Photos: Anthony Smith
Words: Chris Winter
One thing that makes our sport unique is the different natural landscapes that we traverse on our bikes. Some of us ride the ancient Appalachians and its mixed forests, others spend weekends pedaling the sub-alpine of the Rocky Mountains while flowy Arizona singletrack starts on the end of some of our streets. In certain regions the land changes dramatically from one town to the next and a single ride can offer staggering diversity.
Paulo Valle (trail builder and riding guide) is just like the rest of us, he loves to ride trails and hunt for new zones. His backyard is different than anything that we have in North America. Valle, you see, lives in San Jose, Costa Rica.
For most of us, Costa Rica conjures up images of lounging half naked in the sun on a sandy beach sipping on a cold cerveza after a surf session. Up from the hot coastlines of the Pacific and Caribbean are vast and rugged rainforest-clad mountains and active volcanoes make up one of the most biodiverse places in the world. It's not uncommon to hear a noisy Mantled howler monkey in the forest canopy, or see a red-eyed tree frog on a giant leaf, or a colorful Scarlet Macaw parrot in the sky above. What people don't know, along with the amazing biodiversity lies an amazing web of nearly unknown hand-built trails.
As it is for most mountain bikers, land use is a challenge, and it's no exception in this Central American country where every inch of the land is privately owned or protected and people's idea of mountain biking consists of dirt roads. To ride good singletrack Valle has had to build his own, and to do this he's had to network with landowners to earn their trust. Sculpting singletrack in the remote, steep and dense rainforest is no easy task. Maintaining these trails is a whole other matter in a place where tremendous buckets of water fall during the rainy season, and plants grow like they're on steroids. After the rains stop, Valle and his team of machete-wielding locals disappear into the forest to clear the new growth and shape the newly eroded sections so that bikes can flow down the mountains. Considering the great effort that has gone into building and the lack of bikes that the trails see, one feels privileged to ride good singletrack in Costa Rica.
In his proud and understated manner, Valle has designed and diligently built an impressive web of fun and technical trails over the years. His creations reflect the way that he rides; strong like an ox on the climbs and equally so on the descents. Don't expect to find a map or to drop into a San Jose to lead you to the goods, Valle's had to keep his bounty under the radar to satisfy the landowners and keep the masses from schralping it. There is an exception however; you can explore the unique landscape of Costa Rica on Valle's trails with the man himself by contacting Whistler-based guiding company Big Mountain Adventures (www.ridebig.com) who offer downhill and all-mountain trips exclusively with Valle.
From your backyard trail to Valle's, we are all inherent explorers and we long to ride our bikes in new terrain.
A bit from the guide, Paulo Valle:
I'm a bit perennial rider, I been biking since I was a kid. I started riding BMX and then mountain bikes in the early 90's. Having gears on my bike really opened a whole new world to me.
Thanks to mountain biking, I have met some great friends and travelled to many unreal places. As a former racer, what I'm most proud of is to be able to ride as much as I want without having a number plate on my bike or aiming for a finish line.
Geographically Costa Rica is a small but very intense country, you can drive coast to coast in four hours and in between there is nothing but mountains, some as high as 3,800 meters (12,400 feet). Most people come to Costa Rica for the beaches, but there are many unexplored gems higher up.
There a lot land access issues in Costa Rica. Basically, public land doesn't exist. I wish that we had as much public land as other bigger countries, but somehow I also think that our shortage of public land makes trail riding here more special.
A great trail should be a mix of vertical drop, flow and challenge. Put it in a jungle rainforest in the middle of nowhere and it makes it even better. That's what we ride here.
Ride in Costa Rica and you feel like the trail was built exclusively for you, on areas that even the Lonely Planet doesn't know exists. You'll feel the country's real vibe from the land and the locals that helped give Costa Rica the title of the "happiest place on earth." Pura Vida!
It's always warm here. If you are from the northern hemisphere, it doesn't sound too bad to take a break from freezing temperatures during the winter and go biking where the sun is shining.
Cross-country riding is actually quite popular in Costa Rica. To most of the local riders, cross country means dirt roads. Road riding is also a very big scene here.