Ride of Passage

We got our first inkling of the prestigious nature of the Clasico Master after waiting two hours in the airport for Mario Barrantes, a smarmy lawyer and Costa Rican sports federation official who had told us we would be greeted by name-card-toting pursers. We became even more convinced of our honored stature in the Costa Rican sport upon entering our race hotel, a low-rent, prostitution-oriented fleabag situated in San Jose's seamy auto-repair and bus-smoke district. The fact that David, the hotel's proprietor, was a congenial man who drank rotgut from a milk carton and spent his evening counting passing taxis certainly added to the hotel's charm. But the dozens of yards of exposed, live, copper wiring in the shower and omnipresent pesticide smell in the rooms didn't.

After we had time to get comfortable, Barrantes called us for an unannounced "interview." It turned out we were the scheduled live guests of that evening's edition of the country's top radio sports talk show. We had come to the Clasico Master to race against Costa Ricans, cyclists feared throughout the continent, I said diplomatically. We would try our best, I said. We're happy to be guests of the wonderful Costa Rican people, I said.

"This is more like it," I thought.



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On the first day of the four-day race Charlie and I had a bit of a time acclimating to the old racing circuit, and found our break-away attempts consistently foiled by a wily, light-skinned Costa Rican named Mario, who was sponsored by a big soybean exporting concern. By the beginning of day three, as Charlie and I were just getting our sea legs, Mario and his $3,500 bike already enjoyed a 25-second lead over both of us.

Worse, 30 minutes into the third day of the race, Charlie got a flat tire. I gave him my rear wheel, and waited two minutes for a support car, got a new wheel, then asked the race official if I could take a shortcut across the race circuit to catch back up to the pack -- a maneuver allowed under international rules.

With about seven miles to go, on a three-mile downhill stretch, my luck began to change. As is customary in situations such as these, I tucked my body into a ski-racer aerodynamic position, chest draped across the bike's top tube, chin hidden behind the handlebars. The pace car clocked me at 66 miles per hour, and by the bottom of the hill, with four miles to go, I had a 30-second advantage over the field -- enough to work with, I thought, and began to hammer. With a mile to go, with the field more than a minute behind, I began squealing like a stuck pig: "I'm gonna win." At the finish line, the race commissar ruled that I had acted correctly in taking the shortcut, and I went to the hotel leading the four-day race overall with just one stage to go.

But the next morning, nothing was as it had seemed. It turned out that Mario had called his sponsor, who had put pressure on the Costa Rican Cycling Federation, which had twisted the arm of the race directors. The commissar reversed his decision, docking me the 1-minute-10-second lead I had gained the day before and relegating me to fifth place. Mario remained in the lead.

But then, on the 18 1/2-mile climb that began the next day's stage, a funny thing happened. Mario hammered off the front of the group with a cyclist we hadn't seen before -- a cyclist who wasn't part of the race. This was clearly illegal -- having a friend who was not in the competition ride along to help set the pace.

At race's end I raised holy hell. How can someone so concerned with the rules one day defy them the next? I hollered with my best version of utmost sincerity. The commissars had no choice. Mario was relegated to fourth place overall. Charlie ended up second overall, I was five seconds behind in third, a feat for which I received a gold- colored plastic trophy mounted on tropical hardwood.

Not a Ferrari, to be sure.

But at a mere 35 years of age, it's enough vainglory for me.

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