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By Jason Sumner
Mexico’s ongoing — and frequently tragic — drug war literally took center stage at the Vuelta Chihuahua on Wednesday.
Following stage 3’s 155.9km grind from Guachochi to Creel that included seven rated climbs but had only limited impact on the overall standings, a group of peaceful protesters unfurled several banners proclaiming their frustration with the lack of police action since the August 16 killings of 13 residents in this small tourist town that’s a gateway to stunning Copper Canyon.
Instead of the normal champagne-drenched podium presentation, race organizers led a moment of silence, then allowed the mourners to use the seven-stage tour of Mexico’s largest state to broadcast their message of anguish and anger.
“They are saying that these people were killed almost two months ago yet nothing has been done,” explained a race staffer to VeloNews. “They want more security. It’s not right to have violence like this in the streets, but people are being killed for no reason. Right now it’s a big problem all over Mexico.”
The motive for the August massacre remains foggy, but recent events throughout the country, and the high-powered weaponery involved, paint a clear path to the violent drug war that’s seen narcotics cartels fighting among themselves and with Mexican authorities.
In 2006, Mexican president Felipe Calderón launched a military-led offensive against the cartels in an attempt to curtail the already violent turf wars, but instead the carnage has steadily increased. The national newspaper El Universal reported last month that drug-related deaths this year have already topped the 2,673 causalities in 2007. About a third of 2008’s killings have been in the state of Chihuahua.
A protest in mid-September saw residents block the path of the Chihuahua-Pacific train from passing through Creel, and a similar occurrence was on the minds of race organizers Wednesday morning. At a meeting in the start town of Guachochi they warned directors of the 17 teams in the race that the stage might have to be neutralized before reaching its slated finish just up the road from Creel, at a lofty 8173 feet above sea level.
“We were shocked by the news that they might block the race,” said Garmin-Chipotle team director Johnny Weltz. “They thought maybe something would happen at 10k to go, and told us if that did happen they would just take the times there. You really don’t know what to do at that point, so you’ve just got to take it as it comes.”
What unfolded was another long, hard day in the saddle that concluded with Ecuador’s Byron Guama (Canels) soloing across the line just ahead Jose Mendes (Benfica). Guama and Mendes were part of a late-race breakaway that culminated an aggressive day of racing, which saw the peloton battered by seven-rated climbs, including two cat. 1s and a cat. 3 stage finisher.
Guama stopped the clock in 4:21:31, with Mendes credited with the same time. Francisco Mancebo (Fercase-Rota dos Moveis), the 2007 Vuelta Chihuahua overall champion, was third at 0:08, with stage 2 winner and yellow jersey holder Gregario Ladino (Trek-Tecos) fourth, another three seconds back.
That reduced Ladino’s lead over second-placed Mancebo to just five seconds going into Thursday’s 18.9km time trial from Pitoreal to Divisadero.
Also still very much in the overall hunt is American Tom Peterson (Garmin-Chipotle), who was eighth on the stage, at 0:23, but moved from fourth to third overall, and is now 36 seconds back of Ladino.
Peterson, who also maintained his spot atop the under-23 standings, benefited from the long day of work put in by the entire Tecos team including Juan Magallanes, who lost his top three position after having to help protect Ladino’s GC lead.
“It was basically Tecos on the front all day,” said Peterson, alluding in part to Ladino’s mid-race crash that left him with a bloody elbow and forced his team into a furious chase to bring the race back under control. “Then in the last few Ks Mancebo attacked and I just tried to stay with him.”
Teammate Jason Donald was fifth on the stage at 0:15, while fellow Garmin rider Patrick McCarty maintained his place on top of the KoM standings.
“It was a pretty strange day,” said McCarty, who along with the rest of the jersey holders, donned a black T-shirt with victims names during the podium presentation. “We heard a little about what was going on this morning, but I didn’t not it happened in Creel. I just knew people were killed and that’s why a lot of the guys were wearing black ribbons on their jerseys. It was tough being up on the podium. It’s supposed to be all about yourself, so it was pretty awkward to be up there with all that’s happened around here.”
Looking ahead, none of the Garmin riders came equipped with TT bikes or helmets, but Weltz said he didn’t think it would be a difference maker.
“It’s at altitude and all up and down,” he said. “I think it will be more a strong man’s race.”
Race Note: Alcalá suffers busted ankle
A day after crashing out of stage 2 of the Vuelta Chihuahua, Raúl Alcalá showed up at the finish sporting a neck brace, bandage on his mouth and a black splint on his left ankle.
“I broke my ankle but it’s just a small crack,” explained the 44-year-old who was trying to return to racing after nearly a decade away from competition. “Tomorrow I will go to see my chiropractor because my neck is very sore.”
Alcalá said the crash happened during one of the high-speed descents that accompanied the five rated climbs of stage 2’s grueling trip from Para to Guachochi.
“There was a gap and I closed it on a downhill, but a guy in front of me braked really fast,” he said. “It was in a turn and I had to brake fast. When I do this my bike swerve out from under me and I go into the rocks. After that I wake up and my ankle so sore that I can’t pedal anymore.”
Despite the ignominious end to his first race back, the Rica Burgeur rider said he was undeterred in his comeback bid.
“Crashes happen. My goal is to still keep going,” he said. “Before the crash I was okay on the climbs. I knew it was going to be a hard day, but it was good training for me. It was a very difficult stage. Maybe next year I try again. Right now I’m 10 or 15 days off the bike and then I will start training again.”
Alcalá was the first Mexican to ride the Tour de France and retired from the pro peloton in 1994. But a day ahead of this race’s start, he told VeloNews that he’d caught the cycling bug once more and had dreams of returning to the sport’s biggest races.
Stage 3 results:
1 GUAMA, Byron CANELS-TURBO-Mayordo 4:21:31
2 MENDES, Jose J. BENFICA mt.
3 MANCEBO, Francisco FERCASE-ROTA DOS MOV a 08
4 LADINO, Gregorio TECOS-TREK a 11
5 DONALD, Jason GARMIN CHIPOTLE a 16
6 CASTA—O, Carlos XACOBEO-GALICIA a 21
7 PETROV, Danail BENFICA a 23
8 PETERSON, Thomas GARMIN CHIPOTLE a 23
9 RUCKER, Stefan ELK HAUS-SIMPLON a 28
10 TOTSCHNIG, Harald ELK HAUS-SIMPLON a 28
GC after stage 3
1 LADINO, Gregorio TECOS-TREK 12:40:39
2 MANCEBO, Francisco FERCASE-ROTA DOS MOV a 05
3 PETERSON, Thomas GARMIN CHIPOTLE a 36
4 GOMEZ M, J. Angel SCOTT-AMERICAN BEEF a 43
5 MAGALLANES, Juan P. TECOS-TREK a 01:00
6 GUAMA, Byron CANELS-TURBO-Mayordo a 01:49
7 MENDES, Jose J. BENFICA a 01:49
8 CASTA—O, Carlos XACOBEO-GALICIA a 01:57
9 DONALD, Jason GARMIN CHIPOTLE a 02:05
10 TOTSCHNIG, Harald ELK HAUS-SIMPLON a 02:17