Sonntag returns to defend La Ruta title

The countdown is on to La Ruta de Los Conquistadores, which will kick off on Wednesday, November 2 and run for four total days over 240 miles and five mountain ranges as it takes racers across the continent from the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean Sea.

Although it comes late in the season, when many racers have hung up their bikes for a well-deserved break, La Ruta always attracts a few top foreign pros ready to take on the challenge against a tough field of Costa Ricans.

2010 La Ruta winner Ben Sonntag (Cannondale) of Germany will be back with his teammate and runner-up Alex Grant of the United States to defend his title. The two come with the advantage of past experience and a proven strong working relationship.

The pair will compete against two other past winners, Manuel Prado and Federico Lico Ramirez, both of Costa Rica. They are guaranteed to play a role in the outcome of the race as they both try to win again. Last year, Ramirez was third and the top Costa Rican. Colombian Luis Mejia was also strong last year, but was disqualified mid-race for accepting outside support. Look for him to again target a top finishing place to make up for last year.

US national mountain bike and cyclo-cross Todd Wells (Specialized) is heading south for his first-ever La Ruta and his first trip to Costa Rica. Wells is a top-10 finisher at Worlds and the World Cup, but he has little stage race experience, although he is also a strong long distance performer, having won the most recent edition of the Leadville 100 in August. Coming off a long season of elite mountain biking and a brief season of 'cross racing, including doing both UCI-level 'cross races in Boulder the weekend before La Ruta, it will be interesting to see how Wells stacks up against the regular endurance pros.

In the women's race, Angela Parra of Colombia will not be back to defend her 2010 La Ruta title, but the field includes several women who could claim the top title. Past winner Louise Kobin, who finished as runner-up last year, may have more experience than anyone else out there and she has the savvy to get the job done. Rebecca Rusch (Specialized) is returning with the goal of topping her third place finish last year.

And both Americans will face a tough challenge from Costa Ricans Brenda María Muñoz and Ligia Madrigal. The former was the top Costa Rican finisher in 2010 while Madrigal brings plenty of experience and local knowledge to the start line.

La Ruta de los Conquistadors follows the route of the Spanish conquistadores, led by Juan De Cavallón. While it took him 20 years to make the journey, the mountain bike racers will do it in just four days.

The race has moved up on the calendar by about two weeks from last year. The move closer to the heart of the rainy season means racers are more likely to face the notorious mud and rains that feature in many editions. No matter what the conditions though, the 39,000 feet of climbing make La Ruta one of the toughest mountain bike races in the world

The legendary stage 1 starts at 6:00 am on November 2 and competitors have until 5:30 pm to complete the 110km before being disqualified. It won't be easy. From sea level, riders climb numerous hills that hit riders with a total elevation gain of approximately 12,000 feet. Day 1 is known by competitors as the "make it or break it" day.

Many people think that stage 2 is the easiest day of the race, but it's no picnic. While the weather can be mild, it features long, grinding climbs with a total elevation gain of nearly 10,000 feet. There are also rumors of unexpected surprises en route.

Stage 3 brings a third consecutive crack of dawn start. The 79km route includes a climb of about 6,000 feet from Tres Ríos straight up the Irazú Volcano, with the high probability of cold weather much of the day. Starting at 1291 meters above sea level, the ride is a never-ending ascent until riders reach 3025m (about 10,000 feet). Then it levels off, passes the Turrialba Volcano, and starts one of the fastest and longest downhills in Costa Rica, finishing in the town of Turrialba at an elevation of 607m (about 2,000) feet. Being prepared for cold weather riding and having well-functioning brakes is important for success.

Stage 4 goes through a series of climbs and down hills for a total elevation gain of about 2700 feet, mostly during the first half of the ride. The last half is mainly flat. Despite the relatively small amount of climbing, it's a hard, long 120km, frequently with hot coastal temperatures, scattered showers, tropical vegetation and very long, flat straightaways. It is this stage which includes the famous sections along old railroad beds, including some old rail bridges high above a river. Missing railroad ties will test racers' surefootedness and comfort level with heights, but along the way they'll be cheered on by locals who come out to watch them traverse the treacherous bridges.

Expect all kinds of riding conditions this day: mud, gravel, asphalt, and loose rocks. Temperatures will be very high in the lowlands, as high as 105 degrees F and cooler in the mountains.

Stay tuned to Cyclingnews for full coverage of La Ruta brought to you directly from Costa Rica.

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