By Amber Neben
My South and Central American Adventure.
Where do I start? I guess the easy place is with the basics. I traveled to Mar del Plata, Argentina for the Pan American Championships first. The time trial was a big objective for me, because with a win I could earn an automatic start spot for the World Championships Time Trial. The same was true for the road race, so I wanted to be available to ride for our sprinter to help the USA earn that additional team spot for the world championships.
The time trial went very well. I was coming off my winter mesocycle of training, so I was a little tired, but my preparation rides the few days before went exactly as planned, and I was able to recover enough and be ready. Then on race day, I was both mentally and physically ready to go after my goal. I nailed it. My first objective achieved. I won gold, got to listen to the national anthem while wearing USA colors, and set myself up to go after another set of rainbows in the fall.
The road race was typical Pan Am Championship racing with the entire field looking at the Americans or Canadians to both dictate and control the race. We did our best, and set ourselves up for the sprint finish as discussed. We were close, but sometimes bike racing doesn’t go exactly as planned, and we could only manage a 4th.
And then the adventure really began…
From Argentina, I flew to San Salvador, El Salvador with my teammate Coryn Rivera. We had no idea what we were about to get ourselves into. We knew it would be Central America, and we would need to be able to roll with some crazy stuff… but this??… hmmm… quite the adventure.
We arrived to the San Salvador airport on Monday afternoon, and we were immediately met by someone from the race organization. He escorted us to the front of the line at customs. (Side note: This should have been my first clue that the race organizer had some power within the country.) After paying our $10 entry tax, we collected all of our baggage, and loaded into an old, beat up white mini van. We had no idea where we were going, but so far all was good.
About 30min after leaving the airport and cruising through some very poor areas, we ended up on a dirt road in an area that seemed like slums. I took it all in. I was reminded of how much we have in this country, even when we think we don’t have much. When we asked if we were going to be able to buy some food and water, our driver pulled over to a roadside stand and got out to ask them something. At that point, both of our thoughts instantly shifted to our own safety when we spotted the serious automatic pistol in his waste band. Yikes. Where were we going? I’ve been racing a long time, and a weapon on our driver is not normal.
A few minutes later, we turned into a gated compound. It turned out that we were staying in the promoter’s beach house. It was this huge piece of property behind locked gates in this really poor area, an oasis of wealth in the middle of the slums. Interesting. Alright, we should be ok here for a few days. I can’t imagine us riding much, but at least we will be ok locked inside.
Yeah… until about 7:30PM that night. I stepped out of the shower and felt like I was standing on a golf ball. However, when I looked down, I was hit with a moment of shock as I realized that I wasn’t standing on a ball. It was just my foot, and it was huge!!! What the heck??? Coryn and I tried to remain calm, cool, and collected. Neither one of us knew what to do. We were stuck inside this compound alone without much cell service, no knowledge of who to call to get help, and more than an hour from a hospital. Of course our imaginations went wild, but we tried to rely on our stress management skills developed over our bike racing lives.
3 hours later, I was able to talk to a local guy who assured me that I was simply bitten by a native bug that causes the body to react that way. It wasn’t poisonous or deadly. Great. I guess that was a little comforting.
The next day, after our ride, I realized that this large lump on my foot was turning black, and the area where the animal/insect/spider bit me was already black! Uh-Oh. Now, I was scared and so were the other Europeans whose opinions I trusted more than the guy with the gun. We all agreed that I should go to the hospital immediately to get this checked out. However, we had a problem. We were in the promoters compound, at the promoter’s race, and I needed help from the promoter’s workers to get to the hospital, but the helpers needed his permission to take me, and that required him actually seeing my foot. Thankfully, the guy owned a helicopter and was going to fly in for a pre race meeting anyway. I finally got my approval, and we were off to the hospital where I had blood drawn and x-rays taken. No infection and no broken bones. Seriously. Well, they didn’t seem worried, so I stopped thinking I might need to cut off my foot. Thankfully, over the next few days, the strange colors dissipated and the swelling went down and all was ok. That was weird, though.
So then, on Tuesday afternoon, the day before the race started, we moved to a nice 5 star hotel in downtown San Salvador. Clean showers, hot water, and NO BUGS! However, the circus was about to begin. Our “ride” for the week showed up with the music blaring and the base thumping. If the volume and complexity of a dude’s sound system was a sign of great machismo or power, this guy had to be the king of the city. And HE was our driver, and THIS was our caravan car. We piled in the car for the first of MANY trips through downtown San Salvador with music bumping and police escort sirens screaming so that we could have dinner at the race promoter’s house in town. Wow. Talk about sensory overload, and this was just the first night. Over the course of the race, we did this to and from races as a race caravan… and many nights to and from dinner. Wow. The next time I am stuck in SoCal traffic, I’ll be thinking of my time in El Salvador when the police could part the gridlocked traffic like Moses parted the Red Sea… and I’ll be wishing, I could get that kind of escort again.
Aside from the craziness of the race dinners, the trips to and from the races, the lack of information throughout, the racing itself also provided a good deal of excitement. The first day involved a huge dog bolting into the lead motorcycles. Unfortunately, the dog spun around about three times and then froze dead on its side. Thankfully, no people were harmed, and the dog was immediately out of pain. We regrouped from that to find our first final sprint to have 4 mean speed bumps in the final 500m and only one crashed rider. Seriously.
The next days involved us racing on highways, a volcano, through towns that didn’t know a bike race was coming through, up and down more roads that were not closed, on military bases with prerace ceremonies where the military president deferred to the race promoter. There were near misses with buses, semi trucks, cars, more dogs, people, more people, more cars, and a herd of cattle. In fact, my teammate, Janel Holcomb, actually was face to face with one large bony cow on her way back through the caravan. She screamed, and the 4 legged animal moo’d and reared back on its hind legs thus averting a collision. Speaking of the race caravan, it was three lanes wide (instead of one) making any attempt to use the caravan to come back from a puncture a challenging and dangerous affair.
BUT, we survived all of that, and I even had the leader’s jersey with the race well in hand. I had won two stages, was second and third in two others, and we had two sprint stages left. Unfortunately, though, in the final 15k’s of the second to last stage, we ended up on a really bad road. I don’t know how we were allowed to race on it. It was terrible for about 10 km’s. HUGE holes, divots, slashes, roughness. I was doing fine staying up front with my team until disaster struck. I drifted with the natural flow of the peloton into one of these man-eating potholes about 7k from the finish. BAM. I didn’t know what happened. I felt like I was on my front wheel, then on the pavement, and then looking at the entire peloton riding right at my head. Thankfully, I only had big welts, bruises, scrapes, swollen knees and hips. Nothing was broken but my handlebars, which explains how I went down, and my wheels. I shook myself off and went to get on the spare bike. Ummm… minor detail… first we had to do a pedal change, and THEN I was back chasing. It took too long, though, and I lost the GC lead. What a heartbreaker… all around for both my team and me. We were happy I was ok, but we were bummed about losing the race we had worked so hard to win, and actually, had won. But as they say… that is bike racing, so we got things together and continued to persevere.
After 9 days in El Salvador, including 7 days and 8 races from Mar 15 to Mar 21, I was ready to get out of dodge. AND I DID. From the finish line of the final race, I packed my bike, changed out of my cycling kit and BOLTED for the airport… Yes I wanted OUT, but I also had to make it back to LA so I could start Redlands the next day. Seriously. Ouch.