Caribbean PEZ: Hot Racing In Trinidad
At a time when most good European pros are heading for bed, in Port of Spain, Trinidad, the DJ’s work the sliders and the PA pumps the ‘Soca’ music from huge stacks – like US racer David Wiswell says; ‘it sure beats them old worn out tapes they play at the Belgian kermesses.’
The first event in the Trinidad Cycling Festival, sponsored by The Beacon insurance company is a 14 lap circuit race and there’s around two hours to the start.
‘You got shrimp?’ ‘Yeah, babes,’ says the guy prizing open the oysters; just along the street you can have coconut water – and if that isn’t enough, you can walk up the hill for some shark and bake.
Would you like some coconut water?
The field is cosmopolitan – Olympic madison champion, Walter Perez from Argentina; former world madison and scratch champion, Franco Marvulli from Switzerland; six day star, Leif Lampater from Germany; Pan Am keirin champion, Giddeon Massie from the USA; home boy Emile Abraham who’s won races from Flanders to the favellas of South America and most places in between.
But not forgetting ‘Italian Stallion’ Roberto Chiappa, whose tanned, smiling face has graced the cover of the Italian edition of GQ magazine – there’s no crash hat worn for Roberto’s warm up; those sweaty straps are really bad for the hair condition.
Giddeon does a bit of modelling, too – Peter Jacques and I can’t decide who’s the cooler; maybe best that way, they’re big guys to upset.
The Soca subsides; it’s national anthem time, there’s a respectful hush and then the speaker says a prayer for the cyclists – call me old fashioned but I like that.
The first race is a 300 metre ‘drag race’ sprint, the ‘wrong way’ up the finish straight – on paper Massie and Chiappi are favourites but home boy Christopher Sellier, a product of the UCI sprint school at Aigle is too quick for everyone.
Whilst the sprint takes place the Euros form a huddle and speak in German – hmmmm!
Carnival time – costumes, colour, steel bands; ‘pan’ they call it here.
The speaker calls the riders to the line and we grab a few words with last year’s winner, Lampater; ‘last year I had really good legs, I went with 10 to go, a group came up with seven to go, I attacked with three or four to go and won on my own. I’ll be marked tonight, though and you don’t have legs like I had last year in every race – but we’ll see how it goes.’
Franco asks Pete and I where our bikes are; ‘shouldn’t you be riding?’
Argentinean ‘singing six day man’ Sebastian Donadio is here, with girlfriend Carola, she rides for Rabobank back at home in Holland and takes her place at the start.
Sebastian and Carola.
Trinidad sprint and kilo legend, Roger Gibbon holds the lap board, the flag drops there’s the ‘clack’ of shoes into cleats and they’re off.
Pez decides to walk the circuit ‘against’ the race; we get to the top of the home straight before Austrian six day man, Andreas Muller hurtles around the corner – he’s got a sniff of those $1000 Trinidad & Tobago that are on the line.
It’s Moto GP speed back in the bunch as it swishes past in a long, long line, the draft sending the dry leaves in the gutter, flying.
Andreas is still clear, next time round as I begin to question if walking 3.6 K in Birkenstocks is the best idea in this heat – meanwhile, there’s a lot of German getting hollered in that peloton.
The lights of the favellas in the hills twinkle all around as a bigger figure than Andreas flies towards me, Franco! Has he turned ‘chrono man?’
Franco before the start.
I chat to an old guy who’s out for a walk; ‘last year, one of the guys crash into that lamp post right there – first thing he says, “is me bike ok?” they’re tough guys!’
For sure, but Franco hasn’t become a time trial rider, someone has, though; tidy, compact, smooth, fast – Walter Perez. There’s one trying to bridge then a little group of five with Franco.
The Trinidaddy, Emile Abraham, before the race.
Another old guy grabs me; ‘who you supporting?’ ‘Emile Abraham!’ I respond, quick as a flash – my new pal approves; ‘that’s good, man!’
This is the fifth time I’ve seen them and it looks like Seb has made it across to Walter; Argentina 2 – Rest of the World nil.
The air is sweet and warm as I approach a group of homies ‘liming’ – that’s like ‘hanging out’ or ‘chilling’ to us stressed out Northerners.
‘You enjoying the race guys?’ I enquire; ‘yeah, but we drink too much beer!’
‘You can never drink too much beer!’ I reply and I’ve made more Trini friends.
The Argentineans are gone and so are the 1st and 2nd spots for the evening.
Walter and Seb look like they mean business and the bunch seems none to keen to get down to a chase; albeit Dave Wiswell’s doing his best to inject some urgency.
Lap seven, half distance, the lights of down town look great across the Savannah as the two flash past; the bunch has come to life – maybe?
Next lap and the gap has stopped shrinking, with their matching kit and smooth spelling, the two remind me of Euro pros riding the classic – but now extinct – Barrachi two man team time trial, back in the 70’s.
David is trying to bridge but he’s not getting much help.
Ten laps in and there’s another group of homies – but the vibe isn’t so cool; ‘hey CBS! come and talk to us!’
I keep walking – fast, despite the pain in my feet.
Carola is off the back but on the PA I hear that there’s a $1000 TT prime for her to finish – that’s a nice incentive.
There’s another announcement that the first rider to contact the two leaders gets $1000 TT – that dough looks safe to me.
Two to go!
I’ve made it all the way round and it’s one big crowd at the finish as the Soca pumps, the TV crews and photographers jostle for position and I look for a Pepsi.
Ronald Dickie called the race from the sidelines and kept the fans on their feet.
The bell – will Walter pull rank as senior man and Olympic champion, or will Seb offer to write a song for Walter so he can take the win?
‘Those Argentineans will have to declare all those funds their taking out of the country, when they reach customs in Buenos Aires,’ the speaker informs us.
Walter Perez was a happy winner.
Walter’s arms go high, Seb freewheels in and Trinidad and Tobago road champion Adam Alexander defends local honour with a fine third place ahead of some big sprint guns.
Race sponsor, Gerard Hadeed, takes a picture with the happy Argentinean winning duo of Donadio and Perez.
Franco would tell me later; ‘I was on Giddeon Massie’s wheel, I thought he would be the one, but he freewheeled and I nearly ran into the back of him!’
Donadio with race organizer Michael Phillips and Pete Jacques.
Seb tells us that; ‘my soul is here in Trinidad,’ Walter holds a clenched fist to his heart then stretches his arm high with his index finger held up – numero ono, Walter, si!
Three of the most beautiful girls imaginable help main sponsor Gerard Hadeed with the prize giving and I worry about my feet holding out back to the hotel – but the good Samaritan is at hand.
All together now!
Arnold, T & T’s top taxi driver hollers out of the window; ‘Hey Ed man, you want a lift?’ I almost cry, i’m so grateful.
Home Sweet Home.
Back at the ranch, as i’m thinking to myself, ‘why can’t all bike races be like this?’ I meet Seb’s Boca Juniors supporting companero Martin, and last words go to him – ‘muy rapido!’
Pete wants one of these.