SAN JOSE, Costa Rica (VN) — We were railing around blind corners on the verge of disaster, brushing against the feathers of ragged chickens, the cusps of crumbling concrete houses and high curbs, and the creaky-wheeled beaters dawdling through the villages near Matina, Costa Rica.
We were barreling for home.
We had reached the flat, scorching final kilometers of La Ruta de los Conquistadores, a three-day mountain bike adventure from the Pacific coast — through the rain forest and high mountains, volcanoes and coffee plantations — to the Caribbean beaches on the far side of the country.
Suddenly, we came upon another stretch of rickety timber train trestle. The heart beat faster, the breathing settled rhythmically. The way home was on the other side, and this, well, this was what they called singletrack in Costa Rica. It was the last bridge of the day, the final exotic obstacle before the final push for Playa Bonita, the cove on the Caribbean where we would find the beachfront finish line.
I was on the wheel of Pua Mata, the women’s defending champion, and a self-proclaimed scaredy cat when it came to pouncing on each and every rotting timber above crocodile-infested, roiling rivers. She knew I was faster at placing foot after foot onto plank, railroad tie, bit of sheet metal, two-by-four, or scrap of wood that was quilted together to help us hover above the dangers below. I kindly obliged her offer to dart past.
And then I tripped over my own toes.
Turning sideways as I fell, my hips aligned perfectly with the orientation of the railroad ties, and I shot through until — with life-saving instinct — my wings expanded and my armpits stopped my fall, but not the bike from falling onto my head, my hands still clutching the top tube and left grip. I wouldn’t let go of this suitcase; this was valuable luggage.
“Ayuda! Ayuda! Help! Help!” screamed a police officer nearby. I was frozen above the muddy waters. How high? I didn’t look down. Let’s call it high enough. Crocodiles? Who cared, really, since if I fell I’d either die or wish I had.
What did Pua see? Her toes in front of her eyes, and not much else.
“I was so super focused on staring at my each and every step that all I saw was you hanging between the tracks, your bike on its side and the police officer calling for help because he was trying to get you up as soon as possible,” she said later.
Finally, the officer grabbed my bike, scolding me in Spanish for not being careful, or at least that’s what I gathered. I was free to use my hands again, and I climbed from my slot, grabbed my bike, bounded across the rest of the ties to safety, and never looked back. Unfazed, somehow. Pua came up beside me, I apologized embarrassedly, and the race was back on.
To the Caribbean!
Into the heart of darkness
Stage 1: Jacó to El Rodeo
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There are many things La Ruta is not. It’s not pristine British Columbian loamy singletrack. It’s not a regimented, Swiss-precision experience. It’s not Breck Epic in America, or Transalp in Europe, or Cape Epic in South Africa. It’s La Ruta. Costa Rica. And it’s not just any mountain bike stage race.
What is La Ruta? A soul-sappingly hard, exotically wild, singular journey across laughably steep inclines, hysterically steeper descents, through jungles, plantations, villages, across ecosystems and temperate zones, over volcanoes and beaches and terrain that you never quite imagined you could ride on a bike.
As the locals screamed, it’s pura vida. What’s that mean? Just look around. Everything is great, and green, and growing, even if you don´t have much in your pockets, or on your bike. Regardless, you’re very alive. When you wake up in the morning, for three straight days, you get to ride your bike through rain forests and over volcanoes. That’s pura vida.
From the start on the beach in Jacó, you’ll soon learn just how alive you are, even if moments later you feel like you might die. Ever climbed a 30-percent gradient for 30 minutes? How about an hour? Try riding four miles per hour, up a slip-and-slide. Ever slithered your way down a trough of mud, your bike angled onto one side, your feet onto the other, cantilevered above a four-foot-deep crevasse of muck? Get your self to La Ruta if that sounds like being alive.
The first two hours of La Ruta will kindly introduce you to a new way of racing your bike. Your forehead alone will generate a showerhead’s worth of sweat; your brain could very well throb with the venom of unfamiliar heat; your legs may revolt and convulse as you thrash your way up a ladder of slick steps in the sludge. But scan the jungle you’re coursing through and gasp at the mysterious foliage that envelopes you. It may get dark.
There may have been someone 30 seconds in front of me, and another 30 seconds behind me. But I was, for a moment, alone in a wild, eerily quiet jungle. Deep, dark, and, as a matter of fact, a bit spooky. Where was the jaguar that was going to bite my neck? How many snakes slinked nearby that could kill me with a single bite? I never found out. I rode out of the dark and into the most rutted, slippery, primitive trail I’d ever been on, the type of descent that I could never ride — I’d like to think no one could.
For six hours I learned how alive I was. Then, when I thought I should be done, I kept having to ride. “Where’s this damn finish line,” I thought? “When’s this stupid climb end? Oh, shit, it’s starting to rain. Damn, I probably should have eaten something more, if I knew I was going to have to finish up this 30-minute climb. Wow, that course profile wasn’t very accurate. Am I delirious, or are my math skills slipping in the humidity, or should I have been done 12 kilometers ago?” I was dying.
La Ruta is much more than any mountain bike race. If you go, just remember to keep it tranquilo, on and off the bike. And keep in mind that destinations are more distant than they seem. Race bibles? Sacreligious.
Stage 2: Terramall to CATIE-Turrialba
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I had gone deep on day 1. I was quickly going deeper on day 2, since we started with an abominable climb. It wasn’t that it was steep, though it was very much so. It wasn’t that it went on for two and a half hours. It lasted at least that long, though it seemed an eternity longer. It wasn’t that we rode over sections of grass that felt like we had ridden into a pool of Gorilla glue. “This is so green and lush and pretty, why is it being so mean to me,” is all I could think.
No, it was abominable because of what roiled inside my guts. It was just a feeling, thankfully, and not intermittent evacuations, as some people might suffer in a foreign land. But it still meant that I could not eat much of anything.
No guts, no glory. This was turning into the agony of Irazú. I climbed steadily, keeping pace with familiar kits. But really I knew that I was pedaling into a crater, down, down, down, into a hollow with steep embankments all around. Without food, it was inevitable. Without slowing down, it was only a matter of time.
Stubborn as I was, I ticked away, just waiting for that flush feeling to consume my core, snake through my arms and legs, then, finally, trounce all over my mind. Implosion.
Ironically, I was climbing toward the crater of Irazú when I cratered myself. Running on fumes. Sauntering into a deep, dark hole. It wasn’t the first time my stomach has revolted on a long ride, but it didn’t cushion the fall.
My savior would be the long descent from the day’s high point. “All downhill from there,” I thought. “I’ll have time to try and eat. Time to rest. Time to look out over the lush vegetation and appreciate the beauty of eco-diversity.”
This was no ordinary descent. This was what downhill bikes were invented for. This was pineapple-sized boulders of pumice. This was cruelty for a hardtail-riding coward like myself with only three days of mountain biking in his legs on the season.
This. Was. Hard. And it stayed that way for over an hour.
If I told you how little I ate in five hours of exalted exertion, you’d wince, or sputter, or snort, which is interesting, because that’s about all I could do by the end of the stage. I wasn’t really seeing straight. I wasn’t so much numb as I was hallucinatory.
I crossed the finish line and was greeted by the wife of a fellow American that I had only just met at the host hotel before the race start. She told me I looked strong out there. I told her I was not. She said I did great. I told her it was a miracle.
And then a man dressed as a Subway sandwich handed me a pen. Did he want my autograph? “I didn’t do that well,” I thought. “What do you want me to do …” I started to ask, but stopped. He was a sandwich, and probably didn’t speak English.
I needed to eat.
The tie(s) that bind
Stage 3: CATIE to Playa Bonita
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Occasionally, you find friends on the road. I reckon in a foreign land like Costa Rica, that happens more often. And so you acquire competitive companions, Tico, Euro, or Americano. From the beginning, this stage was more roadie paceline than mountain biker marvel. There was plenty of rolling pavement. Small groups were quickly established. I found myself among familiar faces, with someone from Colorado and another from Missouri, and a gaggle of locals. We shot through towns, crested precipitous climbs, bombed descents on pavement and dirt alike, all the while allied in our efforts to keep pace with the locals, and make it “home” to that beach by the sea.
Deep determination in competition bred ephemeral alliances. We cruised on. We dropped the locals. We came to the infamous train tracks and trestle bridges and never missed a beat. We caught groups. We rode through groups. All the while, the alliances were recalibrated as people drifted off the back. We were down to three strong souls, and I found myself hitting a bad patch. My Missouri ally and a non-Tico, Spanish-speaking comrade accommodated me. “Sit on,” they said. So I sat. We hit the tracks at speed and hoped to glimpse any shortcuts or secret side trails that might lessen the wrist-jarring metronome of riding the rails.
We caught a group containing Pua. We approached a bridge and I actually leapt around her on the fringe of the ties to pass by.
“Look at you, Mr. Fancy Pants!” she yelled. Scout’s honor, I wasn’t trying to show off, I just had better rhythm if I carried some speed from one tie to the next rather than methodically lollygagging on every step.
I knew Pua was a fine companion, so we speechlessly conjoined our efforts. As we mingled with riders of varying degrees of speed over the tracks, gaps began to develop. There was no place to pass if you got caught behind the wrong wheel.
The final bridge, the one through which I nearly fell. Thank you railroad ties, for being spaced just narrowly enough for my super model arms to halt my fall. The ties that bound me above hell.
Pua was still there beside me. Well, she stood behind me, biting her figurative nails and likely scolding me and my fancy pants.
We were both hurting, but without words we knew we should stick together. We did until late in the day. I didn’t know where this finish was; and I didn’t want to look stupid and go too deep, too early. She drifted away up the road with mere kilometers to go.
I found a final ally, a masochistic machine on a single speed (yes, he rode the entirety of La Ruta on it, rigid front end and all) named Gerry Pflug, however short-lived it was.
Suddenly, I saw banners. I saw sponsors’ flags and commotion. This was it! The beach awaited. I rolled across the line in the sand, bent my head to receive my medal. I limped over the blazing sand, through the gathered crowds, and quickly through the exit of the finishing chute.
I was on a mission, one more goal to accomplish. I headed straight to the Caribbean Sea to end this journey, shoving my filthy toes into the paradisiac green waters. Ahh.
Editor’s note: Velo managing editor Chris Case has spent enough time racing parking lot criteriums to know there are far more enjoyable ways to spend time racing and riding a bike. In his quest to find pain and pleasure in equal measure, he has sought out the most unique, challenging, and captivating competitions to test his mind, body, and equipment. Follow along with his experiment to ride the best and most difficult courses, the iconic and the emerging, the most punishing and most promising, on- and off-road. Live vicariously through him, poke fun at him, and follow him on Twitter and Instagram @leicacase. Questions or concerns for his well-being? Send him a note at email@example.com.