Cycle Costa Rica 2019

Jan 2020 -

In November last year David Tymm's was one of 42 riders who cycled across Costa Rica to raise money for The Urology Foundation. Here is his account of the challenge.

It’s said that all journeys start with a single step. This one started with twelve amuse-bouches followed by a thirteen-course tasting menu with paired wines. Allow me to explain…

In October 2018, I was invited to a lunch at El Celler Can Roca, the impossible-to-get-a-table-at, three-Michelin starred gastronomic temple in Girona. At the time, the ‘Best Restaurant in the World’ according to the people that get to vote in the annual ‘Restaurant’ magazine poll.

I was seated next to Professor Abhay Rane OBE, an eminent urologist who had treated our host, talking about some of the other places we had been fortunate to visit. One we had in common was Tamarind in the far-off, faded French-colonial gem of Luang Prebang in Laos, still referred to as Indochina by crusty military types.

“What where you doing there?” he inquired. “Oh, I signed up for a cycle ride in aid of a mine-clearance charity…”

“Ah, so you’re a cyclist, then…”

A few weeks later, I went to see Louise de Winter, Chief Executive of The Urology Foundation (TUF) to learn more about a subject I was utterly ignorant of. As Louise explained, the field is overlooked: problems affecting the plumbing of gentlemen in the autumn of their years does not attract the same level of public attention and sympathy as other just causes. But untreated issues can cause untold misery to sufferers and detract from the quality of life for years, if not decades.

Combined with a comment from my lunch companion to the effect that: “If you’re a guy and over fifty, you’ll probably need to see one of us at some point”, resistance was futile. So I signed up for the ‘TUF Costa Rica coast-to-coast challenge’ in November 2018…

Fast forward thirteen months and a world away from the balmy, wine-drenched Catalonian afternoon that kick-started this adventure, the dawn is still two hours away as we are roused from our tents…

The combination of flashlights, palm-trees, insects chirruping and urgently-intoned Spanish voices uncomfortably prick the subconscious as we drag ourselves over to the outdoor field-camp refectory tables for breakfast.

The forty-two riders are drawn from all walks of life, roughly split between girls and boys and an age range spanning mid-twenties to mid-seventies. Many are involved with the treatment of urological conditions, some are ex-patients, some are spouses of the former two groups, other are neither and literally along for the ride. All have committed to raise a minimum of £3,500 each for the foundation.

Two tour leaders, Mike - a localised Canadian who loves Costa Rica and cycling in equal measures, and Henk - a South African with a looming presence and military demeanour that signals re-assurance or intimidation depending on context, preside over a small and efficient team that deal with logistics and support. This includes frequent side-of-the-road repairs to the bikes that were to take an absolute pounding over the next six days. Two doctors complete the team to patch people up after the occasional mishap.

Despite the apparent exotic location, it’s pissing down and a bit chilly. A brisk but bumpy ride ends with what looks like a woolly-minded Management Consultants idea of a ‘bonding exercise’,
as riders and bikes traverse a couple of fast-flowing rivers on narrow boats before pushing and yomping across muddy fields to find something approximating a road.

Banana plantations abound as we pound down unmade boulder-strewn tracks with occasional stops to take in the abundant wildlife: monkeys perch up trees; lizards disguise themselves in the greenery while crocodiles lie menacingly in muddy rivers.

End of day one and one of the easier ones… Not for the first time, the early start and the punishing ride mean the bar staff at the overnight hotel are not stretched and a few hours later, it’s more of the same.

I can’t quite understand why the weather is noticeably worse here than the glorious English autumn we left behind a day or so ago. Costa Rica is, after all, only ten degrees north of the equator, and part of the isthmus that connects South with North America with the Caribbean on its Western flank and the Pacific on the east.

But after two days, legs are stronger regardless of ability, the weather clears and the temperature rises to the late thirties as we get towards the interior and the magnificent Arenal volcano. A sense of mutual exhilaration takes hold as we get to the destination early and then head off to a series of natural springs of varying temperatures. Spanning welcomingly-warm to sphincter-scorching, all benefit from an attentive, in-pool bar service. Unsurprisingly, nobody is in any rush to leave until Henk barks that we have twenty minutes to get our collective arses out of the pool and onto the bus for dinner in the nearby town of La Fortuna (‘The Fortunate One’), so named as it’s the other side of the volcano from the area that gets obliterated whenever Arenal erupts.

The following day, the route snakes around the Arenal Lagoon and comprises a series of heart-stopping and lung-busting climbs. We end up in an idyllic bar overlooking the water and sip bracingly strong local craft ales, as the earth turns and our tropical latitude turns day abruptly into night.

The late General Norman Schwarzkopf’s maxim that teams emerge from a four-stage process of Forming, Storming, Norming & Performing seems to apply here other that we have missed out the ‘Storming’ stage. Despite (or perhaps because of) the wide range of ages and backgrounds, the mood settles quickly into one of bluff mutual encouragement with none of the subtle divisions that can emerge when random groups of people are slung together, as we have been.

By way of example and more than once, as the last of us huff and puff our way to the finish point of various stages, I’m reminded of school mums at sports day as a bevy of bossy, Head Girl types cheer us over the line, having all sped past us earlier in a flurry of ‘good at games’ limbs.

Well planned lunch stops with drinks and dinner in the evening give plenty of opportunity to hang out with people you might not otherwise get the chance to meet. If there is a dominant trait, it is unsurprisingly medical given the number of consultants and staff that are supporting the ride. Minor concerns I had of being the outsider as studious, academic types quipped with each other on anatomical matters in Latin, were dispelled as it became evident that the prevailing sense of humour was at a level most thirteen-year-old schoolboys would consider puerile.

Despite the physical challenge of the cycling and the occasional privations, there was barely a word of dissent. Some of the group I suspect live life in considerable comfort but the very same people just mucked in and got on with it. I’m slightly ashamed I was the only one to murmur any complaint, mewling about a shower that didn’t dispense any hot water after a particularly gruelling day.

This earned me a gentle but fair ticking off from Professor Roger Kirby, one of the founders of TUF, who reminded me I was there to raise money for a good cause rather than my own personal comfort, so any savings made by staying in basic accommodation was a Good Thing. That was me told and quite right too…A few days later on the flight back I saw him folded uncomfortably into a seat near the loos at the back of the plane, discarded medical text book sprawled on his chest snoring like Stephenson’s Rocket, to the chagrin of those in three seats in either direction. So at least he practices what he preaches…

After six days and nearly three hundred miles of some of the hardest roads any of us have ridden on, Henk tells us we’ve just got one more hill…but this was down and we glide down towards the Pacific at Playa Hermosa. Warm Prosecco never tasted so good as forty-two sets of aching limbs bob around in the crystal water.

Everybody pools their photographs by WhatsApp and Henk does a field-hospital editing job on a laptop so we can watch them over drinks on our last night. Even though barely twenty-four hours have passed since the elation of finishing, the sighs from the group suggest the photographs evoke what have already become treasured memories. Looking round at the sea of sun-burned faces and smiles in crumpled T-shirts and shorts, asked to do it all over again, I sense everybody would be up for it.


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