This is a morning for poring over Hemingway, demolishing a pastry, and responding to emails. Work is a cruel mistress.
Priorities are disoriented if getting lost on a bike ride is a concern.
Risaralda sits 2,500ft above the valley below on a narrow ridge of earth, perilously looming in the viewfinder of anyone plodding the switchbacks to its setting on the escarpment. To the casual observer, this is a rather diametric location for the largest puebla within 15km - but it seems common within the Coffee Triangle of Colombia. The city of Manizales, home to roughly 500,000 denizens (and your author), occupies a series of peaks at 7,000ft of elevation. The resulting topography is nothing short of sheer brutality. “Flat” does not exist - for that, one can ride the velodrome. There are two choices in Caldas: Up, or down. And then up.
A woman may not make an honest man, but a 20km Hors Categorie climb home every day will.
Welcome to Colombia.
Every place has its ups and downs, and this temporary Latin American home is no different. The terrain mirrors the trajectory of its history (like so many of the oft-exploited and neglected cast-off states shaped by failed Western policy), a permanent roller coaster of excruciating highs and lows, punctuated by the cerebral views from the alto de la montaña and the muggy swaddling of the fondo del rio.
As negotiations in Havana (possibly) decide the fate of its long-running civil war, the people of the Cafetero are ambivalent at best. Instead, their attention is focused on things more immediate. This país, these people, they are the happiest encountered. A refreshing mentality, one driven not by a ravenous hunger for more, but motivated by an innate love of their compatriots. Happy to get by, to exist, to spend as much time with loved ones doing what they enjoy in life, and sharing it with anyone in shouting distance.
This isn’t to say this isn’t a hardworking place - but its people are hardworking because they care about each other, not because they’re trying to get ahead of one another.
Travel Advisory: Continental Swoon
Bowing to caution, fear, or unrepentant nagging isn’t one of my strong suits. Travel advisories from the US Department of State are rapidly becoming akin to PanAm travel brochures from the 70s, mentally pinned to the aguapanela-sodden corkboard walls of my brain. The world is a terrifying place. Do not leave your country. Do not leave your home. There is no way of life but ours.
The landscape is rippled like a crumpled newspaper without pause, and populated with denizens who put the vaunted hospitality of the American South to shame by great magnitudes. Cyclismo paraíso. Perfection? No, but Caldas, Colombia is rapidly carving itself a gaping cavern in my heart that will ache as soon as I depart.
It feels time to wrap up Trinidad and Tobago. It’s been languishing like that mother-in-law that’s been knocking on death’s door for two decades, sitting in the back of my mind, needing to come out (read: die), whining incessantly, but I’m a little torn. Part of me wants to do this:
“So the race went like this in boring cycling jargon, I worked my ass off, got in the break for 90km, but the race bible was inaccurate and the stage was 120km instead of 96km…”
And the other part wants to go:
“Oh my God, how did I make it out alive? That was AWESOME.”
I think the latter will be far more entertaining than detailing the specific mechanics of a bicycle race in terms only .0003% of the globe’s populace can comprehend, yes?
So, Trinidad. As you may have inferred, the last couple days of our exciting journey were fraught with (surprise) peril. Yes, I was in the break very early, as planned. With one other guy. ONE. At least he was a super-chill Danish man-beast who helped me annihilate the Colombian track team holding yellow, as planned. And we got brought back, as planned, after completely turning ourselves inside out. Cesar (how I love that Colombiana Greyhound) attacked at exactly the right moment, snapping off from the peloton like a man possessed. As planned. In fact, he held virtual yellow - as planned. Then, in typical fashion, the course was not as planned. Cesar crossed the 96km mark - the supposed finish, yet there was no fanfare, no crowd, no finish line…because the finish was, in truth, another 20km away. In bike racing, efforts are metered for exact distances with little room for error. Cesar’s room for error was about 5km, and he was spent. Our chance at total victory was vanquished like an errant fly in a spotless operating room, and we’d end up settling for third and fourth in the general classification. I’d sacrificed any hope I’d had at a decent finish by destroying myself in the break for the team, and would finish somewhere in the nether regions of the GC.
The night before the final stage, we found ourselves in a hotel that likely gave a number of members of the peloton Dengue fever - but there was something a little more pressing beyond questionable food and the languishing manner in which it was served. The two story building was picturesque, lying directly on the beach, with almost nil in the way of telecom infrastructure. We were residing on the eastern shore of the isle of Trinidad, the most remote area of the nation - and a true black hole of modern communication. We weren’t sure if the hotel even had a land-line.
The morning of the final stage, we were assembling in the usual manner for the jaunt over to the start line - which is to say, pretty slowly, because we’re in T&T…and we be limin’. The food the night before seemed to have afflicted most of us in terrible, porcelain bowl-destroying ways. Cesar and I opted to visit the bar down the street for breakfast - a safe haven of food cooked in 350F oil that no amoeba, virus, bacteria, or other tiny organism hell-bent on annihilating my GI tract could survive in. We returned from our greasy sanctuary to pack up for the trip out. As Cesar wandered to the bathroom of our second-floor room to gather his assortment of belongings, the floor beneath him began to make suspect noises. What was at first though to be nothing more than a loose tile revealed itself to be an actual sinking of the floor beneath him. A loud crack announced our immediate departure from the room. I gathered my stuff like a Russian peasant fleeing the approaching Mongol horde. As I clambered down the stairs, losing bits and pieces of kit from my arms, I spotted one of the proprietors coming the other way.
Nate: “Hey, so our room is uh…it’s collapsing. The floor is collapsing.”
Proprietor: “Oh. Ayekay.”
She continued up the stairs at her herded gait, as if the collapse of second-floor rooms was a regular occurrence here. We got on the bus, and the laughter began. Laughter and smiles.
Things got hairy. With shortened and canceled stages on Tobago, race direction thought adding a mild Cat 3 climb to our first foray upon return to Trinidad would be something akin to a concession prize.
The bike had other plans. As the peloton rounded the Queen’s Park Savannah, its stem began swinging wildly around the steerer without any regard for its pilot’s desired trajectory. Back through the caravan, seeking assistance in the form of a four-mil hex key. Shock or chagrin on my part was absent when the hunt for the key became akin to a search for the Fountain of Youth - after all, this was Trinidad. Grinning, I fell off the back, gingerly navigating the Dogma up the switchbacks of Lady Young Road, losing time by the seconds, then minutes. One of the team cars was going on a quest for the Holy Allen Key, and would return to my position when it was unearthed.
As the sag ambulance ripped past, I contemplated my fate riding stag in traffic with a broken stem. Not dwelling on the some twenty-minute gap that had been opened between myself and the tail of the peloton, I laughed about an encounter on Tobago two nights prior. Cesar and I were (wisely) investing in some essentials (note: beer). Ensnared in friendly conversation with some locals outside the market, we started chatting cycling. Not only was the Lance an unknown to them, they were huge Cuban Missile (their verbiage) fans: The one and only Ivan Dominguez, whom I’d had the chance to race with at San Dimas and Speedweek previously.
The blaring of the team’s shitty Mitsu’s horn awoke me from my 300-watt daydream, and I could sense the wagon careening up the road towards me at a perilous rate of speed. In the blink of an eye, I was rolling whole again. The sag ambulance reappeared on the roadway, as if delivered by a reset button in a video game. I soon found myself motor pacing a Red Cross ambulance at 70KPH, until the traffic got to the point of overwhelming. The timegap was estimated at 30 minutes, and I was alone on a six-lane highway. And smiling.
The other team car took pity, and dropped back in a vain attempt to assist the day’s runt back to the field. When using vain, it isn’t meant disparagingly…but poor Ronnie couldn’t figure out the mechanics behind motor pacing to save his own life. I grew tired of whiplash accelerations/random braking, and instructed the valiant assistant director that I’d be better off in the wind.
I settled in for the long chase, staring down at the Joule computer to keep me apprised of how much pain to self-inflict. The kilometers ticked away, and the sky threatened as I plied south into the wind, rocketing past a few of the unfortunate dropped. Ronnie shouted something about the gap coming down from the car, now driving parallell to my position. As is Tour of T&T tradition, the skies opened almost as soon as the route headed off the highway onto narrow roads. Waves of the most intense precipitation I’d ever seen smothered like a warm down comforter. The course rolled through oil refineries with brief wall after wall, every descent slick as if it were a greased cookie sheet. Traffic. A shit-eating grin appeared as I knifed through the stopped cars and trucks like the bike messenger I once was.
The road parallelled the sea, and I was met by a pair of our motorcycle club escort who did their best at keeping me from getting flattened by errant oil trucks. My gratitude was short lived, as water levels on parts of the road crept upwards, forcing dexterous maneuvering through oncoming traffic. The course tilted skyward for a few hundred meters, bringing me out of the dregs of the waterlogged asphalt. A shout from one of the motorbikes vaguely sounded like “TWO MINUTES!”. Invigorated by the news, I opened the throttle through my waterlogged shoes and plowed forward. The odometer read 80km.
Again, traffic. Again, weaving. But this was different. This traffic wasn’t even moving. In a matter of seconds, I found myself in the race caravan, and discovered why it had stopped. The road ahead had taken a meter-deep bath, littered with stalled vehicles and rubberneckers. Yet, there were no cyclists to be found - a cursory conversation with a commissaire confirmed my amused suspicion: The race had continued. I splashed on, smiling. Riding through water, as it turns out, is a lot like riding through air. Except harder.
I emerged from the floodwaters in about 500m, finding the entire peloton throwing down its best “drowned rat” pose in the parking lot of a car audio shop. While we’d all likely gotten dysentery and/or tapeworms, the mood was nothing short of positive. At this point, the race had become anecdotal to the biblical story of Job. Or the Plagues of Egypt. No one had died (yet), so there wasn’t much left to do but laugh. We grinned, joked, and slogged back to the caravan through the water.
The stage was nixed. My chase had been for nothing, on paper…but damn, it felt good.
While I was busy staying alive behind the race, one of my German teammates earned a DQ after verbally tussling with one of the motorbike cops. Not only that, but he managed to convince his countryman on our merry band of miscreants that continuing the race was fruitless. We were down to three: Myself (~2 minutes), Cesar (~30 seconds), and Jaime (~10 seconds).
To quote my favorite Colombian, “Holy sheeeeit.”
Two more days - and we were certain the next stage would bring an earthquake, a coup (staged by us), tsunami, plague of locusts, or mass cholera infection.
Where did we leave off?
Still on Tobago. Explosives. Cyclists. Beer. Everything else is secondary. The only phrase that comes to mind when launching bottlerockets by hand, slightly inebriated by too many Stags (which, as you may not know, is a MAN’S BEER), and right next to the terrified German girls who refused to dance with any of us is “childlike joy”. Our Brit compatriots discovered the possibilities of shrapnel high in potassium by embedding firecrackers in bananas (and each other’s kits). Our continually amusing motorcycle club escort found itself at the same bar, ensconced in a temporary female limelight entranced by the dazzling allure of motley machines. The aforementioned “New Millenium Knights MC” quiver was eclectic, ranging from the developing world’s omnipresent 250cc Whatever, to lightning-fast liter sportbikes, and pretend-Harley Davidson cruisers. Regardless, I found great amusement in watching a rather stout fellow of east Indian heritage draped in an offensively bedazzled Affliction manblouse grind on a way-too-hot-for-him local lady.
Par for the course, I got bored. And tired. Leaving the Euros to the explosives, I wandered down the street towards our beachfront lodging, but not before being distracted by that GreekyMiddleEasternyLamby delicacy, the gyro. I think I’ve mentioned it before, but the Gyro seems to be the drunk food of choice for T&T. Gyro stands line the streets near any bar district I’ve seen here, and for good reason. They’re damned good, damned cheap, and give up that truckload-of-sodium craving that only alcohol can induce. The cocktail is simple - pita, gyro meat (go lamb or go home), tzatziki sauce, and veggies of the maker’s choosing. Grill it, wrap it up, grill it again on the flattop. Another carb/protein/carb blissbomb.
The next morning was relatively translucent, given the previous night’s shenanigans. I’m going to thank the altitude. Greeted with another rest day (and a boat ride back to Trinidad in the evening), it was a day reserved for more accomplishing nothing. While everyone else took the morning to snorkel (the Germans were REALLY excited about snorkeling), I jumped on the opportunity to explore the local town. Some honesty here…I wasn’t enamored. The local vendors all seemed to be selling the same junk manufactured by the same sweatshop in the Far East. The lack of local “artisinal” knick-knacks deflated my inner Ugly American. I did, however, find a cafe run by expat Germans (theme here?), and managed to get coffee from a French press - a treat!
Another ferry cruise awaited us that evening, but lady luck would smile on me. Roger had procured motion sickness tablets, and I would be lulled to sleep in awkward positions by the fine purveyors of Dimenhydrinate. The isle of Trinidad, and hopefully, more racing, loomed.
Sorry for the radio silence.
We got to Tobago, and I didn’t really want to do anything…shockingly (SEE THAT BEACH?!).
I’ll break it down briefly.
Before our transfer to Tobago, we had a rest day on Monday, which we spent in Trinidad mostly doing a whole lot of nothing. I found avocados the size of newborns, went mango-raiding, and there was an ill-fated sponsor “appearance” adventure to a sports nutrition store (one of the race sponsors) at a local mall. The staff was bewildered as to the reasons behind us expertly studying all of the labels on their products and laughing our asses off. Our cursory observations concluded that about one in three of their products contained banned substances. And HEMO-RAGE! Can’t forget the HEMO-RAGE!
Our mall quest did involve one of the sort-of Starbucks (Rituals), though! One of the baristas asked me if it was anything like the coffee shops in the US. I had to break the news that it was close - kind of in the same sense that vegan cheese is sort of like real cheese. It’s vaguely like it, the idea behind it, but the lack of a “coffee culture” (as Cesar likes to put it), shows through. They’re really big on frozen juice concoctions here, so there’s a whole lineup of different coffee-flavored concentrates in tubs to be added to what really amounts to something like a fruity frappucino (not that I’ve ever had one). For fans of nothing but fresh brewed coffee and espresso, things at Rituals are a little sparse - but it certainly is a breath of fresh air from the instant stuff we’ve become accustomed to.
The day after would serve up a 5 AM ship ride from Trinidad to her sister island, Tobago, followed by a circuit race in the afternoon. Turns out I don’t do so well riding big boats on the ocean (note: this was brave Nate’s first real seafaring adventure), and the ferry ride from Port of Spain to Scarborough, Tobago was…rough. I spent a good half of the three hour trip doubled over on the back deck, ready to expunge the contents of my stomach into the sea.
We stayed at the southwestern tip of the island, right on Store Bay. The scenery was quite pleasant, and the snorkeling wasn’t bad, either. While we’d heard Tobago was a tourist destination, it anecdotally appears to be a local thing than international. There were a few foreigners about, but it seemed to be mostly Trinidadians soaking up the rays.
Our stage that afternoon was set to be something like a 90km circuit race, but as has become the norm, it was drastically changed. We’d now race a whopping 50km owing to time constraints. My stomach was still turning from the ship ride over, and I found myself puking in my mouth every time we hit the throttle. The course was actually a lot of fun. The best race to compare it to would be the Awbrey Butte CR at the Cascade Classic in Bend, OR, though the laps were about half as long, and the climbs about half as tall. The shortened duration of the race made it tough for anything to really happen. Had it been a good 120km, we could have done quite a bit, but 50km isn’t long enough to really make it hard. We put one of our German strongmen Lars in the break, but the Colombian team (barely holding onto yellow right now) gave all they had to bring back the small escape group on the last lap for a bunch sprint finish.
No matter, we were plotting bigger and better things the day after, a long road race that was slated to really break things up. Hard climbs, technical riding, and the heat would surely give us a hand in getting Cesar and Jaime atop the podium.
Except not. After a nice 30 minute cruise to the start, we waited around for the usual song and dance that accompanied most of our racing so far. About 20 minutes later, word came down that the stage was cancelled outright. According to sources, the local police were too busy practicing for the independence day parade to escort the race - after they had already been paid for. A huge letdown for everyone (except the Colombians), so instead we went for a nice lap of the island, guided by Emile. I’m saddened I didn’t have my camera as the quick ride was fantastic, with a series of insanely steep 500m climbs. Apparently, most of it is on the UCI-sanctioned Tobago Classic race held in October. I’m finding myself wishing they used the same course for our race.
With yet another rest day coming up and the mood amongst the remaining international guys comical to say the least, we opted to take the night and go out to a bar. A bar next to a fireworks stand. Stay tuned!
It’s going on a week here in the Southern Caribbean, and I’m still alive. Somehow. Allow me to apologize for the lack of any sort of coherent photography, my apathy about existence began to take its toll on my shutter finger.
Day five in our temporary abode yielded happier times - perhaps akin to the Roman Republic before the ascension of Caesar. Or the Roaring Twenties before the Great Depression. Or whatever historical-impending-doom-scenario you’d like to ascribe to, because we know the roller coaster will inevitably drop to the lowest point (or lower) that it hit before it crested the hill we’re presently enjoying. It’s like, in the laws of physics. Or Murphy. Or something.
We awoke after our hellish time in the jungle, groggy, pissed, and many of our compatriots visiting esteemed travel websites like “kayak.com”, “united.com”, “caribbeanair.com”, and “willstowinanalligatorcratetoleave.com”. Still, Cesar and I persevered. Others may crumble, others may break - but we will carry on in search of the ultimate automotive prize (as offered by the race organizers). Breakfast was unappetizing. The hotel sustenance notches at a slight step above what I ate in my elementary school cafeteria, until my mom went on a field trip with me one spring day in the second grade and sampled the mystery meat (following which I was packed a lunch until my freshman year of high school)…but I digress.
As we contemplated how the islands would try to kill us today, we did as little as possible, apathetic about our fates. The stage was slated to start at 1 PM. By now, though, we’d become smarter. Today, the race (and certain death) would wait for us. We left the hotel for the ten-minute pedal to the start approximately five minutes after the theoretical start time. We weren’t quite slow enough - the race was still a good twenty minutes from any semblance of organization upon our arrival. (I may have lied about us/smarter - Cesar was kitted up by 12:15. Silly Cesar.)
The stage for the day was listed at “110km” long, and the route would take us down another huge divided highway to San Fernando, where we’d flip a U-turn utilizing an overpass, then back to Port of Spain and up a short “5km” climb to the finish line overlooking the city. As if on cue, the rain started when the race did. However, today we were in for a treat, and it would only abuse us like a redheaded stepchild for twenty minutes or so. The highway drag was, as expected, windy and fast. There were a few harrowing moments in the crosswinds, a com car that refused to pass me so I could drop back for bottles for the team, and a team of Jamaican track riders who chased down my breakaway attempts for no logical reason. However, we didn’t have to dodge many cars, and I was never quite afraid for my life - a bonus in my book!
We hit the climb, and Cesar hit the throttle at the bottom. My lack of pure race intensity fitness showed, and I fell off the pace of the lead group as we hit the halfway mark. Not soon after (no, really, about ten seconds later) I saw…A SIGN. And not just any sign, mind you, this was a sign that read “1km”. It was bittersweet. Bitter because I was rolling back through the remnants of the group as my time-trial engine began to take over from the anaerobic spike of the start of the climb (and because the climb was rather obviously not 5km long), but sweet because I actually had an idea of where the finish was located today!
As I cruised through the line almost a minute off the pace of the winner, I quickly learned my other Colombian teammate Jaime Ramirez had taken the stage, with Cesar punching his ticket a few seconds back in fourth, putting Team Petrotrin in excellent GC position. Jaime sat ten seconds off yellow, and Cesar slightly farther back. This helped to elevate the mood with our little contingent, but true happiness that afternoon was derived from the blue skies, beautiful views, and delicious offerings of the vendors at the top of the climb (some kind of ginger-sugar-rock-hard pastry - DELICIOUS). I wasn’t even put out by the fact that my odometer read 101km - perhaps there’s a phenomena known as “Trinidistance” here to go along with “Trinitime”.
Cesar, Phil and I decided to swap the hotel’s food offering that night for something a little different. Try as I might, convincing them to go somewhere aside from the local TGI Friday’s was fruitless, but I joined in anyway. Visiting exported American generica like bad chain restaurants is a point of amusement here. There’s always something forced and awkward about the whole experience, even more so than in the States. Maybe it’s the staff attempting to replicate the fake (sic) dining experience of the original, or maybe it’s the hilarity of ordering something like an “Asian Fusion” chicken salad in what I’m discovering is a Caribbean culinary gem like Trinidad & Tobago, but I can’t quite put my finger on it.
We returned home to discover the power out - so our manager took us out to a local nightclub where we saw the coverband I posted a video of below, and I learned that drinking establishments here have a lot more latitude with their marketing than they’d ever get away with in America. I mean, “Stumblin”? Obvious drunk dude with a bottle as your logo? Drink names like “Rum Shit on the Grass”? It doesn’t get better than this, people. Gyros from tents seem to reign supreme as edibles for the imbibed, but I remained stuffed from the faux-real American dining experience earlier.
The next cycle of the sun was scheduled as a rest day - slightly ironic, given that we’d been racing for a whole seven total hours up to this point, but no one was complaining. The mental break would be welcome, and the mood was greatly improved. Maybe we’ll live, after all.
The descent into the inferno began on Day 4. The fifth stage of what the Americans are now dubbing “adventure racing” was a supposed “85km” road race across Trinidad to the coastal town of Toco. 50kms of highway into a driving headwind, followed by narrow mountain roads for another 35km.
The “how late will our race start today” pool clocked a fairly modest 30 minutes - not bad, considering the eternal delay the evening prior. As soon as the rain started to fall, the officials decided it an apt time to get things rolling. The highway runout was, as expected, flat and fast. The warm rain began to pound, kicking all manner of whatever lines the roads here into our gaping maws. As Rosetti set tempo on the front for their man in yellow, Emile Abraham, we started dumping chaff off the back. Things seemed fairly contained…and then we made the turn.
As soon as we swung north off the highway, chaos reigned. We found ourselves in the middle of a traffic jam - in a tropical downpour. The police escort didn’t seem to matter. The lead car, with the megaphone repeatedly blaring “THE CYCLISTS ARE COMING. MOVE TO THE SIDE OF THE ROAD AND STOP.” was as effective as a garden hose against a forest fire. Multiple riders rode to the officials car demanding a stop to the race, but weren’t heeded. As Phil Gaimon (riding for Rosetti) attempted to keep things controlled and safe at the front, the Colombian track national team launched a number of what can only be characterized as incredibly stupid attacks through the traffic. After numerous close calls, we escaped the thick of the autos with minimal casualties.
The road then went from bad to worse, and very narrow - approximately five meters in width. Sinkholes large enough to swallow a Volkswagen were the norm, but Phil thankfully kept tempo hard enough that serious bunches weren’t an issue. There were numerous cratered dirt sections, and the crack of carbon rims on asphalt lips was a regular cacophony with the drumbeat of the rain.
Attacking was out of the question as it became apparent that the roads were soaked not only in rain, but also diesel fuel. The twisty descents and short hills were some of the most treacherous conditions I’ve ridden in, simply because of the lack of grip. Any sort of acceleration or slightly aggressive cornering was met with a total loss of traction, like riding an ice rink in 85F temperatures. Even with Pave tires aired to 70psi, I found myself white-knuckling most of the course. I launched a couple attacks without success mostly owing to my near-inability to corner, and quickly retreated back to the bunch.
As the finish line drew near, I peered down at my odometer. It read 79km. The hill pitched up, quite steeply. Phil dropped off the front of the group, and I rolled back with him. As we rounded a bend, I very nearly went shooting off a bridge into a 10m deep ravine thanks to the utter lack of grip. Per our course preview, we still had another 5km where the road would flatten and we could catch back on. Entertainingly, it wasn’t to be. Another Colombian launched off the front, and suddenly at the crest of the pitch, a finish line appeared. 80.5km.
No signs. No warning. Nothing. I got off my bike, finishing a few seconds back from the front group of ten guys, and immediately went to the town bar. I ordered a shot of rum that tasted like the diesel fuel we’d just ridden through, and grabbed a couple beers for Cesar and I. Every cyclist and team manager seethed with anger at the finish, from the unsafe racing, the unmarked course, and unresponsive officials.
The small town we ended up in was a stark contrast to the relative bustling metropolis of Port of Spain. The “dogs in the street” quotient was enough to put Bob Barker into a coronary. Our destination, Cumana, was obviously a dirt-poor hamlet. We were all incredibly relieved not to need any medical attention in town, and the locals seemed to regard us as novel irritation. We boarded the bus for a longer ride back to Port of Spain than it took on bikes, but the cruise down the coast offered up some spectacular views (and what looked to be some solid surf breaks). The views would be short-lived as the day turned to night, and we were back onto the main highway into PoS, crawling through traffic as the driver was battered by a potpourri of languages from the 50 or so backseat drivers behind him.
When we finally reached the hotel nearing 7:30 PM, we discovered that the other bus had made better time, leaving us with scraps as far as dinner was concerned. On a whim, about fifteen of us set out on our bikes to forage for sustenance in PoS…soon, I would find redemption for this day from hell, but wouldn’t be able to document it. In the hurry, I’d left my camera’s memory card in my laptop.
We wandered into the street food market in the Savannah, soaking up the sounds, making horrible jokes about our day, and beginning to realize that we were truly in the shit, like war-weary soldiers resigned to their fates. Emile convinced the rest of the guys to try Doubles, and I went for a Shark and Bake. I’ll get a photo later, but allow me to describe it as the best form of protein slapped between two hunks of carbohydrates I’ve ever had. It’s fairly simple. A bigass hunk of dough is deep fried, then sliced open like a bun. Into the cavity goes a pile of battered and fried shark, then the vendor hands you your canvas upon which to paint a medley of flavor. There’s usually an endless condiment bar that you visit filled with chutneys, slaws, vegetables, and sauces to get your freak on with. I’m getting really excited by the spicy/sweet thing this place has going on, and loaded it up. You return your sharkygreaseydoughbomb to the vendor, and they wrap it up for you. Expect to shell out between TT$20-40 for one (around three to five bucks).
I’ve realized I’m probably the most adventurous guy here when it comes to eating. Everyone else is avoiding the street food like the plague out of GI distress fears, but I’m pretty sure my steady diet of things off the floor, unwashed fruit, street food, and close-to-raw meat keeps my digestive tract pretty ironclad. Knock on wood. Besides, who the hell wants to go to a bad American chain restaurant in the Caribbean? Not this guy.
We ended the evening at a bad pizza restaurant (see above), and many of the internationals contemplating flights home Monday, a week early. Eventually, I resolved to stay. I’d survived worse this year already.
I’m not feeling very wordsmithy. It’s hard to express things creatively when my nerves are frayed. The racing here isn’t physically exhausting, but it requires a degree of mental resolve I haven’t experienced before.
It started nicely enough. Another night crit was on deck for the third stage, so Cesar and I took the day to go on a downtown Port of Spain adventure. After cruising around for an hour looking for a bakery, we ended up at the downtown square and Cesar’s gluten sense picked up the trail. A few cheesy pastries later and after telling multiple sketchy-looking inquiring locals our bikes cost $600TT (a little less than $100 US), we cruised down the square where I got distracted by the street food - par for the course. While a local college student chatted us up, I had my first experience with the local dish known as “Doubles”.
Doubles are pretty basic. Two pieces of cumin-flavored dough are pan fried, and some soft-curried chickpeas are slapped between them. Going rate on the street is between $.25-75 per, and it’s about as much food as three street tacos in the US. Filling and delicious, a wonderful curry-cumin assault on the senses. Apparently there’s lots of different varieties…I intend to try a few more while I’m here.
The square was soaked up for another few minutes, and we ripped through traffic back home. The race in the evening was held around the Queen’s Park Savannah, essentially a massive grass field surrounded by what the Triniboganians claim is the “World’s Largest Roundabout” near downtown Port of Spain. Start time was set for 8 PM, but…this is Trinidad.
We sat around for two hours waiting for the start. I regretted leaving my camera in the room. The police plodded to close the inner two lanes of the road for the race while our legs cooled, and our guts rumbled with hunger. Meanwhile, the TTCF took its time to get things rolling with the eccentric announcer making bizarre jokes as the amateur racers completed single-lap contests around the 5km course. I was skeptical, to say the least - our protection from the outer lane of thick traffic was a line of intermittent cones about the size of a large Big Gulp cup. In the dark.
Racing started, and my fears were confirmed. This was going to be much like the Speedweek shenanigans I’d encountered in the spring. Guys with no place contesting the GC for the race were riding like men possessed, chopping every corner with little regard for themselves or others. A good chop by a Jamaican sent me into one of the aforementioned cones, but after locking up both wheels and sliding for a meter or two, I managed to keep things upright. We were screaming along at almost 40mph on the straightaways with a few guys ripping outside the cones to advance, and the corners were jam-packed with so much divebombing you’d think it was Pearl Harbor.
The danger intensified as random cars wandered onto the course. There was the occasional fender intrusion, but the true crescendo of insanity was encountering a 40-foot boat on a trailer exiting one of the last turns. Had it been a mere twenty meters back, a massive pile-up would have ensued. We were lucky. Emile Abraham, sitting in first, had his crew at the nose of the race. As the sprint went off on the last lap, I sat back and let the fireworks go - no sense in going for a hospital trip on the second day of racing. All of our guys stayed upright, a success in my book.
We rolled back to the hotel moderately shellshocked, but figured the day after (our first road race) would be a much safer affair, as they typically are - and in the daylight. How very, very wrong we were.
Our second day in Trinidad & Tobago started…early.
The first stage, a prologue of sorts up a “1km” (closer to 700m) hill in the coastal oil refinery city of San Fernando had a listed 7 AM start. This necessitated a 5 AM bus ride from Port of Spain down the highway, leading to a lot of groggy bike racers. Compounding the predawn stupor was a glancing blow from Tropical Storm Isaac, leading to occasional torrential rainfall throughout the night and morning. What made for a mesmerizing white noise concerto during slumber morphed into an annoyance on the bike and in the bus.
Bikes were loaded onto flatbeds like freshly caught fish at the docks (thankfully Roger has been shuttling mine/Cesar’s Pinas in his car), and we were off. The prologue course was very wet and fairly steep. Luckily, I’d had the foresight of mounting some Vittoria Paves in the States before flying down - phenomenal shit condition tires. Experiencing Trinitime again, the stage didn’t get rolling until about 8, and start times were something of a fluid beast - all I knew was that I was 33rd in line to go. The race came and went. Short, intense efforts have never been my specialty, and I finished 30th, clocking somewhere around a 2:20, about 20 seconds off the lead. The road was pitched and soaked enough that any sort of acceleration out of the saddle made for a spinning rear wheel. Cesar nabbed 11th, and our other Colombian, Jaime pinned a 4th place finish as well as the U23 leader jersey, putting us in good position coming into the evening’s criterium. The finish would’ve given up a nice view up the coast to Port of Spain, but Isaac had other plans.
The evening would serve up a boulevard U-turn criterium in San Fernando, but first we had a 12-hour chunk of time to burn. We rolled through town towards the hotel where we’d spend the day, conveniently located up the street from the friendly neighborhood arms dealer. Sometimes (rarely) I value my life, so I left the camera stashed when the temptation arose to snap a photo of aforementioned establishment. The hotel was warm. And by warm, I mean “slightly cooler than a sauna”. The aroma of rotting garbage in the lobby, coincidentally the only location with a WiFi signal, made for an interrupted day of VERY important (oh, wait) Facebook and Skype use. Our German teammates took to calling our six-bunk room Guantanamo (bonus seatless toilet for ease of use). I thought about finding a battery and some jumper cables for a truly tasteless impromptu photoshoot, but Cesar and I decided to take a trip to the local supermarket.
Detour: The beverage selection. Fruit-flavored soda is popular, a la Fanta, as are more earthy selections. Like the pictured Mauby Fizz. I’m going to go out on a limb and call it an acquired taste, because I find it pretty damned revolting (which is fairly appalling, given my garbage disposal-like eating habits). The flavor is something like carbonated Jagermeister that’s had a cedar plank steeped in it for a few months with a solid helping of emulsified dirt. Anyway, I look forward to trying the coconuts and cane juice from the street vendors, because the soft drinks in bottles haven’t been anything to shake a stick at yet. Coffee is decidedly an afterthought. There’s a few knockoff Starbucks, but it seems like brown water and powdered instant stuff is the norm here, the latter of which is sufficient for the 9 PM criterium stimulant bender that’s been necessary. Beer is on the spendy side, but the island-style lagers are tasty, and Guinness Foreign Extra is amazing. It’s like a standard Guinness you’d buy in the States, but actually good - and 7.5% ABV. Akin to a solid imperial stout, but without the massive body, making it way too drinkable. Horny Goat Weed wine…I might give it a try when I need to feel extra virulent or something. Maybe. Instead, it was good for a laugh at the grocery.
12 hours, several cups of coffee, a couple beers, a few waterboarding sessions and approximately 47 photos with a crew of Nigerian refinery works who were stoked on us being in their hotel later, we cruised to the crit course. A fairly basic setup - 1.5kish long down a divided highway with a U-turn at each end. Our shredtime was pegged at an hour plus two laps, so nothing too hairy compared to what I’ve been subjected to this year. The race was fairly mellow, though a small break went up the road late in the race with Henner, one of our Germans, ending up third out of the sprint and putting around ten seconds on the field.
So it goes. On tomorrow’s episode, Cesar and I go on a downtown Port of Spain adventure, I discover bliss in spicy chickpeas coupled with fried dough, I get chastised by a 17 year-old, and we almost get crashed out by a boat - during a race.