Welcome back to continuing coverage of the 2013 Fat La Ruta race from Costa Rica with words and pix provided by Team CoreCo’s Will Muecke. You can look back at Day 1 here and Day 2 here.
NO ESCAPING THE HEAT: FAT LA RUTA, DAY 3 (CATIE TO PLAYA BONITA, 120KM, +2,200M ASCENT)
Day 3 ran like clockwork and kudos to the race organizers for keeping a group of tired and aching racers in line and on time. The first part of the day is a road ascent up and out of the town of Turrialba as we make our way to the east coast and the emerald waters of the Caribbean Sea.
The first paved sections are ever increasing pitched rollers that total around 1,200 meters of climbing. That pavement is followed by a rough, but fast descent down a shattered asphalt road to the last major 1,000 meter climb up and over the shoulder of the final spine of mountains and onto the 10-kilometer downward shot to the banana and pineapple plantations of Limon province.
While you get to enjoy the free speed heading down into flats of Limon, that free speed abruptly ends and is replaced by a mercilessly hot and humid 80-kilometer last slog to the finish.
And then there are the railroad trestles.
This fabled section of La Ruta is not for the faint of heart. Do not believe the stories of crocodiles or vipers, but do believe the reports of the state of repair of these bridges.
While still an active railway, you would never guess that were true when tip-toing across rotting and loose (sometimes rocking) trestles 15 meters in the air. And every so often there is a missing trestle so the gap to “step” over is a double-wide space – yes, enough to fall through should you lose your footing.
It was on these same bridges two years back when my good friend and founding Team CoreCo rider, Frank Karbe, was hammering towards the finish line. It was particularly hot that day – not just crappy, soupy hot like it always is, but cranky hot. Pissed off hot. A hot that makes everyone, even the locals who are more accustomed to the extreme temperature and humidity, in a foul mood. And it was a hot where even the animals and insects are feeling on edge.
So when a group of local kids threw rocks at a hornets’ nest, it did not take much to raise the ire of the hive and send the now-pissed off residents out in a swarm and angling for a fight. Those hornets looked for the first thing on which they could exact vengeance, and that was my good friend Frank.
Frank happens to be a world-class Ironman triathlete who holds the world record for the Ironman CEO Challenge title. Frank had run a 9:45 Ironman in Kona, and he could move. But that day, those angered insects could move faster. Frank dropped the bike where he was and headed for the river – which was 10 meters below him.
Getting stung as he fell was not the worst part of it, Frank told us. The worst part was landing in a river that most likely was a sluice of agrochemicals running off the huge commercial plantations of Limon province.
Frank was in the water maybe 20 or 30 minutes and was suffering repeated stings every time he came up for air. He lost his sunglasses (OK, they were my sunglasses that I had loaned him that morning), his gels and tools from the back pockets of his jersey, his money and his bearings.
After the hornets lost interest, Frank finally surfaced for good to find that Nat, ever patient, supportive and loyal, had secured his bike (bikes get stolen in Limon, sometimes at gunpoint from their rider – true story), secured his helmet and was waiting for him with both on the other side of bridge. Off to the finish they went, with Frank picking stingers (23 at final count) out of his scalp with his fingernails.
Turns out that Frank was not the only casualty that day. One of the top women elite riders who was pacing with Rebecca Rush was also part of the hornet tangle, also got stung, but had further suffered a broken thumb when she slipped and fell on the trestle bridge and was out of the race with only 40 kilometers to go.
This was also back in the day when La Ruta was a four-day, 400 kilometer race, so this unfortunate top female athlete had her entire race felled but the poor decision of a bunch of local kids.
Eh, kids. Same everywhere. Just happens to be worse when those same Everywhere Kids are goofing around on a rickety trestle bridge 10 meters in the air over a Central American running-water version of the Love Canal.
For our Day 3 this year, we rode overs these sections without incident and we all were convinced that we had just been given some sort of cosmic reprieve. It was hot that day, but not eyeball-boiling hot like years past.
The same could be said for the weather on Day 2 as we crested the double humps of Irazu and Turrialba volcanoes. Past years it has snowed at the top, and the backside descents have been in rock gardens submerged in ice-cold whitewater torrents.
Even Day 1 this year was pleasant (OK, that is a relative phrase that needs some context). Carara was in the best, meaning most rideable, condition that I have ever seen.
There is always heat and mud and humidity (and this year, a huge mofo of a snake!), but there were such heavy rains before the race that much of the mud had been scoured away leaving a pitted, rutted, but mostly ride-able track in its place. Rideable, that is, if you are on a fat bike. Skinny tire folks were still walkers in Carara. Always have been, and always will be.
So, Day 3 was a hottie but goody this year, especially for our fat-biking crew. One would think that with 80 kilometers of flat between the last summit and the finish line that my earlier discussion of fat tires v. tarmac would prove out again in spades.
But while the end of Day 3 might be flat, it is not tarmac. At least not all tarmac, which is why Elias and Jim Meyer, hammering for the finish line, finished in fourth and eleventh place, overall, in the Men’s Open category.
In fact, while between the two of Elias and Jim there was a gap of about 22 minutes, the gap between the number one finisher in the same group that day and Elias there was less than five-minute separation. Those fatties went fast!!
But why the time gap between Elias and Jim? One wonders.
Was it the engine? Both Elias and Jim are fit – fitter than most and able to take a huge dollop of punishment. Elias has pal mares out the wazoo including first place overall finishes in many of the most extreme biking events, including one (I had to catch my breath when Elias told me it was a ROAD RACE, and that he won not on a fatty, but rather on some skinny roadie machine) that was a circumnavigation of the Alps that was over 500 kilometers in distance and included over 14,000 vertical meters of climbing – and it was a one-day event.
Was it the conditions? It was hot, sticky and nasty, but Elias is from Belgium and Jim from Colorado, so both should be equally disadvantaged by the conditions that Limon dishes out to the field.
What then – the bike? The fatty is a huge advantage over a standard MTB on the trestles due to the size and stability of the footprint on the loose fist-sized rocks that are between the rails and the shock absorbing benefit that the balloon wheels give the rider when bounding over the thump, thump, thump of the railroad ties that poke up among the rocks.
The differences in machines were that Elias had a Ti frame Sandman fitted with a 90mm travel Flame front shock, and Jim rode a carbon Beargrease from Salsa with a rigid carbon fork. Elias and Jim basically had the same advantages/disadvantages for the wheelsets and tires, though Jim was running a heavier, wider rim and a chunkier tire.
My only guess, which is based on my own experiences from analogous experiences on those same trestles riding a 29er with suspension, is that the benefit of a fatty with a front shock on such a jolting racing surface as aging railroad ties for kilometer after kilometer really shows especially when that jolting racing surface is extended to a significant distance.
That, and Elias is just one hell of a strong rider. Nice and polite as the day is long, Elias is just a monster when it comes to the bike. He lives for it. Loves it. Is consumed by it. And all of that shows when he gears up and steps to the starting line. He is Clark Kent by day, but when you strap him into his Sandman rocket ship he is immediately transformed into Superman (yup, but minus the blue tights and red cape).
Crossing the final finish line that day, Elias rode into the record and history books with a third-place podium position in the overall Men’s Open category and the first-place Men’s Fat Bike Champion of the inaugural (and only) multi-stage jungle fat bike race in the world, our very own Fat La Ruta.
Jim came in as the second-place Men’s Fat Bike finisher, followed by Wayne, Marco, Nat and Dan. Guy, Patrick and I rounded out the field.
And Ligia, who had been cursing my name on Day 1 while deep in the grip of Carara came across the line with an overall third-place Women’s Open category finish and the first and only #1 placed Women’s Fat Bike Champion at the 2013 running of the Fat La Ruta.
Ligia told me privately after the race that she loves her fatty, and it is not just because it is tree frog green. She loves the format, loves the advantages, and loves the idea that next year she very well might be piloting another Fatback with a carbon frame and fork, carbon rims and a Weight Watchers-thin scale weight of sub-11 kilograms.
Ooh, now that would be sweet.
A FAT FLAME BURNS BRIGHT
There is a great picture of Elias and Ligia together on the podium with their Champion’s buckles. They are beautiful buckles for sure – substantial in weight, hand-crafted with gold and silver plate lettering and ringed in a beautifully enameled purple and pink background – the colors of this year’s Team CoreCo Fatbikers, and a palate that was chosen by my 10-year old daughter, Cecilia.
The colors on those buckles will change year to year (we already know that next year they will be royal blue and bright orange, since those are the colors that my 7-year old, Theo, has chosen for the Fatbiker team, and my eldest son, Liam, will get to pick the hues of 2015), but the substantial, symbolic nature of the trophies will endure.
We of Team CoreCo and of the Fat La Ruta stand for community, for building bonds between us all, for diversity and inclusiveness and for the power of the human spirit. These are all big, lofty concepts to be tied into what is, on a practical basis, just a ride on a bike. But these big, colorful silver buckles also represent the power and limitlessness of our vision as individuals and as a collective group.
Roman Urbina, Nat Grew, Sr., Greg Matyas, Koen Viaene, Elias, Ligia, Jim and the whole Team CoreCo crew are pioneers, as are all the fat bikers, adventurers, entrepreneurs and explorers everywhere.
It is in the mirror of each other where we recognize ourselves, and that self-recognition allows us to open our arms to everyone and let those folks, strangers and known alike, walk right in and find themselves among friends, supporters and kindred spirits.
And nothing against those still on the skinny tire mountain bikes. They all have their place, too. It is just kind of a shame to watch them in our rear view mirror as we go flying by on our fat tires, bugs stuck to our front teeth, lips stretched back in permanent, maniacal grins, and thinking that those skinny denizens are missing SO MUCH FUN!
But there is still a long road ahead, and plenty of time for all-terrain fat tire converts to evolve as the whole category and sport will continue to evolve.
And as the sport evolves and the population of fat bikers grow in number, we will be here to welcome them all to the Fat La Ruta starting line and to cheer them all the way to the finish, screaming as we always do, PURA VIDA COSTA RICA!!!!
Come on down and see us some time. It is a whole lot of fun, and we do like to share. Best regards to everyone out there – skinny, fat and everything in-between.
Cheers, Dennis! Thanks for the pull that day! And to everyone near and far: Pura Vida!
Photos in this article were provided by the author and every effort was made to credit, or leave intact, the original images. Some resizing was necessary due to file size constraints. Also, the chronology of the images amy not match the exact day or time of the description in the article but all are from the event and are representative of the race conditions.