Two days into the 19th edition of Costa Rica’s La Ruta de los Conquistadores mountain bike stage race two things are certain: La Ruta is as grueling as ever and just who the winner will be come Saturday is uncertain.
While America’s reigning cross-country national champ Todd Wells posted a commanding victory in Wednesday’s 108km stage one, he placed fourth in stage two on Thursday. Although Wells leads the overall going into Friday’s third stage he is a newbie to the unique suffering that is La Ruta and mountain bike stage racing in general.
Add those factors into the La Ruta equation — mother of all mud, racing up and down volcanoes, hectic traffic, staying on course, jungle and miles of railroad tracks — and anything is possible if not likely.
Wells, winner of the 2011 Leadville Trail 100, set the tone in Wednesday’s stage one by topping the field by more than 10 minutes. In his first-ever mountain bike stage race, Wells (Specialized) crossed the line in 5 hrs 27 mins 32 secs, 10:34 ahead of Milton Ramos of Honduras who was followed by Rom Akerson of Costa Rica.
The spoiler on the first of four days of racing was when defending champ Ben Sonntag crashed in the notoriously muddy Carara rainforest and snapped his carbon fiber handlebar. The mishap dropped the German well off the pace leaving him to pull his Cannondale Factory Racing teammate Alex Grant to a podium spot or take a stage victory for himself.
With all the steep climbing and crazy descents in La Ruta, not to mention traffic, traditional cycling teamwork isn’t so much the case when it comes to Sonntag working for Grant, as Grant did last year when the German won the overall.
“Let’s call it mental drafting,” Sonntag said. “There’s no real drafting, but to be on somebody’s wheel still makes it a little easier. The climbs are pretty bumpy so picking a line is important.”
In the women’s competition, 2011 Leadville record holder Rebecca Rusch finished second in stage one, ten minutes behind Costa Rica’s
Adriana Rojas. Five-time La Ruta women’s champ Louise Kobin of California placed third.
While 63km doesn’t appear too daunting, stage two’s distance was tough, said Grant after he and Sonntag crossed the line in fifth and sixth place about 30 seconds behind Wells.
“It just gets so steep and people are out of the saddle sprinting up the thing,” Grant said.
The day’s monster climbs didn’t keep Colombia’s Luis Mejia from taking a flyer early and holding it to the end. Mejia, who was disqualified from the 2010 race for accepting aid outside designated checkpoints, finished the day in 4 hrs 1 min and 21 secs, which was 3:05 ahead of Akerson and 7:07 ahead of Costa Rica’s favorite son, Lico Ramierez, five-time La Ruta champ.
After dealing with a flat and a subsequent wheel change that left him riding solo for most of the stage, Wells finished fourth 9:38 off the lead.
GC into Stage Three
At a total time of 9hrs 38mins 31secs, Wells holds a tenuous 7:11 lead on second-place Akerson and third place Ramos at 14:57 back. At La Ruta a seven-minute lead with two stages to go isn’t ironclad. And Wells found out during stage 2 how unforgiving La Ruta can be.
“It’s hard to push yourself when you’re alone out there. You want to do well but it’s the second day of a long race, the climbs are steep and you’re tired and you don’t know what’s coming up, so having those guys around in the beginning helped me quite a bit … to motivate,”
Wells said after the stage. “Riding the last third of the race by myself was tough,”
Like Wells, Rojas also kept her overall lead in the women’s race. Going into Friday’s third stage the Costa Rican holds a commanding 16 min 53 sec lead over Rusch and 44:41 advantage on Kobin.
Friday: Stage Three
For those who think Costa Rica is all jungle and humidity, Friday’s stage three will help disabuse you of that notion. Racers will head up the Irazú Volcano, with the high probability of bitterly cold weather much of the day. The day starts at about 4,200 feet and tops out at about 10,000 feet. After a brief respite that takes riders past the Turrialba Volcano, one of the fastest and longest downhills in Costa Rica awaits.