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Lico Ramirez takes big lead after stage 1 of La Ruta de los Conquistadores

What’s the best way to quantify pain? This question popped into my head countless times during today’s opening stage of La Ruta de los Conquistadores, a hellacious 68.7-mile slog from Jaco Beach to the outskirts of San Jose. During the journey I carried my bike up ridiculously steep, muddy slopes, climbed 14,500 feet of elevation gain (much of it in the granny gear) and suffered like a rented mule. I crossed the line cross-eyed and drooling just under eight hours in 42nd place, about two hours behind stage winner Frederico “Lico” Ramirez.

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By Fred Dreier

2008 La Ruta: Roberto Heras managed a fifth-place finish in his La Ruta debut, but suffered in the race's hike-a-bike sections.

2008 La Ruta: Roberto Heras managed a fifth-place finish in his La Ruta debut, but suffered in the race’s hike-a-bike sections.

Photo: Don Karle

What’s the best way to quantify pain?

This question popped into my head countless times during today’s opening stage of La Ruta de los Conquistadores, a hellacious 68.7-mile slog from Jaco Beach to the outskirts of San Jose. During the journey I carried my bike up ridiculously steep, muddy slopes, climbed 14,500 feet of elevation gain (much of it in the granny gear) and suffered like a rented mule. I crossed the line cross-eyed and drooling just under eight hours in 42nd place, about two hours behind stage winner Frederico “Lico” Ramirez.

So how can I begin to express the physical pain and suffering that day one dished out my way? Well, of course you will never know unless you try La Ruta and suffer for yourself. But in case that never happens, I will reference the doctor and dentists approved 1 to 10 scale for discomfort. While bonked out of my brain, coated in mud and inching my way up the day’s final rocky climb, I estimated my suffer level to be at or near one billion zillion.

2008 La Ruta: La Ruta's opening day is filled with steep, granny gear climbs.

2008 La Ruta: La Ruta’s opening day is filled with steep, granny gear climbs.

Photo: Don Karle

Yes, we journalists like to exaggerate. But the bottom line is that today hurt like hell.

Stage one of La Ruta holds a grim reputation in the mountain bike world as the hardest day of quite possibly the world’s toughest off-road race. The route doesn’t sound like much fun on paper: a super-steep opening climb to thin out the ranks followed by two hours of hike-a-bike climbs, river crossings, sketchy slick descents and the thickest mud you’ve ever seen in the Carara National Park. After 12 miles of gravel climbs, there’s a Col du Aubisque-like paved ascent to Grifo Alto. After another 15 miles of high-speed gravel descents and climbs, the stage ends with a final steep paved climb.

2008 La Ruta: La Ruta kicks off under darkness promptly at 5 a.m.

2008 La Ruta: La Ruta kicks off under darkness promptly at 5 a.m.

Photo: Don Karle

We hit the pavement at 5 a.m., which is a ghastly early time to start a race, even in the tropics. But if the organizers didn’t send us spinning into the darkness that early, they would have hundreds of riders in the lantern rouge category trying to navigate Costa Rica’s backwoods at night.

After 8km of a nerve-fraying neutral rollout, the lead moto released the hounds. Nobody snapped at the bait early, but after a handful of gradual road climbs, our front group had been whittled down to about 20-30 riders. When we hit the day’s first granny gear ascent, the race’s big dogs — Ramirez, Frenchman Thomas Dietsch, Paolo Montoya, Manny Prado and of course Roberto Heras — waved bye bye and motored away.

2008 La Ruta: The Joy of Suffering: The muddy author climbs yet another painful La Ruta ascent.

2008 La Ruta: The Joy of Suffering: The muddy author climbs yet another painful La Ruta ascent.

Photo: Don Karle

I toiled in the chase group alongside fellow Americans Harlan Price of the Independent Fabrication team. We were greatly outnumbered by local Tico riders in our bunch.

Costa Ricans hate the little ring. I’m not passing judgment, merely stating an observation I picked up last year that was reaffirmed on that climb. The middle-ring mashing Ticos heaved their bodies all over their machines, wrenching the big gear up the never-ending hillside. Some guys barely moved forward, but refused to take a visit to Granny’s gear.

My friends, I am not too proud for the little ring, especially not in the opening minutes of an eight-hour day.

Following the Ticos proved costly for Price and me at the summit of the day’s opening ascent. Believing the locals knew where they were going, we headed on a wild goose chase down a treacherous muddy descent. Price, the wiser of us, thought something was fishy and turned back. I continued down the slop until my cursing-in-Spanish compadres turned around.

I never saw Price again, but he finished an impressive 11th place on the day.

So what happened at the front of the race? The Ramirez/Heras showdown never truly materialized, as Heras lost contact with Ramirez and Montoya on a gravel climb at the race’s midpoint. And the Spaniard wasn’t able to close the gap on the long paved ascent 10 miles later, and appeared to be suffering badly. He finished fifth, 25 minutes down, after losing a sprint to Prado.

2008 La Ruta: : (left to right) Manny Prado, Paolo Montoya and Federico "Lico" Ramirez.

2008 La Ruta: : (left to right) Manny Prado, Paolo Montoya and Federico “Lico” Ramirez.

Photo: Don Karle

I ran into Heras in the hallway of our hotel, and he said the hike-a-bike sections in Carara toasted his legs. Perhaps he has a stage win in him this year, but having lost nearly half an hour, victory is probably out of the question.

“This is a very strange race, very different,” Heras said in broken English.

The man who took the biggest bite of suffer pie today was the Frenchman, Thomas Dietsch. While all of the other strongmen have support crews handing up bottles and food from cars, Dietsch is the only guy relying on the aid stations for his liquids and energy, meaning he has to stop, fill his bottles, and then chase back on. But after chasing Montoya and Ramirez up the longest paved climb, Dietsch came to the fourth aide station only to fine it unmanned and not set up yet. They weren’t expecting riders to show that early in the day.

2008 La Ruta: Day 1 map.

2008 La Ruta: Day 1 map.

Photo: Courtesy

“I ride perhaps 50km with no water today, it was terrible,” said Dietsch, who eventually faded from third to sixth.

By the time I rolled through the last feed zones, it was chock-full of water, Gatorade, snacks and volunteers. Still, I was crazed from the never-ending ascent up to Giro Alto, cramping from hiking through Carara and about to crack.

I asked a volunteer how many kilometers remained. She answered 37.

My spirit sunk. The pain I felt was both mental and emotional, and definitely unquantifiable.

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Results

La Ruta de los Conquistadores

Day 1

Open Men

1. Federico Ramirez (CRC), BCR-Pizza Hut, 5:54:40

2. Paolo Montoya (CRC), Economy Rent a Car, at 10:14

3. Enrique Artavia (CRC), Super Pro-Economy Rent a Car, at 23:27

4. Manuel Prado (CRC), Sho Air, at 25:18

5. Roberto Heras (Sp), Giant España, at s.t.