(Velonews) “Just wait until you see! Pura Vida!” Lilieth Paniagua told me as she bid me farewell. Pura Vida is the local greeting in Costa Rica, but also how people say goodbye, ask how you are doing, or comment on their day — basically they say it for nearly everything.
Though we had just met, Lilieth treated me like I was her daughter, inviting me to her home in Turrialba, Costa Rica, a small working-class village set alongside an active volcano and part of the route at the Vuelta a Costa Rica. Lilieth attends the race every year. “Cycling is really big here, you’ll see. It’s a tradition for us, I hope you enjoy it!” she said.
The Vuelta Costa Rica is a UCI 2.2 stage race and part of the UCI America Tour. Last year, the race was upended by a doping controversy that ensnared many of the top finishers. I attended the 54th edition of the event this past December to report on the efforts being made by the Costa Rican Cycling Federation [FECOCI] to combat doping in the race. What I experienced was a massively popular bicycle race, with thousands of spectators lining the streets every day to cheer on a peloton of strong riders. I was impressed by Costa Rica’s passion for bicycle racing.
This year was my first time seeing the race in person and covering it as a journalist. It was eye-opening, and invigorating.
“Don’t worry! Trust me, I have everything covered,”photographer Luis Barbosa told me a week before our arrival.
This would become a theme throughout our travels during the race. I had yet to receive my flight reservations or list of hotels, but I trusted Barbosa since he had photographed the race for the past four years.
I have covered cycling in the U.S. and Mexico for a decade, but this was my first time venturing into Central America. Costa Rican cycling officials told me that the race had not attracted an American journalist in many years. Attending the race was also a first for VeloNews.
Former British cyclist Rob Hayles once described the Tour de France as a “fantastic circus” and “logistical nightmare.” Anyone working a pro cycling stage race would know that’s a pretty accurate description for any event. For journalists, covering a stage race is often a whirlwind. We often rely on the race Bible as our treasure map, while we constantly search for Wi-Fi and try to remember to eat. Covering the Vuelta a Costa Rica was no different, and I often wondered if I had a bed for the following evening’s stage.
At stage races, the press corps often miss the live action outside of the few kilometers after the start and before the finish. We spend much of each day in the press room watching the live feed. Some days, a coveted spot in a media car opens up, and we are able to see the action up close. Neither media car, nor live TV feed was available at the Vuelta a Costa Rica. Covering the action of each day was extremely challenging.
Friends gave me a few warnings before I traveled to the race: Watch out for the mysterious meat from street vendors. Don’t drink the water. A tourist was just murdered there last month. This is not far off from the usual warnings I hear before my regular trips to Mexico. I live on the border of Ciudad Juárez so I am not easily fazed by such warnings.
In the end, I had nothing to worry about. Costa Rica was plenty safe, and the people I met were extremely inviting. That said, covering the race did provide some wild moments.
My first day at the race arrived with plenty of stress. Just two hours before the start I learned that the race did not provide transportation for journalists to the start, which was an hour drive away.
“Don’t worry! Trust me, I have everything covered,” Barbosa told me. Luckily, Colombian team TCBY Bicicletas Strongman offered us a ride. As the driver weaved through the busy morning traffic, I was serenaded by a van full of Colombians, belting out their favorite reggaeton and cumbias songs. Three stage winners — William Muñoz, Jonathan Cañaveral, and Oscar Quiroz — all sung together on the way to the start.
Riding in the caravan at the Vuelta Costa Rica was a harrowing experience. The number of press motorcycles and vehicles easily doubled what you find at U.S. races. That huge parade squeezed into Costa Rica’s extremely narrow roads. Without warning, the traffic control would often blare their sirens, only meters ahead of the breakaway, as the race squeezed down to one lane, narrowly avoiding big supply trucks and other oncoming or parked traffic.
As the race sped by, drivers jumped out of their cars to capture the action on outstretched phones. Miraculously, no one crashed during these frequent and scary moments, even when riders took a feed or were speaking with their directors. In fact, I saw just two minor crashes throughout the 10 days of racing, an impressive feat compared to even the most organized American races.
Team directors of the Central and South American teams were superb at multitasking, chatting on their phones, while checking race numbers and conducting business, all while avoiding the many potholes and obstacles on the roads. I was often jolted from my car seat, mid tweet, by a team director testing his car on a speed bump. One day, an entire carafe of coffee spilled on me. Another day, I looked up from my phone just in time to be doused by muddy street water from a zooming team car. “Sorry!” yelled the director. I was soggy for my post-race interviews that day.
There were moments during the race that were, admittedly, more chaotic and disruptive than you might see at a professional race in the United States. There were also moments of serene beauty.
With 20 kilometers to go in one stage, race radio announced that the finish was moved 8 kilometers up, due to a protest by local fishermen. There was a break of four riders at the time, and the peloton had begun to chase. Team cars sped up to their riders while every commissaire within earshot shouted the news to the peloton. There was no marked finish line or podium stage for the day, and I felt like I was at a local race back home in Texas. Yet the chaos elicited no complaints from riders or directors. Nobody batted an eye.
The racing terrain in Costa Rica was punishing and steep — definitely riding to put on your bucket list. During the second stage, the peloton hit a 2-kilometer climb into the finish that had grades up to 20 percent. The riders seemed to grind to a stop, weaving back and forth out of their saddle. Before the race, I was told all about the mountains, but the valleys and plains we passed through, filled with coffee and sugar fields, were also breathtaking. Huge Guanacaste trees, the national tree of Costa Rica, with their massive canopies, provided a beautiful backdrop.
Throughout the 10 stages, we were surrounded by major mountains, including the infamous Cerro de La Muerte climb. On that climb we ventured into the clouds as the riders disappeared into the fog.
The enormous crowds of spectators lining the road each day was something I had never experienced before, even at big races in Colorado and California. The roads were so packed on stage 6 up through Turrialba, that riders had to climb single-file, often disappearing behind the motorcycles.
On stage 7, the breakaway attacked right from the gun. Driving rain and wet roads caused several motorcycles to crash, and multiple riders suffered mechanical problems. As we drove past several impromptu waterfalls up the long climb to Golcoechea, the spectators used the massive leaves of rainforest trees as umbrellas.
The ninth stage featured a 45-kilometer climb up La Georgina, which makes Arizona’s Mt. Lemmon appear short. With 10 kilometers to go to the finish in Llano Grande Cartago, the enormous crowds of roadside spectators gave a constant, deafening cheer. The finish felt more like a music festival than a bicycle race.
The Vuelta finished on Christmas Day with a festival at the finish line. Costa Rican rider Bryan Salas took the overall win, 1:23 ahead of his teammate, Costa Rican Daniel Bonilla.
While Christmas may seem like a strange date for the finish of a bicycle race, officials from Costa Rica’s cycling federation told me they tried to change the dates several years ago, to attract North American and European teams. What happened? The locals protested and boycotted, until it was changed back to Christmas. They simply loved the bike racing and festive atmosphere.
I will remember the Vuelta a Costa Rica for the hectic caravan, the rain, and the aggressive racing. I will mostly remember the passion of the local fans, who every day stood alongside the road to show their love of bicycle racing.
Pura Vida, indeed.
Contributor Rebecca Reza recently traveled to the Vuelta Ciclista a Costa Rica for an upcoming feature story in VeloNews Magazine.