Anyone you talk to about endurance mountain bike racing can tell you it’s hard. Racing for 4+ hours is tough. Doing it in the mountains boosts the challenge even higher. Mix in technical terrain and you can walk away from a race not just physically tired, but mentally smashed. The beauty is in it’s very grueling nature. But, while it is a difficult sport, most endurance racers would reserve the strongest language for only a handful of races on the planet. One of those few is La Ruta, a race that has earned the title of the Hardest Mountain Bike Race in the World: La Ruta de Los Conquistadores.
The setting is Costa Rica and the course stretches across the whole country. The director spares no one in their design of this insanely tough 3 day stage race in the heart of the country. Rain forests, a volcano, mud bogs, bustling towns, multi-hour climbs, and even a few old and sketchy railroad bridges to make sure your fear is in check. La Ruta isn’t a part of the endurance mountain bike category of racing, it stands alone as its own genre. At 181 miles and over 25,000 feet of climbing in 3 days, it’s no wonder it draws international talent as one of the last races of the season.
Representing Rare Disease Cycling at this year’s edition was none other than the 2014 NUE Masters Champion, Roger Masse. Having had a near perfect season with 5 wins and trips to the podium for every other race entered, Masse was hungry for the podium to continue the streak and end the year on a high note.
Well versed in long races, having done six 100 mile races this year alone, Masse planned to follow his typical long course racing strategies. Carbo Rocket Half Evil for fuel, and an S-Works Specialized Stumpjumper as his weapon of choice. Given the extreme climbing on course, Masse opted to run his Specialized Chisel rigid fork up front; a small sacrifice for the benefit of getting his bikes weight down. Paired with Specialized Tires and SRAM’s super-light XX1 drivetrain, Masse’s rig was down to 19lbs.
The first stage leaves nothing to imagination about what the flavor of La Ruta will be. With 13,000 feet of climbing over a mere 58 miles, the gradients are often laughable. Masse noted he was very happy that he chose a rigid fork as the reduced weight was noticeable. “The stage was brutal,” Masse recalled, “there was more mud than I have ever seen.” Costa Rica, a country with traditionally very dry climate, has a distinct rainy season that brings daily downpours for a few months. La Ruta falls smack in the middle of that season.
The stage started fast and Masse put in a big effort to be near the front of affairs before they went through the tight and muddy single track sections. “It was all for nought because a group of us got off course for about 15 minutes before the single track. By the time we were back on course, we were behind a ton of traffic.” Not to be deterred though, Masse rallied, pushing hard up the final climbs to claw his way back into the lead, taking the win on the first day by 9 minutes in 6:44. “The crowds here are so enthusiastic!” Masse said. “They were even offering encouragement to me, a Gringo! I must have said “Gracias” 80 times today.”
Stage 2 looked tame on paper at only 27 miles, but it was far from easy. Finishing in just over 4 hours, Masse described the stage well as he crossed the line, his first words being “Holy crap, that was hard.” Given the short distance, the climbs were compressed and steep. “The mud today was unlike anything I’ve seen,” Masse described. “The ground is hard clay with a thin layer of water that made it like ice skating. You couldn’t even walk on it.”
With heavy legs from stage 1 and sapped energy from the mud, Masse attacked the last climb as hard as he could. It was a paved road climb, but was so steep, that Masse noted his gratitude for his selection of the 30/42 setup to get him slowly up to the top. “Whenever there weren’t cars coming, I was riding a serpentine line, weaving up the hill. It was just that steep,” he relayed. That solid push from Masse on the day left him in a good position but a bit short for the stage win, coming in just 16 seconds down on first. Masse retained the GC lead going into the final stage, with a sizeable gap to second in the Masters 50-59 field.
The final day of La Ruta is touted as the “easy day” which really means its harder than most single day endurance events. The course begins in the mountains and goes down to the coast which makes the profile look friendly, but its quite deceiving. The few climbs that make up the beginning are serious and only serve to soften up the legs for the final flat time-trial-style run in to the beach. Masse linked up with the 2014 NUE Single Speed Champion, Gordon Wadsworth, on the flats to push the pace on the final day.
They began working with a group of locals and were sharing the load, but each time Masse and Wadesworth stopped to grab bottles, they would lose their group. “We had to keep burning matches to catch back up to the locals who were taking feeds on the fly” Masse said. “Eventually I popped from all the accelerations and simply couldn’t latch back on.” No matter though, Masse came into the Caribbean town of Limon solo but strong as the 2014 La Ruta Masters 50-59 champion, holding an 11 minute margin over his next closest competitor to take the general classification win! Happy with his win despite his exhaustion Masse said, “I’m so spent, this was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
Having taken the top steps at Monster Cross, Mohican 100, Lumberjack 100, Shenandoah 100, Fools Gold 100, it only seems fitting that Masse capped the season with a win at La Ruta de Los Conquistadores. A perfect wrap to a perfect season.