Lance Armstrong's coach Chris Carmichael will mark the milestone of his 50th birthday by competing in La Ruta de Los Conquistadores, the four-day mountain bike stage race that crosses Costa Rica from the Pacific to the Atlantic ocean. This year's race is scheduled for November 17 to 20, 2010.
"I was looking for an authentic challenge, and La Ruta is the real deal. I've done events all over the world, and in my prime I raced the Giro d'Italia and the Tour de France," said Carmichael. "Now that I'm turning 50, I'm looking for a different kind of challenge, something that's a very personal challenge."
Although Carmichael may be currently best known as the coach of Armstrong, he was a talented pro cyclist in his own day. He was a member of the US National Cycling Team (1978-1984), competed in the 1984 Summer Olympic Games and was a member of the first 7-Eleven Cycling Team that competed in the 1986 Tour de France.
Looking ahead to November, he said, "I'm not so worried about where I place against the competition, because La Ruta forces everyone - from the winner to the person in last place - to dig deep within himself or herself for the determination to keep going."
"Some people buy a car or a big house when they hit 50, but I wanted to seek out the most significant physical and mental challenge I could find, and I found it in La Ruta."
La Ruta follows the route of the original Spanish Conquistadores across the mountainous country. The race is well known for its intense challenge. World Cup mountain bike professionals have been humbled and awestruck more than once at the course that boasts 24,950 vertical feet of climbing and red clay mud sometimes too deep to gain enough traction to ride.
Since his retirement from pro racing, Carmichael has built Carmicheal Training Systems, a successful coaching company. In his usual manner, he has taken preparations for the race to a new level, challenging 10 athletes to interview for the chance to train with him over the next seven months. Those successful applicants who can afford a US$10,000 price tag will train with Carmichael's staff and attend three training camps, including one recon trip in Costa Rica.
Carmichael is using a carefully thought out process to screen applicants [Applications are no longer being accepted - Ed.]. "The rigorous interview process and the focus on preparation is out of respect for La Ruta. For events that aren't at the same caliber in terms of challenge, it would be reasonable to bring inexperienced athletes. But I don't want to put inexperienced athletes into an event they are not ready for."
"When I was the National Team Director for USA Cycling, I put together teams for major events based on the athletes' ability to get the job done. When athletes weren't ready, they didn't go. I'm looking at this 10-person group for La Ruta the same way I looked at putting together a team of US National Team riders: only the riders who are completely ready are going to go."
2009 La Ruta Championn Manuel Prado (Sho-Air / Specialized) of Costa Rica will lead the recon trip. "We plan on riding the vast majority of the course, if not the entire course. Knowledge is key for success in endurance events, and it's important for athletes to know what's coming later in a stage in order to understand how to pace themselves in earlier portions."
Carmichael thinks the key to La Ruta success will be focusing on power at VO2 max. "That high-end, explosive power is the piece that a lot of endurance mountain bikers fail to consider," he said. "Even in long endurance events, it's important to have the power to accelerate and surge. When you don't have that power, you lose contact with the riders you're with, or you lose significant time when you hit challenging ascents."
"Overall, riders lose the most time when the pitches are the steepest. With a big aerobic engine, you can maintain a high pace on flats and rolling terrain, but without a lot of power at VO2 max you lack the ability to maintain that pace at the critical times of the race."
In 2009, Carmichael, who is no stranger to endurance mountain bike racing, placed 323rd, 3:32:51, behind Armstrong at the Leadville 100.
Followers of Armstrong will not be surprised by Carmichael's meticulous preparation strategies, which helped the RadioShack rider to seven Tour de France wins.