Only 7 foreigners, including past champion Carlos Lopez, lined up for the start of the 2012 Holy Saturday Cross Country Cycling Classic – 4 Mexicans from the Depredadores team, 2 other Mexicans riding with the Benny’s Megabytes team, and U.S. based Anthony Taylor who rode. Some fans may have overlooked the fact that one of the foreigners was Mexican Carlos Lopez, the 2009 Cross Country Champion. Carlos did not ride in the 2010 or 2011 Cross Country; and he was now back in 2012, fresh off a major international cycling event in Mexico, where he reportedly placed 5th. Carlos’ winning time in 2009 was 6:01:42. Not bad, considering that the record of 5:40:12 by American Ryan Baunman was set on a perfect-weather day in 2008.
Western Spirit our best hope
Cycling pundits had all considered the Western Spirit Cycling team out of Cayo to be our best hope at regaining the garland after a 5-year drought. The team included 2006 champion Shane Vasquez, his brother Ron, who recently won the Belmopan Classic; and the five Choto brothers – Jose, Geovanni, Peter, Rafael and Daniel; along with Roger and Richard Troyer, and Danly Harris.
The Choto brothers have been a prominent fixture in Belizean cycling for the past few years, and it was only fitting that the Choto name should join that special list of champions of Belize’s biggest one-day sporting event. Geovanni had already proven his athletic prowess by winning the Lionman Triathlon in 2010, and then he started 2012 by taking the Krem New Year’s Day Cycling Classic. That he could win the ‘Country was therefore not as big a surprise as some might think, foreigners or no foreigners. But the way he did it was indeed a surprise and a source of immense joy to a jaded but ever hopeful Belizean public whose 5-year drought since Shane in 2006 was finally quenched when the slim, soft spoken Geovanni Choto rode alone across the finish line and into the history book of Cross Country.
And they’re off
79 cyclists took off from in front of “the old August Meat Shop”, (actually where the August Meat Shop used to be; “clinging to our history,” according to a cycling official) at a whistle signal given by Belize Cycling Association Technical Director Melvin Torres at 6:00 a.m. sharp on Holy Saturday, moments before the morning sun pushed out from behind an early morning cloud cover. With a very light easterly wind, which was not much help to the cyclists, the race was on; and only 42 would finish within the half-hour time limit after the winner.
In the old days of Cross Country, it was customary for some young upstart to come out blazing, taking the first station prize or two, only to quickly fade into oblivion, satisfied to have made their mark before the “big boys” took over the race. It is also an accepted strategy for teams to send out a “domestique” rider to excite the field and lure their competitors to wear themselves out in the chase, while their teammates trail and conserve their energy. The rider in front is usually “hauled in” before the half-way mark. Occasionally, after breaks and counter-breaks, a rider or two might escape from the bunch and try to keep their distance from the main peloton all the way to Belize City. But that seldom, very seldom occurs. It is more the rule than the exception, that the chase group catches up with the runaway pair or single rider on that painful stretch on the return journey between La Democracia and Belize City, when the easterly wind gets stronger and stronger in the riders’ faces, as they get nearer to the City.
The last time any rider had broken away early in the race and kept his lead to the finish was too long for most young cycling fans to remember; they weren’t born. That happened in the mid 1970′s when the legendary Kenrick “The King” Halliday did it from start to finish; but he had established a gigantic lead, and won by almost a half hour.
The early break
In this year’s Holy Saturday race, Geovanni Choto was part of an early 5-man break just after the Burdon Canal Bridge at Mile 6; and within a mile it would quickly dwindle to a 3-man lead bunch as two riders, Mark Staine of Benny’s Megabytes and Kyle Gentle of D&D Cycling suffered a spill. The 3-man breakaway group then consisted of Allen Castillo of Benny’s Megabytes, Sherman Thomas of Capital City Cycling and Geovanni Choto of Western Spirit. According to Geovanni, he was feeling strong, and thought this was an opportunity to secure some station prizes for his Western Spirit team. He would grab as many as he could, fully expecting at some point to be pulled in and “taken out” by the chase group.
Allan Auil, who covered the race live on Krem Radio and TV along with Kwame Scott and Ejay Hill, noted that it was not as large a field of cyclists as in years past; certainly the small number of quality foreign riders meant the chase group would not be as big or as ferocious as it could be, and this would favor the chances of the lead trio holding out for a longer time that usual. The trio had established a 45-second lead over the main peloton by Mile 13, and they kept their lead, despite a number of attempts by the main bunch to close the gap. By Mile 19 the lead was 2 minutes and 23 seconds; at Mile 31 it was up to 3 minutes and 5 seconds.
The station prizes were being shared among the 3 up to “Cheers Restaurant” at Mile 30, after which the station prizes began to be shared between Allen Castillo and Geovanni Choto, Sherman Thomas being eventually dropped from the lead group somewhere around Mile 42, according to reports.
The break serious, then solo
At the Belmopan junction, the lead was up to 6 minutes and 5 seconds. They kept the lead all the way to Cayo, with Geovanni showing climbing superiority as they battled up the famous Mount Hope. Geovanni reportedly waited a bit for Allen after passing Mount Hope, and they continued on to Cayo, registering a 7 minutes and 13 seconds lead as they passed through Georgeville.
Geovanni took the half-way prize in Cayo, to the satisfaction of his home town fans, and on the journey back, he made a bold move around Georgeville, separating himself from Allen, and stepping out alone to lead the race, taking all station prizes from there on. His lead was still 7 minutes, but with all of 60 miles to go, few thought it possible to avoid getting caught before Belize City, or even Hattieville.
The real chase begins
And then, from outside Ontario Village, the Mexican Carlos Lopez made his first bold move, embarking on a frantic pace with the peloton following. The brutal pace led by Carlos Lopez and another Mexican, Omar Garcia, both riding for Benny’s Megabytes, continued for the next 10 miles, catching up with the fading Allen Castillo; and at Camalote, Mile 51, the lead by Geovanni was down to 5 minutes 47 seconds. The gap was closing. By Mile 43, with Carlos Lopez still leading the charge of the chase group, Geovanni’s lead was down to 4 minutes 51 seconds. Individual cyclists from different teams, except Western Spirit, were now making short bursts; but Geovanni, though appearing to be tiring, kept pedaling hard, trying to maintain his lead over the chase group. Meanwhile, his Western Spirit teammates at the back were doing all in their power to “cover” for Geovanni, using their riding tactics to try and slow down the pace of the chase group.
The going gets tough
At Mile 32, his lead was down to 4 minutes, and Geovanni reportedly had his head down and was drifting from left to right across the road, visibly weakening, but still persevering, and taking liquids to replenish his energy.
However, by Mile 30, it appeared that Carlos Lopez may have spent himself in the failed attempt to “reel in” the determined lone rider, Geovanni Choto, who still held on to a 4-minute lead. Pundits were wondering if the Belizean riders were choosing to hold back and allow Geovanni to keep his lead, or was everybody else shaken by the hard pacing of Carlos Lopez?
At Mile 25, with a 4 minutes 16 seconds lead, small attacks continued from the chase group by Donizetti Vasquez (Benny’s Megabytes), Brandon Cattouse (C-Ray), then by Darnell Barrow and Gregory Lovell (Santino’s), and others.
At Mile 21 it was a 3 minutes 32 seconds lead, with the chase group clearly closing the gap.
At Mile 20 it was 2 minutes 42 seconds, with a lead chase group separating itself by 30 seconds from the main bunch.
At Mile 19, Geovanni was 2 minutes and 15 seconds in front.
By Mile 18, a chase group of 4 consisting of Mexican Edwardo Cocom (Depredadores) along with Herman Requena (Benny’s Megabytes), Greg Lovell (Santino’s), and Geovanni’s Western Spirit teammate Richard Troyer had Geovanni in their sights, as they were 45 seconds in front of the main peloton of about 15 other riders.
The eye of the tiger
At Mile 15, Hattieville, Geovanni was hanging on to a 2-minute lead over the 4-man chase including Edwardo Cocom, Greg Lovell, Herman Requena and Richard Troyer.
At Mile 10, Geovanni’s lead was 1 minute and 56 seconds, with the 4-man group still chasing.
At Mile 9, the group of 4 was caught by the main peloton of 10 who were launching repeated attacks and counter attacks.
At Mile 8, the officials reported that about 20 riders were involved in the chase group, led by Mexicans Edwardo Cocom and Donizetti Vasquez-Aburto, with Western Spirit’s Shane Vasquez trying to “cover” for Geovanni.
Mile 6, and the lead was reportedly still above 1 minute but dwindling, as the head wind near Belize City was becoming more of a factor. But Geovanni was not giving up or giving in.
The last report we heard from the Krem crew was at Old Belize around Mile 5 and the lead was a minute and 39 seconds ahead of a 3-man chase group, who were another 30 seconds ahead of the main peloton.
Suspense, prayers and celebration
At the Memorial Park, Belizean fans had been glued to their radios, as they no doubt were across the country and wherever Belizeans can access the airwaves on Holy Saturday. A lot could happen in the last few miles; and there were memories of 2011. Could Geovanni hang on; could he keep off the charging chase group for the remainder of the race, or would he be gobbled up before entering the City or around Princess Margaret Drive by the chase group?
From our spot on the sea wall beyond the finish line, first in view along Marine Parade Boulevard was the maroon colored Police pickup, followed by a pair of official motorcycles heralding the approach of the race leader or leaders. Then in the distance there appeared a lone, slim rider, and the realization hit Belizeans gathered like fireworks on Independence day. Suddenly, the suspenseful anticipation gave way to relief and thankfulness, followed by cheers and shouts of jubilation, with arm waving and screaming fans united in celebration as a tired but elated Geovanni Choto triumphantly pedaled his way across the finish line to become the 84th Holy Saturday Cross Country Champion.
Win dah win
After it was over, the weary but gallant young hero said that the Belizean fans that lined the road, especially as he entered Belize City, energized him and he found new strength in his tiring legs. Like them, he said, he wanted a Belizean to win. And it happened to be him.
Geovanni completed the ride in a time of 6:16:45, and it appears he was energized indeed, for he was 2 minutes and 12 seconds ahead of 2nd place Brandon Cattouse who out-sprinted a peloton to the finish line.
And in a post race interview on Krem’s WUB on Tuesday morning, host Mose Hyde asked Geovanni what he would say to some skeptics who noted that only a few foreigners were in this year’s Cross Country. Did it bother him? The humble and soft spoken champion was brief and eloquent in his memorable reply: “No, because win dah win. Win dah win; an i haad fi win.”
Article courtesy Amandala