June 2, 2007
When we (the Colavita/Sutter Home team – Tina, Alison, Dotsie, Iona) got the opportunity to go to the Pan Am Championships in Venezuela we were so excited - until we read the USA Cycling guide to the country. What do you mean kidnappings in broad daylight? And demonstrations that often get violent? Certainly they are making this sound worse than it is. Didn't they say this about Argentina a few years ago?
However, we were flying in pretty close to the events (except for Iona who was insistent on breaking every record by competing in five events - 3 track and 2 road) and out as soon as the race was over so maybe they were serious about all of this.
Dotsie and Alison were missing their bikes the first day which didn't really make for easy sleeping since the time trial was the first event. But the rest of us got to go on a little ride – assisted by five policemen on motorcycles. We were making lots of friends on our journey because every time there was a merge onto the highway the cops would stop all the traffic so we could get through. This caused lots of honking. Actually, any time a Venezuelan stops for any reason I think they honk. One other tidbit - their air conditioning is either on or off. And when it's on it is really on. A guy on the flight over said – wait until you get on the bus to the hotel – there must be penguins under the seat. I think I heard some thumping from Mr. Happy Foot.
That evening we went to the track to cheer on Colby and Brad in the Madison. As we were waiting for our cab someone came up and asked "Estados Unidos?" In spite of our incognito strategies of no US clothing or expensive jewellery we were still sticking right out.
Colby and Brad came up with the goods – in a battle that was not easily won. Strange but there were no cheers until Brad yelled "me gusto Venezuela!" The next day was the time trial and with some bribery Dotsie and Alison's bikes showed up miraculously. Alison and Dotsie were looking smooth as glass and pulled off the Gold and Bronze. Iona pulled off an eighth place finish in her fourth event - overachiever.
The next day's tensions seemed to be growing a bit around the place because Chavez had decided to close down one of the only free (not country run) TV stations. There was supposed to be a big protest. We rode over to the road course for the race and a few minutes before it was going to start the roads still weren't closed down. The police weren't around to close them – something having to do with Chavez again. We weren't sure they were going to have the race.
The police finally did show up and the race started about an hour late. The course was shaped like a hot dog – just like the Manhattan Beach crit – except about four kilometres longer – with a few hills thrown in. The Mexicans, Colombians, and Venezuelans were throwing down the attacks from the gun. But the course wasn't hard enough to secure any big separations. Our race radios had been stolen from our luggage on the way down so communication was pretty slim.
I thought I might have a flat and rode up to Dotsie to let her know. I had to stick my arm up in the air to let the guys know I had a flat which caused another flurry of attacks. The caravan wasn't really what you'd call tight and if it weren't for Dotsie coming back to help me get back in the race I really don't think I would have made it back on . Alison and Iona were covering moves on the front and had no idea that we had gone off the back to fix the flat – until they hit the U-turn and saw us going the other way.
Dotsie and I were pretty gassed from the effort to get back on and I wasn't too sure what I had left for the sprint. No break away attempts were succeeding so I asked Alison if she could bring me around the last turn. She was awesome and then Dotsie actually got up there right before the turn to hold off the pack and then gun it. Alison took over again up the last hill and for the last 500 metres Dotsie came back up again for the most amazing kick ever. We held off Yumari Gonzales, the speedy Cuban, for second and the wily Canadian Gina Grain for third.
But the fun wasn't over. All ten American Mr. Magoos headed out for a dinner at a nearby restaurant. We should have guessed that it wasn't too safe because there was no one out in the street. But it didn't really hit us until the tear gas started pouring into the restaurant. I was talking to Dotsie and my nose was just burning. But no one else was affected. I was just beginning to think I'd caught some rare form of Venezuelan nose bug when everyone snatched up their napkins and put them over their faces.
The chefs came running out of the kitchen with napkins over their faces. We took off and headed back to our hotel (which at this point is feeling much more like a jail). The cops were dropping this tear gas everywhere in anticipation for the huge protest and making their motorcycles backfire so people would think they were shooting. (I did think they were shooting.)
After the tear gassing all the locals went home to get their cars (I guess to avoid the tear gas) and came back and lined them all up outside our hotel (which was near a local affiliate of the TV station) and laid on the horns and flashed their lights for hours. And then they got out these pots and pans and started banging on them. We could not get out of there fast enough. I didn't realize the effect of spending a few days in Venezuela had until we arrived in Miami. (It certainly is quiet here!!) Someone dropped a crate behind me and I almost ran for cover. You never know how lucky you have it until you go to a place where you don't feel safe leaving your home. Me gusto Estados Unidos!!