By: Dain Zaffke
La Ruta de los Conquistadores—the epic stage race across Costa Rica—is set to start in just a few days and endurance junkies across the globe are getting nervous. The four-day event packs a punch with nearly 12,000-meters of climbing in about 250 miles. That doesn't sound so bad, right? After all, everyone knows that La Ruta is mostly run at sea level on a bunch of fire roads. Right?
Well, not quite. That's 12,000-meters of climbing, not feet. The first stage alone boasts nearly 14,000 feet of climbing. And a large chunk of that elevation gain is achieved by scampering up slopes too muddy and too steep to ride as the course goes straight up the gut of a tropical rainforest. In between these climbs are impossibly steep, slippery descents that send high-posters off trail and into the palm trees, and then there are long stretches of flat fireroad on river rock with the consistency of stone baseballs. It's too much climbing, too much flat ground and so much descending that your arms hurt worse than your legs. And that's just day one.
The thing with La Ruta, however, is that every blow to the ego is offset by a moment of incredible beauty. The Costa Rican landscape is stunning, and there's no better way to experience the country than riding from one coast to the other. Racers pedal through remote villages, far from any highway, where locals offer plastic bags of Coca-Cola and shout encouragement to tortured souls. Children line the course with their hands outstretched, begging for high fives as riders stream past. Riders crossing the finish line in the remote coffee plantation-town of Turrialba are commonly greeted by swarms of begging children. But these kids aren't looking for money or candy—they want autographs. To these young fans it doesn't matter if you're Costa Rican cycling star Manuel Prado or a middle-aged doctor from Iowa, simply finishing this beast makes you a hero in their eyes.
La Ruta is a race of excess. November 17-20 will be packed with more climbing and more mud than most people consider healthy. Bikes and bodies will be ravaged, some beyond repair. The race results will undoubtedly be followed by stories of cheating and drama. But riders that suffer through this event are rewarded with a sense of accomplishment and experience that are rarely seen in bike racing.
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