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5 Things I Learned MTB Guiding in Costa Rica

1. Cycling is a universal language. 


Spanish, English, French, German, Italian, Dutch, Portuguese, and full-body charades.  Take your pick and we’ll make it through this 2+ hour ride just fine.  As long as we keep pedaling.  And smiling.  


The relief washed over me on my first few international rides as a guide in Nosara.  My evolution from tourist to guide lasted less than 24 hours as I picked up new routes and new pieces of local information.  One morning the guys (Edwin, William, and Yadir) would lead me on a ride and the very next morning I would take a booked tour on the same route.  I’d quickly learn to point out interesting facts along the route even as those same facts were still transitioning from short term to long term memory.  In short, I’d fake the heck out of my role as local guide.  And of all my personality traits that contributed to my success as a good tour operator the most concrete, the most reliable, came down to my ability, no, my love of pedaling.  Cycling is a universal language.  It comes in many forms, on many styles of bikes, and wildly different terrain but the common theme remains universal.  The people coming into Nosara MTB needed to pedal.  I can pedal.  We can pedal.  So we pedaled.  


146 times from December 3rd to April 28th.  On my 146th ride I still smiled at the ability to find a new route, ride it in a unique way, and enjoy the same pure sensation I fell in love with on that 1st ride in Nosara.  


What is this language?  What does it say?    


The answer fails to translate well to the written word.  When a tourists previous days include idly sitting passenger in a plane, a train, a shuttle, and a tuk-tuk only to find themselves being led through introductions, formalities, the signing of forms, and the unpacking of bags.  The desire for freedom begins to grow in intensity.  Add breakfast (albeit and amazing, unlimited breakfast that I go to bed each night drooling about) with the family, dropping the little ones off at Kid’s Club, comparing schedules with the group, and debating on how to spend the blissful day in Costa Rica.  If lucky a cyclist will navigate this maze and eventually swing a leg over one of our bikes.  At that point the universal language will take over.  With a nod and a point I’ll kick off of one leg and head away.  Away from everything that doesn’t understand our language and within minutes I’ll find that my fellow cyclist has matched my cadence.  Our breathing has coincided with the other’s.  We lean at the same angle around the pochote tree and raise up out of the saddle with a synchronization that suggests we’ve been here before, we’ve done this together many times.  And yet, this is our first ride.  My rider has perhaps forgotten my name but as long as we are pedaling our communication is familiar.  Cycling is a universal language because the feeling it invokes exists above words.  That’s good news to me!  …because my Spanish still sucks.  



2. “Vacation Mode” may be the single best way to alleviate fears and limitations. 


When not traipsing through the jungle atop a mountain bike I spend much of my year trying to pull the best from intermediate to advance mountain bike athletes.  For 13 years I did the same in a gym setting.  I’ve tried to pull the best out of my golden retriever.  I’ve even once torn apart the carburetor on a vintage cafe racer in hopes of squeezing just a bit more power from her 650 cc’s.  As a coach my bottomless well of optimism and persistence generally yields results in these pursuits, however had I known then what I know now, I would’ve saved a lot of effort and just bought my MTBer, gym goer, dog, and motorcycle a plane ticket to Costa Rica.  


Put someone in “Vacation Mode” and their inhibitions, reluctancies, doubts, and fears simply evaporate.  


“Ever ridden a mountain bike before?”

“Nope.”

“No big deal!  It’s like riding a bike.”

“I’ll give it a shot!” they reply.


“Ever ridden singletrack before?  Ever used a dropper post before?  Ever ridden on the beach?”


“No.  No.  No.  But, I’ll give it a shot!”


I didn’t need to coach these riders in Nosara.  I just shoed them the way, gave a spirited explanation of the what, where, and how and then sat back.  They pedaled themselves out of trouble and into trouble yet their smiles never faded.  Flat shoes, no chamois, and covered in monkey poop?  Great!  Welcome to the jungle! Vacation mode gave riders the freedom to enjoy their tour and also freedom to fail on the bike.  The judgement free, no time-constraint, out-for-enjoyment approach to their tour alleviated any sense of obligation or responsibility.  Vacation mode created a fantasy land where riders could play their day away.  


“Hey, we are running a little long after stopping at the beach and watching the sea turtles bury their eggs.  I’d really like to take you to this teak forest so we can ride through a river and watch monkeys jump from tree to tree.  Do you have the time?” I’d ask.  


“I don’t have anything else to do today.  I absolutely want to see that,” they’d shriek.  


Back home in Colorado I spend hours reworking my athletes training programs to fit into their busy lives.  I’ve developed worksheets that walk these athletes through priority shifting or goal setting steps in hopes of getting them to see past the hurdles of our program.  But now I’ve got a new trick.  I simply send them some airline miles and tell them to go away.  Go on vacation.  Do yourself a favor and disappear from the constraints.  Vacation mode may be the single best way to get out of our own way.  



3. Guides receive as much as they give.  


The first time I learned that the caracara hawk is nicknamed “bone-breaker" because it likes to grab bones from roadkill, fly into the sky, and drop the bones to the ground so they break and make available the caracara’s preferred treat - bone marrow, I was intrigued.  I wanted to see this happen.  Fast-forward to the 53rd day in a row that I passed a caracara on my ride and I nary turn my head.  The same can be said for the iguanas I deftly dodge while cruising a comfortable 20 mph on our dirt roads.  So while I habituated to some of the unique experiences found on a bike in Costa Rica I kept clear about my mission as a tour guide: provide riders with a memorable bike trip.  So while my repertoire may have been rehearsed and delivered nearly automatically, every time I saw a tourist take in a new sight, sound, taste, or tidbit, my own energy picked up a beat.  


Guiding gives in return just as much, sometimes even more, than we pour out to our visitors.  Form the moment we meet and learn where our riders are from, how they chose to come to Nosara, how they got into bike riding, what kind of riding they like to do back home, or any other conventional relationship building question we have a new experience on our hands.  I was fortunate enough to meet a rider who lives in the Bahamas, loves to ride, is a pilot, and operates a private island resort.  He also has just one eyeball.  The other is a captivating marble-like shining orb.  After 90 minutes of pedaling, and while we were hiking our bikes through a dense bit of vines in the mangrove swamps I asked, “so, how’d you lose the eye?”  He recanted the story which peaked with him being impaled through his eyeball onto his instrument panel while deftly landing his crashed plane onto an island outside the Bahamas during a hellacious storm.  


One morning I met a rider who’d not matched the description they’d texted me via WhatsApp the day before.  So when she walked up to me I assumed she needed something other than a mountain bike tour.  “My husband couldn’t make it this morning so I am taking his place,” she clarified.  “We ride the same size of bike and are about the same MTB skill level,” she further explained.  “Great, let’s roll,” I responded.  


It was nearly 45 minutes later as we were successfully ripping some rooted, steep, dense jungle singletrack that she answered the question I had asked her on the previous climb.  “My most memorable bike ride you asked?  I’d say it was racing Tour of Flanders.  That was pretty amazing,” she casually replied.  What?!  I’m guiding a world tour level cyclist and she just casually drops that she’s had a career traveling the world as a full time racer.  Amazing.  


Playing guide to a spectrum of riders gave back to me more than I feel I gave to them.  Every level of athlete, every age group, and a cross section of humanity from across the world swung a leg over our bikes and asked to be taken on a trip.  Sometimes these trips lasted just a couple of hours and others stretched to most of the day but without fail I’d leave the ride knowing we’d had an equitable trade of energy.  They may have felt I served them but many times I left thinking: I can’t believe I get paid to do this.  That person was so cool!     


4. There are steep rides and then there are “Costa Rica Steep” rides. 


The first time they pedaled away from me I simply thought it was just the result of me being fresh off of my La Ruta effort and my legs were tired.  The second time they rode off I thought it simply due to the fact that I gave a tour the day before and they didn’t ride.  On the third time I simply accepted the reality, they were much better at riding these unbelievable steep hills.  Now I’d like to really beat the “Come to Costa Rica” drum here but the truth is that most areas of Central and South America feature some heroically steep roads.  The originally travelers in these regions must’ve thought switchbacks to be silly, unnecessary deviations from the primary goal.  Namely, getting there.  By any steepness of pitch necessary.  Steep.  Steep and long and sometimes loose.  The roads that rise from the beaches go up in a hurry and contribute to what makes riding in Nosara so unique.  We can start on a gentle pedal at low tide on firm sand and inside of a mile or so be climbing a couple thousand feet to a ridge that showcases the ocean to the West and endless mountains to the East.  For a month I would grind up these hills at the top of my cassette (read: easiest gear) and celebrate when I’d successfully topped out without having to get off my bike.  The second month got easier and by month 4 I’d been able to close the gap between myself and the guys.  They’d joke that I’m officially “Tico” as I’d crest over Las Flores and still have a couple of unused gears to my disposal.


But then I did that one ride.  Las Torres.  It’s namesake derived from the communication towers at its summit.  They’d pointed out that ride to me each time we topped out other, smaller, climbs in the area.  We’d even make half-hearted plans to ride it in the coming days and weeks.  Yet we never did.  So as my 5 month engagement neared its end I knew what ride I needed to complete.  Las Torres.  


I broke.  Maybe leaving at 7:30AM was a little late.  Maybe only bringing 2 bottles of fluid was a little foolish.  Maybe I did need a new rear tire.  Or maybe it’s just that “Costa Rica Steep” deserves its own designation in Strava.  In about 8 miles I climbed nearly 6,000’.  Twice the pitch broke 30° and I was forced off the bike.  Once the pitch steepened so greatly that some angel came down and paved the short section for those foolish enough to pass that way.  Just when I thought I’d converted into Tico-tough I hung my head and accepted my lesson.  Costa Rica Steep.  Whew.  


Now please do not let me discourage your desire to come ride in Nosara.  Not all of our routes require heroic climbs up grades that’d be scary ski runs if there were ever to be snowfall 600-ish miles from the equator.  But if you want a ripping good time going down the jungle roads…you’ve gotta get up.          


5. Every ride is a great ride. 


Ask 50 mountain bikers what their favorite type of ride is and you’ll get 50 different answers.  Ask 10 mountain bikers here in the Front Range area of Colorado their favorite local trail and you most likely get nearly as many trail names tossed your way.  We are a particular bunch of hobbyists.  We all have a preferred chain lube, chamois cream, trailside snake, and pre-ride playlist that gets our stoke high.  We can debate the best tire and plant our flag on the best way to wash our drivetrain.  Hard.  To.  Please.  


Until we aren’t.  


My first mountain bike ride was at Oak Mountain in my early teenage years with my uncle Derrick.  I bent the rim on his wife’s (my aunt’s) bike.  He still pokes fun at me for that.  I got my own mountain bike a few years later in high school and would challenge myself up the desert trails in Phoenix wearing running shoes and basketball shorts.  After moving to Colorado in 2006 it took me a couple of years to get back into the sport.  Then, in my early 20’s, I really started back on the bike.  That makes it about 16 years where mountain biking has been a marquee (and now the sole focus) part of my life.  I have preferences on all of the items listed above.  I not only have favorite trails but I have favorite specific turns on certain trails.  I can go granular, but the 5 months I spent guiding mountain bikers in Nosara washed anew my outlook on riding.  Biking has been a part, and those who know/follow/meet me may argue a huge part, of my life for many years, only in these last 5 months in Nosara has biking taken such a prominent position.  To be a guide I left behind my wife, dogs, friends, family, and other responsibilities in Colorado.  I just rode bikes.  Every day.  Without a break.  And here is what I learned…


Every ride is a great ride.  “Great” is the ground floor rating of any opportunity one has to pedal a bike.  From there it can be more.  It can be: amazing, life-changing, unbelievable, transformative, supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.  But at a minimum it is just great.  Why?  Simple, getting to ride and moreover getting to ride in warm, enchanting, wild Costa Rica during Colorado’s winter months beats not riding a bike.  It beats only being able to think about riding.  About hoping to be able to ride.  Every ride is a great ride.  


This lessons sticks.  I’m 23 days removed from Costa Rica as I type this blog and I have enjoyed 3 weeks of some amazing riding.  Moab’s White Rim.  Fruita’s Kokopelli.  This weekend I’ll head to Gunnison and then to a mountain town who’s magical setting is unmatched: Crested Butte.  I will ride amazing trails.  But just yesterday I rode a cruiser bike through downtown Denver.  In a moment I’ll ride a clapped out old bike with my chocolate lab down the sidewalk in Aurora.  Each of these rides, a great ride.  Being a guide for 5 months didn’t wear down my desire to ride bikes.  It inflated it.  Maybe it was the adventures I had with the team at Nosara MTB that stoked this flame?  Maybe it was the uniqueness of riding with strangers who quickly became friends as we witness anteaters digging into trees on our private singletrack trails?  Maybe it was watching the world-famous Nosara sun set from atop San Juan and then gliding downhill, home, in the fading light of day?  Or maybe it was the feeling that I referenced earlier?  The feeling that washes over a cyclist moments after they push off not that first pedal stroke.  A feeling that I best associate with being a big kid who gets to go out and play.  I got to play bikes for 5 months and in that time I learned that every ride is a great ride.  


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