By Fred Dreier
Fat-tire fans will remember Costa Rica’s 2006 La Ruta de los Conquistadores for the race’s epic, 60-mile stage 1 from Jaco to El Rodeo, which included 14,500 muddy feet of climbing and sent 50 percent of the field home early. They will also remember the triumph of the skinny 24-Colombian Leonardo Paez, who dominated the three-day race in just his first attempt.
But for many, the lasting image of the 2006 la Ruta is that of bloodstained American Jeremiah Bishop (Trek-Volkswagen) rolling across the finish of Stage 2 after hitting the deck in the final kilometers. The high-speed crash mangled several of Bishop’s teeth and badly broke his upper mandible. Still, the American finished out the stage before heading to a hospital in the capital city of San Jose to undergo surgery on his jawbone.
VeloNews: What do you remember from the crash?
Jeremiah Bishop: Oh man, I remember pretty much everything, and I think that’s why I continued riding. If I had blacked out or been dizzy after crashing, I would have just sat there. There was about 3k to go and I was going down this 20 percent downhill really fast. No problem. The spectators were yelling in English, “Be Careful, Bishop!”
The hotel we were staying at was on the right, so I decided I should be on the left side of the jeep trail in case a car pulled out. I went over the crest of dirt in the middle of the road but it was soft pumice like chalk with marbles in it. My front wheel slid out, hooked on a rock and shot out in the opposite direction.
I went down so fast I didn’t have time to “wreck.” Normally when you’re going to crash you know how to lay it down or just roll it. But in a split second I tumbled and hit my face hard. I looked down and saw a puddle of blood and spit some pieces of teeth out. My teeth didn’t mesh in my mouth. It was scary. But I wasn’t dizzy, so I said I need to finish, I felt like if I kept moving that would be good. Paez came by and slowed down to see what was going on. Anyway, I cruised across the finish line and got these strange looks from spectators. Children were holding their mouths. I was like, “Uh, this isn’t good…”
VN: And the pain?
JB: I felt a ton of pain. It was bad but the endorphins carried me for the first hour or so. After that it got really bad and I tried to tune it out. The pain was mostly in my face and in my left temple. I lost a pretty good chunk of tissue there. But I had no brain impact or a concussion.
My helmet was even fine.
VN: You were in second place, 15 minutes down on Paez after stage 1. How was stage 2 going before you crashed?
JB: The race was going awesome; the stage sent us up to the top of the highest volcano in Costa Rica (Volcan Irazu) and then down the other side to the finish. I figured whoever got to the top of the volcano first would be sitting good for the stage win, so Paez and myself and a Costa Rican were setting a really high pace. I was attacking and throwing in some counter-attacks, and was feeling great because I was climbing with this guy (Paez) who is one of the best climbers in the world. I was stoked. We got to the top of the mountain and I told myself I wasn’t going to take any risks, I should just descend it the way I know how and it should work itself out because I’m a better descended than Paez is. I punched it out of the sharp corners and then up the two minute climbs and Paez was having to work to catch back on. I could hear each time he was getting further away.
The guy on the pace motorcycle said he was getting tired so I punched it on the final climb as hard as I could. Paez was nowhere in sight when I started the final descent.
VN: So what was the total damage tally from the crash?
JB: I got medical attention at the finish line but because my jaw was definitely not right I said hey, I need a good hospital to get checked out at. I got a ride to Cima medical center in San Jose. Their chief Oral Maxial facial surgeon, who is a great guy, did some X-rays and said I had a Lefort break of the maxilla. He suggested I get the surgery to stabilize my upper jawbone.
VN: What were your thoughts about having the procedure done in Costa Rica?
JB: Yeah, I had second thoughts. When I heard about face surgery my stomach turned inside out. But I realized that the hospital was in one of the wealthiest parts of the biggest city. I mean, they had wireless Internet there. I said okay.
I was confident with the doctor, Oscar Arango, and his experience. He’s the best guy in Costa Rica to do the procedure, and he and his family ride mountain bikes. He said he would treat me like a brother. He told me I could get on a plane with a ton of painkillers and fly home with my upper jaw flapping in the breeze and get surgery back home, but it would be really uncomfortable. The healing process wants to start as soon as the trauma takes place. So he did the surgery to pin my jaw back together. He went in underneath my upper gum and there is no visible entry, it’s just like magic.
VN: The first stage of this year’s La Ruta cut about half of the athletes out of the race, and even Tomas Frischknect agreed that it pushed the limits of difficulty. Did you think it was too difficult?
JB: This was definitely the toughest race in the world this year. Absolutely it was too hard. I talked to some people before the race and they said the stage would be two hours longer than last year, and I was like, “Are you kidding me?”
Last year Frischi said it was the hardest single-day of riding he has ever done. It wasn’t a race, it was an adventure. A voyage. I got to preview the stage a couple days before the race because Ignacio Pazos, the Trek dealer down there. I was like, “Yeah yeah whatever… The race’s new section is on a dirt road and not a paved road, how much harder could it be?”
The road was impassable by jeep. They race motorcycle enduro on it. It just went up and down the fingers of this mountainside before climbing the mountain on this unbelievably steep pitch of clay. And when the race started people were racing neck and neck super hard up to the climb. Adam [Craig] and I just rode together doing our own thing until my cassette broke. I kept riding and rode into second place, but I didn’t care because I was overheating so bad. I saw a waterfall on the side of the climb and got off of my bike and just dunked my head in. Another time I dunked my head in a stream and my Oakleys fell off. Then the top of the mountain was insanely steep, it was a wall of pain. I saw [Andreas] Hestler come across the finish and his big calves were cramping so bad they quivering and squirming like a bag full of worms. It was disgusting.
VN: So will this crash going to derail your goals for 2007?
JB: No. I’m already back on the trainer. I’m patching up nicely, it’s been really amazing. I’ve applied good nutrition to dealing with the injury and I’ve kept my face elevated. Already I look basically normal except for the black eyes and I have some blood in my eye. I have four weeks of no chewing and another four of no hard chewing. I’ve learned to blend food. I can eat everything; it just has to be mashed up.
VN: Will you go back to La Ruta?
JB: Maybe. I’ll definitely go back to the country. The outreach I felt from the people was amazing. I had a slough of racers and locals come visit me in the hospital. A group of local school children had written me letters and drawings from school filled with short sentences about never giving up. That was really cool.