Until I was 7 years old, which I became in 1954, I grew up on the southern side of Church Street in Southside Belize City, three or four houses down from what used to be the center of cycling in those days – a bicycle shop one or two houses down from Albert Street, across from the Government Printers.
My late uncle was a total cycling aficionado. I grew up with him as my hero. Cycling combined elements of life which he loved – the outdoors, athletic competition, and gambling. A close friend of the four-time Crosscountry champion, Aston Gill, who is still alive in New York City, my uncle had ridden a couple Crosscountries himself in the late 1940s, his highest finish being fourth or fifth.
Sometime in 1954, I moved to West Canal Street, near Bolton Bridge and the junction with Regent Street West. Around 1955, my uncle went to study electrical technology in Puerto Rico, but I know that in the late 1950s and early 1960s, his cycling “road dog” was Duncan Vernon, who won two or three Crosscountries.
During the years I was away studying between 1965 and 1968, my uncle became kind of a full-time coach and trainer of cyclists, including Louis Peyrefitte, Philip Lewis, and Godwin Hulse. The focus was always on Holy Saturday, which had become the absolute Holy Grail of Belizean cycling during the early 1950s and the glory days of the legendary Jeffrey O’Brien.
Personally, the first Crosscountry I ever followed happened to go to Orange Walk Town and back to Belize City in 1971. For some reason, perhaps the Cayo road was being repaired, Crosscountry went north in 1971, and the winner was a Mexican, Pablo Calderon. Rudy Miguel, my compadre, who had won Crosscountries in 1969 and 1970, rode in 1971, but it was Noel “Muscles” Gordon and Anthony “The Tank” Hutchinson who came into the National Stadium track along with Calderon and another Mexican, Enrique Ruiz. (Rudy Miguel was the last of the fabulous Miguel brothers, beginning with Edward, followed by Arthur, Johnito, and Rudy, who together won about ten Crosscountries between 1956 and 1970.)
In 1972, the Crosscountry returned to Cayo, and Hutchinson, coached, trained, and sponsored by my uncle, defeated Calderon to return the garland of roses to Belize. It was an emotional victory for Belizeans, because Calderon had been the first foreigner to win Crosscountry. Hutchinson repeated his victory in 1973, but I’m not sure Pablo Calderon returned for that race.
After 1973, The Tank went to live in the United States, and Kenrick Halliday, coached and trained by one Canto, and Alfred Parks, coached and trained by George Gabb, dominated Crosscountry until 1980, when I followed my second Crosscountry, which went to Cayo and back.
In that 1980 race, twenty cyclists entered the National Stadium in a bunch, the winner proving to be the late Alexander Vasquez. Included in that twenty-man bunch was the young, unknown Alpheus Williams, who came to my uncle after that race and asked to be included in my uncle’s team of cyclists, which included Vincent Smith, Eugene “Tricksie” King and the late “Bugy” Munnings. Under my uncle’s wing, Alpheus won Crosscountries in 1981, 1982, and 1984, after which he left for the United States.
At some point during his championship years, Alpheus, a shrewd businessman, cut a deal with the Santiago Castillo people to advertise Ovaltine. I never went into the financial details of my uncle’s relationship with Alpheus. When I say that my uncle sponsored cyclists, what I mean is he would take money out of his own pocket, and he would also solicit help for his riders from his close friends, many of them from the old Colonial Band Association (CBA) club. It may have been that at some point before he went away, Alpheus was involved with San Cas to the point where the business house felt they were sponsoring him. It may have been.
By 1985 and 1986, when Robert Mossiah and Matthew Smiling, respectively, won Crosscountries, my uncle was in his middle sixties and phasing out of the grind of driving on the Western Highway to train cyclists. So that, when the Santiago Castillo people began to bring in American cyclists, who won all three Crosscountries between 1987 and 1989, my uncle was out of Crosscountry and back in yachting. During the last fifteen years of my uncle’s life, we spent many hours in conversation, and we often spoke about the radical change in Crosscountry with the introduction of the Americans. (Belizeans knew almost nothing about doping in those days and we had no testing equipment or capacity.)
My uncle explained to me that in his days when Belizean cycling officials invited Mexicans to participate in the Holy Saturday race, they would not invite Mexicans from higher up in Mexico than a certain point, such as Ciudad del Carmen. The thing about Mexico is that, the higher north you go, the stiffer the competition becomes. When you reach Mexico City, say, and further north, you are dealing with athletes superior to Belizeans, except in boxing, where Ludwig Lightburn defended us big time in the early 1950s.
My personal feeling is that local corporate interests took over Crosscountry thirty years ago. The big business people here, when they sponsor individuals or teams in sports, feel that they cannot afford to lose because losing would damage the prestige of the product they want to promote. (Michael Ashcroft personally told me that in 1993.) One way to be sure of winning in Crosscountry was to bring in foreigners of superior ability and, incidentally, questionable supplement practices.
I suppose there are Belizeans at higher socio-economic levels who are not seriously aware of the gravitas of Holy Saturday and Crosscountry for roots Belizeans. Crosscountry was an institution developed and supported, in a primary instance, by those Belizeans who could not afford to travel out of the old capital for the Easter weekend. Crosscountry became a precious thing for roots Belizeans. It was cosa nostra. That changed in 1987.
I don’t know how younger Belizeans view this race, but I know that as an oldtimer it is inconceivable for me how we Belizeans created the conditions for what happened last year and this year to happen in cosa nostra. What is the point of inviting people who are so manifestly superior to our Belizean cyclists to compete in our most sacred process of coronation? In 1987, to repeat, we can see that it was all about local corporate prestige. So then, what was it about in 2016 and 2017? You invite in the best of the national team of a nation which claims your territory and just last year massed its troops on your border threatening to invade you. To what purpose, beloved? To what purpose? Who the hell is trying to prove what?
I am saying to you again, if it is that you want to find people who can beat us Belizeans in any endeavor under the sun, you can find them out there. Crosscountry used to be about us, and crowning one of us on Holy Saturday as our champion. We know that in life, things change. Sometimes, old people can’t keep up with the changes. Write my name down as one of such old people. I don’t need the new Crosscountry reality. In fact, I despise it.