Cory Wallace reports from the Vuelta de Costa Rica

The 51st UCI Vuelta de Costa Rica was some action packed road racing with a taxi driving into the peloton, a major brawl between the top teams resulting in broken bones, the top team boycotting the race due to the brawl, a dog taking down one of the top riders, cheaters holding onto cars getting expelled.  The German team and a few managers were shocked by the speed of some of the racers and did the calculations and figured out the top riders were riding faster on the climbs then Tour de France winners.  All in all it was what was expected of racing down here and is why I came to the race with zero expectation and used it as an interesting way to kick off training for the 2016 season It was also a nice way to show off that Kona not only makes awesome Mountain Bikes but also some very fast and sturdy Road bikes to boot!

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After 11 days and 1500 km later the race concluded on Christmas day with a hard Circuit race for the President on the outskirts of San Jose. It was a nasty finish to a hard ass week as we circumnavigated a crowd filled 10km hilly circuit 10 times through the concrete jungles of Costa Rica’s capital city. With a steep 3 minute climb every lap it sent us to our physical limits but even more it tested my mental limits.

I started racing to explore the world’s natural landscapes and to ride sweet single track on my mountain bike. Going cross eyed trying to follow the road wheel ahead of me around the suburbs of an overbuilt dirty city was a drastic change. After launching an attack on the first lap, then getting dropped, I dug deep into the reserves to catch back up and eventually claimed my best result of the Vuelta coming in 21 st. It was a satisfying way to end what has been a great journey through Costa Rica the past few weeks. The organizers treated us first class with nice hotels, descent food and a great tour of their country going past the dry lands of the Pacific, into the monsoons of the Caribbean, past sandy beaches, through dense rainforests and over chilly high mountain passes.

Of the 110 starters of the Vuelta only 63 finished as many cracked, some missed time cut, some got caught cheating, a few crashed and others got sick. Trying to keep things glued together over nearly 2 weeks of racing is a challenge as sleepless nights, upset stomachs, relentless courses and an insanely fast field of racers who are at there top form makes sure us foreigners have no easy ride down here as we show up straight out of the Canadian snow with a few extra pounds of winter insulation to haul around.

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Leading into the race it was uncertain what was going to happen as I had never trained so little for 2 months heading into a bike race before, averaging about 5 hours a week between a combination of snowshoeing, breathing exercises and indoor training. The first goal was to not crash on my broken finger in the opening week as it wasn’t 100% coming in. The next goal was to use the race as a training block to kick off 2016 as it will start early with the Pioneer stage race and 24 Hour World Championships in NZL in February.

After a sketchy Stage 1 with many crashes and my body being tested to its limits as it acclimatized to the heat and efforts of hard racing things came around. Bye the end of the Stage race I’d end up in the top 3rd of the field finishing 36th overall, 2nd white guy, and top mountain biker. It was a good reminder that the body is capable of much more then your mind sometimes think is possible if your willing to give it a shot and put your cowboy hat on through the tough times.

Lying in the gutter with my teammates battling heat stroke after the first stage was a low point as it was hard enough to just think of getting over to the hotel to check in for the night, let alone racing our bikes for another 10 days. The highlight was dropping all the whiners in my gruppeto on Stage 10, the 2nd day we went over the Cerro de Muerte. 3 of us were doing the work for 18 riders, hauling them over the mountain, but when the whining started for us to slowdown, we cranked the pace up. Hearing the guys start to pant hard and eventually drop off was great. Soon I was alone with 2 guys from the Venezuelan national team and we had a nice peaceful 80 km ride together over the mountain pass and then bombed down the epic backside descent to the finish line exchanging high fives once it was over.

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As far as training goes for marathon mountain bike racing, road racing is one of the best things going. It’s the perfect way to get in a pile of miles and at the same time stress the upper limits of our bodies as the peloton dictates how fast you go and often we got stretched beyond our limits trying to hold onto the pencil neck roadies heading up the relentless climbs. It’s nearly impossible to push yourself this hard training, and yet we did this for 11 straight days, adapting the body to going into oxygen debt and working well past its limitations. There are many question marks with road racing though, such as the whining when the pace is to hard, questionable ethics, and the fact your riding pavement next to crazy drivers, not on dirt in the tranquility of nature.

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Day to day life in the Vuelta started every day with early wake up calls at 6 am, rice and beans for breakfast and then the 5 foreigner teams (Venezuela, Argentina, Germany, Switzerland and us Canadians) would meet with the organizers to ride to the race start at 7:30 am. This was on Tico time and we generally wouldn’t leave until 8 or 8:15. We adapted to this, except for the Swiss guys who seemed to be driven a bit squirrely by the tardiness and were often rattled before the race even started. Once at the startline we would sign in, and then hang out for an hour before race start. The race changed everyday, sometimes we’d cruise for the first hour, other days we’d be on the rivet from the gun as breakaways were established for the day. The finish lines were always rad, full of fans and entertainment. We’d hang out there for a bit post race and then go find our hotel for the night, get cleaned up, eat some rice and beans for lunch, nap, wash our race clothes in the sink and then go on a search for more food. The obsession Costa Ricans have with eating rice and beans is only comparable to Europeans eating pasta for breakfast lunch and dinner at bike races. They’re both fine fuels but variety never killed anyone.

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Most hotels we stayed at had swimming pools which were the perfect way to cool the engines and loosen the bodies after a long day in the saddle. During stage races like this you’d think you’d sleep like a baby, but often the body is too fired up on adrenaline to sleep or there is a rowdy dog or a rooster off his timeline which kills any chance of shut eye. These are some of the small battles one must face when ending up in a new bed every night and trying to battle off fatigue.

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Overall it was a sweet couple of weeks racing and hanging out with other riders and meeting the locals down here. The high of crossing the final finish line was one of the best feelings in a while after having a weird fall up in Canada battling different ailments. The best part of these races are often the friends you make, this year the German team was full of some great guys who really brought up the moral of the race and new how to kick back. It’s now 3 days post race, most everyone has returned home, and I have made my way to my friends Ronald and Angela’s home in a small valley on the edge of the mountains facing a huge green jungle. It’s the perfect retreat for some rest and to spend some time practicing spanish and getting immersed into the Costa Rican lifestyle for a bit.

The first couple of days after the race the body finally realized what had just happened to it as I layed in bed twitching out as the nuclear destruction which had just occurred was finally being assessed and damage control was moving in. It will take a few more 10 hour sleeps and tranquil days hiking around in the Costa Rican bush to get over this one before getting back on the bike and continuing the build up for next year:)

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Huge thanks to our support crew: Isaac Cruz, Victor Hernandez and Jonathan Barrantes for helping us out all week. Also a big thanks to Kona Bicycles for allowing me to ride this race for the Ride for the Planet Team and to Jean Michael Lachance for organizing the team and the trip down here.

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