CYCLING is on the climb, literallyand figuratively, in the country.Just ask Cory Sterling, 29. His legsburned with fatigue on a recent Sunday,after climbing through the endless hills ofMonteverde, in the north-central region ofthe country. Tracy Hollister’s back achedand her husband Joe was dying – ofhunger. It was lunchtime, and this group ofmountain bikers had spent more than threehours climbing through the countryside.After lunch, the ride would be mucheasier, promised Carlos Cardona, thegroup’s guide and owner of Lava Tours, aSan Pedro-based mountain-biking tourcompany.“JUST some undulating hills, that’sall,” Cardona said.With veggie pizza and an Imperialbeer or two in their stomachs, Cardona,Sterling – a Lava Tours guide-in-training– the Hollisters and fellow Coloradomountain bikers Robert Woerne and KrisPogoloff set off from the town of SantaElena into a pelting rain. Within moments,the group and their titanium-framedbikes were hurtling down a roller-coaster steepdrop strewn with small rocks, andthen laboring up the hill on the other sideof the valley, their sinewy legs taught withexertion.The riders passed through mist-shroudedvalleys, verdant meadows and coffeeplantations with their neatly ordered rowsof plants. From the hilltops, the cyclistswere rewarded with sweeping views ofgreen tapering off into the blue of thePacific.AT day’s end – a grueling six hoursfrom the ride’s beginning near Sardinal,about 50 miles to the south – the cyclistsrelaxed tired muscles in the Rock RiverLodge’s log cabin-style foyer. Conversationturned to the day’s ride.“The rocks just beat you up,” saidPogoloff, 52, a broad-chested man fromCrested Butte, Colorado, as he sipped on aPilsen beer. “It really wears on you.”“And the hills – if you call these littleundulations, what do you call a mountain?”Tracy Hollister asked Cardona.“There are no easy rides in CostaRica,” Cardona replied with a smile.WHETHER pedaling through the coffee-terraced hills of the Orosi Valley, eastof San José, under a canopy of palms in thenorthwestern province of Guanacaste, orthrough the cloud forests of Monteverdestealing glimpses of the far-off Pacific, thevistas are stunning, perhaps accounting forthe sport’s popularity among tourists.“It’s definitely more popular now thanin years past,” said Mario Cordero, generalmanager of Bike Arenal, which offerseverything from short half-day tours totrips that can last up to nine days, crossing340 kilometers.But with this burgeoning popularityhave come changes.“There used to be more of theEuropean concept of traveling by bicycle,”Cordero said. “People took leisurely tripscycling from hotel to hotel and learningabout the culture or stopping to spy onmonkeys along the way. Now the idea is tobike fast and have a beer in the afternoon.”“Tourists today have more of aDisneyland mentality,” Cordero added,noting that nearly all of the tours he givesare for North Americans. “They want to dothe canopy tours and the extension bridges.There’s less interest in learning about biodiversity,local conservation efforts andCosta Rican traditions.”MOUNTAIN biking attracts people ofall ages, said Randall Jiménez of Coast toCoast Adventures, who, like Cordero, hasseen a surge in demand over the past threeyears. He says the average age of cycliststhey see is about 35, but they’ve taken ridersas young as 14 and as old as 72.“Day after day, it seems, more andmore people are looking for some type ofmountain-biking tour,” Jiménez said.The sport’s popularity has grownamong Ticos as well. Mountain biking wasdiscovered by Costa Ricans in the 1970s,and gained in popularity during the 1980s.However, it wasn’t until the early 1990sthat the sport surged in popularity,Cardona said.Today, mountain biking is second inpopularity only to soccer, said Luis Rueda,spokesman for the Costa Rican CyclingFederation, noting the country’s 150-plusmountain-bike races each year. The mediais another barometer of the sport’s popularity,with many of the country’s publicationsand television broadcasts devotingample time and space to its coverage.ACCORDING to Cardona, the initiatedknow Costa Rican cycling is all aboutthe climb.“It’s very hard to have a one-day, muchless an eight-day, tour that’s rated easy,because anywhere you go there are goingto be hills,” he said. “It’s not like going to Napa Valley (California) where it’s all flat.”The inescapable heat and humiditymake hill-riding a grueling proposition.“The conditions in Costa Rica are reallytough for beginners,” Cardona added. “Ifthey’re looking for an easy ride, it’s goingto be difficult to meet their expectations.”The Hollisters and their companions,who spend several hours each week in thesummer pedaling through the mountainsaround Boulder, Colorado, knew what toexpect and were not disappointed.Last year Cardona led Joe Hollister andWoerne, who rode professionally in theearly 1990s, up the masochistically steephills around Irazú Volcano.“He punished us,” Hollister said. “Hetook us on three of the hardest days of ridingin our lives.”CARDONA, an experienced rider whohas competed in races such as Costa Rica’sRuta de Los Conquistadores (Route of theConquistadors), a grueling, three-day,coast-to-coast ride, initially underestimatedthe difficulty of the tours his companywas offering. But when riders struggledthrough what he considered easy rides, hesaid, the company adapted. Some of thesame rides the company billed as beginner levelor intermediate-level offered inNovember 2003, when it started, are nowgiven intermediate and advanced ratings.“It was a learning process,” he said. “Wefound out that most people are not lookingfor epic rides. They are looking for lesschallenge and more experiential-type trips.”And while Utah, Colorado, Californiaand British Columbia are still the destinationsof choice for most North Americanmountain bikers, Cardona sees opportunityin his country’s hills and vistas.“Costa Rica could be right up therewith the others. We have the right geography– we just don’t have the infrastructure,”he said, lamenting the country’sdearth of published biking routes and well-maintainedtrails.“We need to start solving these problems,and, little by little, Costa Rica willbecome a biking destination – until oneday it is the hottest thing,” he said.