Lost and Found in Managua: The Vuelta De Nicaragua

There was a time, not too distant, when professional road racing was stripped to the bare bones-just man and machine pedaling against all comers, and what fate lay ahead on the road to the finish line. No television crews, no helicopters, no crowd control or teams or police cars to make way for the race. A time when corporate sponsorship occupied a single line across the chest of a wool jersey, and team vehicles were the beaters that racers drove to their hotels. Doping was limited to over-the-counter amphetamines, alcohol and espresso, and competitors carried their mechanical support-spare tubulars, wrenches and a couple of links of chain-on their backs, or tucked under the saddle with an Alfredo Binda Extra toe-clip strap.

There is a place on this earth where professional
racing can still be experienced much as it was in road racing’s golden era-and it is called Nicaragua, in Central America, where six riders from the Seattle-based First Rate Mortgage Cycling team flew down from the comforts of Washington state to race the tenth-annual Vuelta de Nicaragua-a six-day stage race in a country whose enthusiasm for life far exceeds its standard of living. Our adventure comes from the journal of First Rate Mortgage Cycling team member, Chris Daifuki. Chris still doesn’t know how he finished.

We were somewhere in Managua, Nicaragua. I can’t say where, since the city is a big maze and there are no street signs. The sun has set, and the neighborhood’s electricity is out. At least a hundred competitors were loitering outside amongst dark buildings. Some huddled around the glow of a single laptop computer set on a crate. Some were talking with race officials beside a blazing tiki torch. This was the Vuelta de Nicaragua race registration headquarters, and racing begins tomorrow. We had to translate Spanish to English and it took hours for us to unravel the basic rules of the race-a task further complicated because the officials themselves couldn’t seem to locate the written rules. Eventually, we got registered. We were handed our race numbers, and pins (rationed out, one by one) to attach them to our jerseys. The pins didn’t work anyway, and so we ended up stapling the paper numbers to our jerseys. I attempted to sleep, wondering if there was there was actually going to be a race next morning. There were rumors that category-5 Hurricane Felix was scheduled to hit land during the night.

As we rolled out, we got our first taste of what this race was going to be like. Right before we started, the local police stopped traffic. This was good. But the officers only stopped the traffic behind us. The gun fired and well over a hundred racers burst into the streets of Managua hoping that the traffic in front of us would be kind enough to understand that this was an important event, and steer clear. Somehow, Nicaraguans, in their casual way, made room for us and the race went on-well, almost.

Throughout the six days of the race, we raced around hundreds of brightly painted American school buses. Most of Nicaragua rolls inside these smoke-belching busses, which stop every 200 meters and seem to have the right-of-way over all other forms of transportation here. Once we made peace with the buses, we eventually used their erratic driving to our technical advantage during the race, as they often ‘divided’ the field.

After the first couple of miles of racing, I had to raise an eyebrow to what is going on tactically between all the

Central American teams. Attacks were constantly being launched-more than in any race that I have ever seen-and most for no apparent reason. Unceasingly, riders attack, and hover within sight of the pack. We never chased, we would leave them out there solo, with two riders, or with ten, because they wouldn’t try and stay away. It was as if the only purpose of the breaks were riders trying to look hot in front of the TV crews, or a group of friends spectating near some intersection. There were no rules. Team member would chase down team members-pulling the entire peloton up to the break. The first stage pandemonium ended well for us. It was only ten kilometers longer than the officials said it was, and the finish line (where it probably was) was marked only by a slightly larger mass of people than we were used to seeing alongside the road. Our three-man lead out over the last few kilometers got us third and fourth in the pack sprint. Team First Rate Mortgage Cycling was sitting in sixth and seventh overall.

The race caravan is nuts. You drop back from the peloton and are suddenly swarmed by a buzzing mass of motorcycles. Thread your way behind the raucous pack of motorcyclists and prepare to dodge every type of car and light truck imaginable, and then some more motorcycles before you locate your team car. Despite the chaos, I never felt unsafe. Nicaraguan drivers are not shy about driving very close to riders, but they seem to know what they are doing-and they can be helpful. About a third of the way into the race, one of my teammates stopped to wait for another who had crashed. When he went to rejoin the peloton, a motorcycle rider put his foot on his seatstay and, unconcerned that his foot might easily slip and go into the spokes, launched my teammate at over fifty miles an hour, all the way back up to the field.

Today’s 40-kilometer team time trial began on the outskirts of the city, in a dirty parking lot alongside the road. This is the Nicaraguan National Championship event, but there are very few TT bikes to be seen. The explanation seems to be economic. While teams could have up to six riders, none had more than two TT bikes, and most simply raced on their road bikes. We were lucky it was raining lightly, as that was much to our advantage versus the local teams. The team time trial felt the least exotic of the stages, as it was just the six of us going as hard as we could along a country road, it was almost as if we were at home. The illusion was shattered shortly after Team First Rate Mortgage blasted through the finish line in third place. We cooled down, spinning through dirty streets, past the shacks in the ghettos on the outskirts of Managua being eyed by horrible-looking dogs trotting around loose, and bright-eyed children watching six gringos in colorful Spandex pedal past.

Today’s tactic was jungle survival. Stage three began abruptly at the bottom of a long eight percent climb that shattered the field after just a few kilometers. You really did not want to be alone, as after the initial climb, the race meandered through numerous villages with no traffic control or course marshals. I played it smart and, for most of the race, stuck with a small breakaway group. Each time we entered a town, I stayed back, so I could follow local riders who knew the roads. I quickly learned Nicaraguan road racing etiquette: how one dodges between lanes of cars and buses; how to anticipate the behavior of goats crossing the street; and how to recognize the road that leads to the other side of town by reading traffic patterns. If you were solo, there was no way you could find the way to the finish. I arrived at the line (somewhere where I was told that I finished), happy to be scored with the field’s time.

Today was the reverse of the day before, with a flat stage ending with another brutal climb. After 36 kilometers on the flats, the peloton reached a very long section of cobbles. Most of the frail-looking local riders got shelled, as they could not power through the cobbles. Team First Rate Mortgage’s initial setback happened as the climb began. Like most of the competitors, we were running 11×23 cogsets and were not prepared for inclines reaching a sustained 12 to 13 percent. No race profiles are available, and so we did not know to expect this. While I was climbing one of the last grueling hills of the race, I was shocked to find a rider from a New-York-based team (who’s name I will not besmirch here), holding onto his support van all the way up the hill, as far as I could see. He literally flew by me with his van and took several minutes from me there in the race. I was devastated.

Our water bottles are a hot commodity here. We almost brought the race to a halt as one of our riders casually tossed a bottle on the roadside and the lead car slammed on its brakes to pick it up. He made the entire race caravan come to a screaming halt. I used this stage to recover and take in the scenery-rolling hills and patchwork farmland. Today’s stage finished in an impoverished town, Empalme de Boaco, the town that Jake works in, and we finished to a welcoming group of kids with drums and signs welcoming the Americans to town. We also had our first real ‘post race’ meal-proudly prepared by the locals. The only commercial building there was a Texaco station with a pair of horses tied up to it. As we were packing up to leave, we handed a few of our water bottles out to some children, and soon, our van was surrounded with children asking for more.

Today, we were told, was a circuit race in central Managua. The race went off as normal: we didn’t know when the race would start; we got there late (intentionally); and the race went off even later. It was announced that we would be doing ten laps of this circuit. Perhaps the city’s favorite team was leading, or maybe the mayor had a lunch appointment, but as we passed by the line on the beginning of lap eight, the officials announced that this was the bell lap! Nearly everyone in the peloton started shouting and waving gestures at the race officials as we streaked past. With 200 meters to the finish, as the field was curving around either side of a roundabout, a truck blasted in front of us, cutting off the right half of the pack. Our team managed to make it through, but faced a second roundabout-with one of those painted American school buses stopped in the right lane. With only 100 meters to the finish and a bus blocking half the road. I took the inside line, squeezed past the bus, and took third in the sprint (there were no official results).

From 35,000 feet, Central America looks much greener than I remembered it was as it streaked by my wheels during my week in Nicaragua. I tried to piece together the race in an effort to figure my overall placing, but in the end, I realized that official results don’t really matter when you are racing the Vuelta de Nicaragua. What mattered most was that we showed up, that we raced, and that we had an amazing time. As the hum of the jet engines lulled me to sleep, I found myself dreaming of mister New-York-cheater-van-guy, the multitude of local racers who went really fast on bikes we wouldn’t even consider riding much less racing, and I thought about another go at the Vuelta de Nicaragua next year.
For more info on the Vuelta de Nicaragua, please e-mail Jake Scheideman at [email protected]

Jake is the owner of St. Helena Cyclery, in St. Helena, California and has dedicated his life to both the Vuelta de Nicaragua and to many other amazing projects in the country. We spoke with Jake to get his take on the event this year.

RBA: Jake, how did you get involved in the Vuelta?
Jake: In my ‘spare’ time, I do a lot of community development work in Nicaragua. I got involved in road racing and the Vuelta in 2000 when there were only 40 racers and no international racers. It’s come a long way in seven years.

RBA: What inspires you about this race?
Jake: The passion for racing. These guys have chosen a very expensive sport, and most of them make less than $10 per day. They ride until their bikes fall apart, and then some. I ‘wrench’ on some of the bikes there, it’s amazing and humbling to see what they use; they use ingenuity to get what they need. I saw my first homemade 11-speed cogset this year…seriously.

RBA: How do the locals from Empalme de Boaco like the event?
Jake: They love it. They never get a chance to see these events, except once a year. All the colors, the fancy bikes, the activity of a race, and they love to entertain the ‘guests’-it’s a big honor for them.

RBA: You mentioned the equipment and the racing abilities of the local racers; tell us about that?
Jake: Well, very quickly you learn not to discount the racer who is wearing soccer shoes and toe clips, because he can keep up. Some are riding fake ‘Trek’ or ‘Specialized’ bikes (Chinese aluminum bikes with computer generated stickers) and STI shifters that don’t work, five-year-old chains and rusty cables-the list goes on and on. But their passion makes up for the equipment. And, they know how to dodge busses, horses and taxis!

RBA: You take parts and bikes down every year?
Jake: I am in Nicaragua about eight times a year, so I am shuttling equipment there all year. Used parts, new parts, clothing, bikes, frames-I donate it all to this event. Then I spend the week selling these parts for ‘pennies’ and then donate all the money for the prize list. We raise about $1500 this way. Everyone wins.

RBA: What do you hope American racers get from this event?
Jake: International riders gain some compassion, respect, and understanding of how lucky they are. (My guess is that they will complain a little less during this next racing season.) They also learn how crazy racing is without the safety comforts they are used to in the USA. The locals gain the added competition and ‘validity’ of the race. They love to challenge the international racers with their expensive bikes and fancy gear, and then beat them.

To learn more about Jake’s work in Nicaragua go to www.casanica.net

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