RIO DE JANEIRO (VN) — When Chris Froome, Alejandro Valverde, and Vincenzo Nibali turn the screws on Vista Chinesa, Brian Babilonia will not be there. He will fight and claw at the peloton’s whipping tail, and he will lose. But he is here, now, standing on Rio’s coast with the same Tyvek number on his back as all the rest. His bike is five years old, his wheels are unbranded, his entourage can be counted by a man with no hands at all. But he is here.
He’s here three hours early.
“I have to be early,” he says, grinning. “I don’t want to miss anything. I don’t want to miss any moments.”
The sun still sits low over the water off Copacabana beach, it’s light filtered red through an early morning haze. Froome woke up perhaps 30 minutes ago. The rest of Babilonia’s competitors won’t show up for at least another hour. He can’t stop moving, even now. ‘PUR’ stands out in white block letters on his chest of red and blue. Three letters to signify his nation. He’s about to ride against the world.
“It’s something that happens only once every four years, you see the best riders in the world,” he says. “It’s the best cycling race you can get.
“I just want to finish the race. It would be nice if I could finish a race like this, that is this hard. Not everyone will finish. It’s a challenge.”
Babilonia is not a professional, though he wants to be someday. He only started riding in 2012, the year of the last summer Olympics. There was a selection event held earlier in the year where he and his countrymen raced “for the privilege of representing Puerto Rico,” he says. He earned that privilege and became the first from his nation to enter the Olympic road race since 1996.
“It’s only my first time,” he says. His voice makes it clear there will be a second.
The Olympics can be a great equalizer. When Babilonia sits down on a curb in Copacabana he does so right next to the Colombian team, favorites for gold, huddled on the pavement in the small patch of shade thrown by their Olympic-issued Nissan.
Babilonia lines up early, and he rolls near the front after Brian Cookson waves the start flag. He knows, surely, that the early kilometers are his only available canvas, his only chance to smile for a TV camera.
And there he was, on screens across the world, following a couple moves, riding in the second row just inches behind a Tour de France champion. Brian Babilonia, Puerto Rico’s only starter, a 21-year-old without a pro contract, still not missing a single moment.