We stopped in Santa Maria, the first outpost on the desert fringe. After profusive thank-yous we unloaded our assortment of bags into the street and began the task of reassembling our mobile homes. We had hardly begun when I looked up to see we were surrounded by an armada of silver bikes. A crowd was growing as cyclists materialized from out of nowhere. Equally bizarre, most were riding the latest-model mountain bikes — Rock Shocks, hydraulic brakes, and dual-suspension frames. Faintly in the distance I swear I heard the theme to the Twilight Zone.
Amid the flurry of usual questions someone was asking "Will you ride today?" Amazingly we had entered town just minutes before the annual "Ride for Life" was set to begin. The crowd ushered us to the main plaza and into the chaos of cyclists and music blaring beyond speaker capacity. We were set to enjoy our cold Cokes when the music suddenly stopped and our names were blasted by the DJ. "Bienvenidos a Guillermo y Nancy Holmes de los Estados Unidos! " A cameraman spotted us through the crowd and suddenly we were being interviewed. They too wanted to know if we would ride. We looked around seeing 70-year-old men, housewives, and children all gathering at the start. Fifteen kilometers and paved, they said. With such a welcome how could we refuse? A van of cameramen offered to take our bags. No problem, we're used to riding with our gear. Please hold my Coke. We'll be right back.
Huh? This is my first time in any biking event and it was going well as everyone left me behind and Bill immediately got a flat. Half the crowd stopped to help, but he hurried them on "Esta bien, esta bien." I decide to go on as well — after all, it's hardly the first time. Soon the excitement of the start begins to fade and so do I. I feel more and more tired and fight to catch my breath and keep the sweat of my eyes. I notice I am by myself as the others have pulled ahead and Bill has yet to catch up. Digging up extra strength I manage to make it to the mid-point where tangerines are passed around. Bill pulls up just as our names again ring out over the huge PA speakers. "Guillermo y Nancy de los Estados Unidos!" We smile and wave each time. We are interviewed again. The enthusiastic crowd asks how the first part went for us. "Fine. Fine. Todo bien." With my broken Spanish I understand something about a river crossing in the next part of the ride. I smile and think, There's more!?
We hit the crossing of a huge river about 500 feet wide. Squiggly lines run into the water where other cyclists have gone straight through. It's either that or carry your bike over a wobbly log bridge. I opt for the latter rather than wind up marooned mid-river with all my gear. Our ever-helpful co-riders help us across and we try to join them riding off through the wet sand. No use. We sink deeper with each pedal stroke. I get off again to push. Looking ahead I see no end in sight. What have we gotten into? Bill jokes with the passing officials. "You told us it was all paved!" This becomes the running joke.
After a long hill of loose dirt, Stage 3 is set to begin. Signs of toil must be obvious as two officials take our bikes and begin to pedal off. In their place we are given feather-light mountain bikes. Amid laughter we pedal off as well, reeling as if riding home after a late-night kegfest. It takes a while to get used to the jerky movements and strange gear shifters, but soon I get the hang of it and begin to fly.
We end our ride on rubbery legs with many hugs and handshakes. It seems everyone wants to have their picture taken with the two gringos. Our names again ring out over the loudspeakers, this time to present us with a diploma for our participation. Everyone has to sign it and we are still collecting signatures when Renee — one of the ride officials — comes over to tell us he has gotten us a room to stay in the local sports hall. Everyone wants to know how long we will stay in Santa Maria. In truth, we tell them tomorrow we will be heading on. Yet we both know in the long miles yet to go, when the wind is whipping and the sand again stings our eyes, we'll be back in Santa Maria, our cycling compadres urging us along, the taste of cold Cokes and tangerines easing the strain.