JACO, Costa Rica (VN) — When the notion of racing a mountain bike across Costa Rica was conjured up 20 years ago it was about more than riding a bike; it was about the adventure to be had between the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea.

Adventure and then some is exactly what 500 riders will have in store starting Thursday when they set out from the Pacific coast town of Jaco en route to Limon on the Caribbean three days later during the 20th running of La Ruta de los Conquistadores.

“I feel La Ruta is like the Paris Dakar (rally) on a bike,” said Roman Urbina, the race founder. “It is held in a developing nation, which will not stop because of a race — no matter how important. So riders have to adapt and be careful with traffic. There are many factors riders have to overcome to make it to the finish line.”

Traffic in a mountain bike race? Yep, an full-on Central American traffic at that. But Mother Nature will also be on hand to help kick butt on the 161-mile trek.

Expect thick jungle mud, climatic changes from 90 percent humidity and 90-100 degrees to subfreezing temperatures on the side of a 10,000-foot-plus volcano. Then there are the long stage distances, climbing, descending, river crossings and hike-a-bike sections.

All that, said Alex Grant, a two-time La Ruta runner-up, is what makes La Ruta different than the shredding of singletrack in the Northern Hemisphere.

“You have to look at it as an adventure, an epic point-to-point across Costa Rica,” Grant said.

La Ruta is not about riding IMBA-approved mountain bike trails, he said.

“In fact,” he said, “there are virtually none. It’s an incredibly challenging route across the country.”

And that’s why defending La Ruta champ Todd Wells is returning after 2011, his first and only attempt at what’s been dubbed “one of the toughest endurance races” on the planet.

“I like the fact that in La Ruta you actually ride somewhere other then just in circles. It is very different from the events I normally compete in,” Wells said. “Who wouldn’t want to do a race that crosses an entire country; starts at the Pacific Ocean, ends in the Caribbean and is only three days?”

It all harkens back to the roots of mountain biking, Grant said: “Exploration, where you took out a map and said, ‘I am going to try to get from here to here.’ Along the way you get to experience Costa Rica in a way that you never would otherwise.”

And this year is no exception. When Urbina first staged La Ruta he decided that the biking adventure should also have some kind of aquatic aspect, as Spanish conquistadors crossed from ocean to sea on the country’s many rivers. So the early years of La Ruta included rafting as well as riding. Over the ensuing decades the rafting was dropped and the three-day format turned to four.

To celebrate the 20th anniversary, Urbina has dropped a day and brought rafting back, a feature that likely will last just this year. Stage three will start with riders trading bikes for rafts, followed by the official start of the final stage.

“We will have a section of rafting, which will not be mandatory but highly suggested since the Pacuare River is considered one of the five greatest rafting rivers on the planet,” Urbina said.

Riders not interested in hitting the rapids can shuttle to the midday race start. As for Grant, he said he isn’t sure about hitting the rapids, even though it sounds like fun. But it is La Ruta, and one never knows what will occur.

“If for some reason something happens and it looks like I am well off of the podium after the first two days maybe I will see if they have room [in a raft],” Grant said. “I have heard it’s one of the coolest rafting experiences anywhere.”

La Ruta 2012

November 1-3
Distance: 161 miles / 259km
Elevation gain: 20,000+ feet

Stage 1, 68 miles: Herradua to Universidad para la Paz. Elevation gain for the day is approximately 12,000 feet.

Stage 2, 49 miles: Tres Rios to Turrialba. The day includes about 6,000 feet of climbing up the Irazú Volcano, where the riders will top out at about 10,000 feet. What follows is one of the gnarliest jeep-road descents to the finish.

Stage 3, 44 miles: Siqurries to Limon. The day includes the option to raft the Pacuare River. When the rafting is done, the riding will start,. The course includes La Ruta’s two notorious train-trestle river crossings.

Notable names:

Defending La Ruta champ Todd Wells (USA)
Multiple-time champ Federico “Lico” Ramirez (Costa Rica)
Two-time runner-up Alex Grant (USA)
Louis Leao Pinto (Portugal)
Defending women’s champ Adriana Rojas (Costa Rica)
Pua Mata (USA)
Sonya Looney (USA)