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Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The Rare and Elusive Costa Rican Singletrack

Been hanging out with a local pro mountain biker down here in Costa Rica.

"Rom" has lived here all his life, save the first year or two. Here on the southern tip of the Nicoya Penisula in Pachote, a tiny village alongside the estuary that feeds into the Bahia de Ballera.

At this year's La Ruta, Rom placed 12th. I easily spotted him at last year's race. There aren't too many 6 foot blond haired Ticos. Rom has just started getting into race promotion in the area, and he has one coming up this weekend where he's trying to attract the big racing teams and maybe some foreigners.

For the past few weeks, Rom has been showing me all the cool places to ride, all the while coaching me on the various trees and critters along the way. Waterfalls, secluded beaches, deep and dark primary forests, views from the top of peaks that rival any in the Bay Area.

But only accessible on what we gringos would call 'fire roads'. Pretty rutted, eroded, steep and overgrown fire roads, but still technically not quite singletrack.

I had to explain to one of the best mountain bikers in the country what singletrack is. He simply couldn't fathom that you can build a narrow trail onto a ridiculously steep slope, and still make it up in your middle chainring. I told him about the twisting, snaking ride you get as you corner every tree, and pump every roller. Vines to duck and kickers to hit can be built into the design.

Rom's smile grew as I gushed.

On the mainland up near the Arenal volcano, I've heard there is some good riding on the hiking and cow trails. But they can be quite muddy 9 months out of the year so the singletrack season is brief.

Rom is excited about the idea of singletrack coming to the Nicoya penisula. It's still jungly and full of wildlife, but a lot drier. I assured Rom that if the trails are built, they will come.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Practicality or Leisure?

Costa Ricans (Ticos if they are boys, Ticas if they are girls) ride their bikes.

I imagine that's true in most 3rd world countries. Many of the roads are dirt and rutted, and passable by car only in the dry season. The roads that are in better shape are often paved with potholes. Gas is expensive. The only reliable car is fairly serious 4-wheel drive machine. Not an SUV toy with leather upholstery and flat screen TV.

So most Ticos and Ticas ride their mountain bikes as a practicality. To get to work or school. To visit friends. To deliver fresh baked bread or refreshingly cold 'fruitas'. You see beat up old cruisers. Trick BMX bikes. Work bikes with the wagon load up front. You see pretty decent mountain bikes, too.

But it is really a sight to see a sweaty, bare chested, farmer riding his mountain bike down a dusty jungle path with his two-foot long machete slapping against his thigh with every pedal stroke.

Maybe the heat is getting to me.

But what I haven't seen are any fat kids.

Anyway these observations have led me to wonder when does mountain biking become a leisure activity?

Is it simply a function of economics?

Would Ticos 'enjoy' buying an SUV (a recent ad in the Tico Times touted a 10 year old Suzuki Something for $7,000 dollars US), more than they would enjoy riding their bike?

Do Ticos 'enjoy' paying $3 a gallon for gas? The average annual income here is less than $5,000.

Is it really that much more fun getting your SUV stuck in the mud at a river crossing and waiting for a tractor to pull you out, than it is to splonk right on through on your bike?

I'm not so sure.

It may seem like more fun to use a car, to honk you horn and rip on past, but you can't hear the birds. You don't see the monkeys. You can't smell the breath of the living jungle, which surrounds you. After a while I think we realize that we have been missing something that only a bike ride can provide.

So now I'm not so sure which is the 1st and which is the 3rd world country? The US or Costa Rica?

Who's really enjoying their bikes?

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Fecundity in the Rainforest

Been in Costa Rica for more than a week now. It´s like the garden of Eden.

We plan to stay for a month, and wish it were forever.

I decided this year that I wouldn´t enter the La Ruta De Conquistadores which is a really inspiring personal start racing at 4:30 AM in a small beach town on the Pacific Coast, climb over mountains, cross streams, whack through jungle, endure torrential rains, skirt volcanoes, bounce along old railroad tracks and finish three days later in a small beach town on the Caribbean side.

At the airport I bumped into Walker Ferguson while waiting for our very expensive bikes to be dumped down the oversize baggage shoot.

The night before the race started I ran into Joe Lawwill, a former teammate on both Schwinn and Yeti, who last year when I was racing talked a lot smack. This year he did look ready to rumble even though he recently underwent surgery to clear up an impacted colon.

Hung out with Jeremiah Bishop, a star from the movie, ¨A Road to Athens.¨ He said he was just doing the La Ruta for fun, but he looked really fit.

Frischnecht was there too. Of course, he too said he would be just riding for the "Pura Vida" experience, but I knew that he would not be able to stop himself from winning. Which, I read a few days later, that he did.

Lou Corbin won the women´s division for the third time. I heard that on the first day she was racing for eight and half hours. On that day where I was single speeding in the jungle it was raining warm buckets of water, and my tires were circus-sized wheels of red clay. I was relieved that I wasn´t racing against her!

The La Ruta is great. And I would have done it this year, but I have a pretty good excuse. You might have heard the little rumor. Mark, my husband was adamant that we not take any risks. We recently were married and have been working on another project. That´s right... we´re planning to open up a mountain bike park in jungle somewhere down here.

So, over the next few entries I´ll keep you posted about how many howler monkeys I see on the trails while we search for the right slice of single track forest. If anybody with Costa Rican experience has any suggestions, let me know!

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

24 Inches of Incognito

The thing about Halloween is that you get to dress up. That you can costume yourself in another identity is what makes Halloween so special for both kids...and people who aren't kids.

Every day I dress up as a pro mountain biker. That means team clothes, in team colors with team logos. Every day because I usually ride every day.

On days when I am not on my bike, I am likely still doing some kind of pro cycling thing. So that means I'm probabaly wearing the "right" base ball cap. Slung over my shoulder is the "correct" messenger bag. Even if I am delayed at the airport. Or, eating a dinner with an event organizer. Working out at the gym. Gotta "rep" for my sponsors.

That I am a pro cyclist is really an incredible treat. I am aware of how lucky I am. But the tricky part is that sometimes it would feel great just to pretend that I'm somebody else. Dress up like a lumberjack, or a police officer. As an astronaut. Even a mortgage broker would afford a nice change of pace.

Kids are aware of Halloween's ability to transform them into mini pirates, Spidermen, witches, Snow Whites and 24 inch fire fighters. As a kid I liked Halloween more than Christmas. Christmas was cool but it was just toys and stuff.


On Christmas morning I was still just a skinny girl playing with a new Barbie and Ken set. Or later, a pimply, buck toothed, girl playing a shiny new Foreigner album. Eventually on Christmas morning I was a skinny, pimply, and buck-toothed college graduate "playing" with the set of snow tires my father had thoughtfully mounted on my Chevy Malibu so my commute would be safe and sure.

Christmas was about stuff, but Halloween was always about being.

On Halloween a skinny little girl would be a Figure Skating Ice Princess. Or, a pimply, buck-toothed, girl would be a "Dreadlocked Rasta". Eventually a skinny, pimply and buck toothed college grad would be a...grad student...too old for dressing up on Halloween. Too grown up to be some one else.

So, this Halloween while I was handing out Clif Bar samples and Luna Bars to the kiddies I dressed up, too. I wasn't Marla Streb, pro downhiller anymore. I dressed up, I costumed myself, in a baggy long sleeve shirt. I hid my true identity behind a layer denim jeans. My sensible cycling shoes were discarded for a pair of bright orange Vans. Under a half shell plastic helmet my being was transformed into ...BMX Rider.

Riding wheelies down the driveway never felt more like a fantasy.