By Adam Pulford, CTS Senior Coach
Day 1: Come Prepared
An experienced mountain biker will show up to a race with all of his gear, equipment, and nutrition dialed. Part of my job is to help athletes develop into experienced mountain bikers. Although you can read detailed packing lists of what to bring, you need to do some of these events before you really get it dialed in.
At this year’s recon camp, we’re helping athletes prepare for the world’s hardest mountain bike race. A few bike fiascos and busy life schedules left for some missed items on the packing list. The first day of La Ruta de los Conquistadors starts with a long, challenging journey through the Carara Jungle – not the place to break a derailleur hanger – and definitely not the place to be without a spare derailleur hanger. This stage is beyond “backcountry mountain biking” from the standpoint that your really out there. No one will come get you; it’s up to you to get yourself out with your own two feet. One of our athletes learned his lesson the hard way when we changed his bike into a single speed and slogged through the muddy, rainy, steep, slippery jungle floor. Off pace in a slow way, our water and food down below empty, we were doing our best to manage our energy getting to the main road. Luckily, one of our support vehicles crossed a few low river crossings to get us GU Electrolyte Brew and some good food. We made it out, but it was more epic than it should have been, all due to just one little piece of missing gear: a spare derailleur hanger. If you’re a newbie to this sport, do your homework on what to bring and how to prepare. Even for extreme training camps, you still have to be prepared for any situation. The day was a bit humbling though: only 27miles, 5,500ft of climbing, but it took us 8hrs and 40min; it was basically a hard hike through the jungle.
Day 2: Bring Your Climbing Boots
Roman, owner of La Ruta and one man who has become a good friend over the past few years, joined us for the preview of Stage 2. It was rumored that he’d be changing the stage route for the 19th version of the race this year in 2011, so he led the way, bringing us up the same start of the race from last year (lots of steep climbing) and routed us to his new brainchild route (more steep climbing…). Awesome. We kept the group together the entire day since Roman was the only one who knew the route. A stunning 15miles and 7,024ft of climbing later, we were at 4hrs and 15min of ride time and done for the day. 7hrs out total with still some hike-a-bike, we descended down to a location for lunch, doing about 25miles total.
Below is a look at the quadrant analysis for today’s ride derived from the SRM MTB Power Meter and features from the Training Peaks WKO+ software. Basically, the 4 quadrants give you more insight into the specificity of the ride. Starting in the upper right corner and proceeding counter-clockwise, quadrant 1 is high power/high cadence, quadrant 2 is high power/low cadence, quadrant 3 is low power/low cadence and quadrant 4 is low power/high cadence. What the yellow points depict is a story of a day of low cadence, high power efforts indicative of steep, hard climbing. Don’t dismiss the challenge of this day – the nature of the terrain, its heat, humidity, and some hike-a-bike will make for a bigger stress score… plus, we only did half of this stage. Stage 2 of the race in November is going to be really tough.
Day 3: From Excellente! To Emergency, back to Excellente!
The climb to the Irazu Volcano will challenge everyone at La Ruta. Even more so, the descent from the top of the 10,000 active volcano to the town of Turrialba will test every bone in your body. The day started with great weather, some stiff legs, and good climbing. All was ‘excellente’ as our athletes climbed their way to the top of the volcano that had its most recent eruption just 2 years ago. We hit the descent only to ride through fog, mist, and then a full downpour. Heaps of slick volcanic rocks, mud, stream crossings, and mucky remants of ash/mud mix made for quite the day. About 43 degress and soaked to the bone, our athletes were shivering and there were no support vehicles that could access us from that point down to town. Not quite a full emergency, but if anything went real wrong, it had the makings to be… But as we dropped nearly 6,500ft in less than 2hrs on the most technical terrain of La Ruta, the temperature increased with the decreasing altitude and out came the sun again. All went back to being ‘excellente!’
From the SRM MTB Power Meter, you can see the highlighted portion, or the volcano descent. Mostly descending, there were still a few good climbs in there at 300W+, a welcome effort to warm back up. What the power meter doesn’t show is the stress to the body that comes with a gnarly descent like that. This is where power data has to be combined with athlete feedback, because the software-generated stress scores can't necessarily take into account the fatigue associated with hardcore descending on a mountain bike.
Day 4: Be Tough
It’s deemed the hardest mountain bike race in the world for a reason folks, because it’ll test you in anyway you think a bike race can… and in ways you didn’t think a bike race could.
The last stage of La Ruta features only 6,000-7,000ft of climbing, but it does all come in the first 40km of the day. The final 80km is flat – truly flat – but has its own unique challenges that will test you more over and over before you get to the finish line. First, you have to ride inside railroad tracks to cross certain sections because the land around it is either too overgrown or falls away too steep to ride. Then comes the bridges: still on the tracks, what you must do is pick up your bike and walk along the railroad ties to get to the other side. No other option. Ticos and veteran racers have grown accustomed to trotting quickly over these slick steps on race day while rookies and those not fond of heights tend to find this a bit nerve racking, to say the least. You’re only 10-30m above the flowing rivers below, but it’s a bit of a challenge if you’re not expecting it. Even Coach Jane who’s done it a few times needs to warm back into the first bridge. Oh yeah – there are a few of them… and yes, they are active train tracks.
Always paralleling the tracks, there is some fire road riding this day, but it’s not easy. Dusty if not raining, muddy if it is, this can be one of the hottest days of the race and some road sections reminded Chris of the pave in Europe. I rode with Coach Jim Lehman last year in this final stage, and even when we had the ocean in sight, there was still work to do. I think Jim thought we were closer than we actually were because as we plowed through puddle after deep puddle of muddy water, sometimes getting stuck in the middle and pulling each other out only to hop back on the bikes then hit another, he kept asking “how many k’ left?”. It was the longest 20k of the race.
For the camp, we had ideal conditions: no rain, warm, humid, but not unbearable. It’s hotter during the race. The railroad tracks were dry, we took our time crossing them and kept safety as the number one priority as experiencing it all in a positive way sets one up for a better race. Race day, those tracks are wet and some people don’t take their time.
We taught the athletes that when riding in train tracks, you should employ the same tactics as riding on pave in a road race or rock garden of a MTB race: use a bigger gear, lower cadence, get out of the saddle and pedal hard. Finding good body position to keep traction and balance is proper technique for this, and that’s easy to teach. What you can’t necessarily teach is how gnarly this stage would be, especially on race day. We had a great camp and prepared the athletes well for the 2011 edition of La Ruta, but to finish this race it takes more than just a recon camp and good technique. You gotta be tough. There’s no way around it. We set up our athletes to handle the toughest conditions possible, so check back Nov 2-5th to see how we match up with the epic-ness of La Ruta de los Conquistadors. .