La Ruta de Los Conquistadores – Conquer or be conquered


Words: Ico Schutte ǀ Photos: Courtesy of La Ruta de Los Conquistadores


In the 1560s, three Spanish conquistadors set off on an expedition across Costa Rica. The terrain was so tough, the forest so dense and mountains so high that it took them 20 years to accomplish this feat.

Fast forward 400 years …

Roman Urbina, a Costa Rican athlete and adventurer well known for swimming with crocodiles and enduring many other extreme physical challenges in an effort to publicise to the plight of the country’s endangered wildlife, retraced this journey on a mountain bike 22 years ago. He was joined by 17 of his faithful friends. They set off from the Pacific coast and crossed rain forests and volcanoes, rivers and mountains, finally reaching the Caribbean coast. It was this traverse that inspired his creation of the annual La Ruta de Los Conquistadores race.

La Ruta is one of the oldest stage races in the world and has stimulated the growth of stage races around the world with the likes of Kevin Vermaak and Andre Hestler who, after completing La Ruta, created their own very successful races known the world over – the Cape Epic and BC Bike Race respectively.

La Ruta boldly states that it is the toughest stage race on the planet, which will test riding abilities, physical endurance, mental strength and equipment durability. The race covers 280 km and close to 6,000 m of vertical ascent. Armed with my Cannondale Jekyll, some fitness, solid skills, a new cycling jersey compliments of Pura Vida Ride and the knowledge that I was about to set off on an adventure of extreme proportions, I arrived in the town of Jacó (ha–coh.)

Jacó is a resort city on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica in Central America. It lies in a tropical climate zone mainly defined by distinct dry and wet seasons. Generally speaking, August through early December is wet with temperatures reaching 35 degrees Celsius and 90% humidity; perfectly challenging conditions for a race.

Day one – The mud fest

The sun rose at 5:30 a.m. to find racers converging on the starting line in the sand, as the waves crashed down on the beach. Ready or not, the legendary 80 km and 3,400 m of climbing on stage one was about to begin. With the promise of mud, mud and more mud, the day was set to be long, so most riders were thankful for the early morning start.

At 6 a.m. we were off. The first challenge was about 200 m of thick sand. To ride it or run it, that was the question. Most opted to run, some managed to ride and a few waddled with the bike underneath them. An exception was the handful of those on fat bikes (a new breed of bike with X size tyres that are great for riding in certain types of terrain, including snow), who pedalled easily over the section, leaving everyone to wonder if they would fare as well in the foreboding mud.

After a brief parade on the paved road through downtown Jaco, we hit the farm roads. Shortly thereafter, we were met by the first big climb of the day rising from sea level to 650 m; a long, hard slog but well worth it when we were rewarded with spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean behind us and jungle and mountain ranges ahead.

Feeling strong and motivated at the top, I dropped down the other side into wondrous rainforest. And there it was – the beginning of the aforementioned maddening MUD. It was thick, red and clay like and it CLUNG. What ensued can only be described as a relentless battering of mind, body and soul. Mud would accumulate around the wheels bringing the bike to a dead stop, forcing riders to dig and scrape around the frame to clear the mess so the wheels could turn again.

At every river crossing, riders dunked their bike in the water, trying to wash off what was estimated to be as much as 10 kg worth of mud. Most of the climbing and even the descents were so slippery we had to hike-a-bike our way through. It was slow going and mentally and physically challenging. I’ve found in these moments that to succeed in getting through each one and onto the next, whatever it may bring, one must enjoy the adventure, appreciate the unbreakable human spirit, soak in the surrounding beauty, put one foot in front of the other and simply push on. I did.

A refreshing reprieve

A gracious farmer had set up a table offering riders the most succulent oranges picked fresh from his farm; by far the highlight of this section. “Muchas gracias señor!” I said before gladly indulging. Refreshed, I pedalled on.

It was a full four hours into the race before I arrived at the second aid station; the halfway mark for the day. The aid stations were a spectacle of support crews setting up for their riders and also the official aid station that provided water, Gatorade, fresh fruit and other snacks.

From here, we had much better quality roads as we crossed one mountain after another. Each hilltop brought you a splendid view of the next valley and upcoming hill to be crossed. Most riders where in high spirits, thoroughly enjoying the scenery while riding through such a spectacular country. Named the most bio-diverse place on the planet, Costa Rica packs a full 5% of the Earth’s species of birds, plants and animals onto just 0.01% of the planet’s land mass.

At this point we were so close, but yet still so far and Roman still had one more trick up his sleeve. The last climb of the day set out to break you. False summit after false summit and around each corner one more excruciating steep section waited. The only thing that kept us going was the cheering and motivation from the locals. They came out to support in full force and provided us with ice, cold water sponges, coca cola and homemade treats. Buenisimo!

The last descent was again fully flooded with up to knee-deep mud sections, which again forced us to carry, drag and push our bikes for miles towards the finish. Even the 4x4 support vehicle was stuck and having a hard time moving forward.

Finally, after eight hours and twenty-three minutes to be exact, I crossed the finish line beaten, broken and exhausted. They promised tough and they delivered tough. No doubt one of my hardest days on a mountain bike ever! In fact, this day was so tough that some riders only made it back after dark and had to rely on the light from their cellphone to get them home. This day also served to prove how strong these riders are: only 20 riders did not reach the finish.

Lunch – or dinner for some, depending on when you arrived at the finish – was like casado only buffet style, and consisted of rice and beans, chicken, beef and veggies and a fresh tamarindo juice. Cheerful yet tranquil calypso music was being played under the pavilion by two Costa Rican musicians simultaneously tapping on something like a xylophone. A bit of zest added to the post-race fest.

Tip: Inspired by my girlfriend Jessi, I now pack a food container, set of utensils, a to-go mug and, of course, a water bottle in my race bag. Both eco-friendly and convenient, it is much easier to avoid using single-use paper, plastic and styrofoam, and in the case of this race I was able to pack a second serving for the long bus ride home. Delicioso.

The race organisers updated us on stage two and then we hopped on a small passenger van to Costa Rica’s capital city, San Jose. The Turrialba volcano, the one we were supposed to ride around and over, had erupted five-days prior, the first time in 180 years. As a result, the route had to be changed. Roman explained that although the race organisation was prepared to work quickly on another epic route, Costa Rica – the permitting and police force – moves a bit slower. The only choice was to have a shorter day two. Short on time but not on climbing it was still rumoured to have 2,600 m of climbing in only 60 km. No rest for the weary!

The rest of the two-hour ride was spent catching up with fellow riders to hear different perspectives on the race and learn about mountain biking options around the world. This is one of the big perks of doing stage races in different parts of the world. Not only do you meet those from the home country but from many other amazing locations. For example, I met Gordon Wadsworth (USA’s National Ultra Endurance Single-speed Champion) who was racing the event on a rigid single-speed bike. Quite a contrast to my full-suspension enduro, and each with its own pros and cons. Gordon and training partner Roger Messe (US National Ultra Endurance Champion 50-59) also filled us in on the great riding in the Shenendoah Valley, in Virginia on the east coast of the US. Both were well on their way to conquering the race, having won their respective divisions on the day.

In no time it seemed, we arrived at a beautiful Hyatt Hotel; no tents in this multiday race. For the next two nights we were treated like royalty.

Day two – Plan B

Stage two arrived with a 3 a.m. wake-up call, 4 a.m. breakfast and a short bus ride to the 6 a.m. start, which eventually turned into a 7:15 a.m. start. In contrast to yesterday’s bright and sunny beach start, today we were engulfed in gray. It was a foggy, cool and misty morning, with many riders looking cold, some even miserable, as they did not expect cold in Costa Rica and hadn't packed warm clothes - yours truly was included in this bunch. The climbs would not be the problem we knew, but the descents could be.

We set off from a protected urban mall parking lot and into peak hour traffic. This was pretty scary as Costa Rican drivers seem to treat all intersections, officially meant to be four-way stops as four-way go', making it impossible to guess which vehicle will attack next. Somehow all riders made it through unscathed, but some were very rattled.

The first part of the course was a 15 km lap in the Angelina Bike Park. This excited me as I love single-track riding. However, the trails became congested with riders clogged in mud so slippery (but it is still the rainy season here, so no surprises really) that it was impossible to travel in your intended direction. It was almost comical, with riders sliding and crashing all over the place. Three hours later, with me stopping every couple of metres to free my wheel from mud and clay intent on tagging along for the ride, I completed the lap. We all agreed the riding would’ve been great in the park if not for the mud, and I’ve vowed to return later to check it out.

Out of the park and onto a paved road that led us to the base of absolutely the biggest climb I have ever done. Once again, the constant cheering from fans served as motivation to keep going. After roughly two hours of climbing we turned off the pavement and onto some dirt for more hike-a-bike. Here I came across a farmer and tried swopping my bike for his horse, a very generous agreement I thought, but he would have none of it, unfortunately.

Misty conditions continued all through the day and ruined any chance of catching a glimpse of the volcanic views. Sometimes you could hardly make out the road in front of you, which made the descent challenging and forced some riders to walk down the jeep track. I had fun going down some of the short bits of jeep track, but mostly the descent was paved road. Not a minute too soon I arrived at the finish line, only to discover that the shortened course of 46 km had taken me 6:15. Definitely the slowest average speed I have ever recorded in all my days of riding a bike. When the organisers decided mid-race to eliminate the planned final loop in the bike park, no one argued with that.

Rinsed and fed we got back on the bus for the transfer to the Hyatt. This had been a hellish day, as the terrain was either off-road in unrideable mud or very steep climbing on paved roads. A far cry from what most consider mountain biking. The organisers did explain that with the eruption, permits and other logistical issues, this was the best they could come up with. Understanding the immense complications that they dealt with on such short notice, most riders were forgiving and enthusiastic to start stage three.

Though the longest stage loomed, I focused on the promise of less climbing and a Caribbean beach finish as my heavy head hit the pillow.

The ‘other’ Conquistadors, La Ruta’s core crew

What must be mentioned here is the event’s tireless, familial, friendly, forever jovial, hard working, smiling core race crew. Racers came to know them on a first name basis: Erika, Sandra, Karla and more, seen everywhere from dawn until dusk daily. If you had a question or needed information, no matter how busy they were, they stopped, listened and found a solution before returning to the task at hand. They repeated everything twice in Spanish and then English to be sure everyone understood. They could be found directing traffic on roads and spectators to checkpoints to see their loved ones. Ever-present and available, they personally greeted and escorted racers and their companions, as they navigated the multiday event locations. And then there was Erika with her clipboard in one hand and camera in the other, capturing all the memorable moments.

Day three – To the Caribbean Sea

Well rested and cheerful racers sat around the breakfast table at 3:45 a.m. eagerly awaiting the 125 km stage. A two-hour bus transfer took us to the start in the town of Turrialba, considered to be the gateway to the Caribbean and a world-famous white-water rafting location.

Upon arrival, I collected my bike from the race mechanics and was confronted with a tyre that had lost air and wheel that didn’t turn. Remembering that I’d used a CO2 cartridge to fix a flat yesterday, I pumped up my tyre and hoped that was all it needed.

We started the day with some flat and fast riding through the town making it feel like a road race on mountain bikes before we hit the first climb. My mechanical issues continued when a gear cable broke. I was unable to work my rear derailleur, which left me with a three-speed as I could only change between the front rings. Luckily, the climb wasn’t too steep. With some hard pushing out of the saddle I made it to the top where I got some assistance from the Shimano aid station. They fixed the problem in record time while I gorged on popcorn and local fruit. This also gave me some time to catch up with Greg Deemer (USA), my roommate, who could not partake in stage two due to illness, but rallied back for stage three. I was stoked to see him looking fresh and strong, with a big smile on his face. Jumping back on the bike I descended down the other side of the mountain on paved roads.

The second climb of the day was a steep one. Riding amongst the support vehicles that were following their riders, something I've never seen in my 15 years of mountain bike racing, was quite unnerving. Once over the top, it was all down and flat to the finish, so I put down the hammer as best as I could. My big enduro bike, with its wide tyres, was not ideal for the mostly road riding to the finish, however the suspension became an advantage riding the railroad sections later on in the stage.

Unique to this race, we got to cross over immense railway bridges, some 50 m above croc-infested waters. For many, this was frightening and riders froze and struggled. We roughly followed the railway line for the latter half of the race, sometimes on it and sometimes next to it, but mostly on main roads, either paved or dirt between villages.

Loving the ever-changing scenery from jungle to banana plantations, I could finally hear the unmistakable sound of the Caribbean waves lapping on the beach. The last 10 km arrived and we followed the bay on sandy tracks between palm trees to the finish line at the pristine Playa Limon. All the troubles of the day were soon forgotten as riders waded into the clear blue Caribbean water. The seaside fiesta continued on the beach till sunset, with friends, family and people that once were strangers but now were bonded forever by the conquering of La Ruta.

Roman Urbina is fond of saying, “Is more than just a race. It is a personal growth experience.” Having a chat to many riders after the event it is clear that every person took something home from his or her experience.

Gordon Wadsworth said, "I‘ve been to a ton of races all over the country [USA] and have never had half as significant of an experience as La Ruta was. I hope I can go again next year."

Added Greg Deemer, "La Ruta is an adventure race. Not every race will go as planned, but I certainly had the adventure that came with mountain biking 137 miles across a spectacular country and in the same event as the best in the world."

True to Costa Rica’s pura vida nature, I loved the spirit of the fans next to the road cheering and helping riders, sharing fruits and ice cold water with us, especially the lady that came out of her house with fresh biscuits and gave me a couple, literally running next to me and popping them in my mouth. In contrast, I didn't enjoy the support crews driving next to the cyclists.

La Ruta is not for everyone; it is for the brave and strong, for those riders who know how to suffer and enjoy the pain, but also for those who can look around and enjoy the beauty of Costa Rica. It is for the conquistadores! Will you conquer La Ruta?

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Welcome to the 21 November 2014 issue of DO IT NOW Magazine.