Pura Vida Cycling Challenge Recap
“What is the Pura Vida Cycling Challenge? Who is it for?”
These are the two questions I am asked the most. The best way to describe it is as a cycling climbing camp. We don’t just climb, we CLIMB! Routes vary every day but expect 55 - 100 miles 6k - 11k ft of climbing. These are not your 6-9% grade 22 mile Mt. Lemmon climbs, these are 4k ft+ in 9-13 mile of ass kicking steep AF climbs. These are I can’t stop because I’ll fall over climbs. It is 5 days of absolute exhaustion, can’t go any further rides that will push you no matter your level and fitness. 5 days with Pura Vida Cycling Challenge will have your bike legs ready for whatever races and adventures you are headed to next. After my trip in January, the bike fitness and level up in bike handling skills I developed over just one trip propelled me into my race season and helped me qualify for the IM World Championships and made me a significantly better cyclist and triathlete.
But First, a Little Background
As I sit here and think about my experience in Costa Rica with the Pura Vida Cycling Challenge, I cannot help but think of where I was 5 years ago…
It was the first cool (under 100 degree) weekend in Phoenix and I decided I was going to do my first triathlon. I drug my 10 year old 25lb hybrid bike out of storage and rode it on the canal. I had my daughter 2 years before that. When I was pregnant I couldn’t run and I started swimming again. I have never properly learned to swim, but I would swim 3 miles straight on Saturdays in college and write my papers in my head (I know, crazy! I wouldn't even do that now!). I also used the spin bike before CrossFit 2x week to make up for not running. I really loved the spin bike and swimming and it seemed like a triathlon would be a great way of putting it all together now that I could run again! Spin bike, road bike, same thing right? No, not right! I dusted off the bike and tried to remember how to shift, put on my running shoes, old helmet, I kissed my daughter goodbye and promised my husband I wouldn’t crash. I was off!
What I expected that day was a hot ride and a good workout. What I found was the spark that revolutionized so much of who I am. Unleashed it even. It was pure and utter joy and freedom. It was that same feeling I had as a kid hopping on the bike and really taking off for the first time. It was the feeling of the wind against my face, freedom to see the world limited only by what my legs can do. I wasn’t fast, I was clumsy, but I was so happy!
It wasn’t long before I bought a road bike (“but where is the kickstand?” the sales guy almost fell over) and then after I fell 10 times learning to clip in, I could really start to ride. On the first ride with my new bike, another cyclist waved at me and I was like “whoa, I must look like a real cyclist now!” (I most certainly did not) I was thrilled!
Fast forward to 5 years later and I co-own/operate Pura Vida Cycling Challenge. I think the phrase is “well, that escalated quickly.” The more I ride, the more I want to ride. The more adventures I have on a bike, the more adventures I dream about having! The more, the more, the more! And the more I experience seeing the world with my bike, the more I want to provide ways for others to do the same! There is nothing quite like pedaling through a new place, a small town, mountains, the desert. The world just looks different on a bike. It is vibrant, alive, sometimes scary, sometimes thrilling, but never the same.
Costa Rica is a special country. It is so green it hurts my eyes coming from the desert. I am not one to like mass generalizations but in the time I have spent there I have felt welcomed warmly by the people. The animals, insects and birds are everywhere and so integrated into life. Even in the middle of the bustling city there are armadillos walking around (and the deadliest snakes in the world, but let's stick to the armadillo example).
And the roads… with no snow and apparently a deep aversion to switchbacks, roads are built basically straight up the sides of mountains. It makes for absolutely epic climbs in the lush neo-tropics.
Now, on the to trip!
September 4 - 9th, 2021
I landed a day early to get everything situated (definitely send the person that speaks zero Spanish to organize everything). We rented out the amazing Pura Vida Hotel for our crew. It’s an adorable bed and breakfast with individual casitas nestled in lush gardens. To top it off, Berni and Nhi's (the owners) German Shepards, roam the grounds looking for some to play ball with them. I happily obliged.
We had seven athletes for this trip. A small, fun and skilled group of cyclists that laughed all the way to crazy climbs and even up them sometimes. We had pro and former pro triathletes and cyclists, intermediate cyclists, competitive age group triathletes, cat 3/2 cyclists and people that just loved to ride! I am often asked “can I do the these rides even if I am not a top triathlete or Cat 1/ 2.” Yes! Yes you can. I am proof and the other cyclists on this trip are proof. But it is 100% not guaranteed you can make it up. You have to have grit, a good attitude and a deep desire to dig deep in the well every single day, sometimes multiple times during the ride. Many many gears help too :). And if you cannot make it up, the ability to suck up the ego, know when it is not your day, throw your bike in the back of the truck and support everyone still on the mountain.
We are never just a group of tourists riding in a foreign country. That would be so boring and you can get that anywhere! The vision of Pura Vida Cycling Challenge is to bring together people from different parts of the world together, united by cycling. A huge part of the experience is riding every day with local Costa Rican (Ticos) cyclists. Every ride we are accompanied by 10- 30 cyclists at varying levels. Pro cyclists push our fast riders all the way to the top of the climbs and intermediate cyclists to make sure no one is ever alone and everyone is motivated when they need it the most. No matter where you are from, the culture of cycling is the same. The rhythm of the pedals being pushed in a group, the slow fall of chatter when the climbs start to get hard, the look of “so are we racing or what?”We all work as a team to get the best out of each other. We do not just ride roads, we experience the world and each other together.
One of the key parts of Pura Vida Cycling Challenge is paying it forward to the local cycling community. Every trip we ask that athletes collect and bring donated items from their friends, team, local bike shops to donate. Joel, a former elite cyclist, created the cycling community hub called the “el Bunker” in his backyard. He mentors and supports cyclists of all ages. After our first ride, we passed out all the gear we brought down at el Bunker. Saddles, chains, steams, jerseys, shoes, sunglasses, are picked up on the spot. Bikes are disassembled and reassembled with the new parts. Jerseys are quickly changed and the group of bikes and riders are transformed. Joel ensures the rest of the gear is given to cyclists who need it to stay on their bikes. This trip was especially impactful. Heavy Pedal donated apparel and even gave a discount on new Heavy Pedal items for anyone who donated lightly used jersey/bibs/shorts. Cyclologic donated over 20 saddles and gear! All in all it was about $20k of donated goods.
We started each day with cooked to order breakfast and fresh juices. Hard to beat that kind of fuel for long rides. After dumping off extra supplies in the support vehicle, we headed out to meet the rest of the Tico group. Each ride starts with an “easy warm up” out of town. Rollers and a bit of climbing to get the legs going. I like to call it the climb before the climb. Depending on the route, it is at least 2500k ft of climbing (in 20 miles) before the actual main climb of the day and would be considered “a very challenging” group ride by US standards. But we are in Costa Rica, so we’ll call it a friendly roll out.
Riders naturally separate when the climb starts to get aggressive. And aggressive it gets. 15% all the way 30%+. It’s hard to really describe what a wall of asphalt looks like. Every time I see anything above 20% I laugh out loud at how insane it is that I am going to ride my bike up it. I like this. I love this! And I am surrounded by 10, ok 3 by that point, people that love it too. We are all clearly mad.
On my first ride in Costa Rica last January, the group was trying to let me know when the climb was going to end and they signaled with their hand the next turn it would be flat. At that point I was seriously questioning if I could do all the rides if the shake out ride was this hard. But, ok, I can make it to the next turn. When I turned the corner I learned a very important lesson. Costa Rican flat is still a 7% grade. Yes. I am not joking. Not a flat road in the whole damn region. But, by the end of the trip, I completed all the riders and 7% actually felt flat. It’s all relative when you are riding these roads!
What is so incredible about the climbs, besides their severity and beauty is they are designed in a way that just when you think you cannot possibly continue it relents, just enough to breath, to regain your senses before it punches you in the face again. Masochist, cyclist, same thing. Read about the first time I made it up the totally ridiculous Sacramento Climb.
It is not just about climbing… it's about descending! I love to ride my bike down mountains fast! I am still often surprised by this. I am not a dare devil by nature, I don’t take huge risks with my physical safety, but get me on a bike and I am gone! There is a flow, a rhythm with the road I love to feel when you descend. It's the push and pull of reading lines, curves, shifting your weight and feeling like you and the bike are the same being. It is beautiful, powerful and the high is addicting. These descents top them all! Mt. Lemmon, Mt. Evans, Snow Bowl, South Mountain, Bartlett Lake, they have nothing on these roads. Sweeping views of the valley, San Jose, and Volcanoes, mountain goats on the side, lush rainforests, quaint towns, coffee plantations. It’s stunning and fast.
A key to good riding is fueling! We never far from a small shop, bakery, fruit stand for refueling. My personal favorite it hitting up the bakery in Grecia. Best chocolate filled donuts in the world (probably helps I am already 50 miles and 6kft of climbing in). We all grab some goodies, sit in the park and rehash the day. Who dropped who, who blew up because they rode a 20% WAY too hard… it's all part of the fun and experience of riding back to town with new stories, more laughs and sugar-covered hands.
Each ride ends with a massive local meal back at the hotel after showers. Afternoon is for rest, sightseeing, or in the case of this trip, talking for hours about cycling and racing. One evening, we decided to invite everyone (Americans and Ticos) to a bar. What started as a whim idea became a night of bonding, fun and many many beers. That was the night it felt like it all came together - the purpose of why Dan and I started this in the first place. Bringing together incredible cyclists and people from around the world to help each other be better. What starts as a group of strangers ends as a group of friends (with much higher FTPs).
This is what cycling is about. It is what I felt the first time I got on a bike. It is freedom, exploration limited only by your physical ability. It is fun with a bit of fear. It is the pure joy of riding shared with others. When you are in a group of people that all have that same understanding and belief it is powerful and transformational. I can’t speak for everyone on the trip, but for me, it I always walk away from my time on a bike in Costa Rica with significantly better bike handling skills, solid climbing legs, a renewed love of riding and travel, a new community that welcomes me, and my heart is just a little bigger and little more open. The more, the more, the more. Riding leads to more riding, adventure and connections leads to more adventure and connection.
“Who is the Pura Vida Cycling Challenge for?”
Back to the question, “who is Pura Vida Cycling Challenge for?” It is for anyone who wants to level up their cycling, who wants to connect and be pushed by others, who wants to see a new place on two wheels, who seeks adventure and community. Use it as a camp to prepare for races and build better climbing skills, as its own special adventure, a way to test your fitness. It doesn’t matter what you have won or not won, qualified or not qualified for, what matters is your grit. If you have grit and you love to ride, these 5 days will blow your mind.