Four young women from the Panamanian national team are packing up their bicycles, disassembling the frames and loading them into bulky plastic cases required for airplane transport. I'm confused, though. We've only raced two of the UCI races here in Venezuela. We still have two to go. I ask why they are leaving early. Don't they want to shoot for those elusive Olympic qualification points?
They do, but there's an issue. Of the six international teams represented in Venezuela, Panama was asked to stay at a different hotel in a different city for the remainder of the races, a hotel more than an hour away from the rest of the teams. The Venezuelan federation, which pays for all international teams' hotel rooms during the events, requested the Panamanian team move to a cheaper hotel. But the Panamanian women did not feel safe in a strange city so far from the other riders, and the roads and riding routes were unfamiliar.
"Why does our team have to go?" they asked. The answer: Politics. Panama placed last as a team in our first two races. A minimum of five international teams are required for UCI points races, and Panama brought that number to six. In finishing last, the Panamanians had become superfluous. When they tried to argue that they belonged in the same hotel as the rest of the competitors, or at least in a location where they felt safe, the Venezuelan federation refused and sent the Panamanians home.
My teammate Julie and I watched them pack. It didn't feel right. I was in their shoes four years ago as an inexperienced rider just trying to keep up with the big dogs and was often last in the races. I've been broomwagoned in Europe, dropped in the United States and crashed out in corners of the Caribbean and Central America, but no one ever told me to go home or moved me to unsafe locations. Riders and teams must be treated equally.
Julie and I told the Panamanian women they could have our hotel room and we'd purchase separate accommodations. The ladies thanked us, but their pride had been wounded beyond repair.
"We came for the experience of racing, but because we are weak, we are no longer wanted here," one of them said. "It's time to leave."
All I could do was correct them on one major point.
"Inexperience is not the same as weakness," I told them. I urged them to keep racing and to use the disappointment as fuel for training. Don't quit over controversy, I begged them. Keep riding. Someday your country will have an Olympic cyclist. The more I spoke, the more I realized just how personal this issue had become. As I've raced internationally for St. Kitts and Nevis over the past four years, I've competed in a lot of remote places and seen a lot of interesting things. I've witnessed course-cutting cheaters, sketchy race directors, commissaries with a penchant for posting rather creative race results and routes laden with precarious potholes and uncovered sewer openings.
The sport has its obstacles, but the one obstacle we must overcome is speaking out on issues of fairness and growth for women's cycling. It is not OK to invite a young national team to a UCI event and then send them home. It is not OK to cater only to today's winners and mistake the next generation's temporary inexperience as weakness. It is not OK to discourage women in sport. I am not OK with what happened to the Panamanians. Every cyclist -- heck, every athlete in every sport -- starts out as Panama. We must stick up for the beginners; they are our future.
Now, more than ever, we need to show the inconsistencies and inequalities in women's sports and rally against them. Of course, politics are everywhere in sports and probably always will be, but that doesn't mean we should accept such discourse. Phrases like "Life's not always fair" are often tossed around with dismissive nonchalance, but I don't believe life is unfair. Life can occasionally be crappy or less than lucky, but in my experience, it is people who are unfair. People decided Panama couldn't race anymore. People took away their Olympic qualification potential. People sent them home. Hopefully, people can set this right.
Along with other members of our team, Julie and I have invited the Panamanian women to come to the U.S. to race and gain the experience they need. They can stay in our homes and we'll help them get to the next level. (Any race directors or fellow cyclists who want to help, leave a comment below.) There will be some who attempt to rescind the progress of women's sports, but I believe there will be more who band together and help it grow.
My heart lies with Panama. I'll race for them in spirit this weekend.
Kathryn Bertine is the author of two sports memoirs, "All The Sundays Yet To Come" and "As Good As Gold." You can follow her on Twitter @kathrynbertine, or check out her latest endeavor to help women's cycling.