By Kim Constantinesco
If you ask Román Urbina, the only difference between a crisis and an adventure is perspective.
The 55-year-old Costa Rica native is known as the godfather of the multi-day mountain bike stage race. In 1993, he founded La Ruta de Los Conquistadores, a three-day 200-mile race from the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean through Costa Rica.
Time Magazine named it one of the “Top 10 Endurance Competitions” in the world. The only other bike race on the list? The Tour de France.
La Ruta is known as the “toughest mountain bike race in the world” for good reason. As riders traverse a beautiful country which possess the highest density of biodiversity in the world, they must climb active volcanoes, knife through a stifling rain forest, and trek through jungles filled with crocodiles and boa constrictors.
Blood, mud, and sweat are guaranteed. Legend has it that bike manufacturers had to build stronger bikes to weather the course. Ten percent of entrants don’t finish. Olympic cyclists who have won medals don’t even come close to taking first place.
“This is a race for the turtle versus the rabbit,” Urbina said.
One year, a man from Colorado fell while crossing a river and his bike was swallowed by the fierce current. He lost his shoes and his phone, he broke several ribs, and he couldn’t find his way out of the jungle until 30 hours later. That’s right, he spent the night sleeping among poisonous dart frogs, pit vipers, and jaguars.
Urbina keeps his parting words for the 500 or so participants short and sweet the night before the race begins: “Be careful. Your loved ones are waiting for you at home.”
Perhaps the only thing more risky than trying to reach the the finish line is organizing the yearly event. Urbina, a new inductee into the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame, has sacrificed his life to keep this event going.
“This race is the best thing that’s ever happened to me and it’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to me,” he said.
The Latter-Day Conquistadores
Urbina is a surfing legend and a top triathlete. He never played conventional sports growing up.
“I had very bad hand and foot coordination with a ball,” he said. “I was never in any organized sports. I was one of the last people to ever be picked for a basketball, soccer, or baseball game, so I started doing stuff that wasn’t very popular in that era, like skateboarding and surfing.”
After catching waves for the better part of a decade in the 1970’s, he turned to endurance sports in the 80’s. He was even on the country’s national triathlon team for five years. In the 90’s he sought out greater challenges in ultra racing. That’s also when he discovered mountain biking.
“Doing endurance sports, it’s kind of like meditation,” Urbina said. “It helps calm my mind.”
He became a bit of a national celebrity when he swam 20 miles across the Gulf of Nicoya to help build a new national park, and to raise awareness for the endangered Leather Back turtle.
“My popularity was my springboard to creating La Ruta,” he explained.
The seed for the race itself was planted when Urbina’s father gave him a book about three Spanish Conquistadors who took 20 years to travel through the stunning and dangerous landscape of Costa Rica. Inspired by these explorers, Urbina and “17 other Latter-day Conquistadores,” decided to retrace their steps by bike from the Pacific coast to the Caribbean Sea.
After completing the voyage, Urbina realized that taking on unfathomable challenges can “give people the courage to take on other challenges in life, personally or professionally.”
Thus, La Ruta was born.
Coming Out On Top
La Ruta is now the largest bicycle race in Costa Rica. Although it attracts over 500 riders each year, the third-world country and its struggling economy can’t do anything to support the race financially. With very few sponsors, most of it falls on Urbina.
Some years, he makes money off the race. Most years, he incurs the cost. Disaster struck in 2009. At the time, Urbina was in the tourism business. He owned a hotel and offered guests adventure tours. One of his longtime trusted managers, who helped him organize La Ruta, charged about 200 entrants the $1,000+ entry fee multiple times and ran with the money.
“In the end, he funneled the money out of our bank accounts and spent it,” Urbina said. “I had to pay back the credit card company. Lots of people were mad about being charged $6,000-$7,000. I lost everything — my hotel, my car, my house. But, I didn’t lose the race.”
Urbina was so broke, he resorted to selling most of his clothes at garage sales just to have enough money to eat.
So, after all of that, why continue with La Ruta?
“That thought comes to me every single year,” he said. “I see it as an opportunity for growth for myself and for the competitors,” he said. “Offering this challenge helps other people better themselves, and it makes me better in return. La Ruta is about doing your best with what you have, and trying to come out on top. You have to endure a lot of stuff. That goes for me, too — the race organizer.”
Twenty-Five Years Strong
La Ruta competitors are as raw and diverse as the course itself.
A 13-year-old boy has toed the start line. Same with a man who lost one of his legs in a motorcycle accident. That goes for a blind girl on a tandem bike, too. A few years ago, a cancer survivor gathered 17 of his buddies to charge the course. Each of these people withstood the physical and mental obstacles to get to the finish line.
And sometimes there’s a race just to reach the start line. Take the 18-year-old Costa Rican with terminal cancer who made La Ruta one of his three “things to do before I die.”
“First, he wanted to meet the Pope,” Urbina said. “The Lions Club helped him get to Rome and meet the Pope, so he could check that off the list. The second thing was he wanted to meet our national soccer team. The Lions Club surprised him with that, too. His third thing was he always wanted to participate in the race. I invited him, and he told me he couldn’t do it because he was so weak, but he wanted to be at the start of the race with all the rest of the competitors. He biked with his uniform for maybe 100 meters and then he was done. He died two days later.”
And that’s what this race is all about — giving people an opportunity.
“I think life is so short that life experiences are what it’s all about,” Urbina said. “Wealth can be measured in many different ways, but it’s important to be able to travel and create your own challenges.”
The race starts at dawn and ends at dusk each day. There are four checkpoints, and for safety reasons, if a rider doesn’t reach the point in the allotted time, he or she is picked up and taken to the finish line. Because life doesn’t end when we fail to reach a goal, those individuals are not disqualified. They simply start again the next day.
La Ruta will celebrate its 25th anniversary this November. Beyond that, no one knows what’s in store for the race. Not even Urbina. It could continue on for another 25 years, or it could end in two years.
“Nothing is forever,” Urbina said. “Not pain, not wealth, not love. It’s all momentary. Life is just a series of moments that pass by.”
So, if you’re looking at it through Urbina’s lens, take advantage of what’s in the here and now. Adventure awaits.