Posts tagged: history

Grueling Costa Rica bike race traces conquistador route

Photo by Joe Lawwill

Tomorrow, on November 17, a few hundred hardcore mountain bikers will line up to start Costa Rica’s 17th annual Ruta de los Conquistadores. It’s an arduous four-day race that runs from the Pacific coast town of Jacó, over rain-soaked mountains and down to the Caribbean port city of Limón.

One of the world’s best-known mountain bike stage races, the 400-kilometer route (with 12,000 meters of climbing) takes riders up Irazú volcano, over train trestles, and through the mud of Carerra National Park.

With the recent heavy rains in Costa Rica, which caused severe flooding and mudslides and led to dozens of deaths, race organizers were checking the course up to the last minute to see if reroutings would be necessary.

La Ruta de los Conquistadores bike race; photo by J. Andrés Vargas

The women and men who ride the route have their work cut out for them, but the explorers for whom the race is named—the Spanish conquistadores of the 1500s—had significantly rougher going.

Back when Costa Rica was still a colonial backwater—the poorest and most far-flung of the territories under the control of Spain’s Kingdom of Guatemala (Audencia de Guatemala)—Spanish Explorer Juan de Cavallón was the first of the conquistadores to traverse Costa Rica from coast to coast, from the Pacific side to the Caribbean.

Even if the native inhabitants of Costa Rica had sent out the welcome wagon, there were no roads for it to run on in those days. The explorers went on horseback, bushwacking their way through the drippy tropical tangle.

Centuries later, in 1992, Costa Rican Román Urbina decided to retrace Cavallón’s route on his bike. Like the explorers of old, Urbina and his band of 34 fellow adventurers sweltered in the coastal heat and shivered through mountain downpours. They peddled up active volcanoes, skidded through mud, and shouldered their bikes to ford rushing rivers. Someone among these gluttons for punishment offered up $50 to whomever managed to finish first.

The Ruta de los Conquistadores mountain bike race was born.

For 12 years only local riders competed. Then, in 2005, renowned Swiss racer Thomas Frischknecht took the crown; a year later, Colombian Leonardo Páez won the race. This year, of the 225 riders, 80 are local; the rest are international. Urbina has estimated that about 10% of the riders are women.

Urbina notes that women do well over the long haul. “They can withstand a lot mentally and physically. In the ultra runs, the women come in the top five. It’s like that in swimming, too.” It’s like that in politics, too: Costa Rica’s first female president, Laura Chinchilla, took office in May.

Louise Kobin during a prior Ruta de los Conquistadores; photo by Rob Jones

In the women’s Ruta de los Conquistadores, the two frontrunners are from the US: Louise Kobin (who has won the race many times) and Leadville 100 winner Rebecca Rusch.

The men’s field includes local favorites and past winners Manuel Prado and Federico Ramirez. Americans Sam Schultz, Blake Harlan, Jason Sager, last year’s runner-up Alex Grant and Thomas Turner are making the trip as is German Ben Sonntag. Lance Armstrong’s long-time coach Chris Carmichael will also be participating in the event. There’s just one woman’s category in the race, but men can compete in the Men’s Open; 30-39; 40-49; and the 50 and over category.

Even if you’re not a front-runner, the race is an opportunity to see the real Costa Rica.

“The Costa Rican landscape is stunning,” Dain Zaffke of wrote recently. “And there’s no better way to experience the country than riding from one coast to the other. Racers pedal through remote villages, far from any highway, where locals offer plastic bags of Coca-Cola and shout encouragement to tortured souls. Children line the course with their hands outstretched, begging for high fives as riders stream past.

Riders [arriving in] the remote coffee plantation-town of Turrialba are commonly greeted by swarms of begging children. But these kids aren’t looking for money or candy—they want autographs. To these young fans it doesn’t matter if you’re Costa Rican cycling star Manuel Prado or a middle-aged doctor from Iowa, simply finishing this beast makes you a hero in their eyes.”