For the first time since 2019, cyclists traversed 275 kilometers across Costa Rica, from the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean Sea, to complete La Ruta de los Conquistadores. After being postponed in both 2020 and 2021, the hardest mountain bike race on Earth resumed to great fanfare and excitement, with thousands of diehard locals lined up on the streets, cheering on their favorite athletes as they persevered through treacherous jungle terrain, 20 microclimates, and five mountain ranges over a grueling three-day span.
The 28th edition of La Ruta kicked off in Playa Herradura, and the first day presented the greatest challenge. The Project 7 event began on the Pacific Coast, in the hot, warm sun, but before riders knew it they were at 13,303 feet of elevation, going straight up. The temperature dropped significantly, and in the clouds riders struggled to see what was 10 feet in front of them. Day 2 was slightly more tolerable, but still extraordinarily daunting. Cyclists had to trek up a volcano, at an elevation of approximately 8,000 feet. Day 3 offered a much-needed reprieve. Completely flat, the third stage concluded in the city of Siquirres.
“It was impossible not to fall in love with this country and its people living the Pura Vida way," said American racer Alex Howes, who finished in seventh with a time of 12:16:07. "The race was hard. For those at home wondering, it was like racing a slip-and-slide version of Leadville on Day 1, then chasing it up with a race up and down Haleakalā on Day 2.
"Day 3 was a bit of a cruise this year — hence why I was able to sneak into third on the day — but I’m told that’s not usually the case. I hope to be back here in the jungle sooner rather than later."
Along the way, the course took the competitors through Carara National Park, a seemingly endless number of farms — including banana farms and Aquiares, Costa Rica's largest coffee farm — charming little villages, and some of the most exclusive, remote parts of the incredibly picturesque country. Even in those remote portions of the race, there were almost always fans watching the action up-close, shouting words of encouragement and offering food and water to the cyclists. The final stage, as the finishers trickled in, turned into a classic Caribbean party. Riders embraced their families, the winners broke down and cried, falling to their feet in all their glory, and local music filled the air. You can't really put into words the exuberance that follows 275 kilometers of pain, fatigue, and desperation. You truly need to be there to experience it.
The 2022 La Ruta Mountain Bike Champions
With a $25,000 cash purse on the line, La Ruta is a fiercely competitive race. Many competitors are out there to simply finish, but the elite athletes are there to win. Spaniard Josep Betalú came into the race as the three-time defending champion, having won it in 2017, 2018, and 2019. (The race wasn't held in 2020 and 2021.) But less than three weeks before La Ruta, Betalú was dealt a brutal blow at the Titan Desert mountain bike race in the Moroccan desert. He took a nasty fall and broke his clavicle. Despite the injury, he competed in La Ruta and somehow managed to finish in ninth, with a final time of 12:49:34.
Meanwhile, a familiar face ended up winning. Colombian Luis Mejia Sanchez triumphed in 11:15:13, edging out fellow Colombian Diyer Alexander Rincón Gómez (11:26:28) and Australian Lachlan Morton (11:31:56). It was Sanchez's third career La Ruta title — tying Betalú's total — and first since 2016. (He also won in 2015.)
“La Ruta is no joke," said Morton, who was riding for UCI WorldTeam EF Education–EasyPost. "It was certainly as challenging as I hoped it would be. I'm happy to have finished third on what was a brutal day.”
On the women's side, rising star Cristel Pamela Espinoza won in her La Ruta debut, finishing in 14:30:39. The crowd erupted for the native Costa Rican, who fell to the ground and burst into tears upon crossing the finish line. She bested second-place finisher Adriana Rojas Cubero (14:34:14) and third-place finisher Milagro Mena Solano (14:50:20) en route to the title.
Coming in 2023: A Reverse Course From the Caribbean to the Pacific
For nearly three decades, the La Ruta course has roughly been the same: approximately 170 miles from the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean coast. (It sometimes varies slightly depending on landslides, volcano eruptions, and road closures.) For context, this route isn't random. It holds historical significance. Half a millennium ago, it took Spanish conquistadors — led by Juan de Cavallón — 20 years to cross the same distance (and almost the identical route).
Next year, for the first time ever, organizers plan to add a new wrinkle to the race and shake it up a bit. In 2023, the race will reverse course, starting on the Caribbean Sea and concluding on the Pacific Ocean.
Reversing course will affect the experience in a number of ways. Most notably, fans and spectators can expect more nail-biting finishes than ever before. In years past, including in 2022, the race has been generally all but decided by Day 2, since the first two days are the most challenging. If a rider gets a sizable lead heading into the final stage, he or she usually has the race locked up (which is exactly what happened this year, in the case of Mejia Sanchez). But now, with Day 3's 13,000-plus feet of elevation, it will likely come down to the bitter end, making for more dramatic and memorable finishes.
For non-elites, the experiential significance of the reverse course will also be noteworthy. The finish line will be approximately 150 yards from the Los Suenos Marriott Ocean & Golf Resort, a 4-star resort in Playa Herradura. The resort is a ideal finishing destination, with pools, lavish rooms, and one of the finest golf courses in the country. Racers, their families, fans, and locals will be able to watch the cyclists finish from the resort, in what promises to be an epic party to celebrate the conclusion of the weekend.
The plan is for the course to alternate directions each year, starting either on the Pacific or Caribbean side.