On first reading, nothing about ‘cycling a beach cruiser around Costa Rica’ sounds especially tough. It sounds like a fun trip, somewhere warm.
The reality, however, is that Next Challenge Grant winner Dylan Haskin had quite an adventure.
A month spent cycling 900 miles on a bike with no gears. Three days straight cycling uphill on on the Mountain of Death. Riding through a storm so severe that the airport closed down and everyone us left town. And enlisting the help of a giant digger to get his bike across a flooded river.
But that was OK for Dylan. He was an experienced cyclist.
Megan, however, was not. She had never been on a cycling trip before, let alone one through mountains. She had never towed a trailer before and she certainly hadn’t done so with a dog in the back…
The Next Challenge Grant
Dylan’s expedition was part funded by a Next Challenge Grant, an annual bursary for aspiring adventurers.
It’s funded by me – Tim Moss – several other adventurers and crowdfunded public donations.
Since 2015 it has supported 40 different expeditions with awards from £50 to £800.
Not a Story About Cycling a Beach Cruiser Around Costa Rica
When I decided to do this cycle, I thought the story would be relatively straight forward.
Cycling a single-speed beach-cruiser for a month around Costa Rica was going to be tough: only one gear, on a bike that only cost $100, I was expecting constant issues!
I mean, I even kept the flimsy rack that came with the bike. I was sure it would eventually buckle under the weight of the three panniers I would be carrying. Climbing the 3,000m “Cerro de la Muerte” pass was going to be as it is named: the “Mountain of Death”. My coaster break would not be able to handle the steep gradients that Costa Rica has to offer. I was expecting a tough challenge! But as it goes with expectations – it’s best to live without them.
The truth is, cycling the cheap bicycle 1,500km around Costa Rica was pretty easy. The bike was really comfortable to ride. I didn’t have any major issues. The flimsy rack held up and climbing that 3,000m pass for three days wasn’t that bad at all. I was also able to cycle up 95% of the hills on the single gear the bike had. Seriously, any cyclist could do this with ease and I actually highly recommend it (provided you aren’t in a rush and aren’t planning on too much dirt road).
It turned out, this story was not about me cycling around Costa Rica on this bike. This story is about her.
Megan is a primary school teacher and is the reason we were in Costa Rica. Now Megan’s history with bicycles is different to mine. I’ve been riding bikes since I was a kid. Had many wipeouts from the jumps I built, cracked a few helmets, done a few over-night rides with my dad, cycled a 240km single-stage MTB race, and more recently cycled a month across the Himalayas on a BMX. Megan’s, however, started and ended when she was about 5 years old. She crashed her first bike into a wall, and never rode a bike since then.
About two months before I planned to leave on this adventure, Megan expressed an interest in joining me on the ride.
During the year we had lived here in Costa Rica, we had adopted a rescue pup, Charlie. She had fast become part of the family so we worked out that it could be possible to bring her with us if Megan towed a trailer on her bike.
If you consider an adventure as going into the unknown, Megan wasn’t jumping into the deep end of a pool, she was jumping into the ocean.
Two months before departure we arranged for Megan to use a friend’s bicycle and started cycling some small rides. It was her first time cycling on any kind of dirt road. Her first time using gears. Her first time on singletrack. The list goes on.
About two weeks before we planned to leave, Megan attached Charlie’s trailer to the second bike she has ever owned and took it for a ride. This ride was not only a test for Megan who was cycling with a trailer for the first time, but also for Charlie who would be riding in the trailer for the first time as well. All seemed to go well. Charlie enjoyed the ride and Megan said that the weight felt manageable.
Due to our work schedule at school, the first time we were able to cycle our bikes, fully loaded, was four o’clock on the morning of departure. This also turned out to be Megan’s first time riding in the dark. With only two months of cycling in her pocket, Megan, Charlie and I headed off on a one month adventure around Costa Rica.
Things kicked off to a bit a rough start. With no experience cycling at night, pulling the trailer loaded with Charlie, dog food, and water, the first few km was a bit of a challenge for Megan. The trailer nearly rolled a few times as it dipped in and out of large potholes.
We left the dirt track and about 5km down the road on the tarmac, Megan was completely out of breath and about to throw up. She had used all of her energy by choosing a gear that was too easy and caused her to pedal too fast to try to keep up the speed.
Even though she had cycled a bike for just over a month and a half, she was still getting used to a lot of things: how to change gears properly, when to use front breaks, knowing how wide the trailer is and how to steer to make it avoid pot holes.
We had a ferry to catch on the first day so we needed to push pretty hard to make it in time. 8:30am, and we arrived there with 30 minutes to spare. With Megan noticeably exhausted, we bought our tickets and went aboard the ferry.
Megan was not the only person experiencing so many new things. When we boarded the ferry, Charlie had her first experience climbing stairs. Her first time on any kind of boat. I remember looking at her as she was looking out over the water. I realized how little idea she had of what was coming in the next few months. For all she knew, we were just going for a one day cycle and would be home again in a few hours!
The ferry stops in Puntarenas – which in my experience, is possibly one of the hottest places on earth. It was 10am, and sweat was running down my stomach. We hadn’t even left the ferry yet.
We took a break from cycling at midday to take shelter from the heat and rest for a few hours. I don’t think I have ever seen Megan so tired. Lying on a blue tarp under a tree, she slept for at least an hour. We still had a few hours to cycle to find a place to camp, so I woke her up. The next part of the ride was a climb, so we all faced the heat, put our head downs and pedalled.
We spent our first night camping in a small forest, just next to a shipping container storage area, out of sight of the busy highway connecting Puntarenas with Costa Rica’s capital city, San Jose.
By the end of the first day, we had cycled 60km in 13 hours. 29 days to go.
The next four days, our bodies started adjusting to the daily routine on the bike. 5am wake up, pack up camp, cycle for about an hour with Charlie running along side the bike. Cook breakfast. Cycle about 3-4 hours with Charlie in the trailer. Hide in the shade for two hours for lunch. Cycle from 1pm until about 4pm, set up camp again and cook dinner.
When we passed a river, we would usually stop and have a quick ‘shower’, fill up water, and wash the dishes. We took a water filter along helped with drinking water too. Charlie loved these breaks too and would have a good swim in the river.
As we were on a small budget, we camped as much as we could. We ended up camping inside palm forests, on the bank of a river with a native tribe of Costa Rica, in the backyard of someones house on Christmas Eve, in a small piece of open land in the middle of a city, on a concrete block on the side of a busy road, on some beautiful beaches , underneath a bridge below a busy highway, on the side of a farm road, on the side of a lake in the middle of a tropical storm, and in the goal posts on a soccer field to name a few. We also camped a night in a legitimate campsite!
The main climb on the trip was “Cerro de la Muerte” pass – Mountain of Death. It’s the only way to get from the south western side of Costa Rica to the eastern side. Starting in San Isidro at about 1,000m above sea level, you climb to 3,000m. The narrow, windy road is known for having lots of traffic, no shoulder to cycle on, and unpredictable weather. The pass took a total of three days of solid climbing. Charlie ran along for the three days as it was too heavy to have her in the trailer during the climb.
Our last night of the climb we camped just below the summit at about 2,900m. It was the first time Charlie had experienced ‘cold’ before. Megan woke up in the middle of the night with Charlie trying to stick her head inside of her sleeping bag to warm it up. We took the bed sheets and any extra clothes and wrapped it around Charlie so she could keep warm too.
This last day of the climb also coincided with the most painful day of Megan’s period. The positive attitude Megan revealed during this time, is a display of character that I don’t think I have been tested with yet. Seeing your partner in a situation like that only leaves you with an immense level of respect that is hard to describe.
Speaking of massive respect, I tested out Megan’s bike once during the trip, and I have to say: pulling a trailer with weight in it is a lot harder than cycling a bike with the weight on the bike. Even considering I was cycling a single speed bike, Megan’s setup was still physically tougher to ride. The weight of the trailer seems to pull back on the bike after each pedal. The weight on my bike was attached to the bike itself and seemed to go in the same direction of the bike, as opposed to pulling it backward.
Most of the ride was on tarmac, but when we got to Lake Arenal in La Fortuna, we opted for the dirt road around the lake. This road, which we expected to be on for a day, took three days. We got hit by a tropical storm too. Besides the bad weather, the gradient along this road was insane. There were many times where Megan physically could not push the bike up the road, and we teamed up, both pushing her bike and trailer up the hill.
The gradient, combined with the howling wind, sideways rain, slippery rocky and muddy road made those three days the toughest of the trip. We were helped across a big river by a kind man with a backhoe (digger). Were it not for him, we would have had to backtrack about four days to get around the lake the other way.
Later, when we were out of the storm, we heard on the news that most of the people living around the lake had left due to the storm. Even Costa Rica’s International Airport had closed due to the bad weather.
Seeing how Megan’s riding skills and fitness improved during the ride was amazing.
To think that she was doing this all with such little cycling experience was incredible. I remember how, for the first few days, she could not even stay awake during our lunch breaks and would pass out from exhaustion. About half way through the month, she was awake and had energy during lunch. Towards the end, she was bombing down dirt road downhills faster than I was, navigating bumps and potholes with Charlie bouncing around in the trailer behind her.
The last day of the adventure we spent pushing up steep climbs, coughing up dust from cars going past, and looking for shade to hide from the hot sun. It was far from an easy finish.
Taking the last turn to our house, not having had a proper shower in days, covered in dust and sweat, we hugged each other. The usual anti-climax of finishing a long adventure was realized, and we headed inside the house to get cleaned up.
I thought I had heroes in my life. Adventurers who have rowed across oceans, or climbed big mountains. But the things those people have done, as amazing as they may have been, always seem to have a sense of distance between their experience and me.
Witnessing first hand, the bravery, courage, and character shown by Megan during this month’s adventure, has moved her to the top of the list of people I consider a hero in my eyes. After all, it’s only things within our own experience that we actually know. Everything else is just a story.
Finally, just a big thank you to everyone who donated towards The Next Challenge Grant and a big thanks to Tim for selecting me as one of the grant winners. What a great gift this was, and an experience never to forget.
- Crossed Costa Rica East to West (Southern and Central)
- Crossed Costa Rica West to East (Northern)
- 29 Days
- 13 000m Ascent
- 59 kph Max Speed
- 5 Punctures
- 100 + mosquito bites
The Next Challenge Grant
Dylan won a £150 award from The Next Challenge Grant.
The money came from me, other adventurers and members of the public.
Do you have an adventure idea that you need help with?
P.S. Since Dylan is an annoyingly good photographer, here are a couple of extra pictures he took of Charlie…
You can see more of Dylan’s photos at www.dylanhaskin.com