Editor’s Note: This is the sixth part of an eight-part original GP series, The Road to La Ruta, in which contributor Dirk Shaw chronicles his training for the Fool’s Gold 100 and La Ruta de Los Conquistadores — one of the toughest mountain bike races in the world. Check back throughout the summer to watch the story unfold.

A
t 5 a.m. I felt the slight buzz of my UP band. Go time. Well, actually it was time to fill 10 water bottles with Skratch Labs hydration, get my cooler ready and find a decent cup of coffee in the mountains of North Georgia. After a short chat with a couple of young police officers at Dunkin Donuts about why I would ride 100 miles on a mountain bike, I was off for the Montaluce Winery. It was pitch black on the winding roads leading up to the parking lot, so I followed the stream of cars with bikes on the roof. Race director Eddie O’Dea welcomed us at the entrance, where I parked the car and unloaded my gear for the Fool’s Gold 100.

road-to-la-ruta-promo-200x75Road to La Ruta is a series of dispatches, essays and features captures the intense journey of a cyclist as he trains for a mountain biking race across Costa Rica and what many consider one of the toughest in the world: La Ruta de Los Conquistadores. Read the series »

Even amid the pre-race bustle, it was impossible to miss the stars. There were so many more out here, it seemed, than in the city. I took a moment to look up and reflect on all the work that had gone into this day, the support from my wife, and then of what lay ahead in Costa Rica. As you may remember from my first installment, Fool’s Gold was supposed to be the main event, the grand finale, the day I transitioned into pumpkin beer and holiday cheer. But now this milestone would just be a training ride for La Ruta.

I only had about an hour before the race began, so I made my way up to the start line. This is where I would stage all of my nutrition. 10 bottles with Skratch Labs, three Justin’s single serving almond butters, one Justin’s peanut butter cup, one bag with almonds and dried mango, one orange, one Bonk Breaker and a bag full of salt tablets — all were stuffed into three one-gallon zip lock bags and a red cooler.

The sun slowly started to rise and I suited up for a quick spin before making my way back to the starting line with about 75 other people who were planning to tackle the 100-mile race. O’Dea climbed to the highest point where everyone could see him — the back of his Ford Focus — and shared a few points about the day ahead with a strong emphasis on following the course markings. Then he set us off and I began what would be my longest single day on a mountain bike.

After about three miles I noticed the lead riders returning up the hill. We were all wrong and way off course.

We followed the Focus for a 3-mile neutral start that took us to the foot of the first climb, Cooper Gap. This was by far the longest climb I’d done on my mountain bike in Georgia, but having done a few practice runs of it I knew what pace to keep. As we made our way down the backside of the climb we encountered a fork in the road with a big race arrow pointing to the right. Something didn’t feel right, but since I couldn’t get the GPX file loaded on my Garmin, I did what seemed logical: I followed the arrow. It was a very fast decent; after about three miles I noticed the lead riders returning up the hill. We were all wrong and way off course. Apparently, someone with a questionable sense of humor had turned the sign and forced nearly all of the 100-mile racers off course by six to eight miles.

We turned ourselves around and began to climb back out of the three miles and 1,000 feet we’d bombed down over the last half hour. There was a lot of moaning and groaning, but the overall sentiment was, oh well. We’re on our bikes, in the woods and isn’t raining — so let’s have fun.

Fun was exactly what the downhill section of Winding Stair Gap road delivered. After 30 minutes of fast downhill towards the Bull Mountain section of trails, we rolled through the main support area, which we would pass four times throughout the day. I stopped to grab fresh bottles and enough food to make it over what I had mentally marked as the other big climb of the race: Bare Hare.

The climb proved to be as challenging as it had been made out to be, mostly rocks and roots single track with steep, cramp-inducing climbs. My strategy for the day was to hold a solid tempo and make sure to keep my power output sustainable, which is exactly what I accomplished over this climb. After emerging from the woods and before heading down the sweet single track section of Jake Mountain, we passed through the support station again where I got my chain lubed, freshened up bottles and grabbed a honey-almond rice cake to eat on the connecting road before hitting the single track.

Past the Jake Mountain single track, 100-milers went left and 50-milers went right. This intersection brought joy to those nearing the end and pain to rest of us who were only at the half way marker. My pain, however, was about to be delayed, if only momentarily. About two miles from the turn, my Garmin crossed 54 miles and there it was: my little red cooler. Visions of getting some cold water, an orange and a tasty Justin’s peanut butter cup danced in my head. Several of us who were riding together rummaged through our coolers, loaded ice cold bottles and took a quick break before settling in for the next 4.5 hours of riding.

Fools-Gold-100-Gear-Patrol-ambiance

The break was all too short. In no time, we were at the base of the Bare Hare climb again, where this time around my legs were not quite as spry. Around the 70 mile marker I felt a loss of power. I knew to keep soft pedaling in order to get up and over the climb — once I finished this section the race was over, just several miles of nice rolling single track. I settled in for a high cadence, low power output grind. It took about 15 minutes longer than my first lap, but I finished the climb.

On my way through the aid station for the final time, I high-fived Zach from Peachtree Bikes (my local shop) for delivering a (mechanically) flawless ride, grabbed the last of my bottles and went back into the woods for the final stretch.

The Jake Mountain single track never felt so sweet. With each pedal stroke I knew I was getting closer to rolling across the finish line. I mashed as hard as I could. This time at the fork I turned right and headed back toward Montaluce Winery. My nutrition was dialed in, the bike rode like a champ and at 09:35:00 I crossed over the finish line, which was good for an 11th place finish in my category and 25th overall, and included all those extra miles at the front.

Next stop: La Ruta.

Dirk Shaw is the Group Director at WPP / Ogilvy & Mather. His pursuit of two-wheeled adventure includes training for long distance mountain bike races, commuting to work and ripping through canyons on his Daytona. Follow Dirk’s musings about cycling on Tumblr or his blog for insights and observations on media. @dirkmshaw.
Photographs for this feature were shot by Atlanta-based photographer Nick Burchell. His full portfolio is available at nickburchell.com.