Wednesday, January 18, 2012

'89 Vuelta a Guatemala - Continued

To wrap up the '89 Vuelta a Guatemala story, I'm also going to include a bit of a tribute to Chris Petty, seen below explaining the difficulties of the day after I lost the leader's jersey. I believe Chris to be among the class of great American bike racers most people have never heard of.  I regret that I have no other pictures of Chris other than grainy newspaper pictures.  They will have to do.

At this point, we needed an alternative plan of attack as I was pretty much used up as a force in the race. The loss of Clark Sheehan was a major blow, as he was an outstanding climber and doubtless could have represented us well in the mountain-heavy later stages. We were left with Chris, Chann McRea, and me. As mentioned, I needed to ride wheels for a few days, and Chann, yet a junior at this time, wasn't quite ready for an assault on the bunch. Petty, however, was more than up to the task, and indeed, the day after my drubbing at the hands of los Colombianos, this was the result:
The stage was the longest of the Vuelta-- 160 km from Guatemala City to Mazatenango. As with most stages out of the capitol city, it started downhill, and this one continued on very rough, flat roads to Mazatenango. Chris attacked several times and was finally given some rope along with the Swiss rider Adrian Baettig with about 100 km remaining. The Colombians went straight into chase mode, but with no one lending any help, they simply lost time every step of the way, eventually losing over nine minutes. Chris and the Swiss rider bargained out the classic arrangement: both riders give everything, no games, and one gets the overall lead, and the other gets the stage win. In this case, Adrian had the better GC position and took the race lead, while Chris took the stage. This was doubly nice since we had won the same stage the prior year with Erik Schmidt.
Chris Petty gano en Mazatenango

From the picture you can see that they rode all the way to the line, not giving up any time. For his efforts Chris moved to second overall, a minute and a half behind Baettig, and a bit over a minute ahead of the now former leader, Dinael Vargas. Positions held in the seventh stage won by Costa Rican Luis Hildalgo, 106 km from Mazatenango, climbing lightly to Coatepeque and finishing in Retalhuleu. The next stage was a tough one. While only 60 km, it was all uphill (or so it seemed) from the tropical lowlands of Retalhuleu to the chilly mountainous heights of Quetzaltenango. Coming only two days after their big escape to Mazatenango, neither Chris nor Baettig could stay with the Colombians to Quetzaltenango. While top Guatemalan Edin Roberto Nova won the stage, Dinael Vargas regained the overall lead.

Not to be outdone, Chris roared back on the ninth stage, a 60 km circuit race in Quetzaltenango. He ripped off the front with two Ukrainians, Oleg Chuzda and Vladimir Prokinsis.

Chris gives some stick to Oleg and Vlad

Even though the Colombians had help in the chase and the pace was fast, Chris, Vlad, and Oleg finished a minute clear. In the end, the Ukrainians ceded the stage to Chris, reportedly because they so respected his strength. They even backed off enough to give Chris a clear buffer.  

Chris wins in Quetzaltenango
After this Chris was in 4th overall, about three minutes in arrears of Colombian Jahir Bernal in 3rd place, and only a handful of seconds ahead of Adrian Baettig. I was well back, almost eleven minutes down at 11th. The remaining stages were mountainous and gave us little chance to improve our lots. A never flat 90 km to Huehuetenango, the massive climb of 'Alaska' (so called because it's so cold up there) on the way to Solola, and 136 lumpy kilometers back to Guatemala City. Chris slipped one place to 5th as Colombian Duban Ramirez soared into Solola; while I gained a spot to 10th as Adrian Baettig cracked a bit on the way to Solola. You can see the final results in black and white just below.

I promised a little tribute to Chris Petty:

I'm not entirely sure where Chris Petty was from, but when I first met him through racing in the midwest and then at the Olympic Training Center (OTC) in Colorado Springs, he was living in Champaign, Illinois, and rode for the Spirits of St. Louis club sponsored by Maplewood Bike Shop. Shunned by many because they thought him of poor personal habits or believed him to be a fool, I got to know Chris from several international trips with him, and know these things not to be true. Possessed of a tremendous work ethic and no lack of talent, Chris was a tower of strength whose only obstacles in the sport were opportunity and perhaps his own head.

In 1989, the federation tried to field its own trade team, Team USA, because they didn't want to have to depend on trade teams to provide riders. As a part of this, the federation held a training camp in the winter to select the members (in fact, it was clear they had already chosen them...they were already in permanent residence in the OTC). The camp was brutal, we were woken at 7:00 am, and immediately outside for light exercise followed by breakfast and a ride (cyclocross if it was snowing too much). After lunch we had gym work consisting of some sort of calisthenics along with a court game (volleyball, basketball). Then it was an hour or two of free time before the evening workout, sometimes running, sometimes water polo. By then it would be 7 pm. We would have dinner and then free time before going to sleep. While all that may sound fun, day after day for almost three months, people were dropping like flies due to exhaustion and injury. Chris Petty, by a wide margin, was the only one who completed every workout.

As if stunned that anyone had actually completed their insane program (said to mimic the Soviet training system, which no one believed), they actually gave Chris a spot on Team USA, the only person granted a spot via the camp (not pre-selected). This may have seemed a great opportunity, but it actually wrecked poor Chris because while it guaranteed him access to top races and eliminated the problem of money, it also robbed him of his freedom.

When someone pays you just enough to make you comfortable to race bikes, you end up feeling beholden to them.  The riders housed at the OTC were under the microscope. They tell you that little things, little habits that don't really matter all add up and sabotage your efforts to be the best athlete you can.  They try to teach you to act differently. I think for Chris the scrutiny was too much, and it it killed his desire to race because it took away the fun of it when people kept telling him he was doing things wrong, or that he had to act or behave in certain ways. Not that Chris was inclined to act or behave badly normally, just that he was being required to act and behave unnaturally. In domestic racing Chris seemed to struggle uncharacteristically that year, but he had some bright spots internationally. He seemed a bit subdued on the month-long Italy/Peace Race trip, but then he won the prologue of the Giro Della Regioni. He seemed a lot more his old self on the trip to Guatemala where he had more freedom and our team manager on that trip, Bill Woodul, encouraged that sort of thing.

The Team USA project lasted only one year, really. It continued in a fashion with a track program, but for the road it was over. I can't remember where Chris wound up riding after that, but he disappeared after a couple more years, in the end a victim, no doubt, of the cruelty of the sport along with the grinding poverty. Those in command of the sport at the time were loathe to give him another chance when they had the Team USA example as evidence. I can only guess where he could have gone if given opportunity with fewer strings attached. 

The fall season prior to gaining the spot on Team USA, Chris entered the Spenco 500, a continuous 500 mile race which I believe served as a qualifier for the Race Across America. I don't know that Chris had any interest in ultramarathon races, but I think he was simply after the big paycheck for winning. His rear derailleur cable snapped about half way through, but he kept on with only a 53 or 42x12 for gear choices. He won by a commanding margin. His toughness and ability were remarkable. The results he gained on Team USA belied his true potential that was evident when he was on his own. The failure to recognize how to groom the talent properly was simply another lost opportunity for the sport in the United States.