La Ruta de los Conquistadors, a four-day mountain bike stage race in Costa Rica, is famously known as one of the oldest and toughest off road stage races. Celebrating its 18th running this year, the race challenges everyone mentally, but for years, the Costa Ricans have tended to have more than the usual home field advantage - in the form of outside support from other locals throughout the race.
Sometimes the Costa Rican racers were supported by friends and family riding along on motos. Or they received mechanical assistance en route or extra assistance following the course, which winds its way through remote, mountainous territory across the country from the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean Sea. But new for 2010, La Ruta will not permit any outside support for the top racers in each category. The move comes in an effort to level the playing field for Costa Ricans and foreigners.
"At La Ruta, anything can happen. If you take a wrong turn or something goes wrong with your bike, you never know. I'm glad this year they are not allowing any outside support," said Louise Kobin to Cyclingnews.
"In the past, they've allowed support, but coming from the US, I've never had it," said the 42-year-old Kobin. "It'll be nice if other people can't have motorcycles running next to them. I think it'll make it a little different."
Although as a foreigner she hasn't benefitted from the local support, that hasn't stopped Kobin from excelling. She's won La Ruta four times, and this will be her seventh time participating. While Costa Ricans traditionally win the men'srace, the women's race is different - thanks to Kobin's consistency and standout rides from a few others, it's often still a foreigner who wins during the past decade.
Kobin has slowed down a little this year, racing less frequently - "I haven't done any other mountain bike stage races this year. I did a couple of 100-milers and a race up in Alaska this winter," she said before revealing the key to her La Ruta strategy. "It helps you to know that you have to be prepared for anything. You have to never give up. You can't expect anything - just take it for what it is."
Despite the limitations on outside support, the women are likely to continue to face an ongoing in problem in the race - many of the men deliberately interfere with the women trying to pass them.
"The first year, I was frustrated by the fact that there were so few women in the race and the men in the race did not want me to pass them," said Rebecca Rusch, who's about to embark on her second-ever La Ruta. "They would cut you off when they saw you were a woman."
"On the last day last time, I was riding with Greg (her partner - ed.) and he asked, 'has it been this way the whole time for you?' after he saw what was happening. But that last day was fun - he was blocking for me."
Rusch said she was impressed by Kobin's ability to win repeatedly despite the lack of local support that her Costa Rican competition historically has received. "There is so much bike maintenance ... and mud and crashes and a lot of variables," said Rusch. "It makes it all the more impressive that Louise has won it multiple times. It's not like a normal bike race - you're trying to keep you bike going. It's not like a 24-hour race where you can switch out a bike. You have to keep it running."
This time around, Rusch has a new strategy for dealing with the men who won't let her pass easily. "Last time, I burnt so many calories getting mad about not getting around," she said. "I've learned that if you smile while you cut somebody off here, it's ok, so I'll take the 'please, please, thank you approach' and I won't let it get to me. I'll pass when I get chances."
"Last time I feel like I was fighting the race and the people. This time I'm going to go with the flow and let the race happen. I think I'll be faster if I take that approach. It's like whitewater. If you go against the flow, you'll hate it, but if you can figure it out, you can work with it."
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Sue George is an editor at Cyclingnews. She coordinates all of the site's mountain bike race coverage and assists with the road, 'cross and track coverage.