La Ruta Facing Its Toughest Challenge Yet

Words: Brice Minnigh
Photos: J. Andrés Vargas

La Ruta j andres vargas

P: J. Andrés Vargas

The fabled La Ruta de los Conquistadores, commonly cited as "the world's toughest mountain bike race," is once again proving its mettle, this time bouncing back from near financial devastation earlier this year to continue with November's race on schedule, organizers say.

The race, which traverses Costa Rica from the Pacific coast to the beaches of its Caribbean shore–following a relentless route through the country's central highlands in a four-day suffer-fest–will be held as planned from November 11-14, even though it was on the brink of financial ruin just months ago.

Despite being the world's longest-running mountain bike stage race—and a precursor to popular and successful endurance races such as the BC Bike Race, Cape Epic, Trans Alps and Trans-Rockies—La Ruta encountered financial difficulties this spring amid allegations that its management team had defrauded racers of hundreds of thousands of dollars in bogus charges. This news, coupled with speculation that the time-honored event would not survive the financial blow, led many would-be competitors to all but write off the race.

But seemingly undaunted–and perhaps motivated by an altogether new challenge–race founder and owner Roman Urbina persevered, firing all but one of his race staff and putting his personal share of his family-run hotel on the line to help reimburse competitors and try to salvage the event.

"I had to fire every single one of my race staff except for one worker," Urbina says. "I fired 10 people and hired a whole new staff after my previous race management defrauded about 130 clients.

"It's a horrendous story. Some of my staff took our database and charged many racers multiple times, illegally taking about $200,000 from these people," Urbina alleges. "Then our general manager diverted much of this money through personal checks and other means. Because so much money was then coming into the company, the bank then gave them $90,000 worth of bank loans. During all this, many racers had to go back to their banks once they found out that they had been double- or triple-charged. It was terrible."

Former general manager, race director Luis Diego Viquez, has repeatedly claimed that the multiple charges were the result of glitches in the race organization's financial software. Urbina, nevertheless, has severed business ties with the race management and hired a new team to press ahead with this November's race.

P: J. Andrés Vargas

P: J. Andrés Vargas

Spearheading the charge is new public relations manager Andrés Vargas, a Costa Rican photojournalist with experience organizing adventure races. In addition to coordinating international coverage of the event, Vargas has been given the Herculean task of convincing professional and amateur racers to come to La Ruta despite the negative publicity.

Considering the odds stacked against the new management, the results so far have been respectable: To date, 176 racers have registered, 10 of whom are world-class endurance athletes. Team Monavie-Cannondale has committed to the event, with top North American XC riders such as Jeremiah Bishop, Bart Gillespie, Alex Grant, Tinker Juarez and Ben Sonntag in the wings. Three-time Vuelta a Espana winner Roberto Heras will also compete, while several previous Costa Rican La Ruta winners have also pledged to return.

"Because we're completely broke, this year we haven't had the money to give free entries to high-profile riders, which has prevented us from getting as many pros as we usually do," Urbina explains. "Still, we've managed to get some big names to commit, and we're sure we'll get some more before the [November 8] registration deadline."

To break even on their original outlay, organizers must get 250 paid racers—a target they still believe can be reached by November 8.

"Even though…we have been limited in how we can invest in the race, we're trying to improve the food this year, and since there are not as many people as usual, there will be plenty of space in the really good hotels," Urbina says.

While there had been talk early in the year of expanding the race in several ways—including an addition of a fifth stage—this plan has been scrapped, though Urbina claims the move has nothing to do with financial concerns.

"That was a crazy idea," he says. "This race is hard enough as it is, and we're not going to add another day. It will still be coast-to-coast, but we're trying to make it better in terms of the support.

"We view La Ruta as more than just a race—it is a personal growth journey. It is much more of a bike adventure than it is a race. Yeah, the first 40 or 50 guys up front are killing themselves to stay ahead, but the rest of the field is always here to just enjoy and hopefully to finish."

One way Urbina hopes to improve this year's race is to dispel the widely held perception among foreign racers that Costa Rican riders benefit from preferential treatment and non-official support. In previous years, foreigners have returned from La Ruta with stories of local support vehicles shadowing Costa Rican riders while refusing to offer help to international racers. Such support has even included the rumored provision of secondary bikes for Costa Ricans, who would hammer the climbs on hardtails before being provided with full-suspension bikes for the descents through volcanic scree.

"There has been a lot of controversy about locals getting unfair support," concedes Urbina. "But I can say that this year, if there is anyone getting support from a non-official station, they will be out. I don't care if it is the Costa Rican champion—they will be out of there."

Amid such daunting financial difficulties and an uncertain future for La Ruta, one might think that Urbina would simply be hoping to get through this year's race before making any future plans. But he is already looking well into the future, inviting the likes of Lance Armstrong to come race.

"I would love to have Lance come to do this race," he says. "He's doing a great thing with Livestrong, and it would mean so much for our countrymen to see him come to battle these huge mountains in Costa Rica. We've already asked, and he has a pretty full agenda in 2010, but who knows, maybe some year after that.

"The primary fabric of reality is dreams, and I am definitely a dreamer," Urbina adds. "The entire country would go crazy if Lance Armstrong would come here."

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