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The show goes on: Guatemalan landslides challenge Cycle Messenger World Championships organizers

A report from the Cycle Messenger World Championships in Guatemala, where a recent natural disaster has added to the challenge.

2010 Cycle Messenger World Championships
Bill "Biker Bill" Thain before the first day of racing on "La Ocho."

It’s a bike messenger’s job to get the delivery done in any condition: rain, sleet or snow.

But what about landslides?

The 18th annual Cycle Messenger World Championships will answer just that question as hundreds of messengers from across the globe descend on the tiny Guatemalan town of Panajachel, where some preliminary events started Sept. 3

Heavy rains from tropical storm Hermine have already brought the mountainsides down, closed roads, stranded racers across Central America, displacing villagers and even taking several lives.

“One way or another, we’re going to race,” said Shawn Blumenthal, one of the event’s organizers. “This (world championships) have never failed to go off.”

The main messenger race, consisting of a simulated courier route through town, will be held September 12. Leading up to the final event, track racing, bike polo, skid competitions and plenty of festivities will occur.

The roads of Panajachel are a mix of gravel, brick and cobblestone. Riders will also reckon with plenty of mud, loose rubble and the town’s booming population of stray dogs.

Race director Andy Zalan is in charge of designing the course, a simulated courier route, where racers must deliver an assortment of packages worth various points in whatever order they choose. His task will be challenged by his relative unfamiliarity with the area and the uncertainty of the weather.

“I don’t care about the condition of the course,” he said. “It’s all part of the game.”

On Friday night, the Rio San Francisco, surging with three straight days of rain, swept away massive chunks of river bank, bringing a corner of the bike polo court and two of the banked turns of the iconic “La Ocho” figure-eight racetrack out into the deep blue waters of nearby Lake Atitlan.

“It’s pretty depressing,” said Zalan. “You can tell there would have been some awesome racing on there”

On Sunday, the skies cleared and things were up and running again. After a night of partying messenger-style at one of the local bars, participants broke out hammers, shovels and a few handy rocks to disassemble what was left of the old “La Ocho” and polo courts.

By noon, a simple, two-dimensional, “suicide style” figure-eight had been chalked onto a soccer pitch and riders spent the day competing in a fastest-lap competition.

The wood from the old “La Ocho” was used to build the new polo court on an adjacent basketball court.

“Couriers can turn anything into a race … or a party,” Zalan said.

Previous championships have been held in metropolises like Washington, D.C., New York City, Tokyo and Berlin. The idea for Guatemala came from Nadir Olivet, a Guatemalan native and owner of La Carrera Cycles in Toronto. He and Zalan threw together a proposal an hour before the bidding for 2010 host cities started at the 2008 championships in Toronto.

“Pana’ is a contrast to the cities that we usually do this in,” said Scott Free, a respiratory therapist and former messenger from Los Angeles. Free said he had attended several of the earlier championships, but tired of them until he heard about Guatemala.

“I couldn’t pass this up,” he said. “Plus, it’s hard to say ‘No’ to Nadir, his personality is so large.”

Before any action could begin on Sunday, Olivet led several messengers in unloading a truck full of supplies that the messengers had collected and donated on their behalf to the victims.

A group ride around Lake Atitlan to deliver supplies to villages in need was scheduled for Tuesday.

Two hundred participants from 17 countries are expected to attend the event. The bikes range from skinny track bikes to burly mountain bikes. The level of competition ranged from ‘here-to-win’ to ‘here-to-hang-out-with-old-friends.’

A winning strategy is uncertain, but many are looking to the mountain bikers to bring home the championship on the rough terrain of Panajachel’s streets.

“(The world championships) have been won on road bikes and track bikes, but never on a mountain bike,” Blumenthal said. “I think a mountain bike will win here.”

Editor’s Note: Watch for Connor Boals’ report on the final competitions at the Cycle Messenger World Championships on next week.