"Just don't let anybody you don't know take your bikes or bags". The last e-mail I had received from our director, Gus Carillo, before flying to the Dominican Republic ran through my mind. I and three of my teammates stood bewildered as half a dozen men shouting spanish (to whom in particular, I wasn't sure) took our bags and bikes and threw them into the back of several pick-up trucks, each missing windows and a headlight or two, tires almost flat. Oops. It being late, and us having just stumbled out of the terminal into the loading point at the Santo Domingo airport, we barely had the presence of mind to jump into the pick-ups as well. Where we were going, or with whom, I couldn't be sure. I imagined that this was probably one of the easiest American kidnappings that these bandits had ever pulled off. We bounced along in the trucks, glancing back to see if our swaying bags had toppled from the bed of the truck yet. We pulled off the main road and maneuvered through some unlit city streets, wild dogs, prostitutes, drug pushers and other unsavories skulking in the shadows. We pulled into an alley and were welcomed by our team director to the hotel that team USA would be calling home for much of the 8 day race; the Vuelta Indepencia National.
Kidnapping and street thugs successfully avoided; my teammates and I got settled in to the luxuriously named Carribenio Hotel. While the Dominican is a popular island getaway and certainly has it share of high class resorts, this wasn't one of them. Instead of the salt-water pools most carribean tourists flock to, we had to content ourselves with the brackish drip coming from the shower head. Having just raced in Gabon, Africa, this was certainly a big step up and nothing to complain about. Besides, we had an 8-day, 10 stage, uci race to attend to; with notable teams from Holland, Venezuela, Columbia, and two teams from Kazakstan to contend with.
Stage 1 gave me a good taste for what the race would be like. The six km circuit was quite flat and had a hefty wind. A couple laps in, the pack was single file and flying along the gutter. I pulled myself to the front wondering who was responsible for this; and saw 12 Kazaks on the front leading out for the first intermediate sprint. The race didn't slow down much as it seemed that we never came through the finishing stretch at less than 60km/hour. To my great frustration, I somehow managed to continue my tendency of getting in the breakaway on the days when I feel the worst. Rob Squire and I rolled through with the 10 man group that put about a minute into the pack by the finish. I flatted in the finale but was given the time of the break.
Stage 2a consisted of about 100km down the coast away from Santo Domingo. Once again the wind and the very aggressive/numerous Kazaks put the peleton in the gutter for almost all of it. Unfortunately, the Dominican's paved roads can put the Belgian cobbles to shame when it comes to inflicting damage to man and machine, and I heard at least 30 tires explode in the stage. The good news was, Rob Squire got in the break again, finishing 2nd on the stage and taking the yellow jersey. For stage 2b, we were all excited to protect the jersey by dominating the front of the race. Unfortunately for me, my day came to an early end when I flatted at the bottom of the critical climb and again shortly after. That left me on a lonely deserted road riding a rim for about twenty kilometers, hoping I was still going the right way. Finally, one last race vehicle appeared out of no where to give me a much needed wheel to finish on. Fortunately the half stage was only 50km long, so I didn't miss the time cut. Larry Warbasse had also suffered some bad luck, when one of the numerous craters in the road enveloped his carbon wheel and gave him a spectacular faceplant. Fortunately, he was only scraed and bruised and was able to finish. Despite all the mayhem; the team had kept Robbie safe and sound and chased down all the attacks launched in the finale.
Stage 3 was 174 kilometers of flat and wind as we raced back up the coast. It was by far the longest race I had ever done, so predictably we paced ourselves by starting off full speed. After things settled down, I realized how monotonous 100 kilometers of three lane highway can be by bike. And that kind of set the tone for the race; a wild pendulum of utter chaos and complete boredom. Being lulled into near sleepiness by riding up an interstate on the front for hours with the ever inviting deep blue carribean sea off to the side; I would suddenly be roused to panick by the fact that there were inexplicably oncoming tractor trailers in our lane or a series of concrete barriers that needed to be avoided. Potholes and drainage channels in the road large enough to swallow the front half of your bike added to the excitement. There was also the troubling fact that the Venezuelans and Columbians, despite and average weight of about 130lbs, had no difficulty in throwing the entire pack into the gutter and dropping half the pelaton on the flat roads. This didn't bode well for the coming mountain stage.
Logistics followed the same pattern, as no one ever seemed to know when or where the stage starts were, or how we would get there. Again, riding in the back of pick-up trucks proved to be the most common means of transportation. The daily transfers didn't help. On one occasion we were left sitting on the side of the street 8kilometers from our hotel after our shuttle driver inexplicably refused to go any further. City streets were an absolute free-for-all of ancient cars competing with new cadillacs, street vendors, and pedestrians for space. Each party seemed to find it necessary to make more noise than the other, with downtown Santo Domingo sounding something like a civil war. It surprised me that I hadn't heard the Dominican before I saw it, as everybody mercilessly pounded on the horns and shouted louder than four year olds at a preschool lunchtime.
Speaking of lunchtime, one thing that remained constant despite the chaos was mealtimes. We could always count on chicken and rice and an unknown juice drink served from a bucket, three meals a day. If you really wanted to test your luck, there was some moldy bread and cheese and fruit of unknown origin, but having just recovered from a viscious African intestinal bug, I had no intention of pushing the boundaries of safe food.
Comparisons were inevitibly drawn to our race in africa; but there were plenty of differences. Modern amenities were readily available here. Visible signs of wealth were also plentiful: as evidenced by posh resorts (we got to stay in one before one of our stages) and expensive cars on their way to pristine beaches. All this of course, coexisted with extreme poverty, seedy downtowns, and the still desperately poor Haitian refugees. I am no social expert, but I think this is what my high school teacher was referring to by a large "socio-economic gap".
Between studying the local economy and forcing down another plate of rice; we also had a race lead to defend. We continued to ride the front, holding off attacks from the increasingly aggressive Venezualans and Columbians. Eventually, Venezuala and Kazakstan took over the pace at the end of the stages for the sprint, when I headed straight to the back to avoid the mayhem. The organizers seemed to delight in making the final kilomter into a sort of obsticle course with drainage ditches, speed bumps, grates, and the occasional sewage spill.
My sense of forboding proved true on the mountain stage when the columbians, venezuelans, and a Chilean rider went up the climb like it was flat and knocked Rob out of contention of the yellow. All was not lost, however, as Rob Bush got a second place on a stage, Larry got 4th in the TT, and I helped Rob Squire keep his best young rider's jersey to the finish. The last day, february 27, was Independencia Nacionale (The country's Independence Day, after which the race was named), so that night we celebrated the end of our race by staying locked in our rooms, lest the population decide to take out there patriotic excitement in the staging of a second revolution or the massacring of foreigners. All in all it was rather disappointing as we didn't see any buildings burned or mobs formed.
The next day we managed to pull off one last seat of the pants transfer to the airport (after sitting around all day wondering how we would get to the airport, we were informed that we had ten minutes to be on a bus downstairs if we wanted to leave the country). I half expected to be told it would cost me several thousand peysos to leave the Dominican (we were charged ten US Dollars to get in, undoubtedly a great source of foreign revenue for somebody); but managed to leave the country without incedent. On landing in Miami, we were greeted by the wonderful sound of.... nothing. Or very close to it; people using indoor voices instead shouting at one another made the airport sound more like a library.
From there we split up to our own destinations. I was off to Northern California again to stay with Ryan Eastman, since Vermont was still getting pounded with snow. I managed to avoid getting sick this time and have been training hard for redlands, which is at the end of the month. Hopefully, I won't be forced to make any more split-second life-or-death decisions about the sketchiness of our drivers or food, or be dodging oncoming semis. On the topic of sketchiness, the Chilean rider who had ridden up the climbs like he was under the impression that it was really just a roller to take third place overall, just tested positive for something or other. I should probably say how disheartening it is; but you have to admit that my first race with another rider who got caught for doping is a big milestone. Hopefully in the future I'll be writing more about milestones involving me winning things, so I'll do my best! Thanks for reading