BELIZE CITY, Thurs. Mar. 30, 2017–This year marks the 18th running of the Junior Cross Country Cycling Classic, and the question everyone is asking is, “Who’s the winner?” Truth is, over the years, there have been a long list of winners, including 16 young boys who crossed the finish line first in the 17 editions of the race – Byron Pope accomplished the feat twice. The tradition started in 2000 with the first crowning of Ariel Rosado, and has continued right up to current 2016 champion Kaydine Pinelo. Winners over the years have included household names in the sport such as Marlon Castillo, Joel Borland, the afore-mentioned Byron Pope and Ariel Rosado, and recently crowned Belmopan Classic champion, Oscar Quiroz. Ernest “Jaw” Meighan never won this race – it wasn’t created yet in his youth – but his son, Ernest Bradley, won it 2 years ago. The list of champions is recorded in history, but there are other winners not so remembered. I wanted to know who those winners are, so I set out in search, and what I discovered was enlightening.
I put the question first to Col. George Lovell, team manager of the Digicell 4G/LTE Cycling team, and he gives both of his sons, Gian and Gerson, a fighting chance to win this year. He also agrees that female cycling has been a big winner over the years. Before Junior Cross Country came along, the girls would always race on their own. After Jr. Cross Country became a thing, our girls would often race in the same field as the juniors, and that practice allowed the girls to develop into better cyclists; a result of facing a higher level of competition from the young boys, and by the experience gained racing in a larger peloton than when on their own. Junior racing for boys lifted the level of racing for girls over the years, and that makes female cycling a winner.
Michael Williams is team manager for the SMART Cycling Team, and his team carries a handful of riders with potential to win the 2017 edition of the race, including Joshua Fuller and Sherwin Requena; but Michael thinks that a big winner of Junior Cross Country is the safety and development of all our junior cyclists. You see, prior to juniors having their own race, they were just thrown to the wolves, lining up in “open” races, with seniors and elites included. In fact, all newcomers were labeled as “Juniors” regardless of age. That meant putting novice teens in harm’s way – right in the middle of a tight and crowded peloton that they weren’t quite prepared for. The incidents of crashes were frequent, and you can imagine the injuries that would result. Although juniors were recognized and given prizes for being first in their own category, it was still discouraging for them having to line up with elite riders who would dominate the field and leave juniors lagging miles behind. That no longer occurs.
The manager of Cabral/Marin Cycling Team, Michelle Marin, has rising stars on her team too, including Nashen Ysaguirre and Gian Lino. Michelle sees a bunch of winners from Junior Cross Country, not the least of which is the complicated process of developing young boys into men through sports, and getting adult fans (like herself) to be involved as volunteers. She likes the idea, as does the current sponsor of the race (Belize Electricity Limited), to award prizes in kind that encourage education and sports, as opposed to cash that the seniors and elites sometimes receive. She views participation in sports as a way for young boys to become well rounded persons and future role models; and for them to remain in good standing, she requires her young athletes to display the right attitudes that include respect for authority, teamwork, and proper discipline. As for Michelle herself, she is a lifelong fan of cycling who would watch races with her father, and like the majority of those managers mentioned here, would probably not have been so involved in cycling if not for the junior ranks.
The team manager of Imani’s Team, Reuben Martinez, touts young Tevin Chaplin, and brothers Jyven and Jyron Gonzalez to win this year’s race; but he is most pleased that Junior Cross Country has been able to bring fresh blood into a stagnant sport. I understand exactly what he means, as I can recall when I started racing in 1989, the field for Cross Country was about 120 strong, but only about 80 of those were Belizeans. The number of registered racers in Belize remained more-or-less the same for several years, including up to the time I retired from racing. That has changed, and now there are more than double that number of competitive racers in Belize, with still about 80 in the elite category, but another 50 just-past-their-prime racers participating in Weekend Warriors events, and an additional 30 in juniors, of which about a dozen graduate annually to the elite category, while another dozen replace them annually at the “Youth” level. There were far fewer novice cyclists entering the sport each year prior to Junior Cross Country, and I’m convinced the change is a result of young riders no longer being intimidated by having to race alongside seasoned veterans right from the get go.
Alexander Sheppard is a former cyclist hailing from Camalote, and he opines that the Cayo and Orange Walk Districts are big winners from Junior Cross Country. Besides that, he manages the Big Shep Cycling Team that features promising juniors Shawn Armstrong, Jr. and Kevin Gentle, among others. But, back to this Cayo and Orange Walk thing, I believe he’s right. Twenty years ago, all the top cyclists hailed from Belize City, and all the teams did too. Junior Cross Country has spawned a host of teams from the north and west, with a plethora of riders coming up through the ranks from junior to elite, with all their families and friends in frenzied fandom support. Is it a coincidence that the cycling scene is so dominated now by riders from those parts of the country? Look at some of the names: Jose, Peter, and Geovanni Choto, Shane and Ron Vasquez, Joslyn Chavarria, Jr., Oscar Quiroz, Joel Borland, Erwin Middleton, Nissan Arana. Remember hearing the names Aiden Juan and Chris Reyes, too? Okay, Shane Vasquez and Jose Choto started prior to Junior Cross Country – I sneaked those two names in there – but you get the point.
Sheppard also likes that nowadays junior racing means young cyclists aren’t strained at an early age to ride too many miles on gears too big – senior Cross Country in particular – the way they used to in the past. Let’s face it, notwithstanding that Cross Country was often referred to as a, “right of passage,” in its tradition, it was never wise to allow 14, 15, 16 and 17-year old boys to ride 140-mile races, not if they are to properly mature into elite athletes, and reach their highest peak at the right age (between 26 and 31 years old). Before Junior Cross Country, our young athletes would “force-ripe” and then burn out, never reaching their true and full potential. Thankfully, those days are now long gone.
William Cacho got involved three years ago because his own son, Kevaughn, liked the sport and started racing. Now the young Cacho and Darnell Augustine headline the WKC Strikers Team. The WKC manager made the answer very simple for me: Who is the winner of Junior Cross Country? That’s easy! It is Junior Cycling, because those boys now have their very own day to shine. They don’t share it with the elites anymore. They don’t share it with the females anymore. Junior Cross Country is ridden on a day when they are the only talk of the (cycling) town. When their race goes off, all the media, including live radio broadcast, have only one race and one story to cover.
So, who’s the ultimate winner of Junior Cross Country? Looks to me like there are no losers here.