Posted by Editoress on 11/11/08
La Ruta Preview
The 16th edition of the La Ruta de los Conquistadores will begin in less than 12 hours for some 400 competitors from around the world. This four day mountain bike race is billed as one of the toughest in the world, and this year former road pro Roberto Heras of Spain is looking to become the first road racer to win La Ruta.
Heras, is a former Vuelta a Espana winner, and has been recognized as one of the greatest climbers in the world. However, he is coming off a two year suspension for doping, and no one - including Heras himself - knows how he will do in the heat, the humidity and the mud for which La Ruta is famous.
"He contacted us two months ago," explained PR Director Luis Rueda "and we were more than pleased to have him here racing our race."
So why would Heras subject himself to La Ruta? "I like to travel, I like the adventure. I'm interested in knowing Costa Rica, so four days racing across Costa Rica sounded like a great adventure. I raced the Titan Race earlier in the fall, in Morocco [which he won], but that is all the experience I have with multi-stage mountain bike racing.
"It will be pretty different to race here, in the La Ruta conditions - the mud, the gravel, the rocks ... so that will definitely be the big obstacles for me. It is a good way to test myself, but here I face mountain bikers not road racers, which is a big difference. So it is not only about how you are feeling, but how are you as a rider for these conditions."
"To win would be a great, great result. But this is not a race made for me, so I will be happy to be among the top riders, among the best."
Heras will face strong competition from French marathon racer Thomas Dietsch (third last year) and Costa Rican favourites Paolo Montoya (2004 winner) and Federico (Lico) Ramirez, the defending champion and only four-time winner of La Ruta.
"I want to do my best and improve over third last year," said Dietsch "but for the Costa Rican riders, this is their world championships, so it is hard to beat them."
Late scratches from the start list are 2006 champion Hector Leon Paez (Colombia) and Canada's Svein Tuft. Paez has opted for a race in Colombia, and Tuft - the silver medalist in the time trial at the Road Worlds two months ago - was a last minute withdrawal, after his ProTour team Garmin-Chipotle got nervous about having one of their potential stars get injured.
On the women's side, the field is rather sparse. Three-time champion Louise Kobin (USA) pulled out due to injury, while defending champion Sue Haywood (USA) has retired. One of Canada's World Cup racers - Sandra Walter - is a late entry to the race and, while this is her first attempt at multi-day mountain bike racing, she has to be considered a serious contender for the podium.
"It is different, so I don't know what to expect. I've read up a lot on the race, and I think the plan is just going to be to pace myself."
This year, riders face a race that is both easier and more difficult that the previous ones. At 384 kilometres it is the longest La Ruta ever, with nearly 14,000 metres (45,800 feet) of climbing. However, some of the extremely tough mud sections and gravel climbs of previous years have been replaced by pavement. Besides the geographic obstacles, the riders also face the notorious La Ruta mud, at times the consistency of peanut butter, and at others a thick soup that goes above the knees. It is never a matter of if you will crash, but how many times... This year it will be particularly bad, since Rueda says that Costa Rica is suffering from one of the wettest fall seasons on record. It has been raining heavily in the hours leading up to the start.
Stage One has added 10 kilometres in length, but the opening muddy 10 kilometre climb has been replaced with an 18 kilometre road climb - which should suit Heras. From here, the riders make their usual entry into the Carara National Park for what is one of the most beautiful and exhausting parts of the race, with mud forcing riders to endure long 'hike a bike' sections. Out of the Park, and it is back to gravel and then pavement for the extended climb to the finish line. The riders face a total of 5220 metres of elevation gain.
Stage Two is 'only' 75 kilometres, but has almost as much climbing as Stage one at 4024 metres. From 800 metres of elevation, riders climb to over 2000 metres in a series of steps, some of which are savagely steep. Dietsch said last year about stage two: "Climbs like this we do not see in Europe, with steep, steep sections, and then a little flat and then steep, steep again. It is very hard to ride these climbs, it takes much energy out of you."
After the riders reach the highest point they descend on gravel and pavement to finish at the Terramall Plaza on the eastern side of San Jose. The previous mud bog (which was up to the waist on some riders) has been replaced with a technical descent through a coffee plantation.
Day three takes La Ruta to its highest point, at over 3000 metres on the slopes of the Irazu volcano. After climbing steadily (mostly on pavement) for the first half of the 67 kilometre stage the riders reach 3010 metres; often chilled and wet from the fog and rain which shrouds the volcano. Volunteers hand out hot drinks, and riders fumble into jackets for the long descent to the finish in the coffee plantations surrounding the town of Aquiares. In 33 kilometres the riders drop nearly 1800 metres.
The final stage, while the longest at 125 kilometres, has the least amount of climbing. There is less than ten kilometres of climbing at the start, before 55 kilometres of descending. However, the riders face one final obstacle - 25 kilometres of train tracks and trestle bridges over fast flowing rivers.
No leader can rest easy in the final stages - in 2005, Thomas Frischknecht (Switzerland) lost his lead in stage three after multiple flats, only to regain it in the final stage after a series of attacks on his rivals.
"It is an honour to have Roberto Heras as a competitor," commented Lico Ramirez. "I think this race will be very close over the next few days."
Organizers announced a significant change in the race for next year, going from four days to five, dropping most of the paved sections, limiting entries to 300 (plus invited pros) and offering 5-star accommodation. All of these are expected to make La Ruta even harder.
- The organizers also announced that they will be cracking down on outside assistance. Local riders in past years have held a significant advantage over foreigners, because friends and families have provided food, drinks and technical assistance along the course (often from vehicles following the riders), while foreigners have had to rely on the aid stations. Organizers have imposed strict penalties on riders receiving assistance outside of technical zones (30 minute time penalty for the first offence); but we will have to see how successful they are at enforcing these rules.
- The doping controls have also been expanded. Both blood and urine samples will be taken after every stage for GC leaders in each category and stage winners (in each category), plus random selections.
2008 La Ruta Press Conference - 2nd from left 'Lico' Ramirez, 4th Paolo Montoya, Roberto Heras, Thomas Dietsch
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