Saturday, June 11, 2011

Pura Vida!

It's Saturday afternoon, we just finished the inscription / license check process for tomorrow's UCI race, I just ordered a Bavaria "Michelada," and the view across the Orosi valley below me is to kill for. Welcome to Costa Rica!
Una cerveza Bavaria Michelada
When I arrived at the San Jose airport on Thursday evening, a two-person delegation was waiting for me to transfer me to my hotel: 1996 Olympian Andres Brenes (6th place in the mountain bike race) and Chalito, who also has a real name but is simply referred to as Chalito. Andres, who used to race for Team Ritchey together with the iconic Frischi, now serves as the coach for the Costa Rican cycling federation; Chalito is a 64-year-old who thrives on doing stuff, like carting gringo commissaires around, lugging supplies for bike races on his old shoulders, and procuring lunches for the race volunteers.

When I woke up on Friday morning, I couldn't believe what I saw: Below me lies a deep, verdant valley with coffee plantations as far as the eye can see. A river runs from the distant ridges, and tiny houses cling to the hill sides. It's almost like a painting. My huge window opens into the air, as the Sanchiri is built as a mirador right on the slope that drops away precipitously.
Another room with a view!

After breakfast in the hotel of this eco-hotel Chalito picked me up to take me to the race site. It's only two kilometers away, but it's a harrowing, steep drive toward the bottom of the valley. Waiting for me was Omar Vargas, the young race director with whom I walked the 4.4K-long course. Oh, what a course it is! Part of it leads straight through the rainforest, with lianas hanging from huge trees, boulders all mossed-over, and water running across the trail out of sheer undergrowth. Other parts lead through areas with tall grass, affording a panoramic view of the surrounding mountains and the river that is being mined for gravel. Actually, this mining operation owns the entire area, and tonight I will have dinner with the operators. The course is formidable with its technical descents, leg-breaking climbs, and continuous pounding of the arms thanks to rocks galore.
Prelude to the breakfast in the Sanchiri Lodge

This mountain bike race is ranked by the UCI as a C2 event (with C3 the lowest category), but the way the course is prepared one could think one is at a minor World Cup: Almost the entire length of the track is taped, the signage is exemplary, and the overall preparations have all been made. In our course inspection we were accompanied by Nelly Rossi, a Costa Rican commissaire with whom I had worked two years ago. She's a great addition to the crew, for sure. Another valuable person to have around is Francisco Chacon, the Technical Director of the federation; he and his wife, Jenny (who is also helping out), were also on my crew for the Central Amercian Marathon Championships in 2009; this time around, they are not commissaires but are working for the federation. The final holdover from two years ago is Johnnie Ching, who is my Secretary this time around. He starts out every sentence to me with, "Sir, please, ..." He's so cute. I haven't met the Finish Judge or the time keepers yet, but I am confident that we'll have a fabulous crew tomorrow.
Andres explains the best line
Late in the afternoon, after I had freshened up in the hotel, Chalito picked me up for a tour of the neighborhood. Unfortunately it was getting dark already so that I couldn't enjoy the sights as much as I would have during the day. We drove on narrow roads—populated by stray dogs, rabid buses, itinerant cyclists, and oblivious pedestrians—through tiny hamlets, passed by coffee plantations, and had a look at an old Franciscan church dating back to the 1740s, which by Tico standards is apparently quite old. I suppose earthquakes and punishing humidity make short work of anything old.
Tarzan just swung by ...
For dinner, Jenny, Andres, and I piled into Francisco's SUV and drove about 20 kilometers to the outskirts of San Jose. We had a marvelous dinner in a Peruvian seafood restaurant. We were joined by the newly elected president of the Costa Rican cycling federation, Hernan Solano, who turned out to be a very nice gentleman. Over ceviche and salmon, helped along by two bottles of Chilean pinot, we talked about the challenges that the sport of mountain biking, organizers, federations, and riders all face together. Sometimes the job of a commissaire is more than just that of an umpire—I was asked about opinions and experiences from other countries, and I tried to be as good and diplomatic of an ambassador as possible.
Francisco, Jenny, and Nelly get ready for the racers

Today's registration formalities were well handled by Nelly, Francisco, and Johnnie, with my giving some guidance where appropriate. I had a chance to observe riders training on the course, and I think it will be an exciting (and tough!) race tomorrow. The numbers will be fairly low, and none of the contestants are from abroad. Still, everyone is excited about the event, and so am I. We will have San Jose's most important newspaper on-site, two TV stations will shoot footage for their news programs, and a (sponsoring) radio station will provide live coverage!
The best Secretary in the known universe: Johnnie Ching
In a little while Chalito will pick me up and take me to the sponsor's house for dinner. He seems to really like me, especially because he believes that I understand everything that I say. That's what I get for speaking a bit of Spanish and asking the occasional question. On our tour of the area yesterday he provided non-stop commentary, and I am ashamed to say that I understood maybe one tenth of what he mumbled. Nelly, on the other hand, is half-French and teaches that language, and so she speaks French with me, instead of Spanish, because I made the mistake of admitting to my knowledge of cette langue. I don't know what's  worse, Chalito's delusion that I understand him or Nelly's ability to make me feel totally discombobulated in regard to which language I am trying to speak....

To end this post, I need to explain its title: Pura Vida is not only the catchy advertising slogan that Costa Rica uses to show its love for life, but it is an actual expression of "hey man, I'm doing great and life couldn't be any better" as exemplified by my greeting one of our course marshals with an innocuous "como estas?" and being beamed back, "pura vida!"

Yes, pura vida indeed!


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