By John Borstelmann
What was the coolest thing about my first UCI stage race? Easy. The people. Dropping their work and lining the streets of every community we hurtled through to celebrate this storied, 58-years-and-running nationwide festival of Guatemalan cycling. Shouting, dancing, and clapping. Launching confetti bombs and full buckets of water directly into our grimacing but gleeful faces.
Setting off fireworks on the curb inches from the peloton’s careening, sweat-drenched exotic carbon fiber race bikes. Sporting richly colored traditional indigenous embroidery or U.S.-imported thrift shop garb (i.e. my favorite, a man with an “Oklahoma Sooners Mom” t-shirt). Heralding the race by playing in emblematic marimba bands. Respectfully mobbing us at the finish line, half-desperate for “¡una foto, por favor!” And, of course, hoisting the most enthusiastic spectators of all onto their shoulders or letting them dart onto the pavement for a better glimpse of the heroic corredores hailing from all over the western hemisphere and the Netherlands.
Calls of “¡ánima!” and “¡dale!” trailed us through every village, no matter how woefully far behind our Big Mac-engorged (shhh, don’t tell Phil) gringo asses were from even catching sight of the speediest sub-120-pound Peruanos and Guatemaltecos and Colombianos up the road relentlessly attacking each other on their way to conquering yet another mercilessly difficult high-altitude mountain stage. Well, mercilessly difficult for me and my compatriots, that is. Suffering and sweating and slamming and bleeding and mashing and grinding and clawing our way over hundreds of miles of potholed thoroughfares and tens of thousands of vertical feet of Guatemalan upland, we six-foot-plus (except for Dave and Nate) pasty behemoths found ourselves warmly welcomed everywhere we went.
The love was palpable whether the roadside cheer was “¡vamos Guate!” or “¡vamos leche!” (thanks, Irish heritage). A woman asked Colin to hold her baby for a post-stage photo. My long hair and shades prompted a chorus of “wassup man”s from teenage skaters on the lawn of the Palacio Verde in Guatemala City. On narrow, grimy, mural-adorned (graffitied?) streets during post-stage strolls, a quick smile and a “¡buenas tardes!” were sure to elicit a grin and a response in kind.
People came up to me before and after multiple stages expressly to make sure I knew how happy they were that we norteamericanos were there and what a pleasure it was to host us. It seemed like almost anyone who had any English and an extra minute to chat wanted to know where we were from, whether we had been to Guatemala before, what we thought of the country, and to share their own U.S. experiences.
As Quinten and I split lanes down a twisty, 50 mph descent through holiday weekend traffic (shhh, don’t tell Mom) on a pre-race Guatemala City recon ride, muffler-less late-eighties Corollas, papaya-and-pineapple-laden farm trucks, and packed-to-the-gunnels diesel-belching “chicken buses” hooted, hollered, honked, and happily eked out a few more inches so we could squeeze by. Let’s just say that the bike racer experience here feels quite different than my typical civilian-cyclist interaction back home in good old Lincoln, Nebraska. My masochistic mind can’t wait for the next epic international adventure with my new squad, but my brutalized legs and lungs sure can.