Day 3 of the 2007 La Ruta de los Conquistadores is in the books, but not without a heavy dose of mud, blood and a few tears.
The third of four stages was fairly straight forward: roll away from the Terramall shopping complex, climb 8700 feet up the side of the Irazú Volcano, slip on a windbreaker, and then buckle up for one of the longest, roughest, rockiest and downright evil "dirt road" descents you'll ever come across.
The wild card was the weather, which produced steady wind and rain that hampered riders on the climb, and turned the descent into a true test of technical skills. The 4x4 road downhill started out as a muddy mess, before giving way to a baby head-strewn bone rattler that essentially didn't relent until racers crossed the finish line in the coffee-growing town of Aquiares, 41.4 miles after the start.
Despite the challenging conditions, host nation son Federico Ramirez and American Sue Haywood made it 3-for-3 on Friday, each taking their third straight stage wins. Ramirez and Haywood now both own commanding leads in the general classification, and baring disaster, will take the overall titles when this four-day, 221-mile race finishes Saturday at Playa Bonita on the Caribbean coast.
"Last year I had a couple of flats on the descent, so this time I wanted to have some time just in case," explained Ramirez, who attacked on the volcano climb on his way to a convincing 10-plus-minute win over teammate Juan Solis.
Ramirez also had the benefit of a well-oiled support team. The three-man, one-truck, one-motorcycle support crew was waiting for Ramirez at the top of the Irazu climb, and quickly switched out his smooth rolling, low profile 1.9 tires for a pair of 2.1's that would make the descent a little easier. The strategy worked and he expanded on his advantage, putting himself a day away from winning the La Ruta title for a fourth time. No one else has won more than two.
"Tomorrow I will not just think about myself," answered Ramirez when asked if a clean sweep of the stages would be on his mind when the trip to the final finish line begins. "My teammates have been working hard for me, so I hope to give them a chance [for the stage win]."
Not everyone's day ran as smooth as Ramirez's. In fact tales of woe were commonplace among this 400-plus-rider field that's a mix of pros and dedicated weekend warriors. Canadian Jon Nutbrown was ticking along somewhere in the top 50 until it all went wrong on the downhill.
"First I went the wrong way at one of the turns," explained Nutbrown. "Someone else must have made the same mistake because I saw a empty gel pack on the ground. But I figured I must be in the right track. But then some guy on a quad [motorcycle] told me La Ruta doesn't go this way. So I climb back up this muddy climb in my granny gear for like a half hour. Then I got a flat, and then I crashed and hit my head the hardest I've hit it on a bike. But I got [to the finish] so I guess it
Racing concludes at La Ruta Saturday with stage 4's 75-mile ride from Aquiares to Playa Bonita. The finish is one of the best in all of bike racing, right on the edge of a Caribbean beach. But the trip there is no holiday. There's only 5650 feet of climbing, but the final 30 miles includes extensive time riding on old railroad tracks. There's also several long trestle crossing that will force riders to walk because many of the slats are rotting or gone all together.
"This is the toughest race I've ever done," said Swiss pro Sandro Spaeth. "Everyday is different and the conditions are really tough. Sometimes it's wet, sometimes it's humid, sometimes it's hot. Every day is a new challenge."
© BikeRadar 2007