I’m at a Costa Rican beach resort having dinner with Jeremiah Bishop and his small entourage. Jeremiah is the top US contender in tomorrow’s La Ruta de los Conquistadores, a three-day event that promotes itself as “The Toughest Mountain Bike Race on the Planet”. The race traverses this small Central American country from the Pacific to the Atlantic climbing 9,000 metres in 300 muddy kilometres. Add in dense jungle, cramp-inducing humidity, freezing 3,000 metre peaks and the claim to be the toughest seems credible.
“I’m here to win,” asserts 29-year-old Jeremiah, who races with the VW-Trek team. He goes on to explain that his tactic is to track close to last year’s winner Paolo Montoya, possibly striking an alliance with Thomas Frischknecht, the MTB Marathon World Champion. For Thomas and Jeremiah it is their first time at La Ruta. They are both attempting to be the first non-Costa Ricans to win the race in its 12-year history.
Like many of the other amateurs in the event, my own objective is more humble but just as ambitious: to finish. My tactic is to team up with someone who rides just a little slower than my normal pace. This should keep me under my lactic threshold and give me a target when I’m at risk of being dropped. If the person is attractive and female that’ll be a bonus.
At 5am the next morning, 400 hundred riders line up at start as the organizers wait for the light to improve. At the front, Jeremiah, Thomas and Paolo wait stoically. At the back, we chatter nervously, eager to play down the intensity of our training. At 5:40am they let us go and 400 riders feel the surge of pent-up adrenaline.
The excitement of the start soon gives way to the grind of the first 600 metre climb. The contenders at the front of the pack test one another’s legs while much further back, we settle into short, breathless conversations. Being bad with names, I remember people by their place of origin. Joe becomes “Connecticut” and the guy from Denver, whose name I can’t remember, becomes “Denver”. There’s a warm camaraderie among people who have little thought of racing and who are many thousands of miles away from their comfort zones.
On this first hill, I catch up to my secret weapon: Vancouver. Vancouver has a blond ponytail protruding from under her red helmet and would probably prefer to be called Charlotte. From her easy tempo and relaxed breathing, I’d say she was in great shape. But, tactically, all I care about is that she has a rock-steady pace and will provide all the motivation I need to avoid being dropped on the hills. Being Canadian, she’s too polite to tell me to get off her wheel as I ease up and slot in behind her.
At the top of the hill there is no relaxing as we head left down a narrow channel of churned, ankle-deep, red mud. I charge downhill until my wheels lock under the weight of the clawing clay and my front derailleur vanishes under a ball of red dirt. The more experienced riders walk by, bikes slung across their backs, as I attempt to unearth my once pristine machine with a small stick. The phrase “up shit creek and unable to pedal” echoes in my head. We’re unable to pedal for the next two hours.
By the second checkpoint I’ve already done more climbing than on the longest of my training rides, yet I have another 2,000 metres to ascend. I knew that entering the event was a calculated risk but my cramping legs are making me suspect that calculation was done on an abacus that was short one row of balls.
Sometime after the third checkpoint, I lose Charlotte and I lose any real sense that the ride will ever end. In this transcendental state I grind out mile after mile; a constant drip, drip of sweat falling on my bottom bracket. My gaze is fixed on the track three metres in front of me, oblivious to the mist-shrouded jungle views. But in every village my spirits are lifted by generous offers of food and drink. Some saintly souls run hosepipes from their houses and help wash the bikes. Perhaps most valuable are the cries of “duro, duro” making us feel like heroes as we battle the mud and the grade – even if the first riders passed this way several hours ago.
On the last climb of the day, with the light failing, I catch up with Vancouver. Together with Connecticut, we hammer the paved descent down to the finish. As we cross the line, I promise myself I will never doing anything this painful again, ever. But, like a hangover-reformed alcoholic, I know I will be at it again tomorrow.
Smaller by 75 riders, the peloton heads out of central San Jose the next morning. The armed police escort and the cheering crowds distract me from my tired legs. But we’re soon past the excitement of the start and are once again grinding uphill. Today’s hill is the 3,400m Irazú Volcano. It will take us all morning to climb it.
I fall into conversation with many of the same riders I chatted with yesterday. The familiarity is comforting as Connecticut tells how his wife was near to tears when he arrived in yesterday and Denver gives me tips on tuning my skipping derailleur. In a sense, we’re trapped in this community by the speed at which we can ride – like prisoners. And like all the best prisoner nightmares, my arse is sore.
They say you should stand on the pedals every 20 minutes or so to rest your bum and prevent sterility. But on yesterday’s climbs, I did an unholy deal with my saddle – happy to sacrifice my first born in exchange for relief from cramping calves. Today I’m ready to do more devilish deals to save my sore arse, but I have little left to trade. The best I can do is load up my chamois with enough cream to embarrass a Devon scone. Halfway up the climb I trade my self respect for the indignity of crouching behind a hedge to reapply Assos’s best – noticing too late that the riders on the hairpin beneath me have an unrestricted view up to my hiding place.
After a morning of climbing, I enjoy the longest technical downhill of my life. 35 miles of mud-slithering, gulley-hopping, rock-jumping, edge-of-control charging. The descent claims several victims: bloody faces, grazed shoulders, sprained wrists and at least one rider who ends the day with an arm and a leg in plaster. Luckily, my only damage is four worn-out brake pads and we finish the stage jubilant and laughing as we blast though a coffee plantation.
Day 3, which I’d hoped would be downhill to the sea, starts with more climbing. But we are encouraged by the announcement that they have diverted 30 of today’s 124 kilometres onto the highway. A train took out a bridge that was on the original, off-road route. After the hills, we fly along the Tarmac assisted by wind and a well-organized paceline.
With 35 kilometres to go to the finish, as I am daring to think about when rather than if I will finish, we are directed off the highway onto a railway track. The once-smooth paceline becomes a train of two-wheeled masochists stuttering across the sleepers and scrabbling for control on the loose ballast. But I know I’ve paced myself well as my legs feel strong and Vancouver is just three carriages behind me.
At the end of the line, we reach the Caribbean Sea. Relaxed by the geographical impossibility of more hills, I relish the final 10 kilometres, blasting through the warm, top-tube-deep saltwater pools that crater the trail alongside the beach. I am a little ahead of Vancouver and Connecticut as we all finish strongly, picking off tail-enders on the sandy run into the finish.
Just before the line I ease up, not wanting to pass two Costa Rican riders who had helped me with the loan of a shock pump back in the hills. An error, I realise, as Vancouver blasts by. But, dropping one place is, perhaps, academic as we are both some twelve and a half hours behind Jeremiah Bishop, and he’s half an hour behind the winner, Thomas Frischknecht. And that is part of the magic of this race. In what other event could a rank amateur like me ride in the tracks of the top people in the sport and share a bowl of pasta with them in the evening?
As we travel back to San Jose that evening, I ask Jeremiah if he will be back next year. “Ask me tomorrow,” he says and drifts off to sleep in spite of the twisting and potholed road. But I think he’ll return. There is something about La Ruta – the scenery, the support, the sheer magnitude – that lures people back. I suspect Jeremiah Bishop wants to win the race even more than he did three days ago. I think I might be back too. I only hope Vancouver feels the same way. I’m not sure I could make it without her.