Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
You never know who you’ll bump into on the Beijing streets.
By Fred Dreier
While dodging taxis and buses on my morning ride I saw another cyclist spinning his wheels a few hundred meters up the road. There are millions of people on bicycles in Beijing, but cyclists are a novelty, and in the sea of riders on the road he stuck out. He wasn’t hauling a load of junk on the back of an old Flying Pigeon, and he was actually wearing a helmet. I caught up to him at a red light to chat.
The back of his jersey read “El Salvador” written in blue bloc letters, and I spat some of my Intro to Spanish words his way. He laughed, and in perfect English introduced himself as Mario Contreras, the sole member of El Salvador’s Olympic cycling team.
I broke the ice by cursing the melee of cars, buses, scooters and pedestrians clogging the bike lane. He smiled.
“Ah, this is just like riding in El Salvador,” he said. “At least there is a bike lane here.”
Mario was stretching his legs on the bike one final time before heading back to the Olympic village to pack. His flight left first thing Friday morning back to his adopted home in Switzerland. Since El Salvador’s Olympic committee does not own the resources to train elite cyclists in its country, it pays for him to live and train at the UCI headquarters in Aigle. He said he looked forward to getting back to the mountains of Switzerland, but he enjoyed his stay in Beijing.
“Switzerland is so boring,” Mario said with a smile. “There is only one disco in [Aigle].”
Mario was one of 10,708 athletes from around the globe who descended on Beijing for Games of the XXIX Olympiad. There are 302 events at the Beijing Olympics, meaning 906 medals up for grabs. You do the math — that’s a lot of athletes going home empty handed. Like the lion’s share of those athletes, Mario knew that his greatest glory would come from simply pinning on a number. In the road race, he was just one of many riders with not-so-household names — Gonzaldo Garrido, Kin San Wu, Ahmed Belgasem and Hichem Chabane, to name a few.
But the realization of the Olympic dream is an emotion that goes beyond results, talent and technology. American Levi Leipheimer is one of the sport’s best all-around riders, but like Mario, he told me that just coming to the Olympics is a humbling life experience.
“It’s the pinnacle of sports — it’s been a lifelong dream just to be an Olympian,” Leiphemier said.
The same story holds true for Taylor Phinney. Phinney, just 18, knows he has a plethora of Olympic Games in his future as a pursuit and road rider. But the first one, he said, was still taking time to sink in.
“It hasn’t really hit me yet that I’m actually at the Olympics,” Phinney said after his pursuit ride on Friday. “I’m stoked. This is cool.”
Phinney qualified for the games by finishing as one of the top Pursuit riders on the World Cup. Leipheimer qualified for Beijing by winning the final time trial of the 2007 Tour de France, a result that put him on the podium of the biggest bicycle race on Earth.
Mario won his ticket with a surprise ninth-place finish at last year’s “B” world championships in Cape Town, South Africa. It’s a race in which riders from smaller nations can face off against each other without being pulverized by the much faster Australians, Americans and Spaniards. But like Leipheimer, Mario’s qualification was the realization of a lifelong dream. Mario is 21, and is the son of an avid cyclist. He’s been racing since he was 9 years old, and the longevity and hard work crafted him into El Salvador’s strongest rider.
As for his ride during last Saturday’s road race — Mario hung on through more than half of the race. He rode with the peloton through Beijing as the television cameras rolled, and hung with the group on the first three ascents of Badaling Pass. But on lap four the elastic broke — Mario got dropped. He rode in a smaller group until he was lapped and pulled.
“They went up the hill so fast, but I could go with them,” he said. “But they can go that hard again and again. Guys like me, I could only go that hard a couple of times and it hurt me.”
I asked Mario what the greatest moment of his Olympic experience, was, and he said he had three. One was when he rode through the start/finish of the Badaling circuit, looked up and saw his face showing 20-feet tall on the jumbotron. The second was after the race was over — his photo adorned the front page of the newspaper in his hometown.
And the third?
“The beginning of the race — it was beautiful,” he said. “I was riding and there were people everywhere. I looked over to my right and saw [Carlos] Sastre next to me. And on my left, there was [Alberto] Contador. It was like a dream.”