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Ramirez solidifies lead at La Ruta de los Conquistadores

A grim reality sets in at the midpoint of any multi-day mountain bike stage race. The anxious buzz of the event’s first half has all-but petered out, and riders no longer speak only in the tone of optimism. Legs are drained and bodies are exhausted, perhaps injured. Bikes creak and squeak. Butts are sore. For some, the knowledge that half of the journey still remains is enough to drive the motivation straight into the basement. Many contemplate quitting, or simply wonder how in God’s name they plan to reach the finish line. [nid:85129]

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By Fred Dreier

2008 La Ruta, day 3:  Lico Ramirez smashed the competition for the second time this year, adding to his overall lead.

2008 La Ruta, day 3: Lico Ramirez smashed the competition for the second time this year, adding to his overall lead.

Photo: Don Karle

A grim reality sets in at the midpoint of any multi-day mountain bike stage race. The anxious buzz of the event’s first half has all-but petered out, and riders no longer speak only in the tone of optimism. Legs are drained and bodies are exhausted, perhaps injured. Bikes creak and squeak. Butts are sore.

For some, the knowledge that half of the journey still remains is enough to drive the motivation straight into the basement. Many contemplate quitting, or simply wonder how in God’s name they plan to reach the finish line.

2008 La Ruta, day 3:  From atop the Irazu, riders saw much of Costa Rica, including the country's livestock

2008 La Ruta, day 3: From atop the Irazu, riders saw much of Costa Rica, including the country’s livestock

Photo: Don Karle

Things are no different at this year’s La Ruta de los Conquistadores, which celebrated its halfway point at the beginning of Friday’s 66.7km third stage from the Terramall to the Aquiares coffee plantation. After a 4:30 a.m. alarm bell (which felt like 2 a.m.) I limped into the dining hall for my morning ration of rice and eggs, and found a room teeming with melancholy. Nearly everyone sported the same beet-red face, tanned from Thursday’s exposed 25km climb to Copalchi, and puffed up from two days of dehydration and jungle pollen. Some wore fresh bandages. A few folks cracked smiles, but most simply sat and ate.

I eavesdropped on a table of Canadians, who discussing the day’s primary obstacle: the infamous descent off the Irazu volcano. One guy wondered if the jarring 20-mile downhill, strewn with baby-head sized rocks, was really as difficult as legend has it.

2008 La Ruta, day 3: The author shows off his meanest pain face as he inches up the Irazu.

2008 La Ruta, day 3: The author shows off his meanest pain face as he inches up the Irazu.

Photo: Don Karle

I leaned over and told them it was, and then recounted my trip down the Irazu last year. Soaked by a chilling rain — the volcano tops out at nearly 8,000 feet — I washed out in the first turn of 20 miles worth of turns and landed into a hot tub-sized trough of mud. With my confidence at zero, I bounced my way down for what seemed an eternity, walking occasionally as riders screamed past. My brake pads gave out shortly before my hands and forearms, but luckily the finish line was only a few switchbacks away.

At another table, a crew of Germans was patting their frowning friend on the back and offering him worlds of encouragement (I assume). My elementary German picked up one phrase: “Only two more days.”

It’s often times this breakfast and dinner table banter at mountain bike stage races that helps people reach the final finish line. Throughout the course of the event where riders eat, race and suffer together, it’s commonplace for support groups, and even lifelong friendships, to flourish.

2008 La Ruta, day 3: The Irazu descent

2008 La Ruta, day 3: The Irazu descent

Photo: Don Karle

Which is a good thing for La Ruta riders, because all 400 or so participants need at least an ounce of extra encouragement to get on their bikes each day.

Today was no different, as we faced the Irazu, which dominates San Jose’s eastern horizon. The stage began promptly at 7 a.m. at the Terramall, in eastern San Jose, and spun through a series of crowded city streets. The lion’s share of the Irazu climb is on a gradual highway-grade road, but the opening paved are painfully steep and reminiscent of Thursday’s wall climbs. The first climb gives way to a very steep, double-track section of concrete pavers. While you inch your way up in the granny gear, you must balance your front wheel on the two-foot-wide pavers, or end up pushing.

Federico “Lico” Ramirez didn’t need to do any pushing. He attacked with countryman and stage 2 winner Paolo Montoya at the base of the climb, then worked with his BCR-Pizza Hut teammate Alex Sanchez to drop Montoya midway up the Irazu climb. Ramirez, who is a four-time La Ruta champ and Costa Rica’s 2008 Olympic mountain biker, then put more time into Montoya on the descent to win the race in 3:20:23, six minutes up on Montoya.

Noticeably absent from the front group on the long climb was Roberto Heras, who many picked to shine today because of his experience on long, similarly graded European roads. Heras rode in the chase group with Frenchman Thomas Dietsch, and the men descended the Irazu together.

2008 La Ruta, day 3: The top of the 8000-foot volcano is much cooler than the valley below, and usually is shrouded by thick fog

2008 La Ruta, day 3: The top of the 8000-foot volcano is much cooler than the valley below, and usually is shrouded by thick fog

Photo: Don Karle

I expected Heras to be a true roadie and suffer like a dog on the Irazu descent, which can punish even the most seasoned mountain bikers. I asked Dietsch, who eventually dropped Heras after he broke a chain, to rate the Spaniard’s skills on the downhill.

“He was good, very good,” said Dietsch, who is last year’s marathon mountain bike World Cup champ. “I was very surprised because he had no problem.”

2008 La Ruta, day 3: Local Ticos come out in droves to cheer riders at La Ruta, and every ounce of extra encouragement counts.

2008 La Ruta, day 3: Local Ticos come out in droves to cheer riders at La Ruta, and every ounce of extra encouragement counts.

Photo: Don Karle

Yours truly had less of a problem day than last year. With crystal clear skies providing the view of the green lowlands, I summitted the Irazu with a pack of Americans, Canadians and local Ticos. The Irazu descent was not kind, and the rocks rattled all three of my water bottles to the ground, burned through my brake pads and left my suspension fork a squeaking mess. But I rode the entire descent and only surrendered one spot. No crashes, no injuries and no fried nerves.

Which is important, because while we La Ruta riders have successfully suffered our way past the race’s midway point, we have a full day of pain ahead. Tomorrow serves up 120 kilometers, roughly 45 of them on railroad tracks.

If there was ever a time for extra encouragement, it’s now.

Photo Gallery

Results

Stage 3 results: | ( GC standings)

1.Federico Ramírez (CRC) BCR-Pizza Hut 3:20:23

2.Paolo Montoya (CRC) Economy Rent a Car-Seven Capital at 6:18

3.Thomas Dietsch (FRA) Gewiss-Bianchi at 27:05

4.Manuel Prado (CRC) Sho Air-Rock and Road Cyclery at 27:52

5.Enrique Artavia (CRC) Súper Pro-Economy Rent a Car at 32:36

6.Alexander Sánchez (CRC) BCR-Pizza Hut at 36:13

7.Cory Wallace (CAN) Freewheel Cycle at 40:14

8.Harlan Price (USA) Independent Fabricant a 40:47

9.Marvin Campos (CRC) Súper Pro-Economy Rent a Car at 43:15

10.Roberto Heras (ESP) Giant España at 43:17

GC | ( Stage results )

1.Federico Ramírez (CRC) BCR-Pizza Hut 13:09:51

2.Paolo Montoya (CRC) Economy Rent a Car-Seven Capital at 13:46

3.Enrique Artavia (CRC) Súper Pro-Economy Rent a Car at 59:12

4.Thomas Dietsch (FRA) Gewiss-Bianchi at 1:00:20

5. Manuel Prado (CRI) SHO-AIR/ROCK N’ROAD at 1:04:14

6. Roberto Heras (ESP) Giant at 1:13:41