EPIC Race Report: El Reto de los Volcanes

**FAIR WARNING: this is an epic tale… The visual imagery is here!

In early April, Maureen traveled to San Jose for a 3-day mountain bike stage race. Here is a recap of her adventure:

Sometime in the winter, Joy, my friend and fellow rookie mtb racer, sent me a very short email with lots of exclamation points and question marks. She wanted to know if I wanted to go to Costa Rica for a mountain bike stage race. Her high school friend went in 2008 and had good things to say about it. Costa Rica has been high on my list of places to see for a while, and I’ve been interested in checking out mtn bike stage racing. So I thought about my response for exactly 10 seconds–YES!

To preface everything, I have to say I didn’t think much of the name of the race, except that I thought it translated as “The route of the volcanoes.” More on that later…
Joy and I rendezvous’d at the airport in San Jose. Our bikes and belongings arrived too—always a bonus for international travel! The race director picked us up in an awesome van that had an integrated loading ramp at the back bumper. He escorted us to our hotel, a nice place near the town of Santa Barbara. The climbing started here, within the first hour of my trip. The van struggled to get up the steep hill from Santa Barbara to the hotel. Then there was the hill from the dining room to our hotel room…Costa Rica is anything but flat!

We had one day between our arrival and the race-start to settle in. The first day (Thursday), we discovered the sun rises at 5:30am, there is really good pizza to be found, and that you can get a spare derailleur hanger for a new Gary Fisher frame from a small bike shop in Costa Rica. We spent a lot of this day waiting for the bike shop to open after lunch—it seems the Costa Ricans are serious about a leisurely lunch break. After spending most of the afternoon in town, we rode back up to the hotel and got ready for the first day of racing.

The following morning we awoke early and had a nice breakfast featuring a HUGE block of farmers cheese, scrambled eggs, some chorizo, and beans & rice. A big passenger van arrived and out came Javier, our chillax, kind-hearted, ponytailed, and pink Bluetooth-wearing Costa Rican driver. He loaded our bikes onto the roof with the help of his young sidekick that Joy affectionally refers to as Tumnus. We rolled in style in our big 10-passenger van with the backwards-facing front row. Our crew of non-ticos included Justin and Amy from Chattanooga, who heard about this race last year from a flyer posted at a tiny bikeshop in Tennessee. Justin and Joy went to high school together back in the Dark Ages 😉 and that’s how Joy ended up down there. Then there was Jason, an endurance fiend from Florida with a race resume that includes La Ruta and the 11-day trans-Portugal race. Finally there was Daniel and Tami, a couple from Mexico City that can handle just about anything—paddling, rock climbing, biking…they recently completed the Trans-Mexico bike race. Plus they spoke Spanish, so we gringos were psyched to have them with us!!

Now for some details on the stages:

Day 1: 28 mi, 6300′ climbing. We climbed up the side of Irazu Volcano. Our route didn’t even summit the volcano but I still climbed on my bicycle continuously for 2 hours and 45 minutes. I had no idea it was possible to ride a bike uphill for that long!! There were exactly 3 segments that were not upward progress in this 2hr 45min. We climbed up steep, sandy double-track that was technical in many sections. There were some very steep pitches (>20% grade) that I was very proud to ride past lots of guys walking their bikes. It was an overcast day when we started down at 4000′, but as we steadily climbed I realized we would reach the clouds! Eventually I was riding in a foggy mist (and still climbing). I rounded countless blind turns, hoping for the end of the climbing. Around every corner it was foggy and hard to see what was ahead. Inevitably it was an inclined surface. This is when I learned to expect more climbing–Keep the bar low and (eventually) be pleasantly surprised. When someone said we had finally reached the highest point of the ride (around 9000’ elevation), I didn’t believe them. According to the course profile there were 2 checkpoints before we reached the top, and so far we had only reached the first one. It turned out the first checkpoint didn’t exist as I expected (a sag stop with food and water is what I had in mind), so we were actually getting ready to descend. Which is a good thing, because I had already climbed for nearly 3 hours, and if we had only just reached the first checkpoint, I would still have at least another 1.5 hours of upward progress to make. At the checkpoint I feasted on papas (boiled little potatoes with salt), watermelon, bananas, and galletas (cookies!). I also refilled my hydration pack and tried some Isostar energy drink. On the descent we went through a cattle farm (just as smelly as the big CAFOs on I-5), past a mine, and through some of the fluffiest dust I’ve ever seen. Three inches of fluffy dirt made for super-sketchy descending; I can’t imagine that stuff during the rainy season. We descended some of what we climbed up, and I realized while ripping downhill at Mach-10 that we had climbed up some very steep terrain. There were a few short climbs to the end that punished my tired mind. Finally I reached the end of the stage in 3hrs 42min. The first day I thought it would be good to bring a lot of ‘supplies’ for the ride, you know, in case I was benighted, in case I had to bust out some Survivor-skills. So I brought a knife, a headlamp, energy food, sunblock, extra clothes…you name it and I probably had it. This meant I had one heavy backpack, and I didn’t realize just how heavy it was until after the stage when Justin lifted my backpack and told me I could’ve shaved about 30 minutes off my time without it. It easily weighed 10 lbs.

Joy and Justin rode sans hydration packs, and of course they survived. It wasn’t an epic, 12-hour ride…it was just a 4-hour ride, but still epic. Ok, tomorrow I won’t make that mistake. Joy finished about 20 minutes ahead of me today, which meant I had a lot of ground to make up over the next 2 days. And in first place already was the Costa Rican National Champion, a strong little climbing tica that beat Joy by 20 minutes! Whew, what a day we had.

Our bikes were pretty dirty, but the mechanic from the local bikeshop offered to clean our bikes for a mere $8! We took that deal and later that night we got our bikes back…they looked brand new! Even the tires were shining.

Day 2: 23 mi, 6400′ climbing on Volcan Barva. Today I left the backpack at home and carried 3 bottles. The race started from our hotel this morning, which was nice. It was funny to hear course information from the race director. They were explaining details about the route today in SPANISH, and I had no idea what they were saying. I looked over at Joy with a quizzical face and she just shrugged her shoulders. Right from the start we were climbing…first up that hill from the dining room. Then we continued climbing on some of the steepest paved roads I’ve ever imagined. Justin warned us that when a road is paved, it’s because it’s steep. Well, this road today was so steep I can’t believe it didn’t get washed away–I was riding in my little chainring (“Bulldog”) and my 2nd from easiest gear and STILL WORKING HARD! We also had a horrible hike-a-bike section on slippery, clayey mud that lasted at least a mile. At the top I had just under 2 hrs straight climbing. From there we headed down a forested descent that was very slippery and muddy…but it was singletrack in a jungle! The route continued on a beautiful green hillside and dropped onto a road. Then we hit a steep downhill chute that was quite sketchy.
Eventually we hit a rocky dirt road that was the last climb of the day, a serious one with just under 1000 feet of climbing. This climb dragged on forever and after 25 minutes I started getting angry. Angry because i didn’t know the route, angry because we had ALREADY climbed 4000 feet today, angry because what kind of race director was Henry?? Where was the amazing singletrack? Well, not in Costa Rica. After dropping my climbing companion (the anger helped me go faster!) and summiting this climb in 35 minutes, I was NOT rewarded with a fun singletrack descent to the finish. I didn’t even get to descend on dirt! That’s right, it was a ROAD descent!! Talk about adding insult to injury…not only end the day with a long, hard climb, but send us to the finish on a paved descent…

At the finish I was miffed. But I calmed down when we had a great lunch at Freddo Fresas including a yummy strawberry smoothie, a cappuccino, and a piece of chocolate cake. While I was at lunch I finally asked the question: Why is La Ruta de los Conquistadores called La Ruta but this race is called El Reto? (I was assuming that ruta and reto both meant route) Well, my tico friend Jose explained that EL RETO means CHALLENGE, not route! Talk about having an ah-ha moment!! Suddenly my perspective was changed. I realized this wasn’t a mountain bike race…it was an adventure. It was a brutally hard course to test your mettle. Ok I finally understood. And I stopped whining about the route…for the most part 😉 Today I only finished 4 minutes behind Joy!! Riding sans backpack definitely helped, but it seemed like Joy had 2nd place locked up.

Again we got our bikes washed for the greatest deal in town and had a relaxing evening. Tomorrow was already the final day! I was still feeling good…not too tired and still had decent legs. Since this was my first stage race, my main goal was to survive the experience.

Day 3: 28 mi, 7000′ climbing on Volcan Poas. We awoke today with someone beating on our door. It was Daniel, he said there was a time change and we lost an hour overnight! Joy and I rushed out of bed and got ready in 15 minutes. It was still pre-dawn! After another 10 minutes we found out Daniel’s cell phone changed time for some unknown reason, but Costa Rica had NOT changed time today. Joy was flustered by the mix-up; I thought it was hilarious. It definitely seemed like par for the course. Joy was super-tired today, but I felt ok…so I thought that maybe, just maybe I could finish ahead of her today! But NO! Even in her exhausted state Joy can climb circles around me. However, I do have one redemption: I can climb steep technical rocky fireroads. The ones where you’re in your easiest gear, sitting on the very tip of your saddle and PUSHING hard. Where you have to avoid loose rocks and KEEP CRANKING! Some of them that I rode today were >20% grade.

Today was no easy-peasy joy-ride to Paris! The route today had 3 x 1hour climbs. We started the day on the road that we descended on Day 2. Turns out it was pretty easy because I was able to ride the whole thing in my middle ring. Then we had a LONG, technical descent! It was full of big rocks and slippery in some parts. Then we dumped out onto a steep paved descent that seemed to drop off into oblivion. We lost so much elevation rocketing down the volcano towards San Jose that I thought about just continuing onto the airport and waiting there 🙂
After this endless descent (we must’ve been below sea level at this point 😉 the road started turning upwards. We started climbing on a hot, open road past lots of houses. At one aid station I was given 2 little baggies, one filled with Coke and the other filled with Jello (yes, Jello!). The coke was not flat and too fizzy for me to take in while climbing, and the Jello just seemed sketchy. Eventually the paved road turned to dirt, and slowly I climbed into a forest. The dirt road got steeper and rutted, but I kept on riding. I enjoyed the challenge of maintaining pressure on the pedals and staying upright at such low speeds. I was PSYCHED to ride all the way to the top and past a bunch of guys walking. The descent after this climb was the most fun on the trip. Kinda grassy, kinda rocky, forested and twisty…I got into a flow and really enjoyed it. At the end I was dumped back onto a paved road, through a farm, and back onto another climb.

This climb was the final ascent of the race. I heard it was tough, several kilometers in length, and so steep that no one would be able to ride it. Well, sadly, all of these rumors were correct. It was a bummer to finish on such a nasty hike-a-bike. It really was so steep and slippery that I could barely hike it. There were Sunday joy-riders out in jeeps and 4-wheelers gunning past me and spewing exhaust in my face. I hiked with my bike for about 30 minutes. I was tired and longing for the end of this misery. With my 3 years of high school spanish I concocted a dialogue with Henry: “Por que este ruta? Por que?! Este ruta es muy mal para la bicicleta! Necessito un motorbike! No me gusta!” I passed a lot of stray dogs sleeping in driveways and considered joining them. They seemed much smarter than I! FINALLY I reached a point where I could remount my bike. Then I reached the top. Henry was there watching the race. I said “No me gusta!” Guess where the route took me after this climb? Yep, back on the ROAD DESCENT! Bummer. My legs just started feeling crampy on the road…good thing the race was ending. I survived the hidden ditch crossing at the finish line (a few unlucky people endo’d here). I finished! The end of this race was absolutely brutal. But it is called El Reto…

I finished 3rd again today. I was happy with a string of 3rd place finishes behind the Costa Rican National Champion and the climbing beast Joy. I was 30 minutes behind Joy, most of this time I lost on the first day with my silly survival backpack. Tami ended up 4th and Amy was 6th.
We ended our day drinking muchas cervezas in the hot tub at the hotel. We were happy to be finished and swapped stories of misery. Joy and I were flying home the next day to get back to reality. Justin, Amy, Daniel, and Tami had the following week to take a proper vacation in Costa Rica…I was definitely jealous.

Costa Rica is an amazing place! I wouldn’t recommend a mountain biking vacation just yet…I’d wait till there is ample singletrack. But if you want to hang out with wonderful, relaxed people and experience rugged natural beauty, book your flight now!

Thanks for reading this epic report about my epic adventure! VENCI EL RETO!

Here are my updated photos.

cheers, Maureen