I had no idea a huge bicycle race was set to happen in the small Mexican town I was visiting, but within 24 hours of my plane landing I was shaking hands with Lance Armstrong and bunking with a guy suffering from a debilitating drug problem.
The author (behind Lance Armstrong) and Geoff the crack addict (in the green shirt).
I had no idea there was a huge bicycle race about to take part in Oaxaca. In fact, I'd only headed there because I’d stumbled around Mexico's dusty north for too long, and the Lonely Planet guide suggested Oaxaca—a municipality around 300 miles south of Mexico City—as a great place to stop before I took the plunge down into the jungles of Guatemala.
I was on the second flight of the day (Monterrey–Mexico City–Oaxaca) when a woman leaned across the aisle and asked if we were athletes. I glanced at the guy next to me, who looked at me as though I might have the answer to the woman’s question. I knew I wasn’t an athlete—I get exhausted playing Mario Kart—so that much was certain. But the guy next to me was small and compact—wiry, with a shaved head that looked like it might make him better at sports.
"I’m not an athlete," he said, as though it was a question he was asked every day.
"Me neither," I said, over the top of the passing drink cart.
The woman sat back in her seat. "Oh, I thought you were taking part in the race."
The small muscular guy and I exchanged glances. Clearly, neither of us knew the slightest thing about any race, but looking around the plane, it did seem that something was afoot. Ridiculously healthy-looking people from all over the world were crammed into their seats, looking tanned and toned. I looked down at my skinny, bright red arms, then across to my new friend; this woman had to have been messing with us.
The Cathedral of San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico.
She introduced herself as Maria and handed across her card. "I’m with Coca-Cola," she explained. "Call me if you need anything."
My new friend and I both stared at the card. I told him my name and he said, "I’m Geoff. Where are we going? Waxaca?" Geoff glanced out the window, as though the clouds might have been signposts.
I didn’t see how he could have gotten on a plane without knowing where it went, but it appeared he had. I thought I should offer to help him, but from that point until we landed, Geoff began hissing "Fuck, fuck, fuck!" under his breath, and I decided to stay out of it.
The plane landed, and I stood watching the baggage go round and round the carousel until there was nothing left. I kept telling myself, Mine will be along soon, assuming it must have been receiving special treatment—the airport staff were taking extra care that nothing was broken. This was not the case. Across the lobby, Geoff was locked in a phone booth. I couldn’t hear what he was saying, but his face was red and his fingers were picking frantically at a poster stuck to the glass.
I walked to the information desk and began trying to explain that I thought my bag was still in Mexico City. The woman behind the desk didn't seem to understand. Behind me, Geoff had found Maria, the Coke rep from the plane, who seemed to be calming him down. The lobby was emptying, and a black SUV idled outside the doors. Maria put her arm around Geoff and drew him toward the car. Here I was, luggageless in a town I had never been to before, and the only people I slightly knew were about to take off into the afternoon traffic.
I abandoned the woman at the counter midsentence and dashed after Maria and the only other gringo around. While Maria yelled at the woman at the desk in Spanish for me, Geoff filled me in on his situation.
"Man, I was heading to this rehab center down in Puerto Angel. My mom packed me off, but somehow I’ve ended up here."
I wasn't sure how to respond. My immediate reaction was to ask, "What drugs do you like?" but I was aware it might seem insensitive, so I just nodded and told Geoff we’d get him there eventually.
The author with his bike in Mexico.
Maria returned. Everything was taken care of, she said. They’d have the luggage sent to her hotel. She bundled us out of the airport and into the SUV. A huge Latino guy was waiting in the backseat; he pumped our hands and embraced Maria. Then the car took off and Maria introduced the big guy as Charles, a once-famous bicycle racer.
We ploughed through traffic, Huge Charles, Maria, my new friend with the debilitating drug problem, and me, balancing precariously upon crates and crates of Powerade that had been stuffed into the back seats. It turned out Maria was there to represent Powerade (part of the Coca-Cola family) at the race, and she invited us to take as much as we wanted. I didn’t want to offend and gulped down a bottle of blue isotopes.
Things became awkward when we arrived at the hotel. The car wound up a manicured path with meticulously pruned bushes on either side, then dropped us off next to a huge terracotta-colored archway. Geoff and I glanced uncertainly at each other—something we were well versed in by this point—and did our best to refuse when Maria said she would get us a room on the Powerade account.
"It’s fine," I said. "I’ll find a hostel, don’t worry."
"No, no, no," Maria said, waving her hands. "You say you're a pair of models working for us, and I’ll get you a room."
First confused with athletes, now being told we could pass as models. Things were getting weird.
Geoff and I stood by while Maria argued with the hotel desk, but she was less successful than at the airport, and we had to try another hotel. Again, Geoff and I began refusing her hospitality, but Maria was having none of it.
There was only one room—a twin—available at the next hotel, and Maria booked us in, insisting we eat and drink whatever we wanted and charge it to her. Huge Charles had stayed behind at the other hotel and Maria had somewhere to be, so Geoff and I made our way to the room alone. Before she went, Maria handed us her cell phone and said she would text us later.
By this point, I’d decided to go with it and just let things happen. We walked to the room, past crowds of cyclists lunging in their short shorts. The room was large, the sun shone through the window and the bedsheets were white. I took a shower and Geoff lent me a clean T-shirt, then we sat on the balcony and I almost took a beer from the minibar until I remembered Geoff’s addiction.
The hotel restaurant put on a buffet for the competitors, and Geoff and I were first in line. We sat in the empty restaurant and I loaded up on pulled pork and chicken legs—comparatively an Elizabethan feast after a month of cheap tacos. Geoff sat next to me, nervously murmuring about the fact that we were going to get in trouble. As the restaurant filled up, Geoff opened up, perhaps attempting to hide his presence by immersing himself in conversation.
He told me he’d worked in the US Navy, out in the Gulf, but it hadn’t worked out for him and eventually he was dishonorably discharged. He had, he said, spent the last six months smoking crack on his bathroom floor. Finally, his mom had had enough and shipped him out to a rehab center down on the southern coast of Mexico, which is when our paths had crossed.
Just as we were finishing our meal, Maria’s phone rang and she invited us out for drinks. She was in a bar with Lance Armstrong, and if we hurried, we might meet him. I knew nothing of Lance back then, but it seemed like the right thing to do to round out this strange day, so I persuaded Geoff to come along, promising him we could leave as soon as he felt anxious.
The bar was swanky and everyone wore suits and flashed their new watches as they called the waiters across for more champagne or tequila. Geoff glanced around nervously as we sat down beside Maria. Huge Charles was at the table, as was another equally large Italian, who had also apparently been a champion racer in his time. Maria ordered us drinks, and Geoff stared at his for half an hour before pushing it in front of me.
"There’s Lance," Maria whispered. And there he was, a few tables away with his back to us. Maria brought him over and Huge Charles and the Italian pumped his hand enthusiastically. I guess they were old friends. We stood in a line for a photo and I asked Lance to sign my white T-shirt. I later sold this T-shirt for $25 on eBay. In hindsight, I should have kept it and sold it after he’d been revealed as a dope cheat—eBuyers love paraphernalia from deceitful drug addicts.
The author with some cycling models, just before he was thrown out of the VIP area.
Geoff and I left soon after, and by the time we got back to the hotel I could tell he was feeling a little worse for wear. There were only two beds in the room and we took one each. Maria had invited us to share her room and offered to pay for everything, so we thought we’d see whether she’d mind sharing a bed with one of us. It turned out that she did mind. The door opened in the night and Maria stood silhouetted in the threshold, giggling as she grasped the hand of a large man. Then the door shut and their sounds scattered away down the corridor.
The next day was the day of the bicycle race and Maria had managed to secure us VIP passes. We stood in a sort of marquee on scaffolding and watched the racers line up below. Lance appeared to start the race, then, as he set the cyclists off, he walked back against them, an arrogant salmon swimming against a stream of wheels. Everyone in the VIP booth shook their heads and began muttering about what a dick he was. But I didn’t care about cycling, or Lance Armstrong, and was concerned only with the canapés.
The afternoon passed slowly as the cyclists trailed past. Maria pointed out various people: The mayor of Oaxaca, the head of Mexico’s biggest telecom company, a Mexican soap star... but my attention was waning. After a while, Maria wandered off, promising us she’d be right back. Geoff and I were egging each other on to ask for a photo with some models from the telecom company, but then Geoff said he had to leave to call his mom, and I found myself alone among the Oaxacan elite.
I decided to man up and approach the models. A photograph was taken, then immediately afterward a short, burly official took me under the arm and bundled me out of the VIP area. All my connections to that world had left me, and my time among the important people was up. I spent the rest of the day wandering around, looking for Geoff, but I never found him. I was stopped now and then by locals who asked for pictures with me, their children clinging to my legs. After a while, I realized this was because of the VIP badge I'd forgotten I was wearing, not because I looked like both an athlete and a model.
I went back to the hotel, found my luggage had arrived and checked out of the room. I dug out the Lonely Planet and found a hostel, where I met new people and new things happened. I never saw Geoff again, and I only remembered he existed once Lance Armstrong was exposed as a cheat. It’s fine for Lance, he was able to manipulate his drug abuse and earn millions upon millions of dollars from lying to others. Geoff, on the other hand, ended up abusing drugs, losing his job, and being packed off to another country by his mother. He certainly hadn't earned millions of dollars from his addiction, either. I think about Geoff now, four years on, and wonder whether he ever made it to that rehab center by the coast, or if he simply melted away into the ciudads of southern Mexico. I suppose I’ll never know.
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