Trans Costa Rica is a 4 day UCI S2 stage race in its 3rd edition which includes 3 marathon stages and a time trial up a Volcano. Costa Rica is a mountain bikers paradise with its mountainous terrain, tropical climate and very friendly and enthused mountain bike culture. This World Class event is the perfect showcase of what this heavenly country has to offer as the organizers have found a way to bring the emotion of riding a bike through a beautiful setting, combined with one of the highest levels of competition seen anywhere in a North or South American bike race.
I’ve raced down here on numerous occasions, taking on both the legendary La Ruta de Conquistadors mountain bike race and the UCI 2.2 Vuelta de Costa Rica 12 day road stage race, 3 times each. It’s one of my favourite countries to pedal a bike in as the cycling culture is huge with only soccer eclipsing it. It’s also one of the more challenging countries to ride in with some insanely steep climbs, a hot climate, and the potential for epic mud days if it rains and also a very high level of local competition. I knew it was going to be a humbling experience with the all-star lineup of riders the organization had lined up for this pure climbers race. But I like the challenges and love Costa Rica, so put my name in the hat! In the past Costa Rica has had some big problems with doping but this was the first trip down here that I felt I was competing against a clean field as the culture seems to be changing.
Joining 8 other pro riders at a private hotel the organisers had arranged for us was the perfect prep for the race. We showed up a week before the race which gave us a chance to properly acclimatise and get in some training beforehand. The highlight of the week was travelling with the 7c cycling Team down to the town of Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean coast to participate in a round of their national Marathon series. The race was like the Paris Roubaix of Costa Rica as we raced on some rough gravel roads through a very hot and steamy tropical environment. Most of us foreigners landed in the top 12 which was a great kick off to our trip although we were all pretty dehydrated and destroyed at the finish line. It seems that 1 race effort is needed in these climates to properly acclimatise so we were all crossing our fingers we’d be set for the Trans Costa Rica to come!
After a few days of rest the big show, the Trans Costa Rica, kicked off on Thursday, May 9th, with a 70 km Marathon stage on the slopes of Poas Volcano. Close to 200 riders tackled this challenging course with some of the best climbers in the World present from Columbia, Italy, Germany, Brazil, Switzerland, Norway, Guatemala, all the top Costa Ricans, and myself, not one of the World’s greatest climbers, but the current World Solo 24 HR champion. I knew I was in over my head so decided to set a diesel pace from the start. The first climb was around 20% gradient and the crazy mountain goats sprinted up it like their lives depended on it. I set my watts at 450, and soon found myself in about 50th position. It was shocking how crazy everyone was going but then the firework show started as riders started detonating themselves one by one. I was confused why so many of these guys decided to blow themselves up 5 km into a 70 km stage with over 2500 m of climbing but it was amusing to watch and good for me!
Poas Volcano is a training playground for many of the local Costa Rican riders as it has numerous paved roads navigating over its slopes, offering some great climbing practice as the elevation changes from 900 M to 2600 at the top. I have trained a lot on the volcano myself but nothing compared to the course we were riding on this day as the organisers had us racing through coffee plantations, down slippery single tracks up crazy steep dirt roads and down some rowdy washed out descents through the jungle foliage. Between the epic climbs and rough descents we would break out into some openings with gorgeous views of the Central valley, 1000 meters below as well as both Volcano Poas and Barva staring straight down on us.
The racing was tough as there was nowhere to rest, but also very engaging as the field was super deep, which meant you were always battling with another rider. Having started out slow I had the joy of catching riders one by one. Some of these riders really didn’t like getting passed and would ride out of there comfort zones to try and battle me as long as they could, often sprinting ahead only to blow up again. In a race with so much tough climbing it was important to pace oneself as once you blow up in this type of environment there is no coming back!
Crossing the finish line in a sprint for 8th with local star Paolo Montoya was a great cap to day 1 of the Trans Costa Rica. My goal coming into the race was a top 15 so I was stoked to be top 10 but also realized that I had set the bar pretty high as a few of the other top riders had troubles this day. The finish line was at the Doka Coffee plantation which provided a great smelling and relaxing atmosphere on the slopes of Poas. Everything about the race was super pro which I think impressed a lot of the riders as often you only get this sort of treatment at races like the Cape Epic or some of the top end stage races in Europe.
Stage 2 was a 14 km time trial up the slopes of Volcano Barva with riders leaving every 30 seconds, except for the top 10 which had 1 minute gaps. I usually don’t ride by a wattage meter but figured I’d give it a go this day. The legs felt amazing and the watts were reading 450 which was crazy high but I figured I’d ride this high tempo as long as I could sustain. Pretty soon, 1 rider passed me, then another, and I then I began wondering how this was possible. If I was pushing 450 watts they must’ve been doing over 500! As a 3rd rider nearly passed me I finally quit looking at the power meter and started going by feel again, now the meter was reading 500 + watts, way over my level, but now I started to suffer and felt like I was racing again. Apparently the power meter was malfunctioning, so I turned it off and then and rode a normal race to the top of the Volcano. It was a tough go with some insanely steeps pitches, roads that you just hoped you could get up, let alone race them. The last few km of the race we rode into a thick rainy cloud, got drenched, hit the finish line, then turned around to b-line it back to the hotel before we froze up to badly. Half way home our group of 3 hid out for 20 minutes as a proper Costa Rican monsoon moved in turning the roads into rivers. It’s amazing how quickly the climates turn down here but thankfully it is generally a warm wet, so there is nothing to really worry about. It seemed I’d end up drenched everyday down here, if not from a rainstorm then from just sweating my butt off in the warm humidity!
Stage 3 was the Queens stage as it took in 72 km and nearly 3000 M of climbing in the surrounding mountains of Costa Rica’s Central Valley. The start was at 6am as they were afraid the heat would be an issue this day with the course dropping down to near sea level. Instead, another rain storm moved in and we started the race wet and slightly chilled as we tackled the insane climb up to Rancho Macho. This climb is legendary as the road points straight up into the sky with some pitches over 30% and even our mountain bike tires would spin out on the wet pavement if we weren’t careful. It’s one of the Worlds wonders as to how they ever paved this thing in the first place! Again the idea wasn’t to really race up these pitches but to rather just get up them. We would ride straight up as far as we could and then would need to start doing the paper boy move (switch-backing back and forth across the road) to get up there without going to deep into the red zone. After this rude awakening to the day we hit the top of the climb and were soon sliding our ways back down the mountain on a muddy and rutted out double track. In some places it was so steep all you could do was manage your sliding speed, bouncing in and out of ruts and holding on for dear life.
There we numerous crashes, but the farther we went down the easier it was to slow down as our bikes became engulfed in mud making it difficult for the wheels to rotate. Crossing a river at the bottom looked more like a bike wash station as 6 of us stood there giving our bikes a bath so they could somewhat function on the next climb. The day turned into a a proper Costa Rican back-country adventure as we pushed our bikes up some steep climbs and then surfed them back down the slimy descents. Toss in some more Costa Rican ramps of 30% + gradients and it turned into a real trudge to the finish line in El Rodeo. With a stage time of 4 hours to come in the top 20, it wasn’t the longest day on the bike, but every kilometer in these environments you had to work for with little time to rest! The biggest challenge outside of the mud were the humid conditions which had us white guys sweating like fountains. I was lucky to have support from my friends, Ronald Jimenez, and Henry Perez as well as the 7C Cycling team, which meant I had bottles waiting every 10-15 km of the race. It was one of the first times I’ve never been dehydrated in a race down here as I would go through a bottle every half hour of the race.
Being early in the year and trying to build up for the World Solo 24HR , I decided to ride to and from each stage of the race. It was a great way to warm up and cool down for each stage with pit stops at Sip for frozen smoothie bowls being the highlight of the day as we tried to keep the energy levels topped up and our core temperatures in check!
One of the battles of stage racing in foreign countries is trying to get the proper rest and diet in-between stages. The diet in Costa Rica was not a problem with so many fresh fruits, veggies and a carb heavy diet readily available. The fresh papayas, pineapples and mangoes were the highlights! Rest was also good for us at the Casa Primo but unfortunately my roommate had come down with a sickness so it was making for some rough nights. After 2 near sleepless nights I made the call to change things up as 3 nights in a row of bad sleeps is when problems start to arise. Luckily I have good buddies in Costa Rica and the Kona dealer, Paulo Valle came over later in the evening to take me to his house for a solid night’s sleep. After 8 hours of rest I awoke with a new freshness, ate a bowl of oatmeal and papaya for breakfast, then threw on my pack to ride to the start. It was a bit of a maze of a 15 km ride but I managed to get there just in time to hit the start line with the 400 other riders for the final stage of the Trans Costa Rica.
With the 2 race helicopters hovering overhead we took off on a faster rolling course with just under 2000 meters of climbing over the 72 km stage. Rolling out in such a big group is always sketchy as a lot of riders from farther back will swarm the front jockeying for position as we pace ourselves behind the neutral role out car. At one point a big ball of chicken wire got wound up in one guys back wheel, essentially ending his ride as his bike skidded to a stop at 35 km/hr. Thankfully we all stayed upright and soon the road pitched up to 20% allowing the race to start as the field blew into pieces. After having a couple rougher days I was a bit hesitant to how the legs were going to go this day and opted to save energy and draft off the back of the lead 30 rider pack. This idea was a poor one as we soon hit some single track and I would get stuck behind some pretty sketchy riders, losing over a 1 minute to the leaders. From here it was into chase mode as I could see the race helicopter hovering over the lead group just over the next hill, but they were likely flying which makes it pretty damn hard to close any gaps at this level. Ripping through a Mango orchard there were yellow mangos littered all over the course with their juicy insides flying everywhere. What was a bit dangerous were the solid green mangoes still hanging from the trees which would bounce off our helmets like rocks. At one point a branch from a Mango tree hooked onto my helmet snapping my head back until it luckily breaking off before giving me any serious whiplash.
This stage was a nice relief from the previous climbing fests as there were a few flat parts in the course as we raced through farmer’s fields, past coffee plantations and on a few sections of purpose built single track. Zipping past riders 1 by 1 I soon found myself in the chase group with a bunch of Latin Americas top racers including Lico and Pauolo Montoya from Costa Rica, Guatemala’s National champ, Johnathon De Leon, and a previous Columbian National champ. I had never been this far up in a Latin American race so it was rad to ride with these guys but soon I found the pace a bit slow, so increased the tempo on a climb with only Paulo managing to match it. From here we worked well together picking off a few more riders and eventually found ourselves in 5th and 6th in the race. With just 15 km to go, the battle was on for a top 5! We hit a big climb together, I tried to ride him off my wheel but he was a bit stronger on the day and would instead drop me just before the top as we hit a huge crowd. What we experienced next was out of this World. A huge crowd had assembled on top of the KOM making basically one big mosh pit as we chased each other through it. There were smoke bombs going off, guys throttling chainsaws by our legs, people throwing ice water around and the pure utter chaos of people yelling and making noise however they could. I was starting to crack but the energy uplifted my body into an extra 100 watts for a few minutes before cresting the climb and then realizing that I had just ridden way over my limits I was now going to pay for it.
5 km from the line, Spanish rider Josep Betalu would fly by me but I managed to dig deep to hold onto him and eventually we sprinted for the line with myself grabbing 7th just ahead of him. It was an epic finish as we rolled into a bull fighting stadium full of crowds, media, a big expo and lots of crazy Tico action. It was the icing on the cake to what had been a World Class event racing in one of earth’s most amazing geographical areas. The race is the result of a couple whose passion is cycling and who have put their hearts and souls into the event. I have raced against one of the organizers Da,x Jaikel, many times and it’s these kinds of guys that have a deep love for cycling that know exactly how to put on a race and what the racers like. His wife Adriana and he make an amazing team and it is going to be exciting to watch this race grow in the years to come!
Post-race the adrenaline was still flying so after a couple hours relaxing with the other riders I hopped on the bike to ride back to San Jose. The direct route was 45 km on the highway, but that would be sketchy so I took the scenic way on the winding roads further up the Volcano slopes. The first part of the ride was great but after 50 km I started to crack and at the same time a huge thunderstorm moved in drenching me in seconds and turning the roads into rivers with crazy lightning flashing about. I hid out with a couple local bikers for 45 minutes but soon had to step out and brave the storm as the sun goes down early in this part of the World and I had no lights. The other problem was that my phone was now wet and unusable meaning I had lost my navigation back through the maze of roads to San Jose. It was a bit of a guessing game but I would eventually roll back to the hotel 3.5 hrs after starting this cool down ride, drenched and famished but with a big grin on my face after what had been a pretty epic past 2 weeks of training and racing in Costa Rica! Next years dates for the Trans Costa Rica are April 30, May 1-3!
Huge thanks to Dax and Adriana for putting on this race and for inviting us down for an unforgettable experience. Also to The 7 C Cycling team for welcoming us on board and treating us like royalty for 2 weeks. To Henry Perez and Mario for the feed zone support. To my buddie Paulo Valle for the in country support and great rides between races and of course to my Costa Rican Family, Ronald & Angela, for the home away from home. Also to Kona Bikes for the ongoing support and for developing such a great hard tail bike (Kona Honzo) for any conditions! Off to Canada to kick off the season there before continuing the build up to 24 HR Worlds in Brazil, with the 200 mile Dirty Kanza followed up with 2 weeks of racing and training up at altitude in Mexico.
Over and Out!