Friday, June 17, 2016

Bernie the Driver, or My First Foray into Colombia

Bernie the Driver clutching the wheel
I really, really wanted to start writing this entry yesterday morning while barreling at 110 km/h through tiny villages, lined with hordes of spectators who were patiently awaiting the passing caravan of the 66th Vuelta a Colombia road race--but since we were in a 30 km/h zone and dodging errant mopeds and dogs all I could do was hold on tight and think about changing my ways by starting to pray, after all. And all of this came on the heels of initially having to catch the caravan and passing through it! All this because--for the umpteenth time in my four days here--Bernie, my driver, had gotten us lost five minutes after we had started from the night's hotel.
Rabid fans lining the run-in to the finish at Montes de Maria
Welcome to my world. I am down here in Colombia for two weeks to work one of the top road races in our hemisphere. I have been to Central and South America often enough to expect the unexpected, to not count on anything that needs or is supposed to happen to actually happen, and to take things in stride. But when we almost wiped out the peloton thanks to Bernie's driving (I tried to explain to him that there was a certain order in a race caravan, but either his hearing aid or his sense of old-age machismo prevented him from registering anything I said) I decided to talk to the organizers, and from today on I will have a different driver. The commissaires supported that request.
The UCI commissaires inspecting a particularly troublesome spot on the TT course
I arrived in Cartagena on Sunday morning, after an overnight stay in the capital, Bogota. When I exited the airport in Cartagena, I was met with the stifling heat that has accompanied me so far whenever outdoors. What a wonderful invention air conditioning is. But even hotel lobbies (and we're talking here about really nice hotels, not the Motel 8 stuff where we were housed in Silver City at the Gila) are luke-warm at best, and once you have checked out in the morning you are ready for another shower. Once we hit the mountains, I am told, it will be different, and everybody tells me how cold it will be, but for right now I am living in 34-Celsius heat and humidity between 99 and 100 percent. No wonder nobody moves fast here. Actually, there's not much movement in general.
Cheering school children
We stayed in Cartagena for two nights, right on the (unattractive) beach in one of the oldest ports in the new world. Unfortunately, with most of my time being eaten up by either being lost with Bernie or sitting through the Team Managers' Meeting and other necessary agenda items there was no time to visit the old town, which is supposed to be quite attractive. The best I could do was 45 minutes on the beach, which turned out to be just enough. I think I prefer the white beaches and turquoise seas of other locations in the Caribbean.
Not the most attractive of beaches--I think the camera set itself to B&W!
The first stage was a short time trial that ended in Arjona, just a bit outside of Cartagena. On the way to the finish line I was stunned by how many people were out to see the race. School children in their uniforms lined the course, street vendors gawked and forgot to hawk their wares, and men and women of all ages stood patiently on the side of the road to see the spectacle. For the Vuelta, which is one of the biggest sporting events of the year, the road is fully closed for hours before the race, and hundreds of police make sure that trucks and cars stay off to the side, enduring hours of wait time since there really aren't all that many other roads to take.
Rain or shine, they are patient, the Colombians
The first road stage led us from Cartagena to the tiny hamlet of Montes de Maria, where the military has a base. What better opportunity than to bring in the President! On the way to Montes de Maria, close to the somewhat larger town of El Carmen de Bolivar, it had started to sprinkle, then rain, then pour, and the last twenty kilometers were a big mud-fest--as was the finish area. Even though security for the President was extremely tight, interfering with some of the work we were doing, the finish line area was a free-for-all for fans young and old. Once again, the last few kilometers had been lined with folks who had been patiently standing in the rain for hours, sometimes with an umbrella, mostly with just their shirt pulled over their head or maybe a plastic bag to give them shelter. Or maybe the mad waving of the Colombian flag kept the rain away. Heck, who cares about rain when it is around 90 degrees Fahrenheit?
El Presidente swoops in
Yes, those are soldiers on the hilltop
On this stage I started to understand why there aren't any North American teams in this America's Tour UCI event: This is just too tough! I don't want to say that our Pros are not tough, but why come down here to risk life and limb barreling through water-filled potholes or getting launched on one of those ubiquitous speed bumps for meager earnings? Of the about 180 racers, fewer than 20 are from a country other than Colombia. And don't tell me that Venezuelans or Mexicans aren't used to this type of racing! (There's one American in the race, who after today's stage 5 was in 139th place. Ouch.)
Even stilt dudes need to take an occasional break from cheering
Cycling is one of those sports where the fan can almost touch the athlete
After the Montes de Maria stage we had to still transfer to the start of the next stage, in Sincelejo. Actually, lots of stages require us to transfer from the finish line to a hotel that's more than an hour away--today we had a rather tough three-and-a-half hour transfer from Caucasia in the lowlands to Yarumal in the mountains. This obviously makes for really long days. At least, with a new driver today, we seemed to be much safer than in the days before. (When I say we, there are two Colombian co-workers with me in the car, plus the driver. I'm the only one who speaks even a smidgen of English.) The Sincelejo stage to Monteria was fast and furious, and it was the one where we managed to get behind the peloton. I thought that my days working bike races might be done and over with when Bernie, wildly honking, entered the race caravan from the rear and zig-zagged his way through the team cars and the field. It was so scary. And today, I was told, one of the Shimano neutral support cars was able to take down a rider, resulting in a broken clavicle. Maybe Bernie isn't all that bad....
Miraculously, the field suddenly went into flight mode and we could pass!
So, for the first four days we were in mainly flat or undulating terrain (with a small climb to Montes de Maria, but not enough to break up the field). This is cattle country, ganado. It's a verdant area, with beautiful trees and large pastures. On the side of the road peasants sell their fruit (lots of mangoes and watermelons right now, but also papayas and pineapples). The towns are all quite similar: Gazillions of small motorcycles or mopeds, children playing precariously close to the side of the street, and diesel-fume-belching trucks. It's a cacophony of sounds and a cornucopia of smells, even though we are somewhat insulated from the craziness thanks to power windows and AC. Once again: I am stunned by the large number of spectators on the side of the road. Even in-between towns, they will stand for hours to catch a glimpse of the race. How do they know about it? It must be the radio, since I have been listening to race coverage while driving in the car. You know, it sounds like a reportage of a soccer game, sans the goooooooooooooooal! Man, can they talk fast.
Gotta love the fruit!
It is late at night and after another super-long day I need to catch some sleep, but I wanted to jot down these first few impressions since we are now in different countryside. Montes de Maria was already identified to me as guerrilla country, and tomorrow we will arrive in Medellin. If you have seen the movie Pablo Escobar, well, then you have an idea of where I am and where I am going. Tomorrow will see stage 6, and we will have 13 stages altogether, so I am sure I'll add another update before long.
Typical mountain road scene
Hasta luego,


No comments:

Post a Comment