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Tuesday, April 10, 2012
Respect, not points, wins out in El Salvador

By Kathryn Bertine

I tried to write this column last week during the Vuelta El Salvador, an exceedingly taxing seven-day race in the middle of Central America, where the high temperature averaged 105 degrees. I gave up when my first attempt at a sentence was "Huuuhflur bluuugh blehhh ..."

Heat is not my friend; nor is a race where climbing volcanoes is involved. But Hope and Effort have always been dear friends, so they came along for the journey in my quest for Olympic points. Better still, an actual human incarnation of Hope and Effort came along in the form of Moriah MacGregor.

Moriah, a Canadian cyclist and teammate of mine on Team Colavita, came with me to help me with my quest.

Here is the short story: I did not win Olympic points in El Salvador. But, for the first time in my cycling career, I had the ability to affect the races. In doing so, I won some things far more valuable than points: confidence, growth, power and even respect.

Here is the long story: On the first day, Moriah and I checked out the race program. Seventy-four racers representing 14 nations would participate. Former world champions Amber Neben (United States) and Noemi Cantele (Italy) brought their quads of glory. There were top national teams from those countries, along with Ukraine, Taiwan and Brazil, plus a smattering of pro trade teams mixed in with local composite squads comprised of riders from smaller nations.

We would be riding on Le Croissant, a local team of two El Salvadoran women, Bea Quiroz and Xenia Estrada, Columbia's Victoria Galvis, Moriah and me. Only the top six finishers each day would earn Olympic qualification points; the two Grand Prix events bookending the five-day Vuelta would also award points to the top 12. One thing was immediately clear: Everyone here wanted qualification points.

For small nations like mine, St. Kitts and Nevis, the only way to qualify for the London Games is to earn enough points to be ranked in the top 100 in the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale) rankings. For larger countries, more points mean more places for the Games. So, while Italy, for example, already had three guaranteed Olympic spots, it was looking for a fourth. Thus, for this race, there would be no easy stages, there would be no "gifts" or easy wins; everyone was here with visions of domination. (And when you are riding for a team named for a French pastry, it is imperative to front an extremely intimidating game face and psych yourself up with mental ammunition like "You don't scare me, Italian National Team. Wait until I unleash my buttery flakiness on you.")

Moriah and I studied the courses, which were rife with steep hills, including the famed El Boqueron, the country's menacing volcano with a 10-to-21 percent grade. To find out what a 21 percent gradient feels like, pick a wall in your home and try to ride your bicycle up it. I should know; I did this race in 2008 with little experience. It was all I could do every day to just hang on and not get dropped. I was stronger this time around, but strength is only part of what it takes to survive a race like this. Luck, mental toughness, cold water and a steel-belted intestinal track are also vital.

Combine the course with the extreme heat of Central America, the swift competition, road surfaces that can best be described as crater-tastic, uncovered manholes, an abundant stray-dog population and city bus drivers whose maneuvering can best be described as vehicular interpretive dance, and it's safe to say I had my work cut out for me.

Moriah and I knew my only chance for success would be to initiate a break, which is a cycling term for a small group of riders who break away from the main peloton and try to escape their chase until the finish line. Breaks are hard to accomplish. If four riders try to get away, for example, the main peloton of 70 usually has enough (wo)manpower to chase the break down. The trick is to get riders from different teams into the break, so their teammates in the peloton won't work to chase them down. Cycling is ultimately a team sport, so, if one rider is in a good position to win, her teammates will not help the others in the peloton work to catch up.

The plan was this: Over and over, I would "attack" the peloton and try to form a break. Moriah, in turn, would do the same, hoping to wear people out by making them have to chase us. It sounded like a lovely plan. The catch? Attacking the peloton is a wee bit exhausting for a team of two. (We had three other riders on the team, but composite squads don't function as actual teams. It is understood that each rider of a composite team is after her own Olympic points, though in this case Moriah generously came specifically to help me.) Still, it is better to finish a race knowing you put it all on the line than to spend the rest of the week, or your entire life, wondering, "What if?"

Day after day, Moriah and I attacked, and annihilated ourselves in the name of "What if?" Sometimes, our breaks stuck for a while; other times, they didn't. But something incredible happened: The peloton saw our strength and didn't let us get very far before chasing us down. Four years ago, no one even knew I was in the peloton. This year, they did, and they paid attention. The confidence that comes in recognizing one's self-improvement, and believing in it, is perhaps one of the most thrilling moments in an athlete's life.

Other riders recognized my efforts and development, and gave encouragement. I have turned a corner. I am no longer "that weird girl who wrote that book," but rather "that weird girl who is trying to help our sport and doesn't totally suck anymore." It's a nice place to be.

Over the eight stages, I finished in the 20s (good days) or the 50s (stripped to the core by Effort), but my final placing averaged out somewhere in the mid-40s. Despite not winning any UCI points, Hope still remains. With my fitness at a new level, and my friends and teammates helping out when they can, there are still races left on the UCI calendar and I'll be in a better place to earn the points I need.

Never underestimate the power of a Croissant on a mission. Onward to Holland for the Energiewacht Tour.

Kathryn Bertine is the author of two sports memoirs, "All The Sundays Yet To Come" and "As Good As Gold." You can follow her on Twitter @kathrynbertine, or check out her latest endeavor to help women's cycling.