A Mexican Racing Story
My cycling hero, Dex Tooke is back with another incredible story. We’ve featured this incredible RAAM Endurance Cyclist many times in the past and have published one of his articles as well. This time Dex shares with us his experiences of racing in Mexico earlier on in his cycling career.
A Mexican Racing Story
by Dex Tooke
The call came Saturday evening at 6:30. “Dex. Dex. Manana a la manana. La Plaza. Acuna. A las ocho.” I recognized the female voice although I wasn’t sure I had ever met the woman. Her voice was the one that always called the night before a Mexico race. She didn’t speak English but she did speak Spanish in a way that got her point across to this Gringo. She was letting me know that there would be a bike race Sunday morning in Mexico. I was to meet at the Plaza in Acuna at 8:00 a.m.
Where the race was supposed to take place, when it was going to start or how many miles we were to race was still uncertain. And I knew better than to ask such questions because I knew that the way races went in Mexico that anything she thought she knew and told me tonight could totally change over the next 12 hours. I responded with “Si,si. Muy bien. Manana a la manana a las ocho. Gracias.” This was very typical of the bicycle road races in Mexico. As the only Gringo daring or bonehead enough to race in Mexico I was just grateful that they let me know about the races.
A van came to pick me up at the Plaza to take me to the start of the race. The only available seat was on top of an old auto battery between the driver and passenger front seat. I sat on it worrying if acid would eat a hole in my cycling shorts. There were 8 other racers already in the van. We slowly started making our way east toward Piedras Negras.
If the racers spoke slow enough and didn’t care if I recognized what they were saying then I could pick up enough words to understand them. But when they didn’t want me to understand, they would speak a slang and speak it fast and I could only pick up isolated words. The most recognizable was Gringo (pronounced Greeeengo) or Duro. Both were nic names they had given me over the years of racing in Mexico. Gringo was slang and not very complimentary for American. Duro meant “hard” and was given to me because of my legs. They tended to use Duro to my face and Gringo behind my back.
Then I saw Gato and his entourage of team mates from Monclova. We have been racing for several years and a bitter rivalry had developed. In the early years when I wasn’t a threat to him we would speak sometimes. But as our rivalty grew and as I became more competitive and as I learned of some of his race tactics, then it got to where we never spoke. I had never beat Gato. I came close many times but as the race came down to the meta Gato would always out sprint me.
Gato would be the favorite to win the race today. He always was. He was a coy, savvy racer with a strong team to support him. He was also the best sprinter I had ever raced against. It didn’t make any difference how far the race or who was competing, when it came down to the last 300 meters of a race if Gato was in the pack then he would just stand up on his pedals, power those tree trunk thighs of his and use all his years of experience and fast twitch fibers and sprint past the field for the win.
The race would be from Guerro to Acuna. 83 miles of roller coaster hills and two lane highways with pot-holes, debris, unfinished shoulders and periodic topas (speed bumps) as the course wound through several small villages. It would be hot with temps over 100 and humidity in the low 40%. Dehydration would play a major role for not only the novice riders but even for some of the experienced ones. It would also be a fast race as there was a constant 20 mph tail wind with gusts up to 30 mph through some of the canyon descents.
The pack of close to 100 riders paraded the first two miles around the plaza in Guerro. The wave of brightly colored racing jerseys curved around the plaza. The brilliant colors of red, orange, blue and green weaved through the streets. The pack headed out of town west toward Piedras Negras. There was an immediate attack by a group of riders off the front of the pack. The pace quickened as riders scrambled for position so as not to be dropped in the early attack. About 30 riders, myself included were able to hang on to the breakaway as a large gap developed from the rest of the pack.
All the strong teams were well represented in the pack of 30 including Gato and his Monclova team. Riding as a Maverick (no team) I just hung on to the pack as if I were a team mate. I was a marked man and I knew it.
The pack of 30 stayed together for about the next 70 kilometers as they weaved up and down the roller coaster type hills of the Chihuahuan Desert. The course led its way through several small, archaic villages. The villages were recognized by the adobe walled, straw roofed dwellings and an occasional bus stop by the highway.
There were isolated attacks or attempts to breakaway by individuals but they were always covered. Also, every now and then a member of one of the strong teams would just jump off the front baiting the rest of the pack to pick up speed and attempt to catch him. These isolated attacks would eventually have the same effect of kidney blows to an opponent in a boxing match. And through all of this I always attempted to stay within viewing distance of Gato and his team mates.
I knew that if Gato did have a weakness, it was on hills. And hills were my strong point. I had made several hill attacks but they had always been covered by Flako, Gato’s team mate. He would always anticpate my attack and be in position to block me out just enough to slow me down to allow Gato and the following pack to catch up. And of course the whole time, I was expending energy that I knew I would need later on. But I had to try.
At about the 100km point in the race there was a steep hill. I timed my attack to occur when I was the farthest from Flako so he wouldn’t be able to block me. I pushed hard up the hill. I didn’t look back. I stayed seated and let my legs spin my way up the hill. I relaxed my hands, my shoulders, my neck, and I relaxed the muscles in my face as I attempted to allow as much oxygen as possible to my lungs and legs. I fought the anoxia. I refused to give into the lactic acid build up in my legs. I kept pushing. My heart rate neared 190 beats per minute. I was becoming anoxic. But I hung on. There was only a few yards left till the crest of the hill. I knew this was my best attack so far and I really thought I might have broken Gato. But just as I crested the hill, I looked over and Flako along with team mate Durango had pulled Gato up the hill and had covered my attack.
And then WHAM!! Gato sensed my exhaustion and made an attack of his own down the hill. He jumped to the side of my bike attempting to make sure I couldn’t catch his draft. I reached deep inside knowing that this could be the end of the race for me if I didn’t catch him. I was lucky enough to catch his draft and we flew down the steep hill.
I was right on his wheel. Gato and I were the lead riders now. We had dropped the lead pack of 30. We were approaching speeds in the upper 40′s. No one was catching us. I was blowing up. I knew I couldn’t keep this pace up long.
I was beside Gato now and I saw him look over at me as we approached the topas (speed bump) at 48 mph. I knew it was insane to attempt to hit the topas at that speed. Gato knew it too. But he also knew that if he didn’t back off and I did, then he could open a gap that I probably wouldn’t be able to bridge. The topas were close. Gato glanced over to me. Sweat was running down his olive colored facial skin. His jet black eye brows kinda raised as he smirked at me. His brown eyes presented the challenge. He was not going to slow down. I knew I had to stay with him. The topas were here. No holding back now. We both pulled on our bars, raising our front tires immediately before touching the front topa.
Suddenly, no friction. We were both air born. We were both flying side by side at 48 mph. I awaited the hard hit on the topa wondering what the outcome would bring. I just wanted to keep my bike up without going down. Then to my surprise I looked down as we both hit the pavement. Both of us had completely cleared the topas by a good 3 feet. Neither went down. Neither blew out a tire or lost a chain. I looked over at Gato and he seemed as surprised as I.
No one from the any of the other packs were going to catch up with us There was less than 10 kilometers left now. I knew the course well from here to Acuna. Just 2 kilometers ahead lay “espalda de camel” or the back of the camel. It was a two tiered, steep hill that led to the outskirts of Acuna. The hill wound gradually up for a long 3 kilometers.
During this portion of the hill the strong climbers would press the pace and invariably weed out the weaker riders. As the weaker racers are dropped on the hill, they have a tradition of yelling out the nickname of their favorite rider to cheer them on. Then after the gradual clim, there is a brief level portion of roadway before a final very steep 2 kilometers. It is on this last portion of “espalda de camel” that the race is traditionally won or lost. Whoever can break away just a little bit at the peak of “espalda de camel” has a very fast, gradual downhill, wind assisted sprint to the meta. This is where Gato always wins the sprint.
The lead pack began their assault on the climb. The effort intensified as the pace slowed going up the hill. I was sandwiched between two riders. Gato was on my wheel. His team mates, Flako and Durango were at his side. I was feeling the effects of the heat and the humidity. I could feel the lactic acid building in the muscles of my legs. Dehydration was taking its toll on all of us.
Gato pulled up beside me as we were still on the first tier of the hill. I looked over and saw the heat in his face. Beads of sweat covered his face. His blue “Monclova” racing jersey was soaked. There were little streams of sweat running down the contours of the muscles of his shaven legs. I saw his eyes try to catch of glimpse of me. I tried to look as relaxed as I could. I did not want him to see my anoxic state. I wanted to decoy him as long as I could. As our pack of 6 pushed up the hill we slowly started dropping some of the other riders. I heard one of the dropped riders yell out the name “Diablo” for encouragement. And then as we pressed harder and harder, several more of the pack riders began to fall off. Each one would yell a name. I heard Gato, I heard Caliente and Vibora. Never had I ever heard anyone yell “Duro”.
The pack of 6 topped the first tier of the hill. It was only us now. The rest of the pack had dissipated. There was a short level portion then the second tier would start. Then, just as we started the second climb, I heard from the distance a lone voice yell ”Duro…Duro…Duro”. I had no idea who had yelled but I have to admit a little extra burst of adrenaline raced through my muscles just hearing it. The second part of the hill climb was intense but strategically planned by Gato and his mates. They kept everyone in control so as to preserve as much of Gato’s energy as possible.
Every time I would try to make a move to the outside, Flako would immediately come over and box me in. We were less than 30 meters to the crest of the hill and I knew I had to do something to try to make a jump. I didn’t want to lose another sprint to Gato. I again made a move to the outside. Flako came over to box me in. I intentionally bumped his rear wheel risking a crash. But it was my only chance to get outside and make a jump. Gato saw my move and knew he had to cover me himself.
He stayed right on my rear wheel. I pushed as hard as I could the final few meters up the hill but it was to no avail. Gato stayed with me and his team mates and the other two riders were right with us. We had crested the second tier of “Espalda de Camel”.
Now it was a short, down wind, down hill, extremely fast 3 kilometers to the meta. Gato was in his favorite position. Right where he wanted to be. Right in the middle of the pack of 6 riders. I was hanging on for dear life at the rear of the pack. Our speed was over 40 mph now as we zoomed down the bumpy, uneven streets fo Acuna. One little pot hole could wipe any of us out at any moment.
One kilometer to go and now it was time for Gato to make his famous move. Durango moved to the outside and Gato followed his wheel and his lead. I saw it coming but I was maxed out and knew there was nothing I could do. I saw Gato move to the outside of Durngo. I saw him stand up on his pedals. I knew the sprint was on. I saw him lean his head completely over his handlebars. I saw his tree trunk thighs flex as he pushed his biggest gear with power tha no one else possessed. Gato was making his sprint. Nobody beats Gato in a sprint.
And then from nowhere I felt adrenaline. As if things were flashing before me I remembered hearing the lone voice of the anonymous dropped rider yelling “Duro…Duro…Duro.” I stood up myself on my pedals. I let out a blood curdling scream at the top of my lungs that surprised even me. “AAAAAHHHHHHHH” My legs spun. My heart pumped. My lungs expanded. My new-found energy passed two of the riders immediately. And just as quick, I passed Flako and Durango both. There was nothing they could do to box me in. I looked up and Gato’s wheel was right in front of me. There was less than 30 meters to go. I screamed one more time and slid inside of Gato. Our elbows brushed as I pulled up as close as I could to him. We were head to head, elbow to elbow. Our front tires were side my side. Less than 10 meters to go. And then as if in slow motion, I saw his eyes as I passed him. For the first time that I have ever known, I saw defeat in Gato’s eyes. I saw his face relinquish victory.
A half a front wheel from the meta I gripped my handle bars tightly, I crouched as I threw my body and my bike across the meta. I had beaten Gato by less than half a front wheel. I had done something nobody ever does. I had beat Gato in a sprint. The victory was mine. And the victory was sweet.
RING A RING A RING A RING…….That durn alarm clock!!! It always wakes me right at this point in my dream. Right when it seems so real.
Right when I think I really have out-sprinted Gato. Oh well. I wake up to reality. The reality that nobody…..NOBODY…..ever beats Gato in a sprint. Only in their dreams.
Dex Tooke is from Del Rio, Texas and is one of only six cyclists over age 60 to complete the Race Across America (RAAM)…and he’s done it more than once. Dex is also the author of “Unfinished Business“, an inspirational story about his attempt to conquer the RAAM. Over the past year he has become a personal hero of mine, and he embodies all the good things this sport has to offer. For more on Dex, visit his website at www.ultradex.net.