The View From Behind

quetzaltenango guatemala vuelta 1996

This piece describes my experience racing the 1995 Vuelta a Guatemala. It was originally published in VeloNews in the spring of 1996. I recently posted an article that describes a different side of this race in more detail.

After 115km, I am cracking with my teammate Dave on the category-one climb, la Eterna. The Eternity indeed. We’re alone, off the pace from the leaders, on a seemingly endless climb with only the USA team car to support us. My knees and elbows still hurt from yesterday’s crash, but hanging on the van lets us soft-pedal and — hopefully — recover.

This sixth stage of last fall’s Vuelta a Guatemala takes us 122km from Teculutan to Guatemala City. So far, the 13-stage, 1400km tour has given us five days of mechanical problems, 30km to 50km-long climbs, crowded finish lines, rotting bananas, potholes, firecrackers, loudspeakers. The Colombians and Guatemalans climb in their big rings, minutes ahead of us. We’ve already lost one U.S. team rider, and we’re waiting to lose another. Dave and I just want to finish.

Along the mountain route, the people shout, “Vamos, gringos, vamos!” Down here, we are like heroes. We are in every major newspaper and on the television at night. Just the day before, most of the country watched me crash. I had topped the category-one climb with the leaders, and I had started thinking about the stage win. But with 30km to go, I punctured and crashed on the rough roads. Sometimes the race is about finishing first, and sometimes it is just about finishing.

The stage ends in a confusion of red-and-white Gallo Beer banners; throngs of Guatemalan fans and uniformed soldiers with M-16’s slung casually across their backs. We thread our way to the tent where, as our post-race ritual, we rest and drink sodas until our coaches can find us.

We realize now that we are racing only for survival. Twenty minutes down, there is no hope of leading the race. At best, there is just an elusive stage win.

After the rest day, the stages get harder. Stage 8 crosses two category-one climbs on the way to Lake Atitlan. In the rarefied air above 2000 meters, Dave and I fall off the pace. We figure to catch on the descent, but the rough roads slow us down, and we’re trapped for 120km among trucks and buses which belch thick, sooty exhaust in our faces. By halfway, our teammate Eric has abandoned.

In the morning, we race the Stage 9 Quetzaltenango circuit race in the rain, followed in the afternoon by a time trial. It is too cold, too wet and too high to ride hard, so we all soft-pedal the time trial. We lose more time , but talk of tomorrow’s “flat stage” has us thinking again about the win.

At 3 a.m., I vomit everything I had eaten that day. I feel worse by daylight, and soon find myself hanging out the window of the team van, throwing up the morning’s coffee.

Still, at Retaluheu, I start Stage 11. Dehydrated and barely able to hold the bars, I watch the peloton roll away after only 12km. I am in tears as my coach tries to keep me from falling over. The commissaires remove my race numbers, and as my legs fold under me, I hear, faintly, over the race radio: “Sakalowsky, numero 23, Estados Unidos, abandanado.”

The next day, Bobby finishes third and finally puts an American on the podium.

Despite the 60km climb, Dave, Bobby and Chili – all that remain of the US team – know they can finish the race. I follow the course in the support van. Columbia’s Jairo Hernandez wins the overall victory. Dave Ricklefs, in 25th, is the top American, and Bobby Lee and Charlie McColl take 45th and 47th.

As for me, I’ve gained a better understanding of those Tour de France riders who have the simple glory of finishing. I had not planned on crossing the finish line of the 37th Tour of Guatemala stretched out among suitcase and spare wheels.

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