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?
For complete results and more info www.adventurerace.com