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Cycling in Costa Rica: Finding the Calm Before the Storm on Sunday Mornings

On Sunday morning in most any place in Costa Rica, there is a window of a few hours between sunrise and the ringing of church bells, that is both the aftermath of the previous night, and the calm before the storm of the coming week.

Businesses are closed to the world with the familiar steel shutters. There are fewer buses and taxis operating. The previous night’s garbage is bagged outside of restaurants and bars. The streets and highways are eerily quiet.

For those of us who enjoy cycling–and in Costa Rica that number runs into the tens of thousands– this window is the optimum time to pedal. Between the buses, taxis, trucks, pedestrians, animals and wildly uneven terrain, riding conditions during regular hours vary from moderately risky to downright life-threatening.

We do it anyway, and while hugging the shoulder as massive tractor trailers pass within inches, one does get an understanding as to why people here invoke Dios so often.. But Sunday mornings, cyclists easily outnumber cars and it is not unusual to see pelotons of twenty or more riders together.

I have had a few close calls over the years–once a tractor trailer passed me on a lonely stretch of the Inter-American highway in southern CR and pulled back in too early. As I saw the massive vehicle sliding toward me, I took evasive action and tumbled into an overgrown culvert, resulting in a back injury that laid me up for a month.

And I have avoided numerous potential collisions with both pedestrians and vehicles by riding defensively; on these streets, a careless cyclist is an injured or dead cyclist.

And while the average Tico driver is not as bad as expats would have you believe, we are in the first generation of Costa Ricans who have easy access to automobiles. The more drivers on the road, the more bad drivers on the road. So far this year there have been 31 bicycle related fatalities in Costa Rica. That is about 2 per week.

Given the number of cyclists and drivers on the road, this is likely within the statistical expectation. My guess is that most of these deaths could have been avoided, and the blame is likely shared between the complacent cyclist, and the crappy driver.

As well, there is a breed of arrogant cyclist that doesn’t use the shoulder, or rides with friends side-by-side instead of in single file, slowing down all trailing vehicle traffic. But a good cyclist knows it is best to respect and coexist on the roads and highways– a person riding a bicycle is going to lose in any confrontation with a motorized mass of metal.

The Sunday morning cycling window closes fast. By mid-morning, cars are back on the road, heading to the beach or the mountains or to the suegros for the day.

The churches are in full swing, both the traditional Catholic, with the somber, dry tones of the priest and the heavy shadow of guilt hanging over the congregation; and the Evangelical, with throngs singing hossanas to the loud and raucous beat of electric guitars and drums.

About the time the churches are letting out, the bars are opening to serve the other informal religion of Costa Rica, with the 11am kickoff for the CR Soccer league games.

It is 7am Sunday morning as I finish this–time to put on my helmet, get on my 21-speed and hit the road.

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