It started as an Expedition in 1928 when a group of young riders decided to race to El Cayo (now San Ignacio) and back. The road at that time was a dirt road, which was in horrible condition. No one could have imagined that this event would have grown to what it is today – the greatest one-day sporting spectacle in Belize, the Annual Cross Country Cycle Race. It has now attracted cyclists from several different countries.
The 1928 race started on the morning of Holy Saturday and was concluded on Easter Monday. Easter Sunday was a day of rest in El Cayo where the cyclists were greeted and honoured by residents on that day. They were also treated to an exciting cricket game. The historic event was completed in Belize City in a total of 21 hours 29 minutes on Easter Monday. It was won by Elston Kerr, who won it again in 1929. Second was Norris Wade followed by 13-year-old Bertie Cleland, Edward Osman, Maurice Patten, G. Rodriguez, Carlton Fairweather, Charles Fuller, Ricardo Meighan and Harold Neal, in that order. The stories of the 1928 race and the other early Cross Country races are numerous and include vivid descriptions of cyclists walking through mud and water with their bikes on their shoulders.
The race continued in the 1930’s but there was no race in 1932 due to the 1931 hurricane, which damaged the road. Norris Wade won the Cross Country race in 1930. However, it was Donald Lightburn who dominated cycling in that decade. He won in 1931, 1935 and 1936, and was second in 1933. Robert “Sir Rob” Ferguson took the race in 1933 and 1934 and returned ten years later to take the championship in 1944. Jose Sosa was first in 1937 and 1938 and was second in 1939 behind Ben Sanchez. Hendicott Croft upset Sanchez to take the championship in 1940. James Robateau was crowned champion in 1943.
In the beginning of the 1940’s, Goldburn Ferguson got off to a good start by winning the race in 1941 and 1942. By the end of the decade, it was Aston Gill who was crowned “King of Cycling” upon winning four Cross Country races in 1945, 1946, 1947 and 1950. Gill is the only cyclist to win three consecutive races and is among the four cyclists who have each won the race four times. The other three cyclists are Jeffery O’Brien, John Miguel and Kenrick Halliday.
The first non-stop race was ridden in 1948 and was won by Altreith Smith on a coaster bike. In 1949, the champion was Alvin Joseph, the father of Fitzgerald “Palas” Joseph who finished third in 1988.
Jeffery O’Brien won the Cross Country race in 1951 and 1952, was second in 1953 and took the title again in 1954 and 1955. In 1954, O’Brien set a seemingly insurmountable Cross Country record of 7 hours 44 minutes. It was said that that Cross Country day in 1954 was ideal for cycling. The wind was blowing in favour of the cyclists with a steady tail wind on both the onward and return legs of the race. The day was also bleakly and cool, which was favourable to the cyclists.
The 1953 race was a handicap event in which four young cyclists were given a half-hour lead over the other riders. This perhaps prevented O’Brien from winning his fifth consecutive Cross Country race. Clinton Castillo, one of the four, was never caught. O’Brien was second. Castillo went on to win his second Cross Country race in 1967.
The Miguel brothers took over cycling during the late 1950’s and the 1960’s. They won ten Cross Country races between 1956 and 1970. Edward Miguel won in 1956, 1958 and 1959. John won in 1960, 1964, 1965 and 1968. Rudy won in 1969 and 1970 and Arthur won in 1962. Duncan “Squadron” Vernon won in 1957, 1960 and 1961. The 1960 race was the only one that finished in a dead heat when Squadron shared the title with John Miguel. Brothers, Lindford and Kenneth Sutherland, won the race in 1963 and 1966, respectively.
It was a Mexican by the name of Pablo Calderon who won the race in 1971. This was the year the race went to Orange Walk Town and back and was the first time it was won by a foreigner. Calderon, a sharp sprinter, took advantage of the flat course between Belize City and Orange Walk and devastated the pack with a series of flies. But Calderon did not successfully defend his crown. Cycling officials quickly decided to take the race back to the hills of the Western Highway where the Belizean cyclists got an advantage. Anthony “Tank” Hutchison, who lived and trained in the hills, was crowned Cross Country champion in 1972. This victory was repeated in 1973.
As it turned out, Jeffery O’Brien’s record lasted 23 years until 1977 when it was shattered by Kenrick Halliday. He was assisted with the pacing by Alfred Parks, Eugene King, Melvin Rhodas, Edison Smith, Raymond Shepherd, Glen Gordon, Emerson Bodden, Anthony Morris and Alexander Vasquez. The record set was 7:33:00. Halliday successfully defended his title in 1978. He was also the champion in 1974 and 1975.
Alfred Parks won in dramatic style in 1976 and 1979. Alexander Vasquez took the title in 1980.
In 1981, Alpheus Williams won the race and set a new record of 7:28:00. He broke his own record in 1982 with a time of 7:05:00 and went on to win the 1984 race before he retired at an early age. Elden “Stone Jam” Hyde, the popular music executive, was third in 1982. Lindy Gillett set a new record of 6:30:00 in 1983. Robert Massiah and Matthew Smiling won in 1985 and 1986, respectively. The record was broken by Ward Zauner of the USA who completed the race in 6:22:00 in 1987. The Americans went on to win in 1988 and 1989.
It is in my view that Conrad Vincent Smith was the most colourful cyclist in the 1980’s. Although he failed to win the race, most fans felt that he had a good opportunity to win in1983 when he claimed to mistake the second lap at the end of the race for the final lap and was out sprinted by Lindy Gillett. Again, in 1984, he was the better sprinter and the favourite but was out sprinted by Alpheus Williams. He placed second in both races. Andrew Smiling has suffered a similar fate. He was third in 1980 and in 1984 when he lost the sprint for the title after he had blown a tire. Eighteen years later, in 1998, Smiling once again finished third. He has never won the big one but he was a top cyclist throughout his career.
The Belize Cycling Association internationalized the Cross Country race in the mid 1980’s when they allowed large number of foreign cyclists, including American cyclists, to ride the race. Foreign professional cyclists were allowed to ride against the Belizean amateur cyclists. No efforts were made by the Association to test the foreign cyclists for drugs, even though drugs which were banned by the International Cycling Union were widely being used in the United States and in the Tour De France.
Charlie Lewis broke the 1987 record in 1990 and set a new record of 6:18:30. Once again, Lewis broke the record in 1991 when he out sprinted an American cyclist to finish the race in 6:05:17. His brother, Michael, won the 1992 race and Charlie came back to take the championship in 1994. Collet Maheia, Jr. and Orlando Chavarria won the 1993 and 1995 races, respectively.
A new record of 6:01:05 was set by Chris Blake of the USA in 1996. Ernest Meighan brought back the championship to Belize in 1997 to the delight of Belizeans.
An American again won in 1998 when Ben Bernard set an amazing record of 5:49:16. Chris Frederick, an American, won in 1999. Foreign cyclists won 12 of 14 Cross Country races between 1998 and 2011. The only Belizean cyclists to win the race during that period were Ernest Meighan in 2001 and Shane Vasquez in 2006. Giovanni Choto brought back the championship to Belize in 2012. Choto, who lives and trains in the hills in Cayo, led most of the race alone and took most of the station prizes. He was adored by all Belizeans as he rode across the finish line.
The Cross Country record of 5:40:12 was set by American cyclist, Ryan Baumann, in 2008. This year’s event promises to be as colourful as it has always been. The pressure will certainly be on the shoulders of the Belizean cyclists to keep the championship, and to set a new record.
Let the race begin!