20th La Ruta kicks off on Thursday

La Ruta de los Conquistadores mountain bike stage race will kick off its 20th anniversary edition on Thursday in Costa Rica. In keeping with its history, the race will again cross the country from its west coast on the Pacific Ocean to its east coast on the Caribbean Sea.

"Twenty years ago I had the idea of following the footsteps of Juan de Cavallon and Perefan de Ribera (Spanish Conquerors of 1560) in their exploration of Costa Rica," said race founder Roman Urbina. "Instead of using horses, we used our beloved mountain bikes to take us across this incredible country from the Pacific Coast to the Caribbean."

"During three days, we discovered the real treasures of Costa Rica, we biked across jungles, hanging bridges, streams, high mountains passes, steamy volcanoes and beaches. Today, La Ruta de los Conquistadores is considered one of the 10 toughest endurance events on the planet. It has not been easy to keep this race alive for 20 years."

A shorter race

While the original La Ruta was three days, in recent years, the race has been run during four days. For 2012, it's back to three days, with what used to be day 2 effectively cut out. The race still runs from the west coast of the country to the east coast, but it cuts out the additional mileage of day 2 in and around San Jose.

Stage 1 is still a gruelling 110km from Herradura starting at 6:00 am. It will finish after 12,000 feet of climbing at the Universidad para la Paz in San Jose. Racers have 11.5 hours to complete the stage on this "make or break" day.

Stage 2 is 79km from Tres Ríos to Turri Alba. With 8,000 feet of climbing and a trip over the Irazú Volcano and past the Turrialba Volcano, the day will test many tired legs. The route gets as high as 10,000 feet, which means cold weather and rain are often factors despite the otherwise tropical climate of the race.

The 70km final day's stage from Siquirres to Limón is shorter than in previous years; the first part, with its many steep rolling hills on gravel roads, will be eliminated. Instead, racers will have the option to participate in a three-hour rafting trip that does not count toward the GC. Riders will go down one of the world's most renowned whitewater rivers, the Pacuare. The race website said, "It is not mandatory for riders to do the rafting section, but it is highly recommended!"

The rafting section will take approximately three hours. The race will start once all the rafters arrive at the start line of stage 3. The notorious railroad trestle bridges, often with their missing ties, of the final day of racing are still part of the stage, which will be mostly flat and fast.

The favorites

In the men's race, defending champion Todd Wells (Specialized) is returning to the race. His toughest competition is likely to come from past five-time winner Federico "Lico" Ramirez, the local favorite. He last won in 2008. Another Costa Rican, Rom Akerson (Scott), gave Wells a big challenge last year and is expected to do the same again this year.

Others to watch in the men's race include Milton Ramos of Spain, Alex Grant (Cannondale) of the US, Paola Montoya of Costa Rica and Vuelta a Espana winner Roberto Heras. Heras has previously done the race, but was ill during the event and not among the top finishers.

In the women's race, none of last year's podium finishers are returning this year, but Pua Mata (Sho-Air/Specialized) and Sonya Looney (Topeak-Ergon) are among the favorites. Both are from the USA. According to unconfirmed reports, last year's winner Adriana Rojas was reportedly hit by a car and will not be back for this year's race.

At this time, both Wells and Mata said they would opt out of the rafting.  Not having to get up so early, not getting hurt and focusing on the riding parts of the race were reasons they gave for their decision.

A race that keeps going

La Ruta de los Conquistadores is one of the oldest and best known mountain bike stage races. Starting from humble roots with just a few riders, the race has had its ups and downs over the years, but it still continues while many other races have come and gone.

"Personally I have had serious accidents during the race, had to deal with fraud, theft, lies and betrayal," said promoter Urbina. "I have made many friends and a few enemies. During moments of fragility what has kept me going has been the memories of the effort put forth by hundreds of competitors in order to complete the journey."

Updated: The weather

The forecast is good with tropical temperatures, mostly sunny skies and occasional storms predicted.  Up until two days before the race, it had been relatively dry lately and pre-ride course reports found very little mud compared to most years.  However, on the eve of the race, it rained heavily and locals revised their predictions to "plenty of mud" expected.

A shorter race course and possibly a bit less mud than some years will likely mean a faster race among the favorites, with day 1 proving to be a decisive day, likely to set the GC for the duration.

Stay tuned to Cyclingnews for full coverage from La Ruta.

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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.

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