Words/images: Heidi Swift
At the front of that group, RusVelo’s Olga Zabelinskaya attacks—an attempt to extend her overall lead in the five-day Vuelta El Salvador stage race. UnitedHealthcare had anticipated this. Earlier that morning in the team meeting, sports director Rachel Heal warned her riders, “No one can go downhill like Olga, but you have to do whatever you can to hold her wheel—we can’t afford to lose any time.” Going into the stage, UHC’s GC hopeful Mara Abbott was 25 seconds down in the overall ranking, a still-manageable gap considering there is still one massive mountain stage to come, but it’s an attack that they definitely need to keep in check.
The stage has been relatively uneventful until we reach this final descent, but now things are getting crazy. The streets in San Marco are thick with traffic and race organizers have failed to clear it in time. Trucks and cars pull haphazardly off into the shoulder, sometimes ending up perpendicular to the lane of traffic. Pedestrians dart across, dangerously close to the oncoming flood of racers. Vehicles are still pulling out of driveways and side streets as we approach the sharp left turn that leads to the finish banner.
It’s my first day riding photo-moto and I’ve gotten lucky. Emiliano is a solid man, broad and hulking. His bike is equally imposing with a “Los Implacables Motorcycle Club” sticker on the back—and he rides it well. He knows the course and the roads, speaks decent English and has an eye for picking out good photography vantage points. Up until we started this descent into San Marco I felt completely safe, but now I can tell that the stage is about to get more “interesting.” As we barrel down through the chaos, I white-knuckle the handgrips and try not to think of all the things that could go wrong. When I realize I am holding my breath, I think, “If I’m this scared, how must the racers be feeling?”
I turn around to look and get my answer. Zabelinskaya and five others are nearly on top of us and I can look straight into the Russian’s eyes. Her face is a study in fearless transcendence; she isn’t thinking, she’s just flying. Tucked in her draft, folded into the drops, the riders behind her are equally focused. If they’re worried, you certainly can’t tell. Emiliano, likewise, handles the motorcycle with an assertive calm. We’re in the wrong place at the wrong time—too close to the racers on a road with shoulders so crowded with people and carts and coconut stands that there’s no way we can pull off—but he’s not panicking.
The helplessness of being on the back of a motorcycle with someone else in control cannot be understated. Today that feeling is amplified by the fact that Emiliano is in leathers and a full-face helmet and I am wearing capris, a T-shirt and an open-faced moped helmet that I selected because it allows me to more easily operate the camera. If we go down, I’m in trouble.
I shouldn’t be thinking about this right now though, should I?
Earlier that morning, a man named David Diaz boarded one of the helicopters that’s following the race. The helicopters belong to Ruben Contreras, the race organizer. Diaz was reluctant to get on the chopper, but eventually he’s convinced it will be a fun way to spend the day and see the race from a new vantage point.
Diaz is from the local radio station, Radio Femenina, which is the sponsor for the UnitedHealthcare team while they are in town. The UHC team has spent the past few weeks being shuttled to and from races in pickup trucks and rental sedans wrapped in the radio station’s blue-and-silver logo. The men Radio Femenina send to serve as hosts are an affable crew overflowing with Salvadorian hospitality and always quick with a joke. They take their role with the team seriously and often start the day at 6 a.m. with race shuttles and end at 10 p.m. after taking the UHC soigneur to a grocery store or making a late-night airport run.
Diaz had stopped by the hotel to introduce himself just before the race caravan left the parking lot that morning—he’s supposed to join the support crew for the team the following day. But at some point, while the peloton was winding its way up the final climb of the day, the race helicopter went down in a small jungle area a mile or so from the finish line. As the helicopter splintered into fragments, Diaz was pinned between a piece of wreckage and a tree.
While rescue vehicles speed to the scene of the crash, the race for precious seconds in the general classification of the Vuelta delivers the front group into its own kind of danger. Just as I look into the eyes of Zabelinskaya and see the quiet, quiet nothingness of complete and total concentration, Emiliano finds a bit of road furniture to pull onto and we’re able to let the lead group go flying through. They disappear around a corner and, before I can protest, he pulls the motorcycle back out into the road to follow them. This positions us squarely between the lead group of six and the chasers, who are being led by a battling Mara Abbott.
Now it is Abbott’s face locked in Emiliano’s rear-view mirror. Jaw set and trademark sneer, her face is no different than it ever is when she is racing—calm and sharp, clearly focused, yet strangely distant. Later she will liken that Zen-like race state to the experience of drishti in yogic practice. Drishti is a soft gaze used for both sensory withdrawal as well as concentration. When executed correctly, it yields a feeling of being simultaneously zoned-out and hyper-present—a kind of highly focused calm that enables the in-the-moment fearlessness and honed reflexes that are required when a race motorcycle has suddenly appeared in your line as you’re hurtling toward a finish banner at 75 kilometers per hour.
Emiliano and I speed ahead of the chase group, horns blaring while I wave my arms at the cars and trucks that are still oncoming or attempting to pull out into the road. To be sure we get their attention, Emiliano drives directly toward them, chicken-style, until they yield. Along with the chase group just behind us, we make it to the finish without incident, but as everyone dismounts and retreats to the shade of the team tent nearby, the potential disasters we’ve just averted start to sink in.
Rookie Katie Hall looks a little shell-shocked. Heal tells the racers about the helicopter crash and the usual post-race debrief becomes peppered with speculation about what is happening a few miles away at the crash site. We eat ice cream, fresh passion fruit and coconuts from the nearby market as we wait. Unconfirmed rumors fly; one dead, two dead, Diaz among them. The mood is dark and heavy.
An official press announcement confirms our worst fears; Diaz didn’t make it. Race director Ruben Contreras sits at a card table, head in hands, delivering the news between choking sobs as reporters thrust audio recorders, phones and cameras into a halo around him. Later that night in Hotel Indes, an official national training facility where most of the out-of-town teams are staying, a small television in the lobby shows local news coverage and everyone jumps up from the dinner tables to gather and watch. The footage is graphic and tragic. Stilling.
But there are three stages left and the race will go on. On the fourth floor, I join the UHC riders at a set of couches just outside of the elevator and next to the soigneur’s hotel room, a place that has become our unofficial meeting spot. While the girls eat pasta and eggs that have been prepared in the room using ricer cookers—or quinoa and snacks that they’ve portered in suitcases from home—we talk about the day’s events. The team is keen to honor Diaz and his close friends, the men who are taking such good care of us all. A stage win would do nicely. The overall race victory would be even better. Winning, now, has become loaded with meaning far beyond pleasing sponsors and racking up UCI points.
The next morning, Abbott opens the team meeting by sharing a message she’d received from her coach the night before: “It’s more important to be a good person than it is to be a good bike racer.” It might seem like a strange sentiment coming from the woman who is, by many counts, supposed to win this race. But if you know Abbott at all, it’s hardly surprising. She’s a cyclist who’s been through the darkest of times—shrinking away, literally, from the pressures of the sport and the expectations associated with it by slowly reducing her caloric intake until she could no longer perform. When she disappeared from the sport in 2012, we wondered and worried about her: What had happened to the force who’d become the first American ever to win the Giro Donne in 2010? She’d been the great hope of U.S. Cycling and then, just as fast as she’d appeared, she was gone.
This isn’t a story about her comeback, but it’s almost impossible to consider Abbott as an athlete without also acknowledging the historical trajectory of her career. And not because she represents some over-glorified story of triumph, but because she represents a depth of humanity and honesty that we don’t often talk about in professional cycling. She’s a thinker—intensely intellectual and reflective, constantly writing in a large journal she takes everywhere. She’s also incredibly empathic—able to connect and break things down on a human level.
And so, on the morning of the stage during which she and her team hope to begin to pivot the direction of the race in their favor, a morning filled with tension and sadness and pressure, she chooses to remind the crew of that thing that is so often lost when you’re getting paid to fly around the world to race bikes; perspective. The rest of the meeting goes as you might expect: a bit of a pep talk from Heal, instructions on who to mark and what to look for, details on the neutralized start. Lauren Tamayo, a clear leader with a big personality (sometimes called Team Mom) chimes in with strategy. Hall, the first-year pro, is instructed to stay further forward in the peloton, to stay out of the gutter, to stay closer to Abbott. It’s trial by fire for the young American. And despite the requisite learning moments, she’s doing a hell of a job.
Later, at the stage start in Nueva Concepcion, the sun bears down as temperatures creep into the mid-90s. The town square is lush with greenery and alive with children and musicians—locals and bike racers side-by-side, skinny women standing in the shelter of car doors as they pull on bibs and kit. In the shade of an enclave, UHC gathers and prepares. Mechanic Adrian Hedderman enlists Charlie, one of our Radio Femenina hosts, to broker a pupusa deal with a local vendor who opens up her shop just to put some piping hot Salvadorian goodness into the Irishman’s belly. Sharon Laws, who is still sitting third on GC, disappears, as is her pre-race ritual. She prefers to find a quiet place alone to relax and focus. No one is ever quite sure where she is, but she always shows up when and where she’s meant to.
I spend the day in the team car with Heal and Hedderman, a lively duo who manage to keep laughing even as Heal is cursing and trying to get our pickup truck to drive like a sports car while simultaneously vying for position with caravan vehicles that refuse to follow protocol, keeping tabs on what is happening in the group ahead, and trying to understand the Spanish directives we are getting from the race radio. Suffice it to say, the caravan is nearly as chaotic as the stage 2 descent into San Marco, though certainly less dangerous.
The course, which had been described as “rolling,” takes its toll on the peloton with a series of short but pitchy climbs that shake out the field, leaving a small group of the major players together with 10 kilometers to go. Flavia Oliveira comes away with the win, but the GC remains unchanged: UHC’s Sharon Laws still sits in third just behind Olga Zabelinsksaya (RusVelo) and Alena Amialiusik (Astana). Abbott has lost a little more time. She’s now 45 seconds behind Zabelinskaya.
It’s not exactly what UHC was looking for, but no one seems to be panicking. Yet.
Stage 4 is structured for drama: 30 mostly downhill and flat kilometers that lead into the most daunting climb of the week. The race will be won on the volcano. For those that have raced up El Boqueron, the memories are lasting and painful. Racers cringe at the recollection, pinching their faces into grotesque grimaces shaped by the thought of 14 kilometers of an average gradient that exceeds 10 percent. “Give my regards to the volcano,” one former pro tells me. There is a reverence to that message.
UHC’s plan is simple in theory: make sure the lead-up to the climb is fast and don’t let anyone rest. They’re hoping they’ll get lucky and maybe the RusVelo ladies will take care of this for them, but you never know. Once they get close to the base of the climb, Hannah Barnes and Ruth Winder are instructed to blow themselves into oblivion driving the pace in the first few uphill kilometers. “Save enough to get up the climb in decent time, but try to conserve if you can,” Heal reminds them, “We need you to be ready to go tomorrow.”
Once on the hill, rookie Katie Hall will take over and attack the field. She’s too good a climber and too high in the GC for the Russians to ignore. Depending on how that goes, Sharon Laws is the final UHC missile to launch. After that, it’s all up to Abbott.
As the field makes a right turn onto the freeway, a race official signals that they are out of neutral and the pace explodes. RusVelo, led by the yellow jersey herself, jump on the gas, stringing the peloton into a long, excruciating line. For the first 30 kilometers, they average 50 kilometers per hour as the road rolls just slightly downhill toward the mountain ahead. Guarded closely by Winder and Barnes, Abbott sits in fifth or sixth position for the duration, watching.
Earlier that morning she’d articulated it well: “My job is to make sure I stay on my bike and then go uphill very, very fast.” It’s clear she’s done this a few times.
The plan executes flawlessly and by the time Hall’s attack is pulled back by RusVelo, Laws launches. From the moto I yell to her, “Go Sharon! You look great!” But the truth is, she looks tortured. Mouth open in a cringe, tendril of saliva. I’m not fooling anyone, especially her.
In less than a kilometer, Laws is reeled in and Abbott, Zabelinskaya and Amialiusik go up the road leading a small group of six or seven riders. The moto and I head up the volcano aways, looking out as the distant valley sprawls below, speeding under verdant canopies and past a large throng of spectators that has lined the steepest bit of the road—a kicker that pitches to more than 20 percent. We stop around a sweeping curve and by the time the lead car comes into view, Abbott is already alone.
Watching the 5-foot-5, 115-pound climber go uphill is like watching a hawk descend to catch a field mouse—it is the thing she’s meant to do, an aggressive and natural thing she does reflexively, seemingly without effort. She climbs with ease and instinct, gaze soft and fixed, shoulders relaxed. If she is breathing hard, you can’t tell. It looks impossible and almost elegant.
In less than 8 kilometers she puts 3:40 into race leader Zabelinskaya. The win moves her to the head of the general classification with a commanding 2:18 lead over Amialiusik, who finishes second on the stage to bump Zabelinskaya down to third.
On the podium, Abbott, who is fluent in Spanish, dedicates the victory to the memory of David Diaz and I catch more than a few people wiping their eyes.
“This is my favorite kind of stage,” Winder tells me on the morning of stage 5, a 96-kilometer course that is primarily downhill and flat. “Our job is very straightforward—control the peloton and protect Mara.” Once in motion, it’s clear that Winder must also like this kind of stage because she’s very good at it. Sitting on the front for a large bulk of the first half, she drives a commanding pace. Trading pulls with Laws, Barnes and Hall, it’s also clear where the hashtag #UHCBlueTrain comes from—it isn’t just a result of their male teammates’ crit dominance.
A group gets away, but it’s part of the plan. There’s plenty of time to pull it back when the time is right. Sprinter Hannah Barnes has had enough of suffering up the painful El Salvadorian mountains and she’s ready for a go. Unfortunately, as has been the case several times during the course of the race, the stage distance was misrepresented by about 5 kilometers in the race bible. And after the 20K-to-go banner, there isn’t another sign until 5K out. Couple that with the confusion about what their cycling computers are telling them and the UHC riders get a late start on the catch, forcing Barnes to settle for winning the bunch sprint, which only earns her third place behind the escapees, Inga Cilvinaite (RusVelo) and Anna Potokina (Servetto-footon).
WATCHING THE 5-FOOT-5, 115-POUND CLIMBER GO UPHILL IS LIKE WATCHING A HAWK DESCEND TO CATCH A FIELD MOUSE—IT IS THE THING SHE’S MEANT TO DO, AN AGGRESSIVE AND NATURAL THING SHE DOES REFLEXIVELY, SEEMINGLY WITHOUT EFFORT.
But it’s the end of a successful campaign for the UHC riders and they’re not inclined to spend a lot of time fretting over the sexist implications of a jersey. It’s St. Patrick’s Day, there’s an Irishman in the fold, and the team has just won a UCI stage race—it’s time for beer. Which is how we end up lined up at a table in an Irish-themed American chain restaurant (Bennigan’s!) in the middle of El Salvador wearing green top hats and shiny gold-beaded necklaces while a mad mechanic named Adrian engages in a coercive takeover of the sound system in order to barrage us with traditional Irish folk music. I’d tell you what happens next if not for the most important rule: what happens in a Salvadorian Bennigan’s stays in a Salvadorian Bennigan’s.
Heidi Swift spent a week embedded with the UnitedHealthcare pro women’s cycling team at the Vuelta El Salvador in March. She is eternally grateful to UHC DS Rachel Heal for sleeping on a mattress on the floor in the corner of a hotel room so she could have the bed. She would also like to thank Tavis Reeve Cummings (amazing UHC soigneur) for the good conversation and Jono Coulter of Vanderkitten for the welcome beer. Side note: Any parties interested in potentially embarrassing photographs of Adrian H should contact her directly: [email protected]
Follow Swift on Twitter at @heidiswift.
From issue 31. Buy it here.