An interview with Sue Haywood, November 24, 2007
Sue Haywood (Trek / VW) came home with a win after competing in her first La Ruta de los Conquistadores. She conquered long climbs, hike-a-bikes and three-time women's winner Louise Kobin over four days and 360km. She talked to Cyclingnews' Sue George about her first-time experience in Costa Rica's legendary mountain bike stage race.
Haywood (Trek / VW) and Federico "Lico" Ramirez (BCR-Pizza Hut-Powerade-KHS) were crowned champions at the end of the 15th edition of La Ruta which featured plenty of climbing, mud, and railroad bridges to keep things interesting. While it was Ramirez's fourth win, Haywood was a La Ruta newbie. Both winners claimed victory in three of the four total stages.
Haywood decided to do La Ruta after being part of the winning women's team at the TransRockies in August. "[La Ruta] is one of those races that has been on the radar because they say it's the hardest mountain bike race in the world and it's in a warm place in November."
"It's not just a mountain bike race. It is the hardest mountain bike adventure race. To me, it's not just the mountain biking that makes it difficult. There is [almost] no singletrack, and for me, singletrack and mountain biking go hand in hand. But it's certainly a difficult race especially when it's your first time you don't know what's coming up."
"The mud wasn't as soul-crushing as I thought it would be. But ... sometimes my wheels would stop turning." -Sue Haywood on the mud racers encountered at La Ruta
"Being in a Latin American country means things are more chaotic and a little bit different. People are really relaxed in general. They know everything isn't going to be like clockwork. There is a feeling of camaraderie because the race is so difficult. People have so much respect for each other that they're doing the race."
The bus transfers and 5:30 am starts only add the culture shock in making the race tough for foreigners.
Haywood battled with Louise Kobin (Sho Air-Rock and Road) as her main competition for the race. Kobin has done the race five times and won three times. Her other two attempts have ended in second places.
The two women rode near each other throughout the race, but not with each other. "Since there are 550 people racing, we often stayed close and we couldn't trust what people are saying [about who was where] things get lost in translation."
"We often rode close but not together except for the last day. For a lot of the race, we were only separated by a few minutes." Then the Trek / VW racer would pull away near the end - at least for the first three stages. Haywood said she spent much of the race riding with the same batch of racers. "There was a group of maybe eight or so people I'd ride with at different times - a lot of the masters guys."
In fact, Haywood rode the first two stages of the race on a borrowed bike, thanks to a local who worked at a nearby Trek dealer. Her bike didn't make it down with her on the airplane. "I was lucky to be able to race. I got my bike for the third and fourth day. The borrowed bike was one size smaller than I normally ride, so I was worried about not being used to it, but everything worked out fine.
Mud, mud, mud
The amount and consistency of the mud left an impression on Haywood. "Being from the East Coast and West Virginia, I have seen bits of mud like that, but I guess we just don't have as much clay. It was really slippery clay. It was definitely extreme mud."
"They said some things were better and some were worse as far as the mud went this year. The mud wasn't as soul-crushing as I thought it would be. But it did make the downhills so hard. Sometimes my wheels would stop turning."
Sometimes the mud was so severe that walking was the only option. Referring to a downhill near the end of stage three, Haywood said, "I would have to call it stupid for sure. It was one of the only pieces of singletrack in the race, after 12,000 feet of climbing that day. There was a hike-a-bike section before that, too. A saint of a guy helped us lift our bikes up this muddy cliff."
"I think some people were riding that downhill on their top tubes, but I had to walk the whole thing. There was this crazy cliff on the left side, some riders slipped off. It wasn't a fun way to end the day."
The race did take a toll on the bikes, but the Costa Ricans had some different approaches to keeping the bikes rolling. "I signed up for the mechanical services. One day they washed the bikes with water and kerosene."
"They really greased down all the drivetrains. Out on the course, volunteers offered to lube people's chains with olive oil and motor oil. The motor oil worked great but you could see all the oil on the road and in some of the water after that. There was a different environmental attitude down there. But my bike worked great the whole time."
Railroad bridges and ties
As if the mud weren't enough, racers also faced crossing rail road bridges located high above rivers.
"I thought they were pretty terrifying," said Haywood who estimated there were about five bridges. "The first time we hit one was after a muddy section. You had to carry your bike over these slippery ties with rushing water underneath. Occasionally there would be a tie missing and you'd have to make a taller step to get across."
"As long as you took it easy, it was ok, but I was so impressed with Louise - she walked across those bridges so fast. I had to make up time after each one, often a minute or more. That's probably her experience talking."
The bridges weren't the racers' only encounters with railroads. On the final day, they rode 35 km of railroad ties. "The ties are concrete there. There are sections when you're hitting them hard and other sections that they are covered up with rocks - bigger than gravel and those aren't quite so rough. There were some sections you could ride to the side," said Haywood, who claimed that portion of the race wasn't as tough as it sounded.
After the railroad sections came one of Haywood's least favourite parts. "We were riding near the beach and there was flooding. The flood waters came over the course so you couldn't tell how deep or what was in there. I was scared about snakes and other stuff."
Haywood wouldn't commit to doing or not doing La Ruta again.
"I would consider it (doing it again). In some ways, it'd be nice to have another go at it because I know so much more now. But it's also really brutal with the climbing and the rough road and the mud. I'm not ready to make a decision yet."
"It's one of those races that's cool to try because it's such a test - physically and mentally. It tests your attitude. I'd recommend it to others as long as they knew what they were getting into. There was a lot of hike-a-bike. That's the part of the adventure that it's not just about mountain biking."