Nailed on the Nicoya: Rompiendo un Rohloff

12/17/2015.

I landed in Liberia international airport in Northern Costa Rica from a restful, exciting, and unexpectedly long side trip to Colombia. The 5000’ elevation loss was significant to say the least, as I was drenched with sweat the moment I left the cool controlled air within the terminal. I’d planned to taxi into town and immediately pack up the bike to continue my ride of Nicoya Peninsula in the Northwestern Guanacaste province… but significant delays in shipping of bike parts had me grounded for 4 more days. The dangers of expectations. By stroke of luck and extreme kindness, Carole of the Bike House fame (see this post) invited me back to stay on her property while I waited. Again, this woman is just amazing. We’d only met and spent one evening hanging out and she was calling the bike shop for me to check in on my package, and opening her home yet again. 

Given the tantalizing alternate option — that of spending 4 days in the industrial and uninspiring downtown Liberia — I wholeheartedly said yes!

Carole picked me up in La Cruz, only 3 hours after touching back down to Costa Rica. Pulling up to her home to warm greetings by Jane, Gary, Cathy and her boyfriend, it was like coming home. This is such a rare feeling for me — going away from a place for a period, then coming back. I’ve not done it at all on this journey, and I have to say that returning to people you care about — is lovely. Food for thought.

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So Bahia Salinas is a world-class kite boarding location. I spent one afternoon just watching the Bike House crew boarding. They all made it look so easy. It’s the second I’ve encountered on this journey (other was La Ventana on the Baja Peninsula), and I decided to bite the bullet and take a few lessons given it’s the cheapest place to learn the sport. Everyone was so supportive of me doing it to — enablers! 

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Kite boarding is NOT as easy as it looks. Controlling a 20 foot wide kite that you’re harnessed in to during strong gusty winds is hard enough. Add getting dragged through rough surf, swallowing salt water and being blinded by the sun and breaking waves — harder. Then try strapping your feet onto a small plank of fiberglass and trying to stand up on it while doing all the above — MUCH harder. It’s funny how all the experienced kiters knew exactly the steps of the learning process. Both in terms of little triumphs and grand failures. For example, people seemed impressed that I was able to control the kite enough to ‘body drag’ myself up and downwind on my first day. Nice ego boost. They were much more excited when they saw me catch a gust of wind unexpectedly while trying to stand up on the board, thereby getting launched 15 feet into the air and smacking down into the rough waves. Par for the course. It was very difficult. And sooooooo fun! I could see myself getting more into this.

Take note Scott. This is a special place filled with wonderful people. You are blessed in this moment.

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The Bike House crew. What a lovely 5 days of connection, humor and fun! Every morning began the same — people wandering from their rooms to the kitchen area for a shared cup or three of morning coffee. Then one of us would cook breakfast for everyone. Perhaps one more cup of coffee. Then a little work on a renovation project or two, and we’re off to the kite beach. Come home, have a beer or two, hang in the hammocks, melt into a restful sleep. And repeat.

When I got the call that my bike parts would finally be arriving in Liberia the next day, it was almost a disappointment. I of course was excited to get back on the bike after nearly 3 weeks off, but I was having so much fun here. Inertia vs. momentum vs. magnetism. All powerful forces. Often acting in opposing directions. With some reservations, I reluctantly boarded the bus the next morning to Liberia. I WILL return here. That much I can guarantee.

By that evening, the Ogresa was back in one piece, ready to ride. The kind folks at Bikestation Liberia were very helpful in getting my wheels built and tensioned in no time. I packed up my stuff within a closet sized hotel room in town and rolled the next morning toward the Nicoya coast to start a 4-5 day dirt route down the peninsula.

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The paved highway out to Nicoya from Liberia quickly roughened up when I hopped in a dirt track commonly known as the Donkey Trail. Under Carole’s suggestion, I was taking the shortcut to a beach called Playa Danta where I’d find a little bike shop and about 20km of intentionally built mountain bike trails! It’s been a LONG time since I’ve ridden on real single track designed for biking, so of course jumped at the chance.

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I followed a short section of the trail system into the town of Santa Catalina. A very fancy, ritzy resort beach filled with foreign travelers, I headed straight to the bike shop for trail information. Extremely surprised by what I found there, in front of the shop was a wide selection of very high end fat-tire bikes from a Colorado frame manufacturer, Borealis as well as a few others. First major bike envy I’ve felt in a while, I’ve often considered switching my rig over to a fat bike. Too much effort honestly. There’s just something so sexy about those enormous tires!

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Stowing the bags in the shop for a couple of hours, I headed out to ride the full loop of the Danta trail system. While not particularly technical or challenging, they were smooth and buffed out, very dry and fast. The trails wound through beautiful overlooks, some dense jungle and other forest. Not a bad variety of terrain for my first day back on the bike.

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I popped the bags back on the bike and headed down the coast as it was getting late and I needed a campsite. Playa Conchal would be only 15-20km down the coast and supposedly had some large uninhabited stretches that would serve well for secure beach camping. All beaches in Costa Rica are public and allow camping, but some have more risks of delinquency and theft. Conchal a reasonable reputation, so I decided to push up the steep rolling hills to get there. One problem though: I’d not been riding for the last 3 weeks. My legs were not prepared for this long day in the saddle.

As soon as I rolled out of Playa Danta, the cramps began. At first just the odd hamstring or inner thigh cramp with a really hard push up a steep hill. The frequency and intensity quickly increased. Within a half hour, I could not peddle sitting down without some muscle cramping up and other compensatory muscles following suit. And so went the last 45 minutes of the day: Pedal for a few minutes standing up until a cramp forced me off the bike to stretch it out. By the time I was riding along Playa Conchal to find a campsite they’d gotten so bad I could barely walk, never mind ride. At one point a cramp forced me to step off the bike, but in lifting my leg over the saddle another set in. Then another. As random beach-goers walked right by me I was doubled over the bike in some awkward pretzel pose, unable to move in any direction with both legs in such pain that I was just screaming, “FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK!” I managed to hobble over to a reasonably flat and absconded plot of sand and threw my stuff down.

Perhaps a dip in the ocean will help me loosen up and stretch out my legs while floating? Bad idea. The movement of paddling with my legs set of a cascade of cramps, but with the added complication of trying not to drown while writhing in pain. I dragged myself back onto the beach and started a vigorous session of self-sports massage. It helped. Enough to get back to the bike and set up camp without major issues. I crawled into the tent and gently sought a position of minimal cramp triggers for a much needed night of rest.

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Continuing down the coast, I found some fun sections of trail the next day. Cow hoof tracks through dried deep mud make for interesting riding!

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The odd river crossing. This motorcycle rider shows me where to cross most easily.

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That afternoon I met the first touring cyclists in a LONG time! This couple was from Sweden (I believe). He owns a bike shop that sells all touring bikes (this comes into play again a little later…) and she leads local tours in her area. They were doing some product testing while bike touring through Costa Rica. As is the standard modus operandi, we exchange Facebook contacts and website information. The web grows… They told me that my friends Dang and Dean, two bikepackers I met back in Northern Mexico, were less than a day ahead of me down the coast. I’d been trying to cross paths with them again for months and finally it looked like we’d be able to share some riding days through Costa Rica.

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Anyone know what these are? They were being grown in rows for farming but I couldn’t identify them. They stand 5-10 meters tall and the leaves are quite large…

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Most of the roads on the Nicoya coast look like this. Pretty smooth dirt  winding through farms and beaches.

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Kindly, Dang and Dean spent an extra day on Playa Samara so I could catch up to them there. I arrived that evening and rolled into a hotel they had reserved for us to share. So great to find these guys again! We spent the evening reminiscing about our routes through Mexico and Central America. The similarities, the differences. The journey. Delicious. We pushed off the next morning, excited to share some dirt through the Nicoya and hopefully continuing onto a famous mountain bike race route known as the Ruta de los Conquistadores which crosses the country from Pacific to Caribbean.

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Many river crossings that day.

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A site for sore eyes: 3 bikepacking bikes, united at last!

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Dean showing us how it’s done.

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Dang carving through some rocky beach terrain as we approached Santa Teresa.

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That evening we hit an 8km stretch of very rideable beach, so of course, we rode it. There is something so exhilarating about riding a bike down a beach. It’s even more so when your bike has all your belongings on it.

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We found a resting spot just North of Santa Teresa along the beach. Perfect sunset surrounded by families gathering for the holidays. Oh yeah, it was Christmas Day. It’s funny how holidays loose their meaning from the outskirts of mainstream society. Dang and Dean are not particularly religious and I’m more of a Buddhist with a Jewish history. So Christmas wasn’t on the front burner for any of us.

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 After a pricey breakfast at a gringo coffee house in Santa Teresa, we hopped on the rough connector road to Cabuya and Montezuma.

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Steeper than it looks, there were a few sections where I could only stay on the bike standing, using all the force I had to grind up the gruesome climb. After a few of such experiences, began to notice a strange sound coming from below. I figured it was just some of the endless mud and dust that had permitted the chain or bottom bracket, so pushed on to Montezuma.

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 We grabbed a quick meal in the backpacker/surfer/rasta town of Montezuma, and hopped on the paved road out of town for a short section to connect back with our dirt route. We’d planned to spend one more night on the peninsula camped out, then take the ferry across to Puntarenas the following day. The paved road was VERY steep coming out of town. At one point it took an “s” turn up an embankment. Dean stopped to photograph my grinding up it (of course the photo doesn’t do the grade justice). About one second after this photo was taken, there was a loud clunk as if some metal part had snapped. My cranks immediately began free-spinning, now disconnected from the drivetrain. With my hands way out on the bar ends, I couldn’t brake to stop, the bike immediately began rolling backward down the hill. Luckily the steady flow of cars flying around these corners had subsided as I bailed off the side of the bike and slid back down the hill.

I assumed my chain had skipped or broken. Most logical explanation. Looking down however, it was still intact and attached. A wave of anxiety filled my chest, throat and face as I instantly realized what had happened. To confirm, I pushed down on the pedal in the forward direction to confirm my conclusion. Yep. Spun free in both directions.

I’d blown my free hub, the part on the rear wheel hub that allows the wheel to spin free of the cranks while coasting but allows you to create force against the wheel while pedaling in the forward direction. This happened once before on another bike on a steep clim in Moab. I had to rebuild the wheel around a new hub back then. But this was not supposed to happen with this hub. After all, I’d spend an absurd amount of money to buy a supposedly indestructible Rohloff hub from Germany. Hand built to perfection, these high end internally geared hubs are the standard for many long-distance bike tourers due to their famed reliability. I’ve even heard that if you can prove to the company you’ve logged over 100,000 miles on one, they’ll plate it in gold for you.Given all the other gear failures these last couple of months, I thought nothing else could break. Definitely not the Rohloff!

“To dream…. the unreachable dream…. To break….. the unbreakable hub…..”

But herein lies the practice of living in an imperfect world. Things happen. People and things don’t always do what they’re supposed to do. We as conscious beings have the option to focus on our anger at the failure to meet our expectations, or we can take a deep breath and move forward. After a cathartic scream or two, I worked to transition to the second experience. Dang and Dean graciously stayed with me. I wanted to let them go ahead since I knew the gravity of this repair: I would have to disassemble the wheel and send the hub back to the USA for repair; then await another period for the hub to pass back through international customs. It could easily be many weeks until I would be back on the road. Plus it was the height of holiday season. Everything would go even slower around now. Nonetheless, they stayed to help me figure out what to do. We decided to hitch up the hill to the nearest town and get some internet service to research solutions.

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Hitchhiking in Costa Rica is surprisingly difficult! Most people seem to be nervous to stop and help someone on the road side, much like the USA. It’s just a strong contract to my experience in the rest of Central America wherein cars would often stop and make sure I was okay if I was just pulled over on the side of the road to rest. Here, we worked for 2 hours to flag down a truck/van/flatbed which could fit us plus 3 bikes and wasn’t afraid of us. Finally a local farmer let us hoist our bikes onto his flatbed and we were off. 

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We originally planned to spend the night in Paquera, right near the ferry terminal back to mainland Costa Rica, but were impatient. We’d take the evening ferry and find a hotel in Puntarenas. From there Dang and Dean would push ahead and I’d bus up to the capital city of San Jose to begin the process of repairing my hub.

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 At least it was a beautiful ride across the Gulf of Nicoya!

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After a night in a super dingy hotel in downtown Puntarenas (to be avoided if possible), we grabbed some breakfast and parted ways. After working so hard to meet up with Dang and Dean, we only got 2 days of riding together. I hoped we might meet up sooner than later but feared I would not catch up to them again. It was sad. I really enjoyed our short time together, and these were the ONLY two bikers I’ve come across South of the US border who are are traveling rough dirt routes like I am. Diamonds in the rough, these two. I really hope to see them again down in Colombia.

I watched their silhouettes fade into the distance down the road, then walked the bike over to the bus station. 3 hours later I was in the busy city of San Jose. It’s not particularly pretty there. Just a center of commerce and the place most tourists fly into in order to get to their actual destination somewhere else in the country. I found a super cheap room and started making calls, and requesting suggestions from my bike community. As I was researching shipping companies through which to send the hub back to the US for repair, I got a message.

It was that biker I met with his wife on the Nicoya, the one who owns the bike shop in Sweden. He suggested that there were small vinyl pins built into the hub that are designed to break under high load in order to protect the rest of the hub. If this was actually the problem I should be able to have the parts sent down to me and do the repair myself, saving weeks of waiting. I quickly contacted 2 certified Rohloff repair specialists to get their perspectives on this. While I waited, I started wondering what I would do with myself while stuck in Costa Rica for at least a week. Again.

One Response

  1. John Fontanilles
    | Reply

    I feel for you on the Rohloff breakage, they’re supposed to be bombproof. Hopefully the three of you will reunite further south.

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