scenes look at the epic stage race.

Photos courtesy Luis Barra @BarraPhoto and Kaysee Armstrong.

LIV: Kaysee, you specialize in stage races. What is it about this discipline that makes it perfect for your skill set? Why do you love it?

KAYSEE: My first reaction to this question was that it required no special skill set. Then I remember Mike and I talking about how it’s more than just bike racing. It’s scrapping and being mentally tough.  A lot of people recently have described me as determined. The more I think about it I know they’re right.  When I want something I go and get it. Stage racing pushes me mentally and physically, and I love a challenge.

Additionally, it’s hard to match the friendships and experiences you gain at stage races.  There is something about surrounding yourself with people wanting to push their limits, however fast, that creates one of the deepest bonds. Frequently, I don’t speak the same language as people I’m racing, but when we’re in the guts of a 3-hour climb there’s a universal language – a smile that can bring you back to life. 

It goes without being said, stage racing allows you to see the country in the best way possible. Faster than hiking, but not with the restraints of an automobile. Whether you want to be competitive or not, stage racing is the best way to truly see rugged parts of the world that otherwise you would never get to see.

 

LIV: You raced the Trans Andes Challenge in 2017 and won! What brought you back to this location? What makes this race special?

KAYSEE: Trans Andes was my first stage race after collegiate nationals 3 years ago.  I got second and had the time of my life. I knew I wanted more of those experiences in the Jurassic Park-like wilderness, and I knew I wanted to try and win. 

Winning last year for me was huge. Not a lot of people know this, but the whole year before I did 4 stage races. Won some and lost some. At the end of Breck Epic that year I was burnt and thought racing wasn’t for me. I couldn’t quite figure out the consistency to get on the top step. 

After coaching my NICA kids and seeing how much fun they were having with the competitive side of racing, it sparked my fire again. I got a new coach, Drew Edsall, who not only helped me fine tooth training but helped me mentally as a racer. I went into Trans Andes as a new competitor and came out with the win really believing in myself.  

To say Trans Andes is my favorite stage race thus far would be an understatement. Not only has it helped me grow personally, it’s got some of the best days on the bike I’ve ever had. Single track that will make you wonder if this could actually be real. Just picture volcanoes mixed with Iceland mixed with Jurassic park! Amazing.

LIV: This year, you were recovering from a broken hand before this race. How did you feel coming to Chile? Were you still confident you would win?

KAYSEE: To be completely honest, I dreaded Trans Andes this year. I wasn’t able to do any mountain biking beforehand. The hand break was so close to departure and I wondered whether I would be held up because of it.  

I try not to be too confident in winning because I think it keeps you from pushing yourself.  I did tell myself there’s a good chance but you know you’re going to have to work extra hard. 

 

LIV: What are the trails like that you raced on? What percentage of the race is single track?

KAYSEE: One of the many reasons I love Trans Andes is because it is technical! I don’t know quite the percentage of single track, but I am confident in saying that a lot of your descending is on some of the fastest single track around.  

You spend a lot of the time climbing up gravel or technical Jeep roads. Which don’t let that fool you, because a lot of them are over 20% grades and I promise you will hike your bike a few times. Also I promise it’s all worth it. 

LIV: You raced the Liv Pique Advanced both last year and this year. Did you change your bike setup at all after last years’ experience? Is there anything you change on your setup when racing a stage race vs. just riding your local trails?

KAYSEE: I kept everything almost exactly the same as last year. I run the SRAM Eagle drive train (and I spend a lot of time in the Eagle), with Maxxis Tires (2.35 Ardent Race on the front and 2.2 Ikon in the rear), and don’t forget your dropper post for this race!! The LIV Pique Advanced is in every way the perfect bike for this race. It’s nice to have all the suspension and still be able to lock it out on the climbs! I fell in love with this bike at last year’s Trans Andes for a reason, she’s a shredder and a heartbreaker. That’s where her name Jolene came from. She stays setup at home the same because I believe you should train on what you race. Also back home we have rugged trails that I can train on where this setup is perfect.

 

LIV: What supplies do you carry with you during each stage?

KAYSEE: A LOT! The worst thing you can do is be under-prepared at a stage race. There’s no easy way out sometimes, so you have to be prepared to fix your stuff trailside.

  1. Stuff to change a tire: hand pump, tire lever, tube, patches, plugs, co2, and co2 chuck.
  2. Chain break materials: 12-speed rainbow link for SRAM Eagle and chain breaker tool.
  3. Multi-tool
  4. Zip ties 
  5. Extra derailleur hanger 
  6. Sometimes I will carry extra brake pads if the stage is wet and muddy.
  7. Lots of GU's and snacks

 

LIV: What was your favorite stage of this year’s Trans Andes Challenge? Why?

KAYSEE: Easy answer! It’s the same stage that was my favorite last year. It was stage 2 this year.  You start by going over the famous swinging bridge and then spend the next few hours climbing up to the base of the volcano.  Last year I fell apart on that climb so I made sure I was ready this year. When a lot of people were hiking up the steep Jeep track I was riding past with a smile. I was ready and prepared. Then there it was. We peaked out at the bottom of the volcano, where there were waterfalls and Iceland-like views! This year I even stopped to take pictures, because for so long I try to describe this day to my friends and just how magical it is.  

When you start to go down you end up going into this fairyland like a world of trees and moss. The ground almost seems spongey in some spots and then the next second you’re going over some sharp volcanic rock. For almost 7 miles you get to go downhill on single track. 

I spent a lot of the time passing people. I bet I passed over 20 people easy on that descent. I was finally in the groove and I felt like I hadn’t skipped a beat on the mtb. It’s an incredible feeling.

Last year this stage brought me to tears with how incredible it was.  

This year I felt peace and smoothness. That nirvana moment I call it on the bike when you do not have to think. Your body is just responding perfectly as you fly down the mountain. 

LIV: Did you have any challenges during the race that you had to overcome? Did anything happen that surprised you?

KAYSEE: I would say every day is filled with challenges and surprises.  You should always expect the unexpected.  One day a bunch of us went bombing downhill and then realized we missed a turn. The best thing to do in that moment is to stop thinking about it. It’s easy to be frustrated and stop. However what you need to do is get back up that mountain and get back on route. I lie to myself sometimes and say, “It’s fine, it’s fine.” Deep down I want to scream, trust me, but I’ve realized from experiences in the past it just makes things worse. 

Then one day they had to make changes to the route and a hike a bike that no one knew was going to be there took almost 15 minutes in the heat of the day up a mud pit.  The best thing you can do is shut your brain off and just get up it. I found myself hiking past a lot of people this year because I think a lot of people break in those situations. You think you’re descending to the finish and all of a sudden you’re carrying a bike up a ravine. Take deep breaths and realize the only way to the finish is up that ravine – however slow or fast.

 

LIV: What were some of your favorite experiences outside of racing while you were in Chile?

KAYSEE: The culture is relaxed and happy and it’s contagious! I’m my best self there. One day it was flaming hot and I decided to go to the river which is one of the most majestic places I have ever been. You can almost always expect a rainbow falling into some of the bluest water in the world. 

When we went out above the waterfall to sit and capture some photos a dog decided to join. He laid down right on the edge. He had certainly been here before and he knew he was in one of the most relaxing and bravest spots out there. What a stud. If I was a dog I would admire him – oh wait I admire him now as a human!

LIV: What is next on your schedule?

KAYSEE: Cape Epic!!! Oh boy!!!!! 

 

Learn more about Kaysee by clicking the link below, and keep up with the latest news by following her on social media!

MEET KAYSEE!

More to love