Every fall, the international mountain bike community meets in the jungles of Costa Rica to line up on the starting line one last time before the off season begins. The event is known as La Ruta de los Conquistadores and it's quite unlike your typical mountain bike race. Starting from the Pacific Coast, riders face 3 brutal days of racing before reaching the finish line on the Caribbean beach, on the opposite side of the country.
The race has become known as "the toughest mountain bike race in the world" due to the challenging conditions, endless climbs, and unpredictable adventure that comes with racing across a country like Costa Rica. 2015 would be my second time taking on La Ruta, but the first time with a goal of being competitive and not just surviving.
Day 1 of the race is the one that is feared the most by the majority of the racers. It's just under 60 miles with over 12,000 ft of vertical elevation gain as you ascend and descend the steep jungle mountains. On top of this, about 6 miles in the middle part of the stage are unrideable as you have to throw your bike on your back and climb up steep, muddy trenches and wade through large river crossings. It's also the primary stage where you have to be on guard for hungry wildlife, like anacondas and crocodiles.
Things started great for me during the first half of day 1 as I stayed with the lead group of 7 riders. When we reached the first hiking/climbing sections, things took a turn for the worse though. Having miscalculated a water stop, my bottles were completely empty. As I was climbing up the trench, I could feel the early stages of heat stroke setting in. After 2 hours of hiking and sliding through the mud, I was fried and couldn't do anything as I watched the leaders ride away from me.
Thanks to the help and motivation from the locals and spectators, I was just able to keep moving and crossed the line in horrible shape, just inside of the top 20.
Stage 2 is known for it's climbing. At just over 50 miles in length, this stage brings riders over 14,500 ft of vertical elevation gain. Many of the climbs are several miles in length on 20-30% grades.
Having never suffered heat stroke like I did on stage 1, I was unsure of how things would go for me on stage 2. I was feeling far from good, but was able to again stay in the front group for the first half of the race. Riders were dropping off 1 by 1 until it was just 3 of us left. At about the 35 mile mark, I thought I could see the end of the big climb, so I attacked and tried to get away. I got about a 30 second gap as I went over the top of the mountain and started descending the other side.
I could hear the spectators from the top of the mountain yelling, but couldn't understand what they were saying. I descended about another 4 miles until I came to a dead end in the road. I looked back and the other two riders were nowhere to be found. That's when it hit me... Everyone wasn't yelling words of encouragement to me; they were telling me I was going the wrong way.
I turned around and climbed back up to the top of the mountain as quickly as my fatigued legs would let me go. My little detour added about 1,500 feet of climbing to the already massive stage. I hopped back in the race around 25th place and had one more big climb to make up as much time as I could before the long, road descent to the finish. Getting lost provided some great motivation as I found myself passing riders one by one all the way to the line, getting me my first top 10 finish of the race.
The race promoters decided to mix things up this year by adding in the option to raft to the start of the final stage of the race, rather than take the shuttle. Those who chose not to raft, received a 5 minute penalty. This wasn't a nice leisurely float down a gentle river though. The rafting expedition was 3 hours long on one of the top 5 white water rivers in the world. The section of river we went down had category 3 and 4 rapids. While rafts filled with a bunch of skinny-armed cyclists are probably not the safest/most effective modes of transportation for rivers like this, the experience was a ton of fun.
The race started late in the afternoon with only about 40 miles of mostly flat to the finish. While there isn't a lot of that can be made up on the last stage, a lot of time can always be lost if you have a crash or mechanical.
The final stage is also where the infamous train bridges are that riders have to carry their bikes across, hopping from truss to truss. The railroads are not closed during the race either, so you have to time your crossing well or end up hanging off the side, 30 ft above a rocky river, while a train rushes by.
Without the huge amounts of climbing, the race stayed together pretty well for the majority of the final stage. The front group was large as we approached the final stretch of train tracks that you have to ride over before reaching the beach. That's right, we actually ride right down the middle of the train tracks for about 8 miles, slamming into each cross truss as you try not to lose contact with the group of riders in front of you.
Just as we hopped off the tracks and started down the 8 mile home stretch on the beach, my rear tire started hissing as I felt the air leaving it. The short minute or so it took me to quickly fix the flat left me, yet again, chasing back onto the front.
Just barely sneaking in for another top ten finish again, my results over the 3 days were enough for 9th overall. The race proved to be the hardest event I've ever done on two wheels, but it was also one of the best and most memorable adventures of my life. I can't wait to go back in 2016 and aim for a spot on the podium.