Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Vuelta Ciclista del Uruguay: Arrival

Now, after many months of delay, I bring you a story too wild to drop on you all at once. Instead, I'll spread it out over the coming weeks, one stage at time.


With the exception of a day in the Bahamas on a Disney cruise and a day trip to B.C.--both in middle school--I had never left the country before. I had just finished 4 days of racing at Redlands, and here I was on my way to Uruguay for 10 more days of racing.

My feelings vacillated between unbridled excitement and subdued anxiety. Racing out of the US is precisely what I had been hoping for for some time now, but I am my mama's boy. The unknown scares me, and I was about to get a heaping serving of new experiences abroad.

Thankfully I wasn't going in completely blind--Bob, the team mechanic, as well as Zwiz and Reid, had all done the race before.  Having been warned, I prepared the best I could.  A couple boxes of granola bars and $10 of Pepto and Immodium later, I was ready for Uruguay.  I hoped I was, anyways.

The morning began early, and there wasn't enough room in the shuttle to the airport. I sat on the wheel well, quietly hoping my sniffle--Zirbel had come down with one, too--was only allergies irritating my sinuses.

The stack of luggage amassed by 6 riders, a director, mechanic, and soigneur was a veritable mountain.

After checking the first few bikes, the team was informed that only 6 bikes were for sure getting on the plane, which would be completely full.  After assigning priority to the race bikes, it was decided that the TT and backup bikes would go on last, as they wouldn't be needed for a few days.  My TT bike had slipped through, though, and we just had to hope it wasn't at the expense of a more important bike.

At 23 years old, the first leg of the flight to San Salvador was my first experience of being surrounded by a language I couldn't understand.  Sure, there were those 4 years of Spanish way back in high school, but if I remembered any of it I would at best be able to read signs and menus.  My ears perked up and mind began racing every time I heard a familiar word.  My two-week crash course in Spanish had just begun.

During the next layover in Lima, I wandered about, taking in all the hubbub around me.  In search of food, I found a little deli kiosk and picked out a ham and cheese wrap.  They accepted US$, but I had to understand the price in spanish.  No problem, though--the in-flight movie had been "In Time", in which there was lots of numbers. And I, the international travel noob, had watched it in Spanish because I didn't know there was an english audio channel.  On the bright side, I remembered my spanish numbers now!

Sitting down to enjoy my $6 wrap, I was dismayed to find it nothing more than ham and mozzarella tightly wrapped in a tortilla.  After two bites, I was bored with it, but I choked it down nonetheless, oblivious to the foreshadowing of this first meal abroad.

The third and final leg into Montevideo was a redeye flight on deja-vu airlines.  Another flight full of passengers speaking a language I didn't understand, the same in-flight food, and the same in-flight movie.  I simply tried to sleep, but my nose had been switched to full-flow mode.  I wasn't sick, though.  I wasn't in denial, either, I'll have you know.

After landing in Montevideo, Uruguay at 3am and getting through customs, our intrepid crew set up camp at the carousels.  It was like Christmas morning, only we smelled worse and weren't sure our presents would show up.

The carousel buzzed, and everyone craned their necks, hoping to see good news paraded by on the conveyor belt.

The bags started coming out, followed soon after by the bikes.  The tally stopped 6 short.  With nothing left to do, the missing bag claims were filed and everyone climbed aboard the bus headed for the lush Kolping Hotel Escuela.

It was nearly 5am by then--24 hours of travel.  Bordering on sleep-deprived delirium (I can hardly sleep on planes), I popped my headphones in--you couldn't carry on a conversation over the engine spewing noise and fumes--and took in the new country around me.

As the bus driver straddled the lanes through town (they were merely suggestions), I entertained thoughts of Jason Bourne taking refuge in the dilapidated apartments lining the boulevard.  Yes, I certainly needed sleep.

The hotel parking lot was gravel.  Half of the lot was outside the gate, along the street. The other half--where 12 more cars could fit in theory--was more like a grass-covered garden.  Even at 6 am, the streets were busy as our crew shuttled the bikes up to the hotel.

The inner parking lot at the hotel
Finally, keys in hand, we weary travelers were destined for sleep.  My first lesson in personal space outside of the US came when the elevator door opened. I thought I'd mistakenly called the dumbwaiter.  There was scarcely room for 3 people with bags, and only then if they were bumping shoulders.

We could do nothing besides chuckle when the room's door swung open to reveal our living quarters.  On the other side of the bathroom wall began the first of four twin-size beds, the last of which ended against the far wall, slightly underneath the windowsill.  The common fear was that this would prove not to be the least comfy hotel of the race...

The next 3 hours were passed in a fitful sleep for me, dreaming of a long day of travel with some sort of sinus ailment, only to end up sleeping on a small bed with loud traffic outside. Then the alarm went off.

Breakfast was a modest affair.  The selection included ham and cheese sandwiches, of the pre-assembled and make-your-own varieties.  Lest you conjure up an American affectation of the ham-and-cheese, let's be clear: this was a slice of ham and a slice of mozzarella between two slices of white bread.

"A bit bland," I thought, "but I can handle this."  Naivete is cute, right?

Also available were shortbread cookies--some with dulce de leche--and some sort of liquid yogurt that was actually good.  I had a glass of that, then another.

With breakfast completed, it was time to ride.  Bob had worked through the morning with no sleep and had the bikes built, even securing a loaner for Soladay, as his race bike was among those missing.

We pointed ourselves towards the beachfront a couple miles away and wove our way through traffic to get there. I was pretty entertained by the organized chaos that is their traffic system. The road was 4 lanes wide at points, but without any sometimes it was 5 lanes and sometimes 4. Traffic wasn't very fast, but it had a good flow to it. What killed me, however, was the low-quality fuel everyone was using. The exhaust fumes wreaked havoc with my sinuses and I couldn't stop sneezing.

We ventured into the downtown square to see the giant statues of military men on horseback. As we rolled back down to the beach to conclude our spin, I sat up to take a picture.

Zwiz caught up to me and said, "Hey, you should probably slow down before going through the intersections..."

"Why? We don't have stop signs..." I replied, confused.

"Yeah, and neither does cross-traffic." I put my camera away and began slowing just as a car blasted through the next intersection. It's an interesting method of traffic-control, to say the least.

After returning to the hotel and getting cleaned up, we headed over to a cafe where the race would be providing our meals when in Montevideo. Most of the other teams had not yet arrived, so we had lunch alone. The race had hired a local chef that hosted the cooking segments on the morning news to prepare our meals for our two-week stay. We were pretty excited about that. The meals started off on a good note, at least, with some potato salad, half a roasted chicken each, and ice cream bars for dessert.

Morale was pretty good at that point. We were ready to destroy some South American racing.

Will my sinus issues mysteriously disappear?
Will the food continue to pleasantly surprise?
Will the missing bikes show up?
Will the team be able to hold their own in the races?