Pua Mata (Sho-Air-Cannondale) claimed the title at La Ruta de los Conquistadores in Costa Rica last week, winning all three stages to take her second victory in two years. We caught up with her at the finish town of Playa Bonita, on the Caribbean coast, to talk about the experience.
VeloNews: So, you’re two for two. How does it feel?
Pua Mata: Well, it feels absolutely amazing. This is not an easy race by any means. Every day, every section of it is hard. There’s no break. When you’re descending down the volcano, you think, “Oh, such a long descent,” but you’re trying to hold on and trying not to crash. There’s never a guarantee. I mean, look at Todd and some of the mishaps that he had. Anything can happen and that’s what I was telling everyone. Even though I have an hour, how about if I completely bonked out there? It’s fair [to ask] because it’s a flat stage, but it’s hard, it’s a hard stage, and you could easily lose an hour. So, it’s not over until it’s over, and this one, I had a few little issues before this race and I didn’t feel very prepared, as I was last year, so it was more of a mental challenge for me, so this one means a lot to me.
VN: What was the hardest moment out there? Did you have one, where you thought maybe you were on the cusp of breaking down?
PM: Maybe today [the final stage]. You know, I was really nervous getting through the first day. That first climb out of the gate, it was so steep. Last year I didn’t really have any issues with it, and this year I thought the conditions were better, for the most part. There were a couple little muddy sections still, and it’s not easy by any means, but I thought it was a little bit faster. In your head, you’re just like, “Get through the jungle,” and then I knew, “OK, it’s gonna be OK.” I made it out, and I got through the hardest climb of the day, but then there’s still a bazillion feet of climbing left, and that last 5k, it just feels like 20 miles and it’s never-ending. The train tracks have been my nemesis, or the bridges I should say, but it’s like anything, you need to respect the mountain, you need to respect everything, you need to be careful when you’re going across the train tracks, and I did so much better this year than last year, because I knew, I think, what to expect and it was dry conditions. So, it was better, but today, you know, the legs were hurting; I pushed it the last two days, I gave it what I had, and it was hard. There was, like, 30 miles of flat, and it was hot, and you’re working hard. That was probably the hardest section for me because I just wanted it to be over.
VN: What’s the attraction to La Ruta?
PM: I’m always one for a challenge, when people tell me something that’s so hard, and even impossible, and I’m like, “Bring it on, I can do it.” And Costa Rica is such a unique, special place. The people are awesome, and I think Román [Urbina] puts a phenomenal race on. It’s very well-organized, it might be craziness, but I think it is organized, when you think about all the people they’re shuttling at all these different hotels and getting them to the same place at the same time. I mean, that takes some skill. And look at where we’re racing; everything’s so green, you’re in the jungle, you’re in the rainforest. It’s things, I think, that otherwise you would never experience and if it was easy, everyone would do it. It’s kind of neat to do something … I heard about it for years, I heard the horror stories, and I’ve always wanted to come and do it, but then with Sho-Air, it became a thing for them. They love this race, so they wanted to send us, and so I felt very thankful and lucky that they did. And I think Alex [Grant] has been here four or five times. So I think there are just so many aspects that keep me coming back.
VN: The race has a reputation of taking the racers into the dark, so to speak. How do you contend for victory at a race that offers so little information up front?
PM: There’s a couple things. Sho-Air always gives us first-class support, and when they send us to a race, he makes sure that we’re taken care of. As far as more information, with Manny [Prado] on our team, he lives out here so he knows the course, he’s done this thing nine times. So last year, he actually supported me last year and he could talk me through or just tell me things to expect, which helps a lot. I think conditions are ever-changing because of climate here, the weather, and if it rains like crazy, then the jungle is gonna be a completely different thing, experience. And last year, before I even got into the jungle, that was the worst section for me. I got bogged in that little mud descent and climb, so the one thing about this race, expect the unexpected. Last year, day 2, when you come into the finish, when you make the left that we did this year, and everyone thought — that was the course, you go left and you finish — but no, [Román] threw in this extra five miles through the coffee fields and it was some steep climbing. Granted, I think if you know some locals, maybe you can find out more information. If you get out here early, you can see some little sections. But I know what you’re saying, because for me, I see some of the people who don’t have the support I do and I don’t know how they do it because that’s hard, you know, taking care of your bike and moving all your stuff. It’s a hard race, and to do that, it just makes it harder.
VN: Is this the hardest race you’ve ever done?
PM: I would say that this is definitely one of the hardest races I’ve done. I’m trying to think of another race that has even come close, because I just came off of Pisgah, you know, it was five days, and I was thinking that one was going to be really brutal. That race is hard, but this is just different hard. So many people think, “Oh, well it’s not hard because it’s not single track,” but there’s even people here who didn’t finish who came here for the first time. I won’t mention names, but they didn’t even complete the race, and you hear them talking about it before the race, getting interviewed, and maybe it’s not a disrespect thing, but it’s underestimating what’s out here. Thinking, “Oh yeah, this race is for me, it’s gonna be perfect,” and then on the first day, I’m passing them as they’re walking through the jungle. You have to respect everything that’s out here and it will kick your butt. I don’t care who you are, it’s gonna hurt you. I think everyone that thinks they’re a mountain biker should come here and experience it once. It’s hard. I don’t care who you are, it’s going to be difficult. And it’ll take the toughest and strongest person down.