Archived General DB Blogs
La Ruta de Los Conquistadores 2008
Posted: Nov 20 2008
Different Bikes had a couple of the crew entered in the infamous La Ruta race, held in Costa Rica Nov 12-15. Here’s Andy’s view:
It started back in March. The riding and racing season was dawning, optimism and energy were the order of the day. This was going to be a great season. BC Bike race in June/July. Maybe Transrockies in August. The usual local marathon series. And since I’ll be in shape, what the heck – this is the year to finally try La Ruta in November. So with the ease of a few mouse clicks and the handy Visa card, I was entered for the big race, still about 8 months away.
Excited, I sent an email to Andreas Hestler, (world famous Rocky Mountain racer and La Ruta veteran) asking for advice on training and prep. His reply: “I’ll give you a hint – Really F’n Hard. Take what you think, add some more, now a bit more, yaah that hard.” At the time, I figured he was just kidding around. I’d done Transrockies, Creampuff, Solo 24hr races, BC Bike Race – surely this was just “same ol’ suffering, different race”…. Now, I know better.
La Ruta is named to honour the path of the Spanish Conquistadores who traversed Costa Rica while exploring it hundreds of years ago. Travelling from the Pacific Coast to the Caribbean coast over this mountainous and lush tropical country, the race evokes some of the challenge that would have been faced by these explorers.
Ok, they probably took more than 4 days, and didn’t have the luxury of roads, support vehicles, mechanic service and hotels to stay in. But also they weren’t racing hard, may have avoided some of the climbs we did (like summiting a 3000 metre volcano) and certainly didn’t have to hammer themselves along railroad tracks on skinny tires.
The journey begins at Jaco Beach on the Pacific Coast. Wakeup call is 2:45 am. Breakfast at 3:15. Race start at 5am. It is still dark at start, but already around 20 Celsius and very humid. 420 or so racers are set to go. Today, we have around 120km to go, over a series of climbs totalling around 4500 metres. The experienced among us said if you survive this day, the rest will be easier. The initial 20 km or so are on pavement, including the first big climb. Then a descent, then a big dirt road/trail climb. Then the mud. Some mud descents rideable, most muddy climbs are hiking.
A nice, wet but at least not muddy section on Day 1. That second guy is international road racer, Roberto Heras.
Lots of (warm) stream crossings. The mud section is an hour, maybe 2, but somehow seems less bad than expected. It is hot, very hot. And humid. We are riding in a sauna it seems. 4 hours in, I have missed a feed somehow, and bonk hard. Still about 60 km to go and 2000m of climbs. Eating, trying to recover, Andreas’ words from the spring come back to me. Ah, I see now – this is going to be tough, mentally and physically. Eventually, some power returns and I continue working my way to the finish up seemingly endless climbs. It is hard, one of the hardest days I have had on a bike. 7 hours and 30 minutes gets me to the finish line at Quinta del Sol. About 30th overall, I am amazed to discover. The next hours are spent recovering and watching others come in. My BC Bike Race partner arrives, staggering, clearly not well. One of the toughest guys I know, he ends up in the ICU that night, dangerously low on electrolytes. Sadly, his race is over, he pushed too hard. My brother arrives, behind his planned time. He has no appetite despite having ridden for almost 10 hours. He spends that night violently ill, bravely starts the next day but is unable to finish. [He is recovered for Day 3 and has a strong finish.] And so it goes. Some 20-30% of riders do not make the 12.5 hour cut off. Half of those won’t start the next day. OK, this is pretty tough…
But, like at so many of these events, the general vibe of the assembled mountain bikers from some 20 countries around the world is positive, if tired – a challenge faced, personal battles fought, limits pushed.
Quinta del Sol to Terramall. 4:30 wakeup today, seems luxurious. breakfast at 4:45, buses to the start at 5:30, race starts 7 am. 76 km distance seems short, but we also have 4000m of climbing on tap over a series of incredibly steep and long climbs. The rain has held off, so sections that could have been muddy remain dry. It is hot, sunny and humid again, tough on the northern folks like me. I went too deep day 1, so the first couple hours of day 2 are even harder than the repeated 20-30% grade climbs. We also get to experience some of the longest, steepest and fastest dirt descents I have done, through the trails and service lanes of a coffee plantation. The smell of my brakes burning is a new experience for me!
Here’s your’s truly descending during day 2 on the 2009 Vertex RSL Carbon frame. Fast! (the bike is anyway)
The climbs just keep coming, weaving up and down through rural farming country, small villages and plantations. We see locals along the way, strangely either utterly indifferent to the spectacle, or else treating it like the biggest event of the year. Nearly every school along the way seemed to have an extended recess, with students in orderly lines along the road, waving and cheering every rider. Route finding is generally good, although rather inconsistent, so through your sun-baked and climb-battered haze you need to pay attention to every turn. Eventually I roll in to Terramall, on the outskirts of San Jose in about 5 hours. It felt like more.
After the stage, riders who paid for the service drop their bikes with mechanics who efficiently power wash, and tune the bikes, douse the drivetrain with oil and leave them ready for the next day. It is a bargain and the bike ran great the whole race. We can then focus on having a shower, grabbing the included post race meal, and then heading on shuttles back to the evening’s accomodation.
Terramall to Aquiares. Veterans of the race call this one the “Queen stage” – cooler temperatures, great views and a straightforward up and then down profile. 67km distance, 2700 metres of ascent, up the flanks of Irazu volcano, reaching a maximum altitude of about 3000m (10,000 ft). The grades were less steep than the previous day’s walls, but nearly 10,000 vertical feet of climbing were still daunting. The same early start as previous days, now routine, had us launch promptly at 7 am. The climbing began immediately and was generally steady and only moderately steep except for a few tough sections.
Here’s one of the “warm up” climbs on day 3.
After an hour or so, we dropped again to the base of the big climb up the volcano. Mercifully, the temperatures at this altitude were much more bearable, dropping to only around 10 Celsius at the high point after a total of 2:45 of climbing. Then followed one of the roughest, rockiest, sketchiest descents most of us have seen. Loose, softball sized volcanic rocks rolled and bounced underneath us. Too rough to just let it go, brakes were needed which tired the arms and roughened the ride. The descent was interrupted by a few moderate climbs, equally as rough. It was punishing. The rough course, along with a suspension fork that had decided to move only about 20mm through its travel had me freakishly wishing for more climbing – some sort of miracle solution to get down the mountain by going smoothly and peacefully up it. Eventually we emerged onto a fast 5 km or so of loose gravel road, descending through a massive coffee plantation, the main centre of which was our finish line destination. 4.5 hours and I was there. The afternoon there was enjoyable, sunny, but at higher altitude so not so unbearably hot. Another great meal, and I was now getting into the routine. I rested comfortably in the shade of a tree, looking across the incredibly lush mountain valley below, with coffee plants growing on every slope. I started to feel like I could get to the end of this epic after all!
Aquiares to Bonita Beach, Limon. Today we were heading for the finish of the race and the Caribbean Sea. The profile was net downhill, but the stage would prove to pack a punch! 120km, with about 1400m of climbing, mostly in the first 50km. Then it was flat, but baking hot, and had some 20km to be ridden on still-active railway tracks, complete with decrepit trestle bridges. For those from BC, think of it like a Test of Metal, followed by 60km of rough, flat hammering with your head in a portable sauna.
We took off out of the coffee plantation at 7am, straight up the fast steep 5 km downhill we had finished on the day before. That stretched the pack out early. The next couple of hours were almost pleasant – rolling dirt and paved roads, up above lush valleys, going pretty fast, some good climbs and nice descents. Then at about 2.5 hours, we hit the final climb of the race. It was only about a 25 minute climb, but it was in the very hot sun, dry, slippery and simply cooking. My engines overheated instantly and forced a slow, painful grind up what now seemed an endless climb. Finally, over the top, refilled with water from an aid station, I flew in a small group down the long, fast descent to sea level and then the final 60km to the end. It was a long 60km. At first interesting, the communities and area were much different. We were in pineapple and banana plantations, there were more small towns, and nearly everyone seemed to be riding around on a colourful, beat-up cruiser bike. But the humidity and hot sun started to close in on us and even in a small pack of riders pacing along, the riding was hard and painful. It felt like the blood was boiling in your head. The railway track sections were, well what you’d expect. Energy-sapping, hot, rough and sometimes felt endless. Tiptoeing across long trestle bridges was somewhat of a break from the beating, but not for the faint of heart.
some ran or rode, most walked carefully on the bridges
Suddenly, around a curve in the tracks, the shimmering Caribbean appeared. We were now riding parallel to a wide, unoccupied beach, palm trees drooping lazily while the waves rolled up. Yes I wanted to jump in immediately. But the odometer told me I still had 20km to go! Torture! It was a long 45 minutes or so from there, riding a sandy, muddy service road behind the beach. Many large puddles/swampy sections to cross – they at first looked refreshing, sadly they were the temperature of warm baths and the colour of rusty mud. Head down, pushing the pedals as hard as possible, dreaming of the end. Suddenly, a bystander yelled “5 minutes” and the road turned to pavement. Minutes later, with a sigh of relief and a big smile, a little manual down some stairs and a sandy slide to a stop I reached the finish. Canadian announcer and endurance-race icon Drew Bragg welcomed us in.5 hrs 37 minutes. By 5 hours and 40 minutes I was in the ocean. And not much longer, gripped a well-earned cerveza in the beachside bar.
For this race I rode the new 2009 Rocky Mountain Vertex RSL. [Many thanks to Jamie and Peter at Rocky Mountain for helping make that happen!]
With all the climbing, bike carries, and mud, a superlight, durable hardtail race bike is probably the best choice for most riders. I had it set up at 21 lbs, with durable wheels and tires. While I occasionally wished for full suspension on rocky descents or railroad tracks, this bike was still a great choice. The bike worked flawlessly, and took all the abuse thrown at it. Plenty of rock hits, sticky mud, repeated powerwashing, no issues – it was a great ride.
I’ve done quite a few stage races in the style of La Ruta, and this one sets itself apart in many ways. The organization is very good, the food and accomodations more than adequate and comfortable without being fancy. Things ran on time, by and large. Not a lot of fuss or protocol, but the complexities of such an event were well handled.
It was my first time to Costa Rica, but I expect not my last. It is a varied, lush, wild and beautiful country, but most of all very friendly. Everyone there just wanted to help, and to make you enjoy your stay.
And the race was tough, as advertised. All of these stage races are challenging in their own ways, but somehow this one seemed a notch harder. But that definitely makes the experience rewarding, not so much for the quality of the riding as the challenge. And how many races end in a Caribbean beach resort?
I think Fred Dreier of Velonews (who rode the race this year and last) summed it up best, as those of you who are attracted to this sort of thing will probably understand:
“I suffered like a dog. But, like many of you reading this column, I have learned that you can occasionally find joy in suffering. And if it’s suffering you seek, look no further than La Ruta.”
Some other great summaries, stage reports and photos can be found on:
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