La Ruta de Los Conquistadores vue d’un autre angle

Des coureurs nous ont raconté comment c’était La Ruta, cette course légendaire au Costa Rica. Voici maintenant le point de vue de Colin Meagher, photographe pour qui ce fut toute une épreuve itou. En passant, c’est Colin qui a fait les photos de Temple to Temple parues dans Bike et dans Vélomag. J’ai mis quelques annotations en rouge.

The Costa Rican report

I was down in Costa Rica covering a race called La Ruta De Los Conquistadores–basically a mtn bike race from the Pacific side of Costa Rica to the Atlantic side. For more beta, go to and view the sufferfest in all it’s glory.

A quick summary of the terrain to cover would be:

Day 1- 60 miles and 15,000 feet of climbing. surfaces- 48% Mud, 40% Gravel and 12% Pavement
Day 2- 45 miles and 8,700 feet of climbing.
Day 3- 75 miles and 5,600 feet of climbing.

That’s the menu for the racers. Me, I’m covering the event for a magazine; my assignment is to document the race, and to shoot a single portrait of a local guy who’s raced every La Ruta so far (in jeans and a pr of SPD flip flops, no less) (vous reconnaissez le fameux « ermite » sur son Trek Y dont J.A. et Mireille nous ont déjà parlé?) so I have to keep up with the front runners, and tell the story of the race. Not so hard if the organizers put me on the back of a quad runner, right? Oh how wrong that turned out to be…

Day One

Day one delivered a beating. For the race winner it was a six hour plus sufferfest. It took my driver, William, and I over 12 hours. That’s a long time. Why, might you ask, with a good driver and a quad at my disposal, did it take 12 hours and change? Simple; the course is a hammer. Second, my driver couldn’t leave the start until all the racers had filed past–all 480 or so of them. Which meant we then had to struggle past 480 plus racers to get to the front. On a dirt road a lane and a half wide, covered in loose gravel and clogged with pack fill that’s a challenge, even with motorized transport; add in some aggressive vertical and we were doing a fair imitation of salmon swimming upstream. Start and stop. Start and stop. Get cursed by the racers whenever William gassed it, as the two stroke in their faces was not welcome… It took about 45 minutes to get to a point where I could glimpse the front runners. I wouldn’t see them again for the entire stage. (la prochaine fois, faudrait essayer la technique de partir AVANT les coureurs, hé hé).

At the top of this first big climb, we stopped for some quick scenic pics, then pinned it to get to the leaders. We hit the singletrack somewhere between the leaders and the pack front runners–a nice 5 or 6 minute cushion–and plunge in. Holy shit! Enourmous water erosion ruts give us the feel of riding double on a mechanical bull. The loose mud and rocks mean stopping isn’t really possible on the descents–we just kind of point it and hope for the best as the quad slides down the toboggan run of a trail. As for stopping for photos–forget it! First of all, we can’t stop on the descents, and when the trail levels out, it’s full on Conrad’s « Heart of Darkness » terrain: dense jungle everywhere. There’s barely room for the quad to squeeze through, let alone park and shoot.

We blaze on, deteremined to find a good spot, or make contact with the leaders for motor pacing. Somewhere between aid station two and three, though, we double flat the quad. A 3.5 hour epic to repair the flats ensues. With a repaired vehicle ready to roll, on the advice of a local in charge of checkpoint 3 (« you will get there much faster, amigo; the way around is very much longer… »), we opt to charge on towards checkpoint 4 on the course. All I can say for this next section is a bit of Conrad’s own writing, « the horror, the horror… ».

I could tell you about rolling the quad on the first gnarly downhill, and then having to somehow right it or walk back out through 4 miles of evil mud, or the fifteen minutes the two of us spent alternatively kneeling in the mud and pushing/prying loose a boulder that was blocking the trail, or how we almost flipped the quad over backwards on one of the steep uphills, but I prefer to dwell on how skilled William and I got at balancing « el Toro » (as we came to call the quad) on both the climbs and the descents in order to prevent another rollover. I really wish we had a picture of me hanging on to the left or right rear corner of the quad in an effort to keep the rubber side down as William piloted it through another hairy section. The best part? The two cokes we chugged at the first outpost of civilization that we found immediately upon exiting the « heart of darkness » section…

Day two dawned (before dawn, actually: 4 am local time) with me feeling abused. I wonder why? I had to give up the quad–no big deal at the time if you ask me–for a spot in the pr director’s truck. In hindsight–always 20/20–that was a mistake; after the start, the PR truck got stuck in the pack fill, just as had happened on the previous day. Except this time we were hung up on a paved one lane road with oncoming vehicle traffic as well as racers struggling uphill. Man, I really felt for the racers–that initial climb for them must have sucked: a narrow road with nowhere to go, oncoming traffic–including large trucks–and a caravan of motos, quads, cars, and SUVs chasing them up the hill. Shitty! I never again saw the leaders that day, with the exception of Adam Craig, doing damage control on the last mile of the main climb–it seems as if his rear derailleur limit screw had mysteriously been « adjusted » two full turns overnight by the neutral tech support and he’d burned a few too many matches catching back onto the lead group after daignosing the problem and then re-adjusting it. The effort forced him to ease off and contain vs attacking.

I saw some amazing stuff from my vantage point in the truck, but I missed pretty much all of the drama of the stage. Extremely frustrating for me, to be honest; I’m used to world cup racing, and having decent access to a course so I can pace the leaders, keep a finger on the pulse of the race and tell the story, you know? But under these circumstances I was getting nothing that told the story of the race, just lots of epic scenery… Cool, but that wasn’t the assignment. I also had as of yet to get a portrait of Heart. 0 for 2, not good… I got to the finish and had a beer, and cheered on my friends as they finished: Dain, Anthony, AC, Hillary, and Lina.

We spent the night at a gorgeous bed and breakfast set in the middle of a coffee plantation, and perched above the Turrialba Valley. The views were epic. The ping pong action hot. The nap welcome. Dinner fantastic. The semi cold Imperial Cerveza the best beer I’ve ever had. And the fist-sized spider in my clothes the next morning the best wake-up I’ve ever had this side of a 10 shot jolt of espresso.

Day 3. Luis, the PR director shares my frustration on lack of race leader imagery, and attacks getting to the leaders with a gusto. A terrifying gusto. The roads that compose the course are bit rough, to say the least. Even with a clear view through the windshield, thus being able to anticipate the oncoming impacts, I still managed to get bounced off the roof of the cab twice. There is nothing like doing 120 km/hour (72 mph) on a road meant for 30-40 km/hour at best! We scatter dogs, goats, and cattle in our wake…

We made contact with Adam Craig’s group–AC, a Tico (the Costa Rican’s slang term for themselves–it’s not considered derogatory), and Frishie–and the driver attempted to motor pace them–not a good idea! The boys were hauling the mail on that pot hole infested stretch of « pave », and the bomb holes stewn across the road were forcing them to do some radical course corrections, making motor pacing an impossibility. Unfortunately our driver kept pushing, only backing off after a sharp manuever by Frishie forced a quick 4 wheel lock-up and some harsh language by myself and the other shooter in the rig… Shortly there after, a sharp turn by the Tico in front of Frishie forced a crash, but luckily, Thomas suffered nothing more than a scraped elbow. I felt like a schmuck, as our vehicle was boxing Frishie in on his right at the time he went down, but after the race he assured me that the fault lay entirely with the racer in front of him. But the crash sobered up our driver quite a bit. He realized he’d been pushing, and potentially endangering racers, so he broke off attempting to motor pace. (voilà une bonne illustration des pratiques « illégales » dans cette course. Si les véhicules officiels se permettent de motorpacer les leaders, imaginez ce qui se passe avec les locals). He pinned it for the final section of the infamous railway grade (the racers ride on about a 10 mile section of active railway line broken up by trestles that span crocodile infested rivers–not a big deal, really, as the local crocs aren’t the man eaters endemic in Africa and Australia, but it definitely adds some spice to the race!) and finally onto the finish…

Overall it was an amazing event to take part in. The post event beer was as welcome as the warm surf. I managed to get pics of the front runners covering the final mile of the course on stage 3. And I got a portrait of Heart during the climb out from the plantation on that final stage. Mission accomplished. Barely. Whew!

I have never been so beat up covering an event. The only thing that comes close that I’ve done so far in my career would have to be the 6 days spent chasing around Mark Weir and Andreas Hestler in a tick and redneck infested stretch of the Mid-western US with an aggressive case of poison ivy to keep me company. But I’m already plotting to get back down there next year. And I’m hiring a moto driver.

A big thanks to Luis and Diego for putting on an amazing event. Those two somehow managed to shepherd 480 odd racers, a dozen media, and a number of companions from one side of the country to another. The sheer logistics are daunting, but they somehow managed to pull it off with a smile the whole time.