1996 was my make or break year in cycling. I was single for the first time in a long time. I had worked the fall and winter and saved up some cash. I had given up on spring racing campaigns in Europe and decided focus on the “Fresca Cup” which was a national race series for riders without pro contracts. My strategy was to race as many of these races as I could, place well in them, and finish somewhere in the top 10 overall. It was an ambitious goal and one that I thought would help me to secure a pro contract.
The tenth stage the 38th Vuelta a Guatemala, 140 kilometers from Guatemala City to Sololá, went nearly from the gun. There was a brief détente during the ceremonial rollout from the capital city, but once we hit the Interamerican Highway, it was full-bore toward Antigua and the major climb of the day. This early in the race and with no descent to follow, the climb would be decisive.
I was desperate. It was already late October, I had been racing since February and I still needed a solid result to secure a contract for the coming year. This far into the race, I was running out of chances.
The past ten days had been a cluster fuck of tired legs, dehydration, crashes, exploding derailleurs, bike changes and long, lonely chases far behind the race just to make the time cut. Any G.C. hopes were long gone.
Things has started well. On the first day in Avenida de las Americas, a dense, busy shopping district in Guatemala City, I had placed 7th in the prologue criterium and climbed onto the podium in front the crowd.
But then things began to unravel.
On the first road stage, I crashed in spectacular fashion among the banana plantations on the way to Zacapa. It was all over TV and strangers came up to the van afterwards, asking for me by name and wanting to assess my injuries. I escaped with just some scrapes and a sore wrist. It was so hot, I barely slept that night.
Stage 2, Santa Cruz to Salama, I was dropped on the climb with two Germans. The road was supposed to be closed to traffic so we let loose on the descent to try to regain the peloton. Flying down at 100 kilometers an hour, using the full width of the road, we encountered a Virgin of Guadalupe chicken bus on its way up. I barely negotiated the gap between the decorated grill and a sheer drop off the mountainside. The Germans followed my line and were grateful for it.
On stage 3 we climbed into the cloud forests of Cobán, a cold, damp ascent to 3,000 meters, the air thick, humid and oxygen deprived. There was a harrowing sprint on gravel roads and down side alleys into the center of town where we finished in front of a line of soldiers toting M-16’s.
I hadn’t taken a decent shit in two days. I needed a hot shower, but there was just a lonely heating element that looked like the guts of a coffee-maker that rained luke-cold water and shocked me when I touched it. That night, the proprietors of the small hotel where we stayed failed to serve dinner and the Columbian riders called for a strike. The next morning, the hotel served us chicken soup for breakfast.
Five days in it was La Eterna, a 40 km climb, and back to Guatemala City. I had no legs and dangled off the back most of the day.
The next day, Stage 5, 135 km from Escuintla to Retalhuleu, my legs were finally coming around. I was riding – finally – at the front of the race when I got into a fight with the Colombians who were trying to protect their race leader. Each time I got to the front, rider number 18 tried to hook me to the side of the road. I warned him twice, then took him to the gutter. He went down and his teammates pelted me with their water bottles.
Stage 6 — a short day of only 72 km — we climbed 3,000 meters straight up from Mazatenango, past volcanoes and through the clouds, to Quetzaltenango. I was climbing so slowly that the native women were approaching from the roadside and trying to sell me their brightly colored, intricately woven blankets.
On the seventh stage, on the windy, high plains of Quetzaltenango and an otherwise flat race, a wad of newspaper got sucked into my derailleur, jamming it into the rear wheel and wrecking both the wheel and derailleur. The spare bike had the wrong pedals. So I bent the derailleur back in place with my hands, changed the wheel, and chased back on. I got to the front and raced hard until the derailleur got caught in the wheel again. At that point, I laid the bike down and lay down in the road next to it. I finished a lap down.
I spent the post-race afternoon and evening trying to rebuild the broken drivetrain, coaxing springs back into place and re-stringing frayed cables. After dinner, Miguel and Jorge, our driver and soigneur, took me to Salon Tecún, a hole-in-the-wall gringo bar in town. I drank a whisky, listening to broken snippets of English, trying to carry a conversation with Miguel and Jorge in my broken Spanish, while the bar blasted Luna’s cover of Gainsbourg’s “Bonnie & Clyde” from their album, Penthouse.
I had been listening to that album almost every day for the last month. It was bizarre to hear this obscure song in a remote corner of the world. The alcohol mixed with Wareham and Sadier’s vocals and made me homesick for the States. I was tired of my shitty legs and tired of my shitty bike and its shitty parts. I debated whether or not to continue. Over the last 9 months, I had come to rely on the daily fix of bike racing. And I wouldn’t know what else to do if I dropped out.
Stage 8, on the barren, slab concrete roads to Porto San Jose, only 60km into the race, the derailleur blew again. I figured it was all over at this point. Instead I was given a spare bike – a 50 cm Vitus with old Campy Super Record and downtube shifters, about five sizes too small — but it had the right pedals this time. So they jacked up the seat as high as it would go and I rode the next cramped 85 km alone on the hot, desolate road, all the way to the Pacific Ocean.
The next day, we raced four hours to Amatitlan. My knees were sore from riding the tiny bike the day before and I was thinking about quitting again, thinking how the derailleur could blow up at any minute. My teammate, Glover, was faring worse because he was sick and when he went backwards on the final climb, I stayed with him and nursed him to the line.
I was no longer even thinking about finishing the race but rather about how to end the suffering. There were two ways to remedy that: abandon the race or win a stage.
Every day prior had given me one reason or another to stop. But the allure of a stage win enticed me to continue. It could make up for all the bad luck and tired legs and send me home with some consolation for the trip and the trouble.
And today’s race was already different.
On the appetizer climb, I floated toward the front of the field, suddenly relieved of gravity’s pull. My legs turned automatically without thought or perceived effort. The 10 days, 1200km and 15,000 meters of climbing, crashes, fights, wheel changes, stomach problems and late-night bike repairs started to drop away.
I felt renewed.
The peloton was already stringing out, the elastic pulled taught. Then snapping. Gaps were opening. Riders were peeling off and shifting into low gears. The boys were tired. Just three days to go. Most of them were just trying to survive to the end.
Not me. I was only thinking about the day.
The twisting mountain road was winnowing down the field to a select, predictable group of Columbians, Guatemalans and Costa Ricans – pure climbers. I easily had 25 pounds on the heaviest one. Yet I felt comfortable amid their tiny, glistening calves pumping rhythmically, the flicker of chains over gears, the long slow kiss of the tires on the smooth – smooth for Guatemala – tarmac of Highway One.
My bike felt solid. Reliable.
I glanced up to survey the group of riders hunched over their handlebars, riders dancing on their pedals, my eyes tracing the route as it gained elevation, hoping to see to the summit, but losing the road instead as it wrapped around the side of the mountain.
The front of the race was dwindling. And I was still in it. A few riders attacked for the KOM points and opened up a gap so the rest of us had to pick up the pace, but even with the sudden acceleration I was in no danger.
We crested the summit – barely a dozen of us left. I took a long look back at the caravan of aging, decrepit follow vehicles: old-model pickup trucks that had migrated south from United States and chalky, patinaed Nissan vans, all packed with wheels, spare bikes, mechanics, soigneurs and cases of water and Gallo beer; a few motorcycles puffing black exhaust, and at the end of them all, our burgundy Dodge conversion van, ‘USA’ written in white shoe polish on the windscreen.
And beyond the vehicles, just open road all the way down the mountain.
Ahead of us were rolling hills and a few descents until the finish in Sololá. Whatever gap we had now would hold until the sprint, as long as we maintained the pace. I went to the front and took a big pull, making sure we kept the impetus now that the climb was over.
I was already thinking about how I would win the stage.
We rolled along the flats, cutting through fields of yellow grass, nestled between the steep, green slopes of extinct volcanoes. Pockets of spectators percolated the roadside, assembled in the small towns and crossroads along the highway. A blur of people waving red and white Cerveza Gallo banners, shouting at us as we rolled by, sometimes through megaphones, sometimes blaring music in front of squat whitewashed buildings, sometimes tossing drinks up to the riders as they passed, sometimes whipping those drinks with force at the American rider.
The road pitched and rolled and we rode on, rotating through, taking turns at the front, then swinging off and drifting to the back to recover. I was already skipping pulls, hiding out at the back of the file, saving energy for the finale.
Then the riders in front of me were flying off in every direction, suddenly sporadic and out of control. And before me, before I could react, a Café Quetzal rider had locked up his brakes and was skidding to a stop.
In a race, when a rider has a mechanical, typically a flat tire, they‘re supposed raise a hand, pull to the side of the road and wait for their team car. But this particular rider, in a severe breach of etiquette either due to inexperience or sheer stupidity, stopped dead in the middle of the road, in the middle of our little pack.
Unable to avoid him, I hit him. Hard. The front end of the bike took most of the impact. I was jolted out of the pedals but managed to stay upright. I felt lucky, even while I watched the race fade up the road. I tried to restart but the front wheel was potato chipped and stuck fast. The rear wheel was a warped mess, too.
A bright, blinding heat started to form inside my head, in the area of the brain behind my eyes and at the base of my skull. I couldn’t believe this was happening again especially with my legs finally feeling so good. I wanted to throw the whole bike. But there was still a chance.
I popped off the front wheel, tossed it to the side of the road. The team van pulled up, the doors flying open and Jorge and Gabe* jumping out with spare wheels in their hands. I was wrestling with the rear wheel, it was twisted up in the frame and jammed against the stays. It wouldn’t come out.
Seconds were ticking by and the light and heat in my head were burning hotter. I looked for the Café Quetzal rider. I was going to tackle him. But his was a quick wheel change and he was already gone.
Jorge wrested the bike away from me and Gabe went to work on the wheel. I was livid by then. Screaming a stream of obscenities. Swearing brutal revenge on the rider and his mother. Jumping up and down in the middle of the road. Pounding my fists against my helmet.
The dam crumbled and behind it, the accumulated fatigue and frustration of the past week and half of racing rushed through. The broken derailleur, the tiny bike, the crashes, the fights, the food, the stomach problems. The months of preparation for the racing season and the lack of results, the last chance, best chance to redeem to my season now trashed at my feet.
I was only vaguely aware of the gallery of spectators, focused alternately on my bike and the long empty stretch of road ahead. So I didn’t notice the camera crew that was filming the episode and broadcasting it to the entire country.
The rear wheel finally came free. I snatched it, swung it back behind me like an Olympic discus thrower, and unleashed it in a long, slow arc into the field beside the road. Gabe pursued it while I screamed after him.
On air, the commentator added, “…esta Americano, Sakalowsky, es el hombre furioso. Muuuuy furioso!”
Jorge pressed the bike, now with new wheels on it, into my hands. I jumped on and he gave me a push and I was off riding again. I shifted into the big ring and started to hammer, still blind with rage, singularly bent on chasing down the Café Quetzal rider.
When I caught him, I was going to kill him.
The camera crew had followed me in my pursuit. I sensed them on the blurry edge of my periphery but I just kept my head down, focused on the road ahead, pushing hard until I would see the flicker of the target rider in his red and white kit on the road ahead. But I would never catch him.
On the first descent, which I took at full speed, cutting across the road from one dusty edge to the other, straightening out the curves and twists, the bike wouldn’t hold the lines I tried to carve.
The bars shook violently in my hands as I passed through the apex of the turn. As gained speed, the front wheel shimmied and wobbled. On the next curve, I almost overshot the corner. I went off the road and into the gravel on the shoulder.
I pulled to the side of the road for a closer look at the bike. The fork blades had been pushed back several centimeters from the collision. The paint was blistered and the metal was buckled at the crown. It was a matter of time until it failed completely and if it failed on one of the descents, it would be ugly for me.
There was no simple fix. There was no wheel change or spare bike or overnight repair job that would make things better. And tomorrow my bike would still be broken and dangerous.
So, with 30 km remaining of the stage, and two more days to race, I left the bike on the side of the road and climbed into the van. I didn’t say a word. I couldn’t have even if I had wanted to because I had screamed myself hoarse. My rage had burned itself out. I was simply relieved to be off the bike done with the race.
I didn’t know it then, but it would be the last race of my career.
A few days later, the race was officially over and we were back in Guatemala City at one of the markets. A family was there, staring and pointing at me. The children looked nervous, frightened. I smiled and waved at them. The little girl and boy ducked behind their mother’s legs, cowering.
I asked a bystander what was going on.
“They recognize you,” he explained, “from the TV. You are El Hombre Furioso.”
* Gabe and I had gone to Wesleyan together. He had randomly showed up the first day of the race, described by my teammates as “some homeless-looking dude asking for you.” He was in Guatemala working for the Peace Corps, had been in the capital for a meeting and by chance had seen my name on the start list in the newspaper that morning. So we conscripted him to be our mechanic and translator for the rest of the race.