By Rob Jones in San Jose, Costa Rica
Several mountain bike races contend for the title of the world's toughest off-road race. Australia's Crocodile Trophy has two weeks in the vast expanses of the Outback, with heat and dust to contend with; Canada's TransRockies offers a week in similar isolation, with serious mountains, while its sister event, Europe's TransAlp tackles the sheer steepness and hostility of the Alps. Then there's South Africa's Cape Epic, a week of taxing riding in some of the world's wildest country.
La Ruta de los Conquistadores, which starts Friday, November 11 may only be three days long, but it easily takes its place in the roster of world's toughest MTB races, and qualifies for the descriptor "epic". The stats are mind-boggling:
- 320 kilometres of riding
- over 9,000 metres of climbing, with the highest point at 3,100 metres
- riders from 27 countries and five continents
The race began thirteen years when ago Roman Urbina read about the Spanish Conqueror Juan de Caballon and his 20 years trip on the mountains of Costa Rica, in his attempt to explore the country. De Caballon's expedition started at the Pacific Coast and finished in the Caribbean. Urbina - a recognized Costa Rican athlete and adventure man - decided to emulate that long voyage himself.
Captivated by the histories of that Spanish general, he and another 34 brave adventurers started the trip across nine of Costa Rica's twelve microclimates. An adventure that led them to crossing the rain forest, volcanoes, high mountains and crystalline rivers.
Roman decided that such a trip had to turn into an annual competition and that's how La Ruta de los Conquistadores was born. It is now in its 13th year, and is the final event of what is becoming know as the annual "Grand Slam" of endurance racing: Cape Epic, TransAlps, TransRockies and La Ruta.
"More than a race, La Ruta is a personal growth journey. That's the difference with the traditional competitions of World Cup," explains Roman Urbina.
"There are some segments that cannot be traveled even in 4X4 vehicles or motorcycles. Imagine what type of event is the one that we organize! The competitors will not have any access to external support and must trust in their own tenacity and, in some cases, in the help of other competitors," adds Urbina.
This year Thomas Frischknecht (Swisspower) will attempt to become the first non-Costa Rican to win the overall title. Frischknecht is the first world champion (mountain bike and cyclo-cross) to enter La Ruta, and has won marathon World Cups. However, La Ruta is like doing three marathons back-to-back. Other pros on the start list include Americans Walker Ferguson and Jeremiah Bishop, and Spain's Alejandro Diaz de la Pena (Maxxis-MCS).
Costa Ricans make up the largest contingent of entries, with 193 riders, followed by the U.S. (107) and Canada (34). The top local hope is Deiber Esquivel, who won the Pan Am Championships in Mexico City only a few week ago.
Urbina explains that the locals take defending the title very seriously. "They work together as a team, and train all year for this race. Some riders will go out early, forcing the [foreign] riders to chase, and then another local will come by at the end."
An added obstacle this year could be the torrential rain that has been falling. Normally, it is dry at this time of year, but the record-breaking hurricane season (although further north) has extended the rainy season.
"If it keeps raining like this, it will be the hardest La Ruta ever." promises Urbina.
La Ruta de los Conquistadores 2005
Stage 1 - November 11: Garabito, Puntarenas (Pacific Coast) to Santa Ana, San Jose (Central Valley), 114.1 Km (70 miles) - Max. alt: 1,158 meters at Grifoalto de Mora - Total ascent: 4,526 meters (15,000 vertical feet)
Stage 2 - November 12: San Jose to Turrialba, 77.9 Km. (50 miles) - Max. alt: 3,010 meters (Irazu Volcano) - Total ascent: 2,729 meters (9,000 vertical feet)
Stage 3 - November 13: Turrialba to Moin Port, Limón, 126.4 Km. (80 miles) - Max. alt: 898 meters (Santa Teresita de Turrialba) - Total ascent: 1,785 meters (6,000 vertical feet)