‘The toughest mountain bike multi-day stage race on the planet;’ la Ruta de los Conquistadores truly lives up to its reputation. It was the hardest 4 days of my life. Now in its 12th year, the race was inspired by a Spanish conquistador (conqueror) who journeyed through Costa Rica’s treacherous landscape from the Pacific Coast to the Caribbean. The route snakes its way through magnificent mountain ranges, traverses active volcanoes and delves deep into luscious tropical rainforest. What better way to experience the country in all its glory? I’d hoped for challenge, adventure and knockout scenery; I was rewarded with all this and so much more…
Date: 11-14th November 2009
Cumulative time: 27hours, 21 mins, 37 secs
Bike – Trek Top Fuel
Food – rice & beans (yuk), Torq bars and drinks
Tyres – Schwalbe nobby nic (2.1 front, 1.8 rear)
STAGE 1 – muddy, hot & long
Probably the most epic day I have ever had riding my bike. For me, it was almost 9 hours of pedalling, hiking, scrambling and swimming (!) from Jaco on the Pacific Coast to the capital city of San Jose in the centre. The 108km stage began with a 2 hour ascent. We left the darkness of Jaco behind us and climbed up into the hot, humid heights of the rainforest. The terrain was unlike anything I have ever encountered. The climbs were unrelenting and it was a constant struggle to keep my heart rate down low enough to last the distance. The humidity was stifling and after 2 hours of hard work I reached the top – I was rewarded with a stunning view of the Costa Rican rainforest. It was beautiful and exhilarating, and made the exhausting slog to get there all the more worthwhile. However, with 25 hours still to go there was no time to waste sightseeing and we descended deep into the rainforest once more. The recent rains had been the worst for many years so it was a battle to get to the top of the next huge climb. Knee-deep mud meant this became a gruelling 2 hour hike-a-bike. Few mountain bikers would be accustomed to meeting such a challenge and it broke the wills of many. In fact this particular challenge so early on stage 1 stretched out the field and established the pecking order almost to the finish line. With my main sport being Xterra (off-road triathlon), I couldn’t have enjoyed the challenge more! Despite the huge exertion to get to the top I was barely at the half way point, and still had a long (but smooth) road climb to go …followed by more treacherous ascents and descents across multiple waist deep river crossings. My Trek TF bike coped well with the conditions so I continued to pedal on to finish the first stage, overjoyed, exhausted but fortunately unscarred and ready for the stages to come.
STAGE 2 – climbing and even more climbing
Following the longest day I’ve ever had in the saddle during stage 1, this was another unbelievable day of yet more climbing and descending – the elevation profile looked more like a cardiogram graph than a bike race! The first ascent, merely 2 kilometres from the start line, took riders from 800 meters up to 1400 meters above sea level within 8 kilometres. Not even the pro-men could manage to ride the steepest climbs which reached an agonising 40% gradient in places. My calves screamed at me to stop on these hike-a-bike sections but I knew I had to push through the burning sensation if I was to maintain my day 1 position. The descents were just as tricky, the rains having cut 2-foot deep crevices in the trail. With just a few inches to ride on, I did my best to slip, slide and slither my way down the mountain, whilst pretending to still be in control of my TF. I was amazed by the support from the Costa Ricans who were strewn along many of the steepest sections of the trail and at the aid stations. It gave me a fantastic boost of energy when I rode past their roaring cheers and kept me smiling all the way to the finish line.
STAGE 3 – up the volcanoes and down again
I was truly in the pain box by day 3, the first 2 days having taken their toll on my body, which was begging me not to get back on the bike. I didn’t listen, and without any hesitation I threw myself into the third stage. When you have trained for so long and put in so many hours on the turbo to reach this point, you can’t let a few aching muscles hold you back! However, unlike the first two days, stage 3 seemed much simpler – straight up for 4 hours and straight down for another 2. We climbed to Irazú and Turrialba volcanoes, reaching a height of close to 3400 meters above sea level. I took it on as a time trial to the top; 4 hours on the very edge of my aerobic zone, pushing, panting and peddling my way up. Heavy mist throughout the day was my saving grace, keeping my body temperature down and minimizing fluid loss. I was able to hold on and maintain a good pace. From the crater I began the seemingly never-ending descent that I’d been warned was to come. I kept focused and picked my way down boulder fields and steep and muddy tracks, despite the severe pins and needles that attacked my hands and arms. It was an enormous relief to get to the bottom and over the finish line to complete yet another gruelling day.
STAGE 4 – rain and rail roads
Looking at the profile, you’d be forgiven for thinking that stage 4 was a couple of climbs and then a coast all the way to the beach. No such luck. Stage 4 was as challenging as the previous days. Despite the torrential rain, the first hour or two went by pretty quickly and by now I was used to the type of terrain. The hard part came when the rail roads began: sleeper after sleeper, mile upon mile of riding of continuous jarring. I double flatted, and having learnt my lesson I will remember to ride tubeless next time. The 6 bridge river crossings ranged from 25 foot to a daunting 200 foot long. Hauling my bike across these, over the raging swollen flood waters below, I felt like I was in one of the characteristic and instantly recognizable photos of La Ruta. One slip and you’d be gone. So many thoughts rush through your head when you’re balancing with one leg on one sleeper stretching over the gaping hole left by missing sleepers. You have to put these thoughts aside and focus on the job at hand; getting to the other side, to the end of the rail road and to the end of the race. I felt proud to have made it this far, and was relieved that the finish line was in sight.
I was left with an overwhelming sense of pride and satisfaction – not only did I finish, I crossed the line 84th overall and 3rd woman. But this was so much more than a bike race. It was an amazing opportunity to traverse one of the most beautiful countries in the world, travel through spectacular and varied landscapes, experience the local culture and meet like-minded, adventurous and enthusiastic people from all over the world. The pain definitely was temporary but the memories I have of Costa Rica (plus a few scars!) will stay with me forever! I was pushed to my limit and I am proud that the famous La Ruta didn’t manage to conquer me. Would she conquer you? Why not step up to the challenge….?!