PALMICHAL, San José — A slow procession of riders, covered in grime and sweat, churn their way up the copper-colored trails carved into the green hillsides. As they get closer to the top, their heavy panting begins to mask the sound of a creek flowing in the distance.
In Palmichal’s serene mountain environment, tucked away an hour south of San José, tranquility gives way to an extreme, brutal push to the top of a steep climb in the second leg of the famed Ruta de los Conquistadores mountain biking race. The internationally recognized race that cuts from the Pacific coast of Costa Rica to the Caribbean is often considered among the most arduous mountain biking competitions in the world precisely because of demanding ascensions like this, as well as the varying terrain that takes riders into deep jungle, up the sides of volcanoes and through unrelenting humidity.
Tico Times photographer Alberto Font and I went to Palmichal for the second day of the three-day Ruta de los Conquistadores to see what makes this event so special. In the mountains near Palmichal we found a ridiculously difficult stretch of the route that wears on even the most experienced of mountain bikers. But for any one of the 399 riders taking part in the 2015 version of La Ruta, the constant pain accumulating in the legs after three straight days of long-distance biking is somewhat alleviated by the dramatic beauty of Costa Rica’s diverse environments.
Jason Eckenroth, from Boulder, Colorado, is an amateur rider who said he is trying to relish the immense challenge of his first time on La Ruta.
“It’s the most difficult mountain bike race on the planet,” he said.
“Yeah, that’s what they say,” I said.
“Well they’re not lying,” Eckenroth said.
Eckenroth said that he saw several riders go down in the first day with heat exhaustion from the thick humidity between the starting point at Playa Herradura near Jacó and the first leg’s finish line in Atenas, which lies at an altitude of about 700 meters (2,000 feet) in the Central Valley. Forty-eight of the 399 riders either dropped out or were eliminated from the first stage Thursday, according to race statistics.
Colombia’s Luis Mejía leads the race standings after two days, although Costa Rican Federico “Lico” Ramírez won the second stage Friday by trekking the 98 kilometers between Atenas and El Guarco in Cartago with a time of 4:47:48. But for non-professional bikers like Eckenroth, the thrill far outweighs the times.
“The adrenaline of getting ready for another day that you think is going to bury you really gets you moving,” Eckenroth said. “It was a lot better than I was expecting.”