Vuelta al Cotopaxi

The Vuelta al Cotopaxi, held in the South American country of Ecuador has become to be known as one of the world’s most epic mountain bike races. “La Vuelta al Coto” as the locals call it, has been compared with Cape Epic in South Africa and Ruta de los Conquistadores in Costa Rica — all in the running for claim of the world’s most difficult MTB competition.

The two day stage race circumnavigating one of the world’s highest active volcanoes held it’s 10th annual edition in October 2014, with 250 two-person teams, 500 pedaling souls vying for glory, or for mere survival in the case of some riders.

Passing through breathtaking vistas of the high Andes including glacier capped Cotopaxi, the Vuelta al Cotopaxi is defined by one overwhelming characteristic: extreme altitude.

Even six-time women’s marathon world champion and four-time Leadville 100 champ Rebecca Rusch  struggled with the altitude when she was upset by the local mountain goats in 2008, and had to return on “unfinished business” to claim the victory in 2009.

Check out this video. It gives you a good idea of what the vuelta is like.

The route varies slightly each year, and is always a big two-day loop totaling around 140 km (90 mi) with an overnight spent camping in a remote corner of Cotopaxi National Park. The race’s highest point, “El Morro”, a pass approaching 14,000 ft (4150 m), has become a legend among competitors. The 2014 edition, the first to circle the volcano in a counter-clockwise direction saw a 4,000 ft (1400m ) vertical climb on fire roads and steep, marshy paramo to reach El Morro. In previous years, the direction of the course was reversed, yielding a steep, grueling climb bushwhacking through the paramo’s tire swallowing quaking bogs, river crossings and hundreds of muddy drainages.

Vuelta Cotopaxi start

Start of the Second Day


An impressive number of participants at the 10th annual event have raced all 10 editions. It’s a close knit group, bringing together the majority of serious mountain bikers in the country in two days of comradery and tales of previous years’ adventures crossing neck-deep rivers, facing gale force headwinds, and surviving pummeling hail storms.

International Teams

In 2014 the race featured riders from the USA, Mexico, Israel, Venezuela and a healthy contingency from Colombia braved the slopes of Cotopaxi. They weren’t able to keep pace with the local Ecuadorians though, who nearly swept the podiums in all categories. Only Jari Kirkland from Crested Butte Colorado was able to climb on the podium as the champion of the men’s and women’s mixed category.

cotopodium

“The altitude is the defining factor in the race”, states Eran Hayoun, Israeli competitor whom organized the logistics of the international teams upon their arrival in Ecuador. “You need minimum 10 days and preferably two weeks of acclimatization training at this altitude in order to be able to compete at the top level. You’re competing with guys like Karl Egloff, third at this year’s Vuelta, who just weeks before destroyed the world record trail running up Mount Kilimanjaro. All the members of the Ecuadorian adventure racing team who recently got third place in the World Adventure Racing Championships also competed.”

2014 and 2013 Vuelta men’s champion and multiple-time cross country national champion Felipe Endara agrees: “All the top contenders, we train up here at altitude for weeks before the event. Our season of training is designed to peak for this race. It’s hard, even for climbers with huge motors to come up to this altitude and hold the pace.”

cotoriding

 

How to Attend the Race

For international teams, there’s an excellent support network to help you make all arrangements necessary to participate. Contact Gulliver Expeditions, info@gulliver.com.ec,  the agency in charge of supporting international riders. Ask them about the possibility of sponsorships through the race organization, as they may be available for a limited number of riders. Check out the Vuelta al Coto’s website for more info.