Sunday, November 25, 2007

La Ruta, Day 1: Jacó to El Rodeo

Let me preface this by saying i'm not much of a mountain biker. I love mountain biking, but i'm not a great technical rider, so i'm pretty slow at the descents and this ride had some long, gnarly, rough descents. And though i certainly pushed myself as much as i could while doing this race, i knew i wasn't in contention for anything (other than 69th place, which i barely lost), so i stopped often to take pictures and enjoy some of the views.

I'll list here the course data i got from my garmin. The elevations i recorded are quite a bit less than those the race promoters publish (though that doesn't diminish at all the extent of the suffering on those climbs), and my total kilometer count was usually a little different too.

Race promoters stats for stage 1:
Distance: 95 km
Total ascent: 4,420 m/14,501 feet

My stats for stage 1:
Distance: 93.85 km
total ascent: 10,848 ft
total descent:

i'm posting the total descent as well as the ascent because i think it's just about as critical to understanding the race. It gives you a sense of just how much up and down there is, and although there are some crazy fast descents on paved or grated gravel roads, a lot of the descents are on rough, rocky, rutted roads or trails that take as much work as the climbs.


Standing in the Pacific Ocean tuesday night before the race.

The downside of it getting light so early in CR is that they started the race at 5:00 am the first day and 6:30 the rest of the days. That meant that we were usually getting up at 2:30-3:30 am depending on how far we had to shuttle from our hotel to the race start. So, first morning, we have to get up for breakfast at 2:30 for a 3:00 am breakfast, then load the buses at 3:45 to go from our hotel back over to the race start where we get our bikes, drop off our gear bags, and line up. Dang! i didn't set my ipod time to the right time zone and with no alarm clock in the hotel room i overslept. Barely enough time to grab some rolls and a banana before jumping on the bus.

There's a long line at the bike pick-up, and when i finally get there to pick up my bike the woman tells me i can't take it without my id lanyard (which is in my gear bag, which has already been loaded on the truck), this despite the fact that the night before at the orientation meeting they had told us all we needed to get our bikes was our name and our number. After some negotiating in my broken spanish and her even more broken english i get my bike and head to the start.

Big firework display, the Black Eyed Peas' "let's get it started" blasting over the sound system, a countdown to zero, and we're off.

As you see, however, it actually took us at the back of the group almost a minute and a half to cross the start line.

The first 5k out of Jacó are nice and flat. About 2k of paved road, then we turn off onto dirt. Just after 5k, however, the course goes vertical. This is problematic for two reasons: 1) it's steep as hell 2) there are 500 riders trying to ride a narrow, steep gravel road. You can imagine how the domino effect plays out. One person stops or dabs and everyone else behind has to stop as well. The road is rideable, steep, but rideable, but with so many people trying to negotiate it i ended up walking more than i wanted. Language is also an issue. With riders from 30 different countries represented you can't just ride up the left side and yell, "left," because there's a pretty good chance that whoever you're riding up on doesn't speak english.

Push my bike when i have to, and ride as much as i can. It starts to thin out, but even now that we have space to ride some people are still pushing their bikes on account of the steepness. Imagine puke hill on the Wasatch Crest trail, just about five or six times longer.

After a good 5-6 km of this killer climb we reach the top and start a descent on roads as steep as the ones we just climbed. Added hazard now is that we're enveloped in rain clouds. This descent is fast and for the most part smooth, but i can't see more than 20 meters ahead of me.
We ride through a little town where some of the support crews have come to cheer, then get turned off the road onto some singletrack. It looks nice for about 50 meters, then turns into a steep, rocky, muddy, rutted ravine. i ride what i can, walk some, ride some, walk some, then see a long smooth run out and get on my bike happy to have something fast and smooth. i pick up speed, then smooosh, slide out in the soft mud at the bottom of the glide and end up in the bushes. Damn! hit my left leg on the bike frame and twisted the handlebars.

If you look in this pic behind the line of riders you'll see a guy standing to the right. This is the place i went down, and in the 3-4 minutes i was fixing my handlebars i saw three other guys go down as well.

Handlebars are fixed, jump back on the bike and keep going. Lots of little ups and downs, then we take a turn into the jungle and our first river crossing. Stunningly beautiful, even more so for someone like me from a desert state with an average rainfall of 20" or something like that.

Again, ride when i can, but walk over a lot of the river rocks, and then come around a corner to the first feed zone.

Grab some food, drink lots of gatorade, fill the water bottles and add my powdered drink mix to one, then we're off again. It was 25k to the first feed zone and only about 12k to the second. That's foreboding. Lot's of mud, more river crossings, then the impossibly steep and muddy hills. Stop in the river, submerge my bike and try to get the mud out of the derailleurs. Stop in the next river and do the same.

Shit! i didn't train for this. i trained to ride my bike. carrying my bike up and down these steep ass hills is working my calves in ways they're not used and i can feel them starting to burn. What advice would i give to someone training for la ruta? Ride your bike a lot, BUT, you should also find the steepest incline you can, preferably rutted, muddy, and long, and do intervals pushing your bike up AND down. Just do laps. That's the best way i can think of to replicate what you'll be doing on this section of the course.

Ah, the squeal of wet disk brakes from off in the trees. that means two things: 1) we're almost at the top of the climb and 2)the descent is rideable. shit! rideable for about 50 meters, now pick my way through mud-covered rocks on a rutted, slick, singletrack. Even when i can ride it the person in front of me often can't, so i have to walk anyway. Two hours to cover 12k.

Off onto gravel roads now at about 35k and a quick descent down to the next feedzone. Dang! Looks like someone had a close one around a tight gravel corner. Skid marks leading right up to an iron rail on a bridge with a good 30 meter drop to the river below. Bet that guy has more than mud in his shorts.

Feed zone 2, grab some more food, try to choke down some peanut butter sandwiches, i spend half my time at the feedzone forocing myself to swallow, wash it down with gatorade, fill the water bottles and head out again.

About a km out of the feedzone another river crossing, but here there's a mechanic with a big hose attached to a pump in the middle of the river. Yes, please clean my bike off. he sprays it down with the high pressure hose, out of the river on the other side where two more mechanics are ready with big 'ol bottles of lube. spin the cassette, lube it good, and i'm off again.

One more river crossing, and then more climbing. At the top of a climb a group of school kids in the middle of the street yelling at me. What do they want? Que? Autographo? Dang, shouldn't have stopped, they all want my autograph. Don't they know i'm a nobody. Anybody worth getting an autograph from already passed by two hours ago. i start signing as fast as i can. they write my number 470 next to my name. i'm scribbling my autograph so i can get moving, and they want to know my name. It's matt bradley. they write down max, so i write my name for one of the kids so they can get it right, but now they all want it written in theirs. And another girl comes back for a second autograph because the page ripped in her school book when i signed the first.

Quiero hacer una foto. Ok, gracias, tengo que ir. and i'm off again. more quick, short descents and climbs in little river gulleys and small canyons, then another long, steep climb. i pass a few guys walking and i'm tempted to do the same, but keep pushing myself to ride. i'm fried, starting to bonk, got to eat something. finally i cave in and get off the bike to eat while i walk. I put down a chocolate raspberry luna bar and some gu blocks, wash my hands in a hose a woman standing out in the road is holding out for cyclists, get back on my bike and keep going. Hit the next feedzone at the top of that climb, still feeling pretty weak and out of energy. I had ridden some of the early climbs above my LT, and now i'm paying the price. Take a minute, eat lots of food, banananas, choke down more tuna and peanut butter sandwiches, chase them with gatorade. I need more lube though. I see a woman with a revolution mountain sport shirt on, my local bike shop, so i chat with her for a minute, ask if she's got any lube. She doesn't, but the woman she's with does. They lube my bike again, and i head out.

One more big climb, all paved, but long (25k). I settle into a comfortable pace. Keep the heart rate at 155 or so and pedal. Starting to feel better now that i've got some food in me. Man, this would be miserable on a singlespeed i'm thinking as i come around a bend and catch a guy pushing a real big gear. That's a big gear, i'm thinking as i catch him, then realize it's his only gear.

"I was just thinking how rough this would be on a singlespeed, and here you are," i say as i pass. He concedes, but plods along with typical singlespeeder pride.

Recent construction makes the road tacky and slow. In some spots i can actually hear my tires sticking to the new pavement.

The view's amazing. I take in as much as i can, but have fixated on the radio towers i can see a few km ahead. Radio towers mean top of the climb. Pretty soon i hit feedzone 4, the last for the day, stock up again, then get back on the bike. Radio towers are getting closer. Wait, i'm passing the radio towers, but they are not at the top of the climb. What a lousy psych out, this climb keeps going. Damn!

Another 2 km and i'm at the top and start the descent. Off the paved road for some more insanely steep descents on loose gravel roads. Pass a school bus full of kids going around a wide turn and head into a short climb. Gotta piss, so i pull off where our course heads down a narrow, steep, rutted section and the main road continues up. Pull up the spandex, take care of business, finish just as the bus is catching up to me. "That bus has got to go straight," i'm thinking, but it turns down the same road i'm going down, and now i'm behind it. Dang! Not as much room here to pass with no shoulder and a steep drop on the right. Don't want to follow this bus as it picks its way slowly down this hill though, so i pedal hard and squeeze by with all the school kids cheering for me and the bus driver probably calling me a few names.

A few more km of descent, then the road levels for a few km before starting the short, final ascent to the finish. I'm feeling good now. Legs feel fresh. I've got good energy. I pick it up a little to the finish, passing 20 or so people on the last climb. come over a little rise and see the Crystal water banners indicating the finish line. Make my way through some final mud and across the finish in 9'19".


Great little town with nice beaches in both directions. I was staying with a couple of guys who were there to surf, but because i didn't want to use muscles i didn't usually use, or give myself some sort of neck cramp right before the race i resisted the urge to surf. Instead i watched other people surf...

and I read.

It gets light crazy early in Costa Rica, like at 5:30 am. I didn't realize this, so the first morning i was there i was up and getting my bike ready by 6:00. I had finished a ride and made it back to the vista del mar by 8:00, and i thought it was around 11:00. It was nice to get some early rides in though and check out some of the beaches. First day i rode north to Playa Ostianal.

The second day before i loaded up to drive down to Jacó i rode south to Playa Garza.

I definitely recommend Lodge Vista del Mar for anyone headed that direction. It's a few clicks from the beach, but the view is worth it and the west-facing balconies are a great place to end the day watching the sunset.


A quick digression from the race report. i learned the word "ajedrez" (chess) while trying to read El Amor en los Tiempos del Cólera (i actually have to keep the english translation version open to the same pages so i can read paragraph by paragraph).

I probably wouldn't have remembered that word had it not been for a recent conversation i had with someone who keeps a book of chess moves on her book shelf. She told me she had been really interested in the book for a few weeks, carried it with her everywhere, studied it whenever she got the chance, then she got kind of bored with it and stuck it on the shelf as she moved on to other interests. I feel kind of like that book of chess moves.

Friday, November 23, 2007

La Ruta

Absolute, best way to procrastinate a disseration: sign up for a 4-day mountain bike stage race in a foreign country. Beyond the 10 days required for the trip itself, you also have to make sure your bike is in good working order, you have to pack, and it will take a few days to recover with some good relaxation when you get home. But the big time suck is the training. It takes months of riding to be ready for a race like this. So here's my report on La Ruta, a 4-day mtb race in Costa Rica that goes from Jacó beach on the pacific ocean across the country to Puerto Limon on the Caribbean (I use the term "across the country" quite loosely, because that implies a somewhat direct route and it would perhaps be more accurate to say up and down, up and down, up and down, and up and down every hill and mountain in the country from one coast to the other).


Flew into Liberia, rented a car and drove to Nosara to "acclimate" (mostly read on the beach and do some easy rides) in this little surf town for a few days before heading down to Jacó for the race. My brother lived in Costa Rica for 6 months, so before i left i asked him if i would be alright renting a midsize car or if i would need a 4-wheel drive. He advised me that there are so many potholes on the roads in CR that if i took my eyes off the road for a second i would mostly loose a hubcap, if not a whole tire, but that i would probably be alright with the midsize car. So i reserved a toyota corolla, which i was relieved to see when i picked it up, that it didn't have any hubcaps to worry about losing anyway.

The rental car people pointed me in the right direction (after doubling my car reservation fees by adding "drop off charges" and liability insurance because i didn't have enough on my debit card to make a $1750 deposit) and gave me a map and i headed out for Nosara.
First 30 k i made good time, rolling through some nice little towns on good roads. I found the most direct route to Nosara, that also looked like it paralleled the beach, and from what i saw out of the airplane window as we flew in, it looked a beautiful drive along the coast from Tamarindo to Nosara. As i started out from Santa Cruz towards the coast the road started to get progressively worse. At one point the potholes were so bad i wondered, "why bother paving if it gets this bad, why not just leave dirt roads, they can't possibly get worse than this." I was soon to find out what a foolish thought that was. But i was still a new experience and i was taking in the country until i got lost in a little town (road signs are notoriously absent in CR), and had to stop and ask directions. the kid i asked was headed the same direction (at least a little ways), so i gave him a ride and he gave me directions. he told me i should go back to Santa Cruz and take the road down from Nicoya, but that looked like a long way to backtrack. I asked him if the road i was on was bad, and he said it wasn't much worse than what we were on, so i continued on. I let him out at a crossroads a little further and kept on. The road had turned from paved to dirt, but it was broad and though pocked with potholes, still in pretty favorable condition. What i didn't count on, however, were the river crossings. They didn't start out too bad, mostly just big puddles. I was a little nervous about the little corolla, but the rivers were shallow and i made it through them without too much problem.

As i got further along, however, the rivers seemed to get bigger and deeper. It wasn't too long that i came to a river crossing that wasn't just a crossing, but more of a traverse. The road entered the river, continued downstream for a good 200 meters, then exited on the opposite bank.

In the top middle of this pic you can see where the road turns and enters the river. it continues under the suspension bridge from where i took this picture downstream another 100 meters before exiting on the opposite bank.

It was at about this same time that it started to occur to me that i had only seen motorcycles and 4x4s on this road (and the occassional bus rocking along at an awfully slow pace). With maybe more than a little bit of foolish naivity i put the car in 2nd and drove the little corolla into the river trying to keep it at a moderate, steady pace. I could smell the water vaporizing into steam off the hot engine, put kept it moving, easing it through the deep sections, and pulling out on the other bank without too much problem.

I was feeling pretty confident in the little corolla at this point, and as i knew i was nearing Nosara i didn't worry too much. After a few more kilometers i came across another, much shorter river crossing. Without too much thought i drove through, but this time the exit on the opposite bank was steeper and a bit muddier. I tried to keep my speed steady, but my tires started to spin out and the car stopped half way out. I put it in reverse, slowly backed back into the river to where it was shallow enough i could try again, and made another attempt. Damn! same thing! half way out and the car spun out and got stuck. Back up again, try a little more speed, but keep it steady, and, yes, spin through the mud all the way out to the dry road. Nice.

Now the only problem was that i really didn't know where the bed and breakfast i was staying at was. In fact on my way to the airport i realized i had forgotten to print out or write down any info, including the name, of the bed and breakfast. Fortunately during my layover in Atlanta i had found a pay by the minute email kiosk and logged into my email account to look up the name of the B&B in an email my buddy had sent me. so that's all i had to go on: The Vista del Mar lodge in Nosara, CR. Fortunately Nosara is pretty small and as i rolled into town and asked directions the locals were quickly able to point out directions to me. Just as it was getting dark (3+ hrs into what i thought would be a 90 minute drive) i rolled into the Vista del Mar and took in the nice sunset over the Pacific Ocean.

When i returned the car I noticed a poster on the wall of the rental car office declaring that cars driven through rivers would not be covered by the insurance. oops!