Ride of Passage

There are few things more agonizing than patiently awaiting a rite of passage. Who can forget the nagging itch of the gas-pedal foot during the months approaching age 16; that brief moment just prior to voting age when the Chronicle editorial page seems interesting; or the romantic resonance that watery liquor, flattened barstools, and butt-stuffed ashtrays take on as age 21 approaches?

Me, I've long felt this way about turning 35. It's the cusp of middle age, that halcyon time when males are allowed to engage in a pathetic pursuit of vainglory, before delusion, dissipation, and delirium assume their rightful thrones. So my nostrils have, for a while now, ached for the smell of Ferrari leather. I understand the spiritual side of keeping 19-year-old girlfriends. Bottles of Grecian Formula wink at me as I buy shampoo.

Alas, rites of passage aren't always all they're cracked up to be: I just turned 35, yet work at SF Weekly and can't afford a leather-interior Ferrari, much less a 19-year-old girlfriend. And my quarter-dozen gray hairs aren't yet deserving of that hallowed Grecian Formula.

Thankfully, for me, there is bicycle racing in Central America.

If there were ever a bastion for the American vainglorious, it's Central America, a bunch of Sacramento-sized countries where small things appear large.

This is where Tennessean William Walker rousted a band of freebooters and made himself president of Nicaragua 145 years ago. It's where basketball players not good enough to make it in the Continental Basketball League find legions of adoring fans. And it's where, for decades now, not-fit-for-prime-time bicycle racers have gone to compete in one of that region's top spectator sports.

Take the case of Myron Watts — known as 'El Foco,' or 'The Light Bulb,' among Mexican journalists for his name, closely shorn head, and low-luminescence intellect. In the sporting world, Mexico is part of Central America, and is typically the most fearsome competitor in the Central American Games. A foreman on a Southern California assembly line, Watts decided to enter Mexico's huge national stage race in 1985, but dropped out from exhaustion on the second day of the two-week contest. Emboldened, he returned the following year and finished the Ruta Mexico's dozen 140-mile stages. He returned the next year and the next and the next, and became a Mexican sports-press legend, giving dozens of interviews and signing hundreds of autographs — a sort of Eddie the Eagle on wheels.

For Myron Watts and scores like him, Mexico and Central America remain the frontier, where Destiny is still Manifest; a place for American castoffs, crooks, losers, and grasping males to hunt glory denied them in their homeland.

I rode that first Ruta with Watts, having already become accustomed to vainglory, that unwarranted pride of accomplishment that is (or at least should be) part of every American male's coming of age. After five years of racing as an amateur, I had signed up with a U.S.-based professional team in 1985. The team was sponsored by the vainglorious Fred Mengoni, an elderly New York real estate magnate who was best known for successfully pushing his way in front of television cameras to appear beside Greg LeMond, the legendary, three-time winner of the Tour de France. The team was called, not surprisingly, Gruppo Sportivo Mengoni. With the support of a dozen other backers, Mengoni paid for a team house, a manager (who drove behind us while we trained), plane tickets, French sunglasses, skilled mechanics, and expert masseurs. We arrived at races resplendent in a fleet of brand-new Chrysler minivans emblazoned with the “G.S. Mengoni” logo, stepped out wearing matching Italian warm-up suits, stripped to matching Lycra uniforms, and mounted matching, $2,500 Italian-Japanese hybrid bicycles — all courtesy of the team's sponsors. Our race results that year may have been lamentable. But we looked stunning.

The next year, after the Ruta, I quit and went back to college, but clung to the Mengoni way. I wore my wool-and-nylon G.S. Mengoni team jacket to classes, for instance, thinking it might earn the same cachet on campus it had on the race course. (I later learned classmates assumed it was a bowling jacket.)

So when my time finally arrived this year, upon turning 35, to seek middle-age vainglory, I naturally thought of bike racing, and of the Central American Isthmus.

Lacking money for a new Italian sports car, I bought a new Italian racing bike. Unable to recruit a 19-year-old girlfriend, I shaved my own legs (as is customary among bicycle racers). Having no use for Grecian Formula, I sprayed WD-40 on my new bicycle chain. I enlisted Charlie, an ex-racer pal also in his 30s, to fly down to Costa Rica and compete in the four-day, 220-mile Clasico Master Veterano. Which translates as “Master's Classic,” or “30- to 40-year-old nearly geezers race.”

So we trained for a couple of months, bought plane tickets, and headed south, hoping to revisit our bike-racing youth.

Costa Rica is the perfect place. In Costa Rica, bicycle racing sits right up there with soccer and basketball among national pastimes. As such, Costa Rican racing enjoys the accouterments that add romance to all highly commercial professional sports: widespread illegal performance-enhancing drug use, corrupt sports federations, and buy-your-soul-for-a-dollar professional teams.

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.

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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