UNIVERSIDAD PARA LA PAZ, Costa Rica (VN) — If it’s possible to be effusive and understated at the same time, American mountain biker Pua Mata was so after stage one of La Ruta de los Conquistadores on Thursday.
“It was awesome. It was hard. It was good,” Mata said of the punishing race that ushers riders from Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast to the Caribbean Sea in three days.
Mata, a La Ruta rookie who was the first woman across the line Thursday in 5:54:11, even threw the word “fun” into the mix when asked how the notoriously muddy jungle section through Carara National Park went.
“I enjoyed it. It was so fun,” said Mata, the reigning U.S. mountain bike marathon national champ and overall winner of USA Cycling’s 2012 Pro Cross Country Tour.
“But it was a road outside the jungle that got super muddy — my bike actually stopped. In the jungle at least there is water where I stopped a few times and cleaned the chain.”
The men’s elite race, meanwhile, didn’t appear to be much fun, as the top riders hammered a blistering pace under an equally blistering sun over the 68 miles from Herradura to the university outside San Jose — which included some 12,000 feet of elevation gain — in about five hours.
Costa Rica’s Paolo Montoya, who won La Ruta in 2004, finished the day in first at 5:01:19, with defending champion Todd Wells two minutes and 8 seconds behind.
Two-time La Ruta runner-up Alex Grant finished fourth, but moved up to third place after last year’s second-place finisher Rom Akerson was disqualified for taking aid outside authorized feed zones. Grant is just about 10 minutes behind Montoya.
“It was brutal out there,” said Grant. “This is the hottest year and I’m kind of a cold-blooded gringo so I have to be real careful on the efforts in the heat.”
At the onset, Grant was in a lead group of about a dozen riders that included three-time Vuelta a España winner Roberto Heras, Wells, Montoya and five-time La Ruta champ “Lico” Ramirez.
Grant said the pace was high and the field began to spread out. Given the heat, he said he had to back off lest he blow up. Once through Carara National Park he began picking off riders, moving from 12th to fourth.
“I’m stoked — considering the heat I rode great,” Grant said. “I was catching guys and that’s super motivating. I was picking off guys and that’s better than getting caught.”
Had the stage been 10km longer, Wells just may have caught Montoya as he was slowly reeling in the Costa Rican on the day’s final climbs. Earlier in the stage, however, it was a different picture. Despite efforts at animating the race through the jungle section, where Wells essentially won last year’s La Ruta by breaking away, the American said he was “either slower or the other guys were faster” on Thursday.
“Montoya was so strong today,” Wells said. “He’d ride on the front and not look for anyone to pull through on the drafting sections, then he just nailed it on the one climb and we were all on the limit and he pulled away.”
Nonetheless, Wells said his two-minute deficit is surmountable considering Friday’s 6,000 feet of climbing up the 10,000-foot Irazú Volcano, which is followed by a long, technically difficult descent.
“With mountain bike stage races anything can happen — physically and mechanically. Tomorrow is a hard stage,” Wells said. “I feel it’s still wide open. Montoya is riding strong but we’ll see tomorrow. I think we can have a good race.”
La Ruta: Stage 2
Friday, November 2
49 miles: Tres Rios to Turrialba. The day includes about 6,000 feet of climbing up the Irazú Volcano, where the riders will top out at about 10,000 feet. At that point riders will descend a fast, long and technical section that leads to the finishing town of Turrialba, at about 2,000 feet.