Cynthia Frazier riding the Transcordilleras course through the Colombian Andes last month. The gravel road was typical of the route, which runs for 600 miles. Photo courtesy of David Aburra.

Cynthia Frazier is suffering.

Forty-eight hours into a 600-mile, nonstop bicycle race across South America’s rugged Andes Mountains, but only halfway to the finish line, the sun is rising on the Lexington resident’s third morning on the bike. Dawn brings some spiritual relief but it doesn’t last. A few minutes later on a relatively flat stretch of road she barrels into a pothole at over 20 mph. Pothole is a generous description for the state of this particular piece of infrastructure.  

“We had been riding on terrible, terrible [dirt] roads for so long,” she recalls later. “We were finally on pavement and riding fast, riding around potholes, and one of the potholes was just the whole road and I couldn’t get around it.”

She is thrown from the bike and skids across the asphalt.  

Dazed, she takes a few moments to assess the damage. Any broken bones? Doesn’t feel like it.  Head injury? Fortunately, no. Scrapes and bruises? Yeah, a few, but they seem superficial. Just lost a little bark, as the cyclists like to say. Bike OK? Miraculously, wheels and tires are intact and the rig is functional.  

Frazier remounts and starts pedaling again. Ahead is one of South America’s largest subtropical mountains and 300 more miles of unknown road.  

Cynthia Frazier in Kali, Colombia, before the start of the race, with a clean bike and clean clothes. Photo courtesy of David Aburra.

The Transcordilleras bike race, held last month, describes itself as “a self-supported bikepacking race through Colombia, the most geographically complex country in the world and one of the most biodiverse on the planet.” There’s some hidden context to unpack in that description.  

The “self-supported” part is instructive. Visualize an event like the Tour de France, where racers compete as both individuals and teams and are supported by dozens of crew members that do everything from cooking the food to massaging the legs to driving the bus and support vehicles.  

Self-supported is the opposite. Riders carry their own food, clothes and repair tools. They can buy food in towns as they pass through, but they can’t have a crew hand it to them. They can fix a flat tire or enlist a local bike shop to help with major mechanical issues, but the nearest mechanic might be a hundred miles away. Riders are truly on their own.

The “geographically complex” part is also useful here. In cycling parlance this race is called a “gravel” event. The course is primarily dirt roads, gravel paths and jeep trails. And mountains. Mile after mile of mountains, some topping out at almost 4,000 meters above sea level, an endurance sports indicator of serious vertical and thin air.

Frazier, who’s 30, is a professional cyclist but is somewhat new to the world of ultra-endurance cycling. She trains in and around Rockbridge County, a hotspot for the exploding discipline of gravel due to thousands of miles of forest roads weaving through the Blue Ridge and Allegheny mountain ranges. For many cyclists, gravel is the Goldilocks riding surface: not too rocky and narrow like mountain biking, not too bland and traffic-exposed like road cycling.  

In summer 2022 she completed her first ultra-endurance race, Badlands, a 460-mile jaunt across the Spanish desert. In November she competed in Chile’s Across Andes, where she set a course record for women and finished second overall. Last summer she also won what is arguably North America’s premier gravel race, the 300-mile Unbound XL in Kansas, completing the course in “only” 23 hours.  

Cynthia Frazier gets first aid assistance from a competitor during a brief stop after her spill. Photo courtesy of David Aburra.

She’s also familiar with the other side of the logistics of racing. A few years ago, she started her own gravel event in Buena Vista, a popular early summer race called Gravista that drew almost 200 competitors last year.

Frazier’s recent success doesn’t really matter on this morning in the Colombian Andes, day three on the bike. After her spill she has to dig deep, mentally and physically, to regain momentum and confidence. Fortunately, she is riding with two other competitors, and they help keep her positive after the low of the crash.  

Company is a welcome relief at Transcordilleras. Some ultra-endurance events have extremely strict rules around the definition of self-supported, where riders are only allowed to pair up and ride together for 30 minutes.  

“I don’t like to do those races as much,” says Frazier. “I think ultra-racing should just be about riding your bike. I like the community of it. I’m a people person and I get energy from people.”

Frazier and her two companions ride the remainder of day three together. Sometimes chatting. Sometimes quietly grinding out the miles. The sun sets and the specter of another long night approaches. It’s decision time. Ahead lies the biggest climb of the race, up to a high altitude pass on the border between the states of Cundinamarca and Bogota, a subtropical mountain region known as a paramo.

Locals are fearful of Los Paramos for their altitude and extreme weather. They rarely attempt the summit, and towns on one side of the paramo are distinctly isolated from towns on the opposite side. If the trio continue the ride they will summit and descend the paramo in darkness.  

The location of her competitors factors into decision making as much as sleep and weather. Throughout the race Frazier is able to keep tabs on competitors via a GPS app, live-tracking her goal to be the first woman to finish and top five overall.  

“I normally don’t stop, but I was with some people who wanted to stop. I didn’t see any major threats [from competitors].” 

“When you’re at the front of the race it’s important to worry about [competitors], but you also have to worry about yourself. Simple decisions. I have this much buffer, I can sleep for 30 minutes instead of 15.”

Shortly before midnight they decide to stop for the night.

“It was a negative 1-star hotel,” Frazier laughs. “No hot water. I took a cold-water baby-bath and slept for three or four hours.”

Cynthia Frazier and two of her competitors, refueling during a stop. Photo courtesy of David Aburra.

Frazier is relaxed in her approach to training and racing. She doesn’t employ a coach and dislikes the rigid structure of a formal day-to-day training plan, preferring long solo rides in the Blue Ridge above Buena Vista or multi-day bikepacking adventures with a couple of friends.  

But this laissez-faire approach belies a fiercely competitive drive that she freely confesses when pressed. She wants to win. This race. Every race. And not just the women’s category. She wants to beat everyone.  

While racing she’s even aware of riders who aren’t participating. Just ahead of Frazier in terms of experience and achievement is the queen of ultra-endurance cycling, Lael Wilcox. An Anchorage, Alaska native, Wilcox has won outright some of the most challenging long races in North America, like the 4,200-mile Trans Am Bike Race.  

Wilcox and Frazier have only raced head-to-head once, at the 2022 Badlands in Spain, Frazier’s first ultra event. Wilcox won the event, Frazier finished second.

“There are very few women right now that are able to do ultra-races and not sleep the amount that I don’t sleep,” Frazier observes. “There’s one woman, Lael, who is the queen. Her mind is super-strong. She sleeps in 15-minute naps. It’s where I got the idea, oh, if she can do it I can. I actually rode faster than Lael at Badlands. But she slept less. I learned from Lael you don’t need much sleep.”

Cynthia Frazier riding with two competitors who, she said, helped keep her positive after the low of the crash. Photo courtesy of David Aburra.

Most nights Frazier gets by with short naps. She’ll lie down beside the road with her helmet as a pillow and have a quick snooze. She sets an alarm for 15 minutes and falls asleep instantly, often waking up before the alarm when her body temperature starts to drop, feeling refreshed enough to press on. A couple of these a night can keep her going for several days.

But on this particular night, with the paramo ahead, her competition comfortably behind, and her companions pressing to stop, Cynthia relents and sleeps until dawn.

The next day, their fourth on the bike, the group summits the high-elevation paramo, one of the highlights of the race for Frazier. The unique ecosystem of the mountain filters runoff that is the main source of water for Columbia’s capital and largest metropolis, Bogota. The route takes them above the tree line; the views are expansive and the descent down the opposite side is long and takes her steadily through another day in the saddle.

Riding four straight days on little to no rest is incomprehensible to … well … pretty much everyone. Even professional road cyclists who ride thousands of miles a month have difficulty embracing the lack of rest and recovery.  

Paradoxically, Frazier insists her efforts are significantly more achievable for the recreational amateur cyclist than ascending to elite competition like the Tour de France or World Cup mountain biking. A big part of ultra-distance cycling is mental. You just refuse to stop.  

Food plays a significant factor in ultra-cycling success. Racers don’t call it food, though. It’s fuel. Frazier starts the race carrying around 8,000 calories, including 50 single-serving gel packs. She has an alarm on her bike computer than is set to alert her to eat every 45 minutes. Sometimes it’s one gel, others it’s more; a sandwich, burrito or pastry. She supplements her carry-on fuel with purchases of local cuisine from towns along the route. Almost entirely carbohydrates.  

Hydration is a factor as well. Her bike is equipped with three water bottle racks that she needs to refill every few hours. In the tropical Andes water is plentiful and not a concern as long as you carry a filter. But in a desert race like Spain’s Badlands, water restock and hydration planning become paramount.  

The road gets difficult again as the sun sets and a fourth night approaches. Still almost 100 miles from the finish outside Bogota, Frazier falls back from her two companions and is once again on her own. Inexorably she rides on.  

The final climb is the hardest. “It was so steep and I was so tired.” By the end racers will have pedaled 72,000 feet up. They’ve navigated a similar amount down, the technical terrain demanding constant vigilance and slow speeds.  

Ninety-one hours after setting out, she reaches the finish. First woman. Fifth overall. Goals achieved.

A week later, back home in Lexington, she is proud but stoic about the accomplishment. There are more races coming up this summer and the queen, Lael Wilcox, is still just ahead. The two will face off in July in the 2,700-mile Tour Divide, a brutal route that follows the crest of the Rocky Mountains from Canada south to the Mexican border. Wilcox holds the women’s course record of 15 days. Frazier holds the knowledge that she can push just a little harder and sleep just a little less.

Most nights during the Transcordilleras, Cynthia Frazier gets by with short naps. She’ll lie down beside the road with her helmet as a pillow and have a quick snooze. She sets an alarm for 15 minutes and usually falls asleep instantly. Photo courtesy of David Aburra.

Chad Braby is a freelance writer and endurance coach from Roanoke. He likes family, mountains, and trails,...