Sunday, June 11, 2017

Once again, ticking on Tico time

Pavo Royal vs. Gallo as photographed by Alejo on his property
Being assigned to a race sometimes means that one can tack on a little vacation time, depending on one's schedule. I did just that over the past 10 days by first working at the Copa Amercia, a UCI cross-country and cross-country eliminator race (XCO and XCE) close to the city of Cartago and then spending about a week with my old friend Rafael Pacheco. Rafa and I go back all the way to one of my first international assignments when I was PCP for his nutty marathon race in the Arenal area, the one that ran in excess of 125 kilometers because of a lake that we couldn't move and a stream crossing that required the expert help of his brother Alejo and his band of white-water specialists. I tell you, Costa Rica is indeed a bit crazy!
Racing in Costa Rica is a matter of much pride and competition
My dear friend, Nelly, Central America's best-dressed commissaire (and Rafa's wife)
120 future champions were signed up for the kids' races, with or without cranks or pedals
The Copa Amercia races (organized by another old friend of mine, Omar Vargas) are much more benign in regard to length than Rafa's productions. I know many of the local commissaires, and one of my favorite individuals is Chalito, the crazy old dude who at age 74 works his rear off at all the races because he loves the sport. He was my driver, and his incessant banter and sly grin were one of the many highlights of this trip. He picked me up from the San Jose airport and took me to the Hotel Rio Las Perlas, a beautiful lodge with hot termales, set in the rainforest.
What would a race be without Chalito?
The race came off fine, despite some hard rain on Sunday morning which made the XCO course a slick mud-track. By noon, things had dried off and the sun was out again. I finished my work and Chalito took me to the house of Rafa and his wife, Nelly--another one of my commissaire friends. We had arranged for all this weeks before my arrival.
Pre-race prep work
The XCE combines elements from short-track and 4-cross into an exiting format
After concluding the last of my official duties on Monday morning I took the opportunity to explore downtown San Jose, which is a bit of a let-down. This is not one of those beautiful Latin cities with gorgeous colonial buildings--too many earthquakes have taken care of that. It has a fairly non-descript, somewhat run-down, at times modern city center that houses a few museums and an interesting market. A torrential downpour (Tuesday's paper called it the worst in 22 years) meant that I had to hole up for several house while cars floated away and homeless people washed their socks in the streets. Crazy stuff. Numerous beers and some food later it finally was dry enough to take an Uber back to Rafa's house on the outskirts of San Jose.
This department store--stuck in the '50s--featured the worst mannequins ever
A homeless man washing out his socks and then trying to dry them
Downtown San Jose's shopping district
The waters were steadily rising ....
I had been able to talk Rafa into taking a short vacation from his incessant work as a race organizer for endurance events, something he simply doesn't do often enough. Last time we had seen each other, in 2014, we had spent a few delightful days at his friend Pablo Gordienko's Macaw Lodge; this time, the plan was to take the bus down to Puerto Viejo de Talamanca where one of his brothers, the aforementioned Alejo, lives. So, at 4 a.m. on Tuesday morning our alarms went off, at 4:45 a.m. an Uber driver appeared, and at 6 a.m. we were heading to the Caribbean coast. Whoohoo!
The view from Alejo's living room
You see correctly: There are no walls. It's all open concept at Alejo's place.
It took about 5 hours to get to this tiny town just about 20 kilometers north of the border with Panama. It is a tourist outpost, attracting mainly the backpacking surfer crowd and those who just want to get away from it all. No big hotels here, just small guest houses, tiny bars, colorful restaurants, and plenty of yoga, massage, and tattoo places. The narrow strip of asphalted road runs along the tropical coastline. Rent a beach cruiser and go to one of the secluded coves, take your surfboard along and play in the water, or get hit by a falling coconut while you snooze the ganja away during your afternoon nap.
I spent some quality time in the back of this Toyota 4x4, driving to beaches and on jungle roads
Looking for idyllic beaches?
Or scenic driftwood?
Or maybe something more spectacular?
Alejo picked us up at the bus station. In his 4WD Toyota he took us up into his 14 hectares of rain forest paradise, with the amazing open-concept house that he has built for himself and his GF, Eugenia. I resided in the separate, privately located guesthouse that has almost the same stunning view of the coastline as the main casa. It's the first of several such modern accommodations he intends to build and rent out--the guesthouse is already available for $120 a night via Airbnb.

You can see the roof of the guesthouse shining through the canopy toward the bottom right
The word stunning that I just used to describe the view from Alejo's place pales in comparison to the real thing: expansive, forever, exotic, breathtaking come to mind. The remainder of the Costa Rican coastline toward the border with Panama unfurls, one gentle swoop after the other. Mountain ridges recede in ever-lighter shades of blue toward the horizon, and the trees that frame it all are majestic and nothing short of spectacular. Alejo showed us one ceiba tree that he estimates at well over a thousand years old.
The living room from the inside; open grill is at the far point
It's all wild, all humid, all green, all Alejo's
Even I could see myself with a dog here ... to keep the monkeys away!
Sitting in his "living" room, inhaling all this scenery and drinking one of many ice-cold Imperials and Pilsens while being swaddled by a cooling (but not cool) breeze, was one of those moments when one thinks: Wow, what if I could do this until the end of my days? And then I remind myself: I can, just not in the same place. My life allows me to taste all of this, a few wonderful bites at a time, sometimes through the help of friends, sometimes through the magic of greenbacks. What a blessed life I lead!
The rightfully proud owner of this piece of heaven
For two days we went to the beach, where Alejo showed us his favorite spots and Rafa regaled me with stories from his youthhood when he and his brother surfed day in, day out. While Alejo fell in love with this part of Costa Rica and eventually bought the land, Pollo found his own version of Paradise on the Pacific coast, equally close to Panama. I haven't seen that place yet but hope to be able to do so one of these days as his description is quite compelling, too.
Rafa contemplating another race course--in 2018 he wants to add a race in Puerto Viejo to his arsenal
Dogs don't give a flip about how nasty the water is!
One of Alejo's two water buffalo. They didn't like me.
With the dogs (one of them, a huge sand-colored something called Scooby) we went on a slow exploratory walk of the property, looking at tiny red and black/turquoise frogs. Alejo talked to some of the guys whom he employs to do various chores on his land, such as clearing pathways and minding the two water buffalo. (The two brothers told me the story how one night, when already too drunk to use a motorcycle to go to town, they hitched two buffalo to a cart and made a glorious entry into Puerto Viejo for a wild night of carousing.) I wasn't so sure about those two nose-ringed beasts and kept a mindful distance and a tree or two between us, while they snorted. The occasional monkeys up in the canopy were way less threatening. And the butterflies are downright peaceful.
Tiny red frogs blend in with, well, not much
This mono did not want to cooperate for the photo shoot
To me they seem turquoise, but Rafa and Alejo swore they are green
The vegetation is totally insane. Everything grows up, up, up, toward the light. Part of Alejo's land used to be a cacao plantation, and there are still enough trees left that bear fruit. He gave me the full rundown on cacao, and I sucked off the sweet, slimy substance that envelops the seeds, quite like the inside of a lychee nut. Of course, not all is golden in paradise: There are nasty fire ants that bite like the dickens, and I managed to end up with some itchy bites in some of the most unusual places. The humidity level is totally through the roof, and among the trees there is none of that cooling breeze that we enjoyed at the house or the bungalow--so, after even a few slow steps I was completely soaked as if I had fallen into a tub of luke-warm water. The dogs had the right idea cooling off in the same mud-puddles as those used by the buffalo, but I didn't want to go that far.
A ripe cacao pod: Crack it open against a rock and ...
... you'll be rewarded by this. Just don't bite the cacao beans but just enjoy the slimy stuff
We had only 48 hours for our visit, but it seemed like so much longer. The first night we grilled inside the open house, a huge hunk of meat that was put in my hands and that I pampered to perfection. We listened to jazz and drank wine while the frogs all around us made a tropical ruckus. Stories were told of two brothers growing up as beach bums but always working hard to achieve their places in life now. Man, it doesn't get any better.
When was the last time you grilled in your living room?
Thursday night at 10 p.m.we were back in San Jose after the arduous bus journey back up the mountains to the capital. It was foggy and drizzling, and one could actually breathe! Friday was a tizzy of preparations for Rafa's race this weekend, one of his Copa Endurance series races that nowadays attract up to 400 racers. Friday night we spent an hour or so looking at his ambitious two-piece finish line truss, a metal construction spanning 7.5 meters (about 22 feet) with no real buttressing to keep it from collapsing or twisting or in some other way maiming the riders. But Rafa just grins and is optimistic. It will be fine, he assures me and the guy who has welded this thing together, in his dark auto repair shop that is stuffed with old Landrovers, greasy engine parts, and one lonely mud-encrusted mountain bike hanging from the rafters, still sporting an Endurance number plate. Never mind that the truss (and the pre-existing 9-foot tall side pieces that formed an earlier arch and that just don't seem to match any of the dimensions of the new truss) will not make it to the race site at Esparza until after dark on Saturday night and will have to be assembled (and decked out with sponsor banners) before the early-morning race start. That's what I love about this country (and what, eventually, would drive me bonkers): the eternal optimism, the trust in the no-plan approach, the spirit of pura vida!
Every mountain bike race should feature at least one tunnel ...
.... with turtles in the gutters!

Oscar, aka Coco, and Rafa reviewing options
Alas, of course it all worked out. I am now putting the finishing touches on this blog entry, and I still can't believe nobody got killed today when the full-sized bus decided to make a 180-degree U-turn in the middle of our double-feedzone, with racers coming from both sides, cars being in the middle of the road, and the bus eventually blocking the entire area so that tents, coolers, and people had to be moved. It was insanity at its best, a scene made for a documentary on worst-practices to be distributed by USAC, yet the complete epitome of what makes this country (and pretty much all of Latin America) so compelling: Dude, shit happens, and it will keep happening regardless of how much you prepare for it, so unwind and get your panties straightened out and things will be just fine! We can all learn from this attitude.
Panoramic shot of the start line. 
The safe part of the feedzone
Fast racers coming into a left turn (while stragglers come from the right and try not to collide)
Add a few cars and motos ...
... and of course a full-sized bus
On second thought, it takes a Tico to think in this way. I'm too much of a control freak and worry-wart to let go completely. I probably should--we probably ALL should--but it's difficult to rethink an entire lifetime and one's cultural upbringings and surroundings. And so I just watched in amazement and with my jaw dropping how this race came together. It was fun to see it all as a "tourist" at the organizer's side, hear his account of how the local police officer came to his hotel room at midnight last night (HTF did he even find us?) and demanded to see every single permit that Rafa had spent weeks to obtain, and then laboriously took photos of each document. From the outside I watched those blue number plates with the black print (or the hand-written Sharpie numbers) that nobody can read. I marveled at the offerings in the feedzone (baby potatoes, strawberries, watermelon, pineapple, and snack-sized Mars and Snickers that had liquefied in the heat). What do you do when you hear about the turtles that riders squished in the only rideable line in the railroad tunnel they had to traverse?
The contrast of plate and number is almost too much to bear!
Papas, sandia, pina, fresa, chocolate, ... nope, no gallo pinto or frijoles
Look closely at the loot the contestants took home: tuna, noodles, popcorn
Despite what the podium step says, this was a mountain bike race
There's only one way to express it all, and that's the Tico motto: Pura Vida!
94 and still riding his bike. Could he be Chalito's older brother?
This fellow epitomizes the effort that goes into racing Rafa's events
And with that I say good-bye to all those wonderful friends I have down here and who treat me as family and always ask when I will be back. Soon, I hope, mis amigos! Gracias por todo!
With Rafa under the arch that I never thought would come alive

Friday, May 26, 2017

Races, races, races galore

Driving through the Salt Flats on the way to El Paso for yet another race
When in the span of 22 days you work four races in four different states you know you're busy--especially when the next two races are looming within the next 10 days and will require close to 800 miles of driving and international travel to Central America. Believe me, Argentina seems like half a lifetime in the past!
High School League Director Vance McMurry humbly accepting thanks from our graduating seniors
It all started out with a long drive down to just north of San Antonio three days after returning from the southern hemisphere. It was time for the TX High School Mountain Bike League Finals, which took place at Flat Rock Ranch in Comfort. Saturday night I stayed with Judy's nephew, Conner, and his family. It was a long overdue visit as I hadn't seen him, Ginger, or the twins in eons. We had a wonderful evening, and Sunday's race was equally enjoyable with great weather and lots of emotions in the farewell race for several seniors. Race # 1 done.
Circuit race at Redlands, CA
On Tuesday morning I caught the very first flight out of Lubbock and headed out to the LA basin. USA Cycling had given me an appointment as an assistant judge at the country's longest-running stage race, Redlands. Last year I had taken the USAC A-Level officials clinic that had been run in conjunction with this race, so I had a general idea what to expect--and that was about it. While I am well-versed in mountain bike races and feel comfortable in my role as chief for events as big as the national championship, working as a judge in a road race is a totally different animal. I pretty much felt like a fish out of water, but I was lucky in that the crew with whom I worked were supportive and fabulous mentors.
Start of the men's circuit race at Redlands, CA, as seen from the judging stand
During this 5-day stage race I learned loads and loads from seasoned road officials who have been working this and other top-level events (several of them headed over to the AMGEN Tour of California right after the conclusion of Redlands), and I still felt like a neophyte when we finally completed the last stage on Sunday, amid rain and hail after the week had started out with temperatures in the 90's and nothing but sunshine. Working this race was a very cool experience, but I am not sure whether I want to go into the direction of being a judge as the role of the referee seems to be more my cup of tea. For those not familiar with the difference: Judges are responsible for the actual results, including not only the general classification but also specialty competitions such as the Sprinter's Jersey, the KOM (King of the Mountain), and several others. Referees, on the other hand, are responsible for what is actually happening out on the road by managing the racing caravan, as well as running their crews and general race operations.
View from my homestay-domicile in Midway, UT
I did just that--refereeing--a few days after returning from California, taking a two-and-a-half-day breather in Lubbock, and then flying to Utah where I was the Vice Chief for an international pro mountain bike race close to Park City, in Midway. Since the UCI-dispatched chief commissaire, my old friend Mike Drolet, hails from Quebec, I fulfilled chief duties for the amateur portions of the race weekend. We had a fairly small crew, and most of them had worked only road events before, so Mike and I did a lot of mentoring. Mike is the consummate teacher (he had just recently taught the ENC [Elite National Commissaire] course in Vancouver that several of my fellow mountain bike commissaire friends had attended) and was in his element.
The assembled commissaire crew at the MTB Tech Devo #1 race in Utah
We totally lucked out with gorgeous weather and a beautiful venue--the Nordic ski events during the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics had taken place here at Soldier Hollow. Since the small town of Midway, Utah, does not have a hotel, Mike and I (plus Richard Blanco, with whom I had worked in Redlands) were put up in a super-fancy house owned by a gentleman who uncannily reminded me of Jabba the Hut from the first Star Wars movie. Ken, so his name, has been retired for about a dozen years and spends 95% of his waking time in front of the huge-screen TV, vegetating away. I'm glad that my retirement has taken a different trajectory! But that's what he chose after making a lot of money in the textile industry, and he has found his place.
My Canadian counterpart Mike Drolet and I enjoyed the comforts of our cush condo in Park City
The Utah race weekend was much less stressful than Redlands, and I had to pinch myself once in a while to really believe that I get paid to fly to such nice places and give back to the sport. Mike and I spent our last night in Utah in a fancy condo on Main Street in Park City, and we made the best out of our evening together. The IPAs and Glenlivet helped ...
Taking a break just west of the Guadalupe mountains on the way to El Paso
With my crew at the crit of the Tour de El Paso
Back in Lubbock I enjoyed a few days of catching up with past and future races (you have no idea how many e-mails need to be written, and there's a ton of paperwork), riding my bike, and cooking a few meals. And then it was already time to drive the approximately 350 miles to the southwest corner of Texas to be Chief Referee for the Tour de El Paso. I arrived in time to be available during registration, and then we had three separate races (criterium, time trial, and road race) over the next 36 hours. I had a pleasant crew of officials, with three of them being complete neophytes--so, the mentoring continued. Like any race, TdEP had a few hick-ups, but overall it was a smooth and successful race, and only one rider crashed hard enough to be transported to the hospital. The support from the organizer, Pedro, and his club (EP Cyclists) was solid, and so my job was once again managing a crew and keeping everyone on track and the racing on time. Needless to say, I had a lot of fun.
After successful completion of the crit, a treat from the food truck
After the final road race I faced the long drive back to Lubbock, and it was right around nightfall that I rolled into the Hub City, completing my fourth race since Argentina. In less than two hours I will start my drive down to Dallas and then onward to Greenville where I will be Chief Referee for the Texas Criterium State Championships over this Memorial Day weekend. Monday night I'll drive after the races only to Decatur and stay in a hotel; Tuesday morning I'll continue the drive back to Lubbock, and on Thursday morning I'll be sitting in a plane to go to a race in Costa Rica. Just don't say that I am like Jabba the Hut!
On the way home from El Paso last Sunday night