The Costa Rican crew

Quick, name the only team to place three riders in the top 21 of the men’s cross country at NORBA national No. 1. Here’s a hint: It’s not Trek-Volkswagen, Subaru-Gary Fisher, Giant, GT, RLX Polo Sport or any of the other big-time teams you’re probably thinking of. The answer is Café de Costa Rica, the squad of mountain men from Central America. Before you start thinking "fluke," consider this: The guys from Costa Rica also placed two riders in the top 25 in the short track — including one on the podium — and had four riders in the top 15 at the Iron Horse cross-country. So who are these guys

The legacy of the Brenes brothers is still alive in 2001

By Jason Sumner, VeloNews Associate Editor

Moving up: The Costa Ricans have shown they can compete with the top teams.

Moving up: The Costa Ricans have shown they can compete with the top teams.

Photo: Jason Sumner

Quick, name the only team to place three riders in the top 21 of the men’s cross country at NORBA national No. 1. Here’s a hint: It’s not Trek-Volkswagen, Subaru-Gary Fisher, Giant, GT, RLX Polo Sport or any of the other big-time teams you’re probably thinking of. The answer is Café de Costa Rica, the squad of mountain men from Central America.

Before you start thinking “fluke,” consider this: The guys from Costa Rica also placed two riders in the top 25 in the short track — including one on the podium — and had four riders in the top 15 at the Iron Horse cross-country. So who are these guys dressed in their distinctive blue-and-red uniforms? And how did they make the trek from a third-world country to places like Big Bear Lake in Southern California?

The answers to these questions can be traced back to the mid-1980s when Bob Gregorio met Albin Brenes during a trip to Costa Rica. Gregorio, who lives in Durango and is best known for being John Tomac’s mechanic during the 1990s, helped introduce mountain biking to Brenes, a Costa Rican who had been a pro road rider from 1974 to 1984. After retiring, Brenes had made the transition from racer to trainer and was coaching some of his country’s most promising young road riders. At first Brenes saw mountain biking as a good cross training tool, but he soon realized that the new sport was full of opportunity.

The first of his riders to take advantage of this was Brenes’s younger brother, Andres. With the help of Gregorio, Andres landed a ride with Ritchey and became a consistent World Cup rider.

Andres finished his career riding for Café de Costa Rica, and after retiring following the 2000 season, began helping his brother run the team. Now the pair have a squad that numbers 16 riders, 13 who mostly remain in Costa Rica, plus three others who are spending the summer taking on the NORBA races, North American World Cups, and the world championships at Vail.

“Albin believes in starting slow and bringing them up the ladder little by little,” said Gregorio following the Iron Horse in Durango. “The long-term goal is for all these guys to follow in Andres’s footsteps. They are hoping to promote Costa Rican cycling to the point that they could team up with an international sponsor and get these guys to the next level of sponsorship.”

Most of the team’s money comes from back home. Café de Costa Rica is the main regulatory agency behind Costa Rican coffee. The team’s other primary sponsor is Pizza Hut-Costa Rica. “I don’t think Pizza Hut-America even knows this team exists,” Gregorio said. “They’re getting a lot of free advertising from us right now.”

Most of that free airtime has come courtesy of Jose Adrian Bonilla. The 23-year-old finished second behind Travis Brown at the Iron Horse, then picked up a fifth-place in the short track and a seventh in the cross country at Big Bear.

“Bonilla was 14 when he first hooked up with Albin,” Gregorio said. “Back then all these guys were racing on stuff most Americans would have thrown away. Things are better now, but they still don’t have the kind of monetary backing of the other teams. On the road they don’t have a soigneur or anything like that.”

But that isn’t stopping them from putting up some stellar results.