Thursday, October 31, 2013


Heading up just about any climb at La Ruta de Los Conquistadores and I was almost certain to hear a group of locals, known as Ticos, yelling, "Vamanos, Vamanos!" The translation of Vamanos to English is the verb go.  And, I feel so fortunate that I was able to go to Costa Rica last week to constantly and energetically be pushed over the race course with the word vamanos echoing in my ear while doing this epic race.  It was an experience like no other I've ever had on a bike and was truly an adventure over the beautiful country side of Costa Rica.

La Ruta de Los Conquistadores is a multiple stage mountain bike race held for the past 21 years in the country of Costa Rica.  It starts on the Pacific west coast of the country, in the town of Jaco, and over a three day period of time, crosses the entire country to finish on the Caribbean coast in the town of Port of Limon.  During this three day journey, the race goes through a variety of terrains and climbs over many long, steep hills.  Racers travel over dirt roads, paved roads, trails, railroad tracks, and river crossings, but practically see no single track. This lack of single track does make the race less technical than some of the US mountain bike stage races, but the lack of it doesn't make La Ruta any easier.

Make no mistake, La Ruta is one tough race.  I personally think this is due to the large amount of climbing and elevation gain found on the course and the variety of conditions encountered over the three days.  Of course, since I did the race on a rigid singlespeed bike the 23,000 + feet of climbing done over the 182 or so miles we rode made things even a bit tougher for me.  I was initially torn between using my full suspension Specialized Epic with a 1x11 drivetrain or using my Specialized Carve singlespeed for La Ruta.  But, in the end, I picked the singlespeed because I thought the course was going to be really muddy after watching the weather forecast the couple of weeks leading up to the race and seeing previous videos of the race.  Unfortunately, the course was actually pretty fast and had very little mud, which made my singlespeed a much slower choice than I thought it would be.  This wouldn't have been a problem if there was an actual singlespeed class, but there wasn't and I had to make do with my one gear while competing against the other geared riders in my UCI 40-49 age category.

Overall, though, I really didn't mind riding my singlespeed.  It is my bike of choice for training at home and it is usually what I use for racing anyway.  There is a lot to be said about being comfortable on a race bike and I was certainly comfortable on my Specialized Carve.  About the only place I really missed having my Specialized Epic was on the long rocky descent on day #2 and the long fast and flat last 50 miles on day three.  Using the Epic on these sections of the course would have been a huge advantage and probably would have subtracted at least 15 minutes from my overall time.  But, I'm not going to look back or question the use of my singlespeed because it worked perfectly for me and still put me on the podium for my age group.  I'm not sure if another singlespeed rider has ever cracked a podium finish at La Ruta, but it now has been done if it has not been done earlier.

Even though the race starts on Thursday, I decided to arrive in Costa Rica on Tuesday morning.  Arriving a few days early was a nice way to get used to the area, build my bike and just relax after making the trip.  I stayed with my CF Teammate Cheryl Sornson at the race hotel in San Jose on Tuesday and throughout the trip.  It was nice staying with someone I knew and have raced with in the past rather than being roomed with an unknown person.  On Wednesday, all the racers travel to Jaco for registration, a riders meeting and to prepare for the early Thursday morning start of the race.  Jaco is a small, but beautiful, beach town and seemed to be a perfect place to send off the riders for their journey across Costa Rica.  As I rode out of the beach town, I wondered what craziness would be encountered.

Day 1 - After discussing the course with riders who have done La Ruta previously and seeing the race
This large Boa was found on the course on day #1.
course elevation profile, I knew the first day would be difficult.  This day includes the infamous long and steep first climb, the jungle section and big road climb in the middle of the course.  Mixed in with all this climbing were some very fast descents and some very warm temperatures to add to the difficulty of the day.  Even though I wanted some nasty mud to make my singlespeed faster than the geared bikes I was racing against, I was very happy to go through the somewhat dry jungle conditions.  I can't imagine how hard the the jungle section would be if it was wet because the trails were certainly tricky enough without having the serious mud issues this year.  All in all, my singlespeed bike worked very well for all the climbing on day 1 and took me to a third place finish.  

Day 2 - Riders are bused back to San Jose after completing day #1 for the night and then were transported by bus again in the morning to a starting location at Terramall.  Yes, it actually is a shopping mall, if you're wondering.  The race ended up starting 45 minutes late because of the insane traffic on the streets surrounding the mall.  I was happy about the later start because I needed to go over my bike before racing on it again and was also having some stomach issues that seemed to be coming from what I was eating and drinking. Fortunately, after the race started, my stomach would come around and I would feel well enough to put the hammer down.  These issues would return again for the last day of racing.   The climbing on day two is ridiculous.  The entire stage is only about fifty miles long, but the first 28 miles of the race go straight up and took me about three hours to ride.  From that point, the course heads down on some very rocky jeep roads about halfway down the mountain, before becoming very fast on twisty paved roads.  Having a suspension fork on the rocky section of the downhill would have been so nice and even I questioned my sanity for not having one part way down the hill (or should I say volcano).  

Day 3 - Out of all the days, I thought day 3 was going to be the most difficult to do on a singlespeed.  The course climbs over 4000 feet in the first twenty five miles and then gradually descends towards the finish at the Caribbean coast.  I knew if I had any chance of doing well, I would need to use a big gear to keep up with the other riders after the climbing was over.  My decision to use a big gear hurt me pretty bad over the climbs, but it seemed just about right for the fast fifty miles leading to the finish.  The best part about day three is the multiple bridge crossings that seem to be synonymous with doing La Ruta.  I think everyone who does La Ruta for the first time has a bit of fear about going over these bridges before arriving at them. But, as sketchy as they were to cross, I've got to say they were not that bad and I actually learned to cross them pretty quickly.  Probably the hardest part of day three for me was the heat of the afternoon.  I think by the end of the race, I felt hotter than I ever have on a bike and definitely was close to having heat stroke.  But, even with having my trouble with the heat, I still had my best finish of all three days and took the stage win for my category. I would never have guessed a singlespeed could win day three when I viewed the elevation profile.

Overall, doing La Ruta was an incredible experience.  The race promoter, Roman Urbina, told me it's better to treat La Ruta like an adventure rather than a race because it is so tough.  I did my best to follow his advice and concentrate on how I was riding rather than on how others around me were riding.  I think using this strategy helped me stay out of trouble and kept my body from being pushed past its limit.  Before the race started, I told myself that my goal was to finish on the podium in my class.  I'm so happy to report that I did accomplish this goal on an unfamiliar course against many unfamiliar, but friendly faces.  Receiving a La Ruta Conquistador Trophy was definitely a highlight of the trip, as was making many new friends and seeing many new sights.

My new Toucan friend at La Paz!
Rather than leaving the very next day after the race for home, I thought it would be best to stay another day in Costa Rica to properly pack all my belongings and also see more of the country.  I traveled with a group of friends to the high rain forest at the La Paz Waterfalls.  Here, I was able to see many of the wild animals native to Costa Rica up and close as well as take a leisurely stroll through the jungle.  Coupled with the stop at a coffee plantation, it was a perfect way to end my trip to Costa Rica.

I cannot end this post without thanking the National Ultra Endurance Series and Roman Urbina for giving me the opportunity to do La Ruta.  It was an awesome adventure that I will not soon forget.  I will look forward to the day that I might once again be lucky enough to hear, "Vamanos, Vamanos!" as I race up one of the steep hillsides in Costa Rica.


                       Happy Trails...  Gerry

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Iron Cross and No Luck

One of my favorite races to do each year is Iron Cross.  I've done well at this event in the past, but I've also had some spats of bad luck there.  I was hoping this year would be a good race to help me erase my current string of bad luck race results, starting with my misdirected race at the Fool's Gold 100 at the beginning of September and my flat tire at the Three Peaks USA race last week.  Additionally, with Iron Cross being the next to last race in the American Ultra Cross Series, I needed to have a good race to maintain my series lead.

Three years ago I was the first rider to the top of the Wigwam run-up at Iron Cross with a good lead over the next rider in the race until I got my first flat tire of four that day.  Obviously, I was a bit frustrated after those flats on that day of racing.  But, I think the level of frustration I felt was even a bit higher this year because I didn't even make it through the first trail without suffering a flat tire.  Flatting at the beginning of a race is pure torture to me.  It is so hard to stand on the trail side and watch every single rider pass me, while at the same time knowing that the leaders are getting further away with each passing minute.

I tried to stay calm during my clumsy repair of my difficult to change rear flat tire.  But, my calmness did no good in helping me speed up my repair time and I was soon the very last place rider, including even the racers doing the 50K course.  When I jumped back on my bike, I knew there was a lot of work to be done and I knew it would be a long day in the saddle.  I decided almost immediately to just ride as hard as I could and consider the race as more of a training day for La Ruta de Los Conquistadores than an actually race.  I knew thinking like this would help ease the frustration I was feeling and get me through the day.

One good thing about being in last place is that there is always someone to chase down.  This motivates me to push harder and make an attempt to catch the rider in front of me.  And, overall, my chase seemed to be going pretty well early-on.  I was catching tons of riders and eventually caught the leaders of the open women class and my Team CF Teammates, Cheryl and Selene, on the Wigwam run-up.  I knew these fast ladies started two minutes behind the 100K men and that made me feel like I had at least made-up a little time on my category of racers.

But, at about the same time I was starting to feel good about where I might finish for the day, I was beginning to have serious issues with my steering.  It was very difficult to turn my handlebars and when I did attempt to steer the bars, they would need to be forced back to the straight ahead position.  This made descending at 50+ mph on the gravel roads real tricky and it was even difficult to climb out of the saddle with this mechanical issue.  It felt like metal was rubbing on metal and I feared that maybe the steer tube on my fork had cracked.  This made me a bit nervous and I started to think that maybe it would be best if I just took A DNF for the day when I arrived back at checkpoint two, which was also the start/finish line and the beginning of the third part of the course.

At checkpoint #2, however, I learned that I was the sixth place rider in the large and fast singlespeed field.  I decided to push forward with a very close eye on my fork and headset.  I eventually caught a couple of more singlespeed riders, including another teammate of mine, Roger Masse.  It's always good to see a friendly face in a race and it also felt good to know that only three other singlespeed riders were ahead of me.

Not long after seeing Roger, I soon saw Stephan Kincaid climbing ahead of me.  I eventually caught up to him and saw that he was in pretty bad shape from being involved in a crash earlier in the race.  Stephan was still riding hard and was sticking right with the hard pace I was trying to set.  It felt good to actually be racing with someone rather than just chasing down the next guy in front of me, so I was enjoying Stephan's company and hoping we would soon catch the two remaining singlespeed riders: Matt Ferrari and D-Rapp.

But, as my luck of the day would have it, I suffered my second flat and had to watch Stephan ride away alone.  Fixing all these flat tires the past couple of weeks must have made me a little quicker with this repair because it seemed like I was able to get back on the bike a lot quicker this time.  So, I started my chasing chore again and one-by-one I started to catch the riders ahead of me.  But, this time I only had less than 20 miles to catch the remaining riders instead of 67 miles.  I worried that there might not be enough time or miles left in the race to move back into third, so I dug deeper than I have in a long time to make up my lost time.

During this time, I kept my eyes focused ahead for other riders, but never saw the Stan's Notube kit of Stephan.  I began to wonder if he might have taken a wrong turn or abandoned the race due to his crash injuries or bike issues.  But, after catching the new third place singlespeed rider, Matt Ferrari, I learned that Stephan had moved into second and was still ahead of me.  When I caught the next rider ahead of me and asked how far ahead the NoTubes rider was, it was a little difficult to hear him say Stephan was about 4-5 minutes ahead, especially with only a few more miles of racing to go until the finish.

But, I powered-on anyway and put all my remaining energy into climbing the last climb as fast as I could.  My legs ached and not seeing anybody ahead made my effort seem pointless, but then I caught a glimpse of Stephan through the trees and suddenly the pain I was feeling seemed to vanish.  It was hard to pass Stephan when I did catch him because I knew he had suffered badly to finish this race after his crash.  Hearing his kind words as I passed didn't make my pass any easier.  He is a true sportsman and I have a lot of respect for him and his difficult race that day.

I did not have the race I wanted to have at Iron Cross, but I am happy with my riding and how I was able to overcome the issues of the day to finish as the second placed singlespeed rider.  I've come to realize over the past couple of weeks of racing how lucky I've been over the years.  I'm usually a pretty lucky guy when it comes to racing and I guess it's hard to understand this until things go bad a few weeks in a row.  Hopefully, my spell of bad luck is done for a while now and I can go back to my winning ways.

I'll be doing some regular cross racing the next couple of weeks before heading to Costa Rica for La Ruta and then finishing out the year with more cross racing and the finial American Ultra Cross Series Race, the Gravel Grovel in Indiana.  As it stands, I still have the lead in the series with one win and three second place finishes, but if D-Rapp can take the singlespeed win at the final race, he will be the series SS champ.  My luck over the past couple of weeks sure has made racing interesting lately and it looks like the championship race will be just as interesting.

On a final note, I've got to say thanks to Mike Kuhn and all of his help for putting on a fantastic race.  This year's Iron Cross course was the best I've ever ridden.  Oh, and if you're curious to see what the course was like this year, checkout Jayson O'Mahoney's race video below.  It definitely gives some good views of the course offerings!

Happy Trails....  Gerry