By Abrahm Lustgarten
The home nation continued its domination at the ninth annual running of La Ruta de los Conquistadores, the brutal three-day, 408km off-road stage race in Costa Rica. Jose Bonilla (Pizza Hut-Costa Rica) fought off a challenge from American Tinker Juarez (Volvo-Cannondale) to win the November 16-18 race.
Bonilla broke away from Juarez in the second of three stages near the base of a grueling 9000-foot climb, the crux of the 108km second day. The strategic move, planned ahead of time by Bonilla’s coach Andres Brenes, extended his 30-second lead from day one to an insurmountable 16 minutes. Bonilla held his lead on day three, finishing with an unofficial time of 15:40:32. His was one of the fastest times in the race’s history and nearly two hours faster than last year’s winning time.
Juarez, a two-time Olympic competitor, three-time NORBA champion, and this year’s NORBA 24-hour solo champion, could not make up his day two loss in the final stage. He placed second overall, with a combined time of 15:55:42.
Bonilla’s teammate Marvin Campos edged into third place overall, after a stage three win placed him well ahead of American James Mortensen (Team Beaver Creek), who finished a strong third in the first two stages but was weighed down by illness on day three.
Tinker and Bonilla raced head-to-head for most of the race, setting a pace nearly half an hour faster than the rest of the pack. Even Edgar Zumbado, the local rider who won the two previous La Rutas, could not get closer than fifth position throughout the event.
This year’s race saw some of the toughest competition in it’s decade-long history, attracting not only Juarez, but American Rishi Grewal, who reportedly dropped out early in the first stage due to mechanical difficulties.
Despite Juarez’s high expectations and a very strong showing to end a successful season, the Costa Rican riders held on tight to their winning dynasty. No foreigner has ever won La Ruta.
“Now I know what kind of race this is, and it’s a much bigger deal than I expected,” Juarez said after his defeat on the second day. “As far as the races I’ve done, this is definitely the toughest.”
Two hundred and seventy seven riders traced the route of the Spanish conquerors this year, from the Pacific coast town of Punta Leona, 408 kilometers to the Carribbean port city of Limon. The first day sports 140 kilometers of rolling, rocky, mud-washed terrain through coastal jungle and mountain drainages. Altimeters measured 14,600 feet of combined elevation gain in this stage.
Competitors started day 2 with a relentless 9000-foot grind to just below the summit of Volcano Irazu, contending not only with each other but with 40-degree temperatures and driving rain at nearly 10,000 feet. That was followed by a drop into a punishing downhill that disintegrated brake pads and comprised nearly half of the stage’s distance.
The 60 percent of the starters still racing after stage 2 faced another 160km run through swampy orchards in stage 3, braving raging river crossings and gravel-washed high-speed decents to the finish in Limon.
For results on La Ruta, see http://www.adventurerace.com/framesetRuta.html