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By Fred Dreier
La Ruta de los Conquistadores, the Costa Rican race organizers call the “World’s Toughest Mountain Bike Race,” is facing nearly $180,000 in debt and a complete reshuffling of its upper management.
The financial and managerial storm centers on a dispute between race owner Roman Urbina and former director Luis Diego Viquez, whom Urbina fired three weeks ago.
Both parties told VeloNews that their only concern now is that the race survives the crisis.
“We are going to get out of this financial slump and La Ruta must continue,” Urbina told VeloNews. “This financial crisis is only three weeks old and we’re still in the middle of untangling the whole mess and gathering all of the pertinent information. This is a difficult time for us. But (the financial challenge) is not going to kill La Ruta.”
A large portion of the debt, Urbina says, is money owed to more than 100 customers who had their credit cards fraudulently double- and triple-charged by the old race management. According to Viquez, the multiple charges were the result of a software glitch, and that the money has been repaid to the customers.
Urbina said he is investigating the possibility of pursuing legal action against the former race director, adding that he would not discuss the details of a possible lawsuit.
Urbina started La Ruta in 1992 as the world’s first multi-day expedition mountain bike race. The race’s goal was to retrace the route used by Spanish Conquistadores in the 16th century. The event gradually grew into the nation’s biggest bicycle race, and attracted international attention from the world’s endurance racing community. La Ruta was the first mass participant multi-day endurance mountain bike stage race, and its popularity opened the door for such events as the Absa Cape Epic, Trans Rockies Challenge and BC Bike Race.
In 2005 Urbina passed race management duties off to Viquez, who was an employee of Urbina’s at the Don Fadrique hotel in San Jose. Viquez teamed up with press officer Luis Rueda to grow La Ruta into an event that could compete with the races it helped create. In 2007 the race hit a high water mark, attracting nearly 600 competitors. In 2009 the race won the International Arch of Europe award from the Convention of the Business Initiative Directions for its management.
But in 2008 La Ruta saw a sharp decrease in participants, and the lack of revenue put the event into the red. Urbina, who was not directly involved with the day-to-day business of the race, believes the loss of income led to the fraudulent charges.
“After 2008 we were a little bit under the water. The money (Viquez) was raising was not quite enough,” Urbina said. “He maxed out (the race) credit card and that’s when the double charges (on participants credit cards) started appearing.”
Urbina said he discovered the bad charges and fired Viquez.
Viquez offers a different story. He admits the race lost nearly $300,000 in revenue in 2007 and ‘08, but said it was a glitch in the registration software that caused the multiple charges, not fraud. Viquez said it was a clash of egos that caused Urbina to fire him.
“I started four years ago and La Ruta was nothing. It was a nice race but its logistics were bad,” Viquez said. “My management group was the best management group. We grew business 300 percent in profits in the last four years. The quality of the event is known worldwide. But when things didn’t work out it was easy for La Ruta’s owners to blame me.”
Participants did receive multiple charges, and as of press time, not all of the money has been repaid. Mark Burgess, of Tiburon, California, found three fraudulent charges, totaling $1411.05 on his credit card in 2008, all of them from the race organization. The 48-year-old Burgess originally registered for the 2008 event, but a family emergency forced him to bump his registration back to the 2009 edition. He discovered the extra charges in January of this year, and said he only expects to get two of the bad charges back.
“Of course with my bank any bad charge after 60 days they weren’t willing to look at. I got one back from the Bank and another from Roman,” Burgess said. “For the other charge I told Roman I’d accept single room occupancy and maybe some favors (at La Ruta) this year.”
Despite the fraudulent charges, Burgess said he still supports the race. Burgess participated in the 2005 edition of La Ruta but did not finish. He says his goal for the year is to complete the 250-mile trek.
“I think (Urbina) has a good heart and he wants to do the right thing,” Burgess said. “I want to go back and support (La Ruta) and help bring it back to life. I’d hate to see it go down because of somebody else. And I want to finish the hardest race in the world.”
Urbina says he has several ideas to bridge the financial shortcomings, including the sale of his hotel. La Ruta also might open its doors to outside financial investment. Urbina has hired a new staff for 2009, headed up by his public relations manager Andres Vargas. Vargas is a Costa Rican photojournalist and a veteran organizer on the adventure racing circuit.
“In Costa Rica, La Ruta is like the Tour de France is for French people,” Vargas said. “I have followed it since I got involved in adventure sports. Our goal is to try and fix what has happened.”
Vargas said his job is to now persuade professional and amateur riders alike to come back to La Ruta, despite the financial peril.
In lieu of his firing, Viquez agrees.
“La Ruta was like a daughter to me,” he said. “I hope (the race) continues to go well for the good of the mountain bike racing community.”