By Andy Newsom
Photos by Andy Newsom / Scott Savory
This all started with a rainy evening ride in Central Park in October. I was riding with my friends Scott Savory and Zoltan Tisza, and even though it was late in the season, Scott was training hard. He explained that he was training for a 5-stage race in Guyana. When I expressed interest he invited me to come along. I didn’t know a thing about Guyana, but Scott, who grew up in there, assured me that he would get me registered and take care of all the arrangements. All I had to do was get myself down there. Two days later I had my tickets.
Prior to our trip, Scott spread the word that he was collecting used cycling clothing to give out to the Guyanese cyclists. There is a big need for that stuff because, although people there aren’t destitute, they don’t have a lot of money for the fancy kits we enjoy here.
Soon Scott had amassed a big pile of very nice racing kits from several New York teams. Scott really put a lot of work into the whole project, personally driving around and picking up bibs and jerseys from all around the New York area, then spending hours sorting and pinning sets together.
On the night of our departure from New York, Scott picked me up and took me to his house, where I first witnessed the mountain of clothing. It seemed like more than we could possibly bring with us! That was a frantic hour. I broke down Scott’s bike and packed it, Scott packed his own stuff, and his dad packed all those bibs and jerseys into a giant suitcase. It must have weighed 70 lbs. Somehow he crammed them all in, but there would be no way around the airline’s oversize fee!
We arrived in Guyana without Scott’s bike, but the airline knew where it was and promised it would be on the next flight, so it wasn’t a huge drama. Geron Williams, a pro who has lived in New York and raced as a Cat 1 with Foundation, met us at the airport to give us a ride. On the way into Georgetown we stopped by the United Bike Shop, which is owned by Horace Burrowes. Horace operates another United Bike Shop in New York, and is also an active race promoter in New York. The shop was tiny, immaculate, and pretty darned adorable.
Being a British colony, Guyana drives on the left side of the road. Being a “third world country”, Guyana has minimal traffic rules. The driving there is nuts. The roads are just a little too narrow, and seldom have painted lines or stop signs. I was constantly alarmed as vehicles came at us on what felt to me like the wrong side of the road. Drivers tend to head straight at each other until you think you’re doomed, then they juke around each other at the last second. Add to that the ever present dogs, cattle, goats, horse drawn carts, and cyclists, and you get a picture of what it’s like on the road.
Guyana is rapidly coming into the modern world. Mixed in with the terribly dingy, crooked old wooden shacks were newer, nicely painted homes made of concrete blocks. Everything is on stilts because the whole coastal area, including the capital, is below sea level and floods several times a year. It’s green and lush, but filthy as well. There is garbage everywhere.
In Georgetown, the capital, we stayed in a nice home across the street from where Scott grew up. It was owned by an old white couple that were natives of Guyana. I think the man had been a businessman of some type– they seemed relatively well off. Even so, the house—in fact all the homes I saw– had a certain tolerated decrepitude about it, almost like it just isn’t worth the effort to stay ahead of the deterioration that happens from the constant hot, wet weather. It was completely open to the elements, with large air vents along the upper edges of the walls, and many windows with shutters but no glass. Guyana has a lot of crime, and police don’t really respond to calls, so each home is a fortress, with a big gate, and fully caged-in patios, windows, and entryways.
That first afternoon we met Lear, a local cyclist and quite a character. He’s a long-time cyclist, but wasn’t currently racing because of a recent motorcycle accident. He talks a mile a minute, and is hilarious when you can figure out what he’s saying. He would be riding support on his motorcycle during the race, and his skill and experience saved the day on several occasions, as you will hear later on.
After building up my bike and chatting with Lear for a while we heard that Scott’s bike would be arriving later in the evening, so I went out for a spin with Geron. On the road we met up with another local character, Gerard, who was a relative of Scott’s– a cousin I think– who now lives in Canada and was there for the race. It rained intensely for like two minutes, but that turned out to be the only rain of the trip. Later we ended up meeting two more racers, whom we would get to know better throughout the trip. They were both deaf.
The next afternoon all the racers congregated in town. The race organizers made some speeches, and I (among others) was interviewed for the national news. Then they loaded us all on a bus, and put our bikes in the back of a truck (worrisome). Off we went to Corentyne, where we would begin our race the following morning.
The trip was eye opening. We were treated to a wonderful view of the countryside as the bus driver took a meandering route in order to run his own errands. We kept stopping. No one knew why. The driver would get out and go into a house or a shop for a few minutes and then come back out and start driving again. We saw rice paddies and cane fields, and endless ramshackle, rain-stained houses. And of course dogs– ubiquitous, skinny, itchy, stray dogs, all the same breed.
At last we arrived in Corentyne, where I was assigned to a room with Scott, Gerond, and Gerard. The organizers had taken care of everything; the hotel rooms were all arranged, and dinner was served for us.
This brings me to Guyanese food. The primary meal was “cookup”, which consists of rice, often with beans, and a piece of chicken. It was spicy and delicious, and sometimes full of bones. it was served to us that night, and every night. Often it was served for lunch as well. In fact there was almost always cookup available. The Guyanese eat it constantly. I got sick of it, though I must admit it was hearty and perfect fuel after a long day on the bike.
That night we enjoyed a room with air conditioning, the only night of the trip with that particular luxury!
The next morning we were awakened at 4:45 by a race organizer banging on our door, coming into our room, and yelling “Why are you still in bed? We have a race today!” Cookup for breakfast, instant coffee, and we were ready to go.
The “Annual Ministry of Health/ National AIDS Program Secretariat/ National Sports Commission `Ride for Life’ 5-stage cycle road race” is put on by the government of Guyana to promote competitive cycling as well as AIDS awareness. It’s completely free to enter, and food and hotel accommodations are included for free as well. The race is open to everyone, and provides an amazing opportunity for amateurs to experience a fully supported race experience.
There were about 70 starters, almost all from Guyana. Besides me, there were two other Americans, but those two were actually from Guyana. I was the only white person in the race, which didn’t matter at all. Throughout my stay in Guyana I encountered nothing but welcoming hospitality from everyone I met, without exception. I can’t stress enough how amazingly friendly and generous the Guyanese are. They are a wonderful people.
Stage 1 was 45 miles, dead flat, and dead straight. We left from Corentyne and headed back toward Georgetown. Right off the bat the pace was high, with multiple attempted breaks. The peloton, although full of different skill levels and ages, was relatively composed. The Guyanese racers are highly experienced. They race constantly, and from an early age. I was expecting it to be sketchier than it was. I was alarmed by the fact that one racer had only one arm, but was assured by others that he was actually quite strong and experienced.
A full-on motorcade accompanied us at all times. Crowds cheered along the whole route. There were police on motorcycles (hilarious, ancient motorcycles) with sirens blaring continuously to clear the road. It felt like we were in a third-world version of the Tour de France. There was a big bike transport truck, race organizer cars, buses, and I don’t know how many motorcycles. Lots. If a racer needed water, all they had to do was hold out their bottle and a motorbike would zoom right up and take it, refill it, and hand it back. As the race broke up, motorbikes stayed with each group, including the stragglers. At one point I saw Lear aggressively using his motorbike to herd a bunch of running cattle off the road. The one thing I never saw was an ambulance.
There was a pretty scary crash at one point. A guy went down and was knocked unconscious when he hit the ground. I narrowly missed his limp body (actually I heard later that it was caused by the one-armed man), but that same guy lined up to start stage two with a torn up face, and ended up completing the remaining four stages. Our friend Gerard flatted his tubular.
I wasn’t very active on stage 1. I just sat in and got a feel for things. It was over before I knew it. I rolled in right behind Scott for an eleventh place.
Stage 2, later that day….
Race organizers provided us with lunch– cookup– and a hotel where we could shower, change, and chill for a couple of hours. Later that afternoon we began Stage 2, which was 65 miles. This time I wanted to make something happen, and I felt dynamite. We got out on the road, and I was waiting for the right moment to go, when a sizable break of half a dozen guys got away. I was trapped in the peloton, watching them recede into the distance. I had heard that no one would initiate a chase, so as soon as I could extricate myself from the pack I accelerated hard and began bridging. I found the one-armed man in no-man’s land, also trying to bridge. The two of us began a grueling half hour of desperate chasing. This was the dumbest move of the race for me. While we put a huge gap between ourselves and the field, we simply could not reel in the break. Eventually I gave up, and let the other guy go on by himself. By this time I was so cooked that when the field did eventually catch me, it flowed right past, and I couldn’t even jump in. Misery! My body was a wreck. I was bonking, and my hamstrings and glutes were wracked with pain. It was all I could do to keep going. As I dragged myself along sadly, I was caught up by the only girl in the race– an Indian girl name Naomi Singh, a very good rider. That was good luck– we rode the remainder of the stage together, which made those miles a little easier to bear. My hopes for the over-all were gone. But because I was out of the big group, the spectators could see me well, so I was constantly hearing “Yeah Whitey, Go Whitey!” A motorbike stayed with us all the way to the end.
Scott had a terrible race that day too. He was cramping the whole time, and even had to stop at one point, where he fell to the ground with severe leg cramps. Gerard flatted another tubular.
That night we stayed in our house in Georgetown. Lear gave me and Scott massages, the best I’ve ever had. A cyclist knows how to massage a cyclist!
The next morning we were able to ride to the stage start. There was a market there where all kinds of fruit could be found. That’s when I was introduced to Sweet Fakes, which are little mini-bananas that are super sweet. They are delicious, and very easy to eat while riding. Support motorbikes handed them out during the races.
Stage 3 was probably the fastest stage; something like a 1/2/3 race at Floyd Bennett Field, back in New York. There were constant accelerations, and very high speeds. Near the end of the stage a small break went away, and I stubbornly went to the front and started towing it back. Then I noticed Scott in the break ahead, frantically waving me back, so I moved over and sat up, and let them go. A couple of minutes later the race was over. I was mad to have given up a better placing, and Scott was mad that I was pulling everyone up to him. If there’s one thing I hate, it’s being to told to sit up in a race. Tell me to work, and I’ll put my head down and bury myself. But losing a race after following someone’s advice to ease up… that’s not for me. But I digress. Gerard hit a pothole and flatted both his tubulars and shattered both of his carbon wheels. That was four flatted tubulars and two destroyed wheels in three stages! That was the end for him.
Next they loaded us all onto a ferry which would take us across the Essequibo River to Supenaam. The ride was a couple of hours long, and most people slept, or relaxed, socialized, and played cards. I took a lot of pictures and watched the jungle pass by. The Essequibo is the third largest river in South America; insanely huge. Looking across it, you see land in the distance, but that’s not the far bank, just an island. And there are more islands beyond that. Supenaam is like a separate province or region. There are rice fields, lots of them, and apparently that brings in good money– it was slightly nicer over there. A little bit nicer homes, and nicer businesses. We stayed in a funny little hotel that night, with open air rooms. Mosquitoes.
Stage 4 was hot, hot, hot. It was windy too, and when the wind was at our backs, the heat really felt oppressive. We all made extensive use of the motorbike water-suppliers that day. Team Coco was, at this point, in control of the race, and they controlled the pace throughout the stage. No one could get away, and eventually everyone stopped trying. It came down to a bunch sprint. I gave the sprint a shot but only ended up with (I think) 12th. By the way, the Guyanese can sprint!
That afternoon we took the ferry back to Georgetown and got ready for the final stage.
Stage 5- The “hilly” stage
The Guyanese version of hilly was severely disappointing for a guy hoping to distinguish himself on some climbs. They weren’t climbs. Very, very gradual rises would be more accurate. The leaders would jump out of the saddle and sprint half-way up, then run out of steam and lose all their speed. I stayed seated, let the crazy accelerations go, then calmly pulled them back. Again and again I did this. Nearing the end I still had pretty good legs, and I felt I had one last chance to break the top ten. Suddenly there were cattle running along next to us, which was distracting to say the least. Right then Scott hit a big pothole, and went down hard, damaging his collarbone. He took a bunch of other people out, too. Including me. I wasn’t hurt though, and my bike was fine, so I jumped back on and started chasing. By this time it was near the end of the race, so the pace was high, and I had to dig really deep to catch back onto the peloton. I did catch them though, and moved up to the front in time to be ahead of a separation. I was kind of spent at that point, but I managed to hold onto the lead group up to the finish. Tenth-ish, again.
That afternoon we had the awards ceremony in a big theatre. Trophies and prize money were handed out, speeches were made, and then Scott got to give out all the kit we’d brought from New York. It was an absolute feeding frenzy, but everybody got something.
As icing on the cake, there was a juniors race the following day. Scott, Geron and I all got to go along, this time on motorbikes. I rode bitch behind Lear, and gave out water. Scott rode a scooter that could barely keep up with the race.
Those poor kids crashed all over the place. At one point Lear dropped back to the truck and yelled at the driver to back off, and sure enough, literally ten seconds later, there was a huge crash. (Thank you Lear!) The kids rode valiantly, and it was actually a really exciting finish. Many of them were in their new kits. It was funny to see kits from teams we know (or have known) in New York—Teany, Sid’s– on a bunch of kids racing in the tropics.
Unfortunately the race organizers only reported the top ten places, so I don’t know how I placed over all. I do know there were only thirty finishers of the original seventy. It doesn’t matter too much, honestly. It was an absolutely incredible experience. And I can’t say enough about the people there. Lovely. Everyone asked (almost demanded) that I come back next year, and to please bring friends. I hope that some people who read this will consider going. You won’t regret it.