The third stage of La Ruta de Los Conquistadore featured a little bit of everything — drama, a cold mist-shrouded ascent up a volcano and a brutal descent back into Costa Rica’s tropical heat.
Friday morning’s stage start went sideways when race organizers announced that fifth-placed Luis Mejia of Colombia was being disqualified for taking assistance outside an official check point during Thursday’s stage 2. In protest several riders turned their bikes sideways, blocking the start of the race.
Overall race leader Ben Sonntag said he was compelled to address the riders. Wearing the leader’s jersey and speaking in English, the German told the field that he came to race and that’s what the group should do too.
“Normally I’m not that type of person,” Sonntag said. “I grabbed the microphone and said ‘those rules were very clear before the start’, and then Lico [Ramirez, third place overall and five-time La Ruta winner] said ‘let’s go.’ So hats off to him.”
Bottom line, Sonntag said, is that “if people break the rules, they’re not supposed to be in the race.”
American Sam Schultz concurred, and said he witnessed bottle hand-ups and technical assistance being given to several riders outside official check points throughout Thursday’s stage.
“It’s not like they’re taking a random bottle from someone on the side of the road. They have a car that is zipping back and forth to give them anything they need,” Schultz said, noting that such activity is explicitly banned in pre-race paperwork. “It’s kinda shady. It’s cool [race officials] are doing something about it.”
Rather than drama surrounding disqualifications and cheating allegations, Schultz said the focus should be on the race itself. And 53-mile stage 3 served up its own drama.
“We rode up an active volcano and descended the roughest descent that I’ve done in my life,” Schultz said.
The volcano was Turrialba, but before going down it racers had to go up. People thinking Costa Rica is only heat and humidity only have half the equation correct. At more than 9,000 feet, Turrialba on Friday was more wet than humid and downright cold.
The first riders up were Federico “Lico” Ramirez, who was sitting in third place overall at the start of the stage; eventual stage-winner Milton Ramos; and the disqualified Mejia, who was racing more or less as a pacer and not for ranking. Also in the group was Luis Leao Pinto.
Cannondale teammates Ben Sonntag and Alex Grant — first and second place riders overall — were about five minutes back when they cleared the stage’s apex.
Then it was downhill from there on a combination of eroded, rock-strewn tracks intermixed with gravel sections. The descent was, in short, “brutal,” said Blake Harlan of Team Jamis.
At the end of the day, however, the human-generated drama didn’t go away. Stage favorite Ramirez told media post-race that stage-winner Ramos had taken support outside an official station. The fallout had not yet settled by Friday afternoon.
Ramirez, meanwhile, gained about three minutes on GC leader Sonntag, who tops the race at 13 hrs 47 mins 56 secs. His teammate, Grant, is in second place at 2 mins 29 secs back. Ramirez is four minutes off the lead. Stage 3 winner Ramos is 9 mins 54 secs behind, but his future in the race was unclear as of Friday afternoon.
Going into the fourth and final stage on Saturday, Sonntag said he likes his chances, even though five-time La Ruta champ Ramirez is within striking distance and Friday’s stage up a mist-shrouded volcano found him tired and cold.
“If [stage 3] was my worst day of La Ruta, I’m really happy,” Sonntag said, noting that second-place teammate Alex Grant paced him over the stage. “I’m carrying the jersey into Limon. Now we have to defend our positions. I think it’s possible.”
Turrialba to Playa Bonita (Limon) 121k (75mi), 1760m (5,775ft) climbing.
Other than volcanoes and killer climbs, La Ruta’s final stage serves up many of the race’s most fabled features — slippery train trestles, sometimes deep river crossings and seemingly endless kilometers riding on or alongside railroad ties. The finish is on the black sand beaches of Playa Bonita on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast. Winning times are projected at just under 4.5 hours.