Gravel Riding in Costa Rica

There was a moment when I stopped, listened carefully to the sounds of the jungle and wondered what Marie (my wife) would think when she got the call exclaiming “We found him!” Logically, I knew I was only a mile or so from some kind of sign of civilization. Yet here I was at road’s end. Yes, the road had simply stopped at a stream. This is where I found myself on a bike ride in Costa Rica a couple weeks back.

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Earlier in the day I had rented a bike several notches below my usual standards, as I wrote last week, for my inaugural ride in Costa Rica.  A short ride, to be sure.  Yet a ride that brought smiles.  On this ride I had decided to be a bit more adventurous.  Without much thought and certainly very little planning, I took a glance at my Google Maps and headed off from the Tamarindo Diria Hotel.

The noise and cars of Tamarindo soon began to disappear quickly as the asphalt road turned in to gravel as I was heading up a slight incline past the Banco Nacional.  I smiled to myself having to admit that I had never seen a bank so modern and protected by security fences located on a gravel road.  Surrounding the bank was an area I can best describe as Hostel territory.  Apparently, as I learned upon arriving, Tamarindo is well known for its surfing.  (See the video of our adventures below.)

Bicycling Costa Rica

VIEW COSTA RICA ADVENTURE HERE

As such, the hostels bubble over with the young and adventurous looking to spend a week or month or year chasing the perfect wave with little on their minds but how to get just enough work done to survive until tomorrow’s ride.  As a bicyclist, I immediately could appreciate the sentiment.

As I continued my ascent I would see a sign pointing out some sort of establishment here and there and was really quite stunned how quickly I was “out of town.”  I looked down at my Garmin Edge 25 and, if memory serves me, I was less than two miles from the hotel. As I continued up the hill, nothing too steep, I caught a glimpse of a sign that said “Lots –>”  As it is my fantasy to someday live in Costa Rica, or at least have a part time residence here, I followed the arrow down around a dog-leg left, up a small rise and down a  bit followed by a serious, serious climb.  As I am still not back in bicycling shape I am sheepish to say the hill was so long and steep that I did walk my bike the last quarter of the climb.

Walking the bike did not help my heart rate.  My thighs burned and lungs cycled quickly because after spending most of the year grieving my daughter the bike had been put aside.  Why?  I really don’t know and didn’t realize it for the longest time  Without my usual miles at this time of year I had to admit to myself, “Chris, this isn’t Kansas.”

gravel bike ride

As I reached the peak I had found the “Lots.”  Luxury homes poked up over the right side and still more up and up.  The road laid out in front of me with a downhill that beckoned, the tree down over three-quarters of the way over the road be damned.  “Maybe that should have been a clue for the initiated,” I would later think to myself as the road quickly turned in to what I would most definitely deem to be a “minimum maintenance road.”  To say the very least.

No worries.  I’m here having fun with no real direction to go and so long as I beat the sun, I’d be okay.  I stopped to take a picture of the road and after crossing a stream, the first of three, I stopped to set up my GoPro to take those video snippets in the video above. It was fun and I was enjoying myself.

Sure, the mud leading to the flowing stream had paw prints I had never seen before.  And yes, the howler monkeys were howling away somewhere in the distance and, “Hey, what was that?” was happening here and again as unknown leaves would rustle not that far from the road.  Yet, this was my first jungle experience and I was tickled to death.  Without the power of a bicycle and the courage to rent one an go I would not right now be sitting here, out of breath, enjoying all that God had provided around me.  Pretty cool.

Which, after crossing another stream with unknown prints around it in abundance, brings me to where the story began…in the middle of nowhere with only one safe way to go…back the way I came.  So back I went.  Remember that hill/mountain I had to walk part of the way up? Well now let me tell you, that was a lot of fun on the way down!

Soon I found my way back to the “Lots–>” sign and continued my original direction, up and up the hill, on gravel, on a bike that did not fill me with confidence.  Finally, and not too far up the road I saw a weather-worn sign pointing out the DreamSea Surf Camp to the left and (happily) I cut the climb short and took the sharp left with a quick downhill.  It wasn’t too long before I saw the camp on my left with what looked like a showing agent convincing someone this was the place to stay.  Frankly, if I were a surfer I’d give it a go.  After all, it’s surround by nothing.  What a great place to hang after a tension filled day of finding the right wave and not hitting the volcanic rock if the tide is out.

It wasn’t long thereafter that I headed up what I thought was a hill and then quickly realized as I turned slightly right that it was mountain…with a sharp switchback followed by the steepest, straightest climb I have ever attempted.  Now understand, while I do live in Kansas, I do ride the Flint Hills.  What are the Flint Hills you ask?  The are a beautiful ecological tallgrass challenge that run north and south in Kansas and made bicycle-famous by the Dirty Kanza.  Hop on over to the DK200 website to find out more.

That said, this mountain kicked my bicycle hiney.  Can I blame it on the bike?  Probably not.  I stopped three times on the way to the top. And, at one point, I found it curious that a motorcyclist cut his engine at the peak and as he came over he was super slow and using his brakes. He stopped next to me and said in broken English that I was just about there and with a smile, he was gone again.  Helmet on, engine off as he went down the steep descent.

Mountain Keeps Going
The mountain just kept going up!

Encouraged, up I went and was so relived when I hit top.  So relieved.  I stopped and took a picture where you can, if you look closely, see the Pacific Ocean a couple miles off.  (See feature image.) And then down I went. Another ordeal.

You see I came to Costa Rica without bicycle gloves or a helmet.  The clipped shoes I remembered though the shop didn’t have clipless pedals.  That descent?  That motorcyclist with his engine turned off and ever so slowly going down the other side? Me not wearing a helmet?

Off I went. Terrified.  This I should have walked! It was probably a 350 meters long and my guess is a 15% descent, or more.  Maybe some smart guy can look at my Strava and figure it out for me.  As the gravel would fly by I glanced down at the Garmin and saw speeds creeping past 26 mph even as I feathered the brakes as best I could.  One ounce of pressure too much and the back brake kept locking and sending me in to very uncomfortable skids.  Keep in mind, I am an experienced gravel rider.  Yet with this negative pitch, large chunks of gravel, rain trenches snaking and cutting their way through the Costa Rican dirt roads leaving trenches inches deep and, remember, no helmet, I was a little stressed.

Should I lay it down and take the road rash?  Should I keep going and do the best I can?  Which tree exactly will I be hitting?

Finally, the road began to level.  Slowly but surely.  Almost to the end of the hill I found three men changing out a radiator on a very used Toyota.  I’m not sure what the deal is with radiators in Costa Rica but the one hour ride from the airport to the hotel featured several radiator repair shops.  (Make a note: I’ll need to look in to that.)

And like magic, the pavement of the “highway” appeared in front of me in perpendicular fashion.  Since this road is the major way in and out of Tamarindo I slowed to be sure I could make it and jumped the highway to a path running parallel just off the pavement.  Though not cared for this path had to be safer than the road itself, at least in my current jittery mode having survived the longest, bumpiest, gravelliest, steepest, straightest descent I have ever ridden.

tamarindo costa rica bike rideAnother mile or so and I was back at the bike shop before they closed for the day so the blonde German girl could check me in as she made plans to go out for the evening immediately upon her release from work duties.

From there I walked across the street and headed back to my hotel.  It’s a short walk from Kelly’s Surf Shop to the Hotel Diria with the merchants interspersed on both sides of the road, the Pacific Ocean calling on the west side only, the sound of waves crashing muffled slightly by cars passing and music from the open air bars. As I took one quick glimpse at my Garmin before shutting it off my bike ride had totaled 6.4 miles and 222 calories burned. Are you freakin’ kidding me?

 

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