The Rincon de la Vieja is an adventurous 100 mile mountain bike race circumnavigating an active Volcano in Northern Costa Rica. The land surrounding the race is a tourist haven filled with hot springs, waterfalls, zip lines, tubing, horseback riding and other types of adventure ecotourism.
We were there to race though, so after a couple of relaxing days at Borinquen Resort tucked away on the western flanks of the Volcano it was time for business. The night before the big show I headed to race headquarters at Hacienda Guachipelin resort to focus on the task at hand. The 3 year old event is now part of the USA’s NUE (National Ultra Endurance) series and attracted over 550 racers from North and Central America this year.
As far as bike racing goes this is what it’s all about with adventure, sightseeing, stiff competition, a laid back atmosphere and an unforgettable experience racing through one of the World’s most extreme varied environments. Racing in places like North America and Europe is generally pretty tame but down here in Costa Rica there is a wild side to it!
Race day started way too early Saturday morning at 5:30 am. The sun was smarter than us and wasn’t even up at this time. Someones needs to make a rule on how early these things can start as 4 am is a good time for dreams not alarm clocks! After eating half a rice cake for breakfast it was off to the line where we had a neutral start climbing up to the base of Rincon volcano before the race kicked off with a sprint for one of the 2 singletrack sections of the day. This was followed with 5 km of fast trail through a dry forest back towards the start line before heading out on a series of rolling hills.
The race started nicely until I dropped my chain in the singletrack descent, bending a few links as it got tangled in my pedal. Untangling the knot and then chasing hard for the next 30 minutes with skipping gears I finally caught back up to the lead group of 20 as they went over some “rolling hills”. These rollers were not rollers at all but rather vertical walls up 500m-1 km climbs on 20% + roads which were so steep they had to pave them. Once I caught up I considered stopping to brake and re fix my chain but would’ve surely lost the lead group for good so I tried to bend it back with my hands whenever the pace slowed a little. Usually you try to pace yourself during the first part of 100 mile race but between the relentless hills and trying to fix the chain it was a hard start to the day.
After the first feed zone 25 miles in we road off the dusty roads through open pastureland and straight into a wall of Jungle. Suddenly the ground was slick and muddy, the sun was blocked out from the thick canopy above and the humidity shot straight through the roof with a drizzle of rain to cap it off. There were Toucans and other colourful birds squaking and lots of strange rustling in the dense foliage. Fluorescent blue Morpho butterflies floated about against the dark green back drop and looked like something straight out of Avatar. Some racers towards the back of the race even captured a Cougar on camera. This was the wild side of Costa Rica we all dreamt about.
It’s always an adventure racing in the jungle but it’s a different beast which is hard to tame. I’m not sure if it’s the humidity or the fact I know little about it but I tend to focus more energy on staying alive than riding. The big animals generally stay away but there were some crazy insects in there which thought us riders were a smorgasbord. Eventually we popped back into an open road now covered in mud and with some bloody insect bites. The next 2 hours were spent pedaling through the wet Northwestern side of the Rincon Volcano through patches of jungle and otherwise very thick forest. This was the heart of the countryside, far away from the tourist trail and a great place to get a glimpse of the real Costa Rican way of life. The locals back here all seemed really happy although they must be amphibious as it was a real rainforest with drizzle coming down all the time.
As quickly as we rode into the wet rainforest environment, we rode back into the dry desert side of the volcano and were soon heading towards the Pacific ocean on dusty roads. Ripping through the open burnt landscape we took a hard right back onto some rough quad trails through the El Chizo canyon area. This was a great part of the race and gave me flashbacks to racing the rough mining trails at the Crocodile Trophy in the Australian outback. Having my Kona Hei Hei full suspension was a nice treat to soak up the rough course!
When we had a chance to glance up the scenery was spectacular with the Pacific far off in the distance and the cloud covered Rincon Volcano towering above. The race route was now covered in a white dust which was blinding after the dark jungle and added another element to the adventure.
After finally fixing the skipping chain after 4 attempts to bend the kinks out of it I was starting to crawl back into the race before flatting my front tyre heading down a steep pitch just before a rocky stream crossing. This nearly caused a massive pileup as I slid my bike into the ditch to fix the leak. Luck is a weird thing as it’s very real and sometimes it’s on your side and other times it’s not. American National Marathon Champ Todd Wells was having an even rougher day, leading the race with eventual winner Paolo Montoya before also flatting and then having his cranks come apart virtually ending his race. The Ticos thus claimed the top 6 positions with myself in 7th and Wells DSQ’d himself as he had received outside help. I think we both would like to return next year to settle some unfinished business. That being said the Tico’s are a strong force down here on there home turf and are tough to beat at the best of times.
Overall the race was one of the better organised events I’ve been too with every aspect of it covered. Race founder Juan Carlos and his crew are down to earth and really on the ball. JC is a bike racer himself so he knows what it takes to pull off a World class race. The event doubled in size from 2014 and there’s no doubt it will continue this trend into the future if they keep pulling off shows like this.
Post race we went back into Costa Rica holiday mode as the organizers had all of us foreigners staying at the Hacienda Guachipelin resort at the race start/finish. This made for a nice atmosphere as we hung out and visited, soaking in the relaxing post race days. Dining in an open air deck under a large Guanacaste tree made a good place to refuel and arrange plans for the coming days. The planning worked out good with a surf trip, a waterfall adventure, a swim in a jungle stream and a little bit of easier riding to check out the surrounding area.
Once the other racers took off on Tuesday I hopped on my bike and headed to Santa Rosa National Park in the Northwest corner of the country. The 6.5 hour (140km) ride had everything from trails, rough dirt roads and the smooth Pan Am highway as it lead to the secluded beaches of Playa Naranjo. The feed zones weren’t quite as great as the fully stocked ones during the race but there were guys selling ice cold coconut waters along the highway and it was also Mango season so there were loads of fruits to pick along the route. This was the icing on the cake to an already stellar trip to Costa Rica. The country is a paradise and the Rincon de La Vieja is a perfect way to get a taste of what this heaven has to offer. I can’t wait to return here for the next round of ecotourism adventure!
PS. Big thanks to my Tico buddy Ronald and wife Angela for the support during both the trip and race as it’s a long ways from home for a Canadian!