This story forms part of our North American week on Cyclingnews.
Mexican cycling has had its share of struggles developing professional cyclists aspiring to reach the WorldTour, while fostering the racing scene at home. Politics and power conflicts within the country continue to dominate with the athletes suffering as a result. A new program is hoping to change this.
Recent hope had circled around Luis Villalobos, who had garnered a WorldTour contract in 2019 with EF Pro Cycling, the first for a Mexican cyclist in over 20 years. The Jalisco native had quickly become a national star, even traveling on an autograph tour before his fall from grace last spring, when it emerged he had tested positive for growth hormone GHRP-6 the previous year.
The Mexican community took a hit, as aspiring athletes saw doors closing abroad on opportunities that had begun to open only months earlier due to Villalobos' success. Mexicans racing in the US saw years of hard work fighting to combat doping stigmas vanish.
One year later and Villalobos has remained out of the spotlight, raising his family in the US and now working as a truck driver. He never made a public statement, shutting out contact with anyone in professional cycling. He remains provisionally suspended by the UCI. Initially, the fallout from his case had a damaging effect on the sport in the country, splitting the community between those who were defending the old omertà and those fighting to race clean. Then, COVID-19 hit.
Mexico managed to escape many hardships other countries were facing due to the coronavirus pandemic. Rather than seeing multiple teams fold, new programs have popped up. The most prominent is A.R. Monex Women's Pro Cycling Team, a promising new project begun outside of Mexico City in 2014 by brothers Luis and Alejandro Rodriguez, who have launched three teams for 2021. The project includes a men’s U23 road team, a men’s mountain bike team, and a junior development team, while A.R. Monex have become the new acting title sponsor for what was the Astana Women’s team.
Other new teams in Mexico include Pato Bike, Scott Aquiles, and Agolico – BMC team after both SwapIt and CONADE Specialized-Visit Mexico had ended. The longest-running UCI Continental team in the Americas, Canel’s- ZeroUno, remains the only UCI Continental team registered in Mexico, however.
“In 2020, we had our mountain bike team registered in Andorra,” Luis Rodriguez told Cyclingnews. “We have tried many times to offer the cycling federation to work with us, for the riders, but they see us as a competition.”
In 2019 and 2020, A.R. Monex Pro Cycling were awarded $1 million of government funding through the Mexican tax administration, EFIDEPORT, besides securing a group of other sponsors in the country, including the financial group, Monex. The program was created to sponsor high-performing amateur sports programs, allowing the team financial freedom to expand with a base in Valle de Bravo and another in Andorra. Within a year, the program had earned Mexico’s first mountain bike World Cup win in Nové Mêsto with Gerardo Ulloa.
“When the tax administration started this program, they left out all the federations,” Rodriguez said. “They didn’t want the federations to participate because they knew they only want money. To be honest, there have been a lot of things that have been going on since. The Federation hated that we always find a way to fund our program, it’s a matter of power.”
Last fall the team sent their junior road team to Colombia to race the Vuelta Antioquia and Clasicá RCN, among others. Upon arrival, they learned they were missing documentation from the Mexican Federation allowing them to race. Unable to secure the documents, they were forced instead to sit in a hotel waiting for their return flights back home.
“The main plan for our juniors was to launch a registered team in 2022, but our sponsors wanted to launch instead in 2021. So we gathered a few riders to send to Colombia to race,” Rodriguez said. “Because we didn’t have the team registered, the Mexican Federation found out about it, called the Colombian Federation and wouldn’t let us race. The Colombians were really nice but didn’t want any political problems with our federation so we were forced to return home. We lost a lot of money, so thanks to that we decided we want nothing to do anymore in Mexico.”
The Mexican Cycling Federation disputed this account in a response to Cyclingnews. “No request was ever received for the participation of this team in Colombia,” said Dario Mora Medina, technical director for the Federation. “Shamefully, we learned of their intention to participate when we received a call from the president of the Colombia Federation. It should be noted, it’s a recurring method with them. I want to clarify that the Rodriguez Family, directors of this company, have hurt cycling.”
After the conflicts between the two, the Rodriguez brothers recently decided to close the team’s training base in Valle de Bravo, Mexico, and launch a new permanent base in the small Republic of San Marino. The brothers became connected with Mauricio Fabretto of Astana, who was looking for a new title sponsor for his women’s team in Italy. The project grew and the brothers announced last week they had secured the UCI Continental licence, registering the women’s team in Italy with Fabretto, and the U23 men’s road team and mountain bike team in San Marino.
“We work with EFIDEPORTE for the men’s Continental team and mountain bike team, for the women’s team we fund the Mexican riders and nothing else,” Rodriguez said. “Our men’s team are counted as amateurs with the UCI, this is how we proved to EFIDEPORTE that we have amateur teams. There is no such thing as salaries, though we are launching a donation system in April for money that will go to the riders.”
The money from EFIDEPORTE is a major opportunity, but one that comes with a lot of stipulations in how the money is used. A.R. Monex must apply for the programme every year. Each time they are awarded money, they must report in detail how many athletes they will be supporting. The money must go to Mexican athletes only, and nothing else.
“Even though we are registered in San Marino, it’s a Mexican team. According to UCI rules for Continental teams, 51 per cent of the riders must be from the country where it is registered. We wanted to register in Italy but that would have meant we had to have many more Italians on the team, which is really expensive. If the registered country doesn’t have enough riders, the team is allowed to bring riders in from other countries so we signed a contract with the Cycling Federation of San Marino and registered there.”
The organization has given Mexican cycling their first European-based program. The mountain bike team consists of seven all-Mexican riders. Three Mexican riders are currently signed to the women’s team, with the possibility of two more added later in the season, including Carolina Rodriguez who had taken a hiatus in 2019 to have a baby. The U23 team includes eight Mexican riders with one, Federico Olei, from San Marino.
The team has yet to release their race calendar but the goal is to earn an invitation to the Baby Giro. The roster will be led by Edgar Cadena of Hidalgo, along with Carlos Mier y Terán and Miguel Arroyo Jr, whose father raced professionally in the late 80s and early 90s with Subaru-Montgomery and Z-Peugeot. The trio have launched Mexico’s first cycling podcast, “Podcast del Ciclismo Mexico”, to stay connected with Mexico and help promote the sport back home.
“There is very little content in Spanish for cycling in Mexico, so for us it was an easy decision to start it,” Mier said. “This season will be very important for the growth of our sport in Mexico. It’s a bit experimental; to see how we can reach cyclists at home, covering important topics. The good thing is that we will have a lot more to discuss once the season starts.”
Gone are the days of the Vuelta Mexico and the Vuelta Chihuahua, where European and North American teams would come to race. A national calendar exists but rarely attracts foreign teams. Riders like Mier understand the need to race abroad and the unique opportunities made available through A.R. Monex, but also the stigma they may face in doing so.
“Outside of Mexico, people tend to assume that every one of us are doping, something I believe goes back to education,” Mier said. “We lack anti-doping controls at the national races and events. There’s a lot of talk about doping and those who have tested positive in Mexico. Last year, Flavio de Luna released a video on YouTube following the Villalobos news, discussing the culture around doping in the country. I believe what he discussed based on his own experience racing professionally, needed to be said yet most of the negative comments were directed towards De Luna.
“Now, we have all these doors that have been closed because of these cheaters but at the same time, we have doors opening through A.R. Monex. Anything that is worth doing right requires a lot of work and dedication. You have to be honest. The team tests us in how we are training, making sure that we are doing things right. We live and train together, so that they are sure we are good. Without a doubt, this team has a Mexican structure to open the doors that those other athletes closed.”
Still, riders are often forced to choose – stay in Mexico to remain in good graces with the Federation or try their chances abroad facing doping stigmas among foreign teams.
In speaking with Cyclingnews for this article, Ulloa explained news of his signing with Scott-Aquiles in Mexico was due to his objective of competing at the Tokyo Olympic Games in mountain biking. In doing so, the currently top-ranked Mexican mountain biker chose to give up a European racing calendar competing against the top riders in the world to instead race the season in Mexico in hopes of reaching his Olympic dream.
“It’s been crazy with the Federation against us,” Rodriguez added. “We keep working with EFIDEPORTE but it’s doubtful that we will receive the funding this next year, fortunately we have support from our other sponsors. Sometimes we have to be tough because if we’re not, we cannot continue. When we are, they take it the wrong way.
"We’re not expecting great results but we’re focused on our juniors. Their power numbers are similar to Ulloa now but they’re still juniors! The riders, the staff, we’re all ready to start.”
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