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Santino’s Down But Not Out

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I am tired and bruised. I broke my left hand in the crash at Roaring Creek, dropped on my head, my neck is in a brace so I say am Cross Country’d out”. Those were the opening remarks from owner and coach, of the Santino’s Ride to Victory Cycling Team, Santino Castillo when we caught up with him yesterday. Castillo stepped away from federation cycling in 2014 after winning the 2013 Cross Country with Darnell Barrow. He returned this season, reuniting with long time faithful Marlon Castillo, who finished eight and as the first Belizean in the 2014 Cross Country while riding for BTL Elite Cycling Team, now DigiCELL 4G.

This year’s Cross Country Classic was supposed to be the return of the mighty Santino’s and many understood that while he did not have the strongest team, he had the 2015 Belmopan Classic Champion Guy East (USA) and Marlon Castillo, the great Belizean hope. Unfortunately, the storybook return was not to be as Marlon withdrew half way through and East was heavily marked and frustrated the entire day. So, the recurring question fresh in minds of the Belizean public after every Cross Country remains; what happened to Marlon Castillo? Santino, disappointingly, reported that Marlon had confessed to food poisoning after some questionable food choices the night before, leaving him dehydrated, with severe stomach issues the night and into the race, forcing him to abandon in Cayo. A frustrated Santino sighed, “Quite honestly that broke my heart in two. It would almost have been better if he would have just driven a knife in my heart. The sad thing was that I dedicated the first half of the race to Marlon. Guy [East] didn’t know that Marlon had abandoned the race until half way between Cayo and Roaring Creek, and that deflated the entire team.” The biggest cycling hope and frustration, in Belize, continues to be two sides of the same coin that is Marlon Castillo.

Guy East, who won the Belmopan Classic on March 15 after pushing a breakaway, that included Marlon Castillo, was back again to serve that same purpose. “We were 100% trying to set up Marlon for the win today. But we both needed to be in a breakaway together otherwise it was not going to work. We were attacking the peloton together but everyone stayed on us like white on rice. It was impossible for us to get away from the group so we had to try attacking separately which didn’t work well either”, said East. Santino Castillo said the biggest mistake East made was winning the Belmopan Classic because that made him a marked man. Marked or not, East had delivered the first victory in the return season for Santino’s with his Belmopan Classic win, and was brought back, hopefully, for another great run. Instead, Santino’s met a similar fate as other contending teams; chasing a winning break all day long. East summed up the events for us; “Our plan was to go early too, like we did in the Belmopan Classic. We knew that if we had the right group and went early that no one would be able to chase us. The breakaway did not have many of the favorites so in one way we were not too worried. We didn’t know if the Williams were going to be able to last so long in the front. We knew Weiss was strong but the other riders we weren’t worried about. In the peloton all of the odds were against us. None of the riders were working with us and it became very difficult. I was attacking a lot and so was Rangel, Bill Elliston, Chris Harkey and Jose Robles but they never gave us an inch. I knew that it would be difficult to get away and catch the breakaway but I thought that they were fading and we would eventually get them. But they actually rode strong the entire way home and kept the gap steady. Once we got to the zoo I knew it was over. The riders in our group were not riding hard enough to bridge the gap. I lost hope and just wanted to make it back.” With Marlon out of the picture, an unrelenting lead group and the chasers in disarray, this experience for East was a sharp contrast to that of the Belmopan Classic. “I was very frustrated with the tactics of some of the teams today and I don’t believe they acted in the best interest of the race or themselves. Some of the team’s like Benny’s, Smart and C-Ray were riding strictly against the foreigners. They didn’t care who won as long as we didn’t get away from the group. That is not the best way to ride and it hurts their chances as much as it does ours”.

This was the first Cross Country for East and with the foreign rider policy reaching its third year, meaning no foreigners on local teams, this could also be his last, unless he makes the one team allowed from the US. Viewed in isolation, the developmental value of the policy is questionable, as other variables must be considered. Fully aware of the situation East added, “A lot of people ask me; how can the Belizeans improve? My answer is better training and more intelligent racing tactics. If they trained with a coach and used more intelligent strategy when they are racing you would see a lot of improvement in Belize. There is a lot of talent in Belize. Guys like Marlon, some of the Chotos, Lovell, Cattouse, and on and on. They can be good international cyclists. The guys I mentioned are smart and good bike riders but some of the other guys are crippling themselves due to a variety of reasons. But yes, I believe with the right guidance there are some Belizeans who can rise to the top. Contrary to what others think I believe that it is important for foreigners to participate in the races here because they can teach the skills and training methods needed to reach higher levels. Look at what Robles is doing, he is investing a lot into the locals here and they are improving. If foreigners are prohibited from competing then the Belizeans will never learn how to improve and they will be limited to what they always have known”.

Santino Castillo has never shied away from using foreign riders, and while he may not fully agree with the policy, he confirms that his team will be back for another season in 2016. So while he will cooperate, he offered his estimation of the effect of the policy going forward. “My personal opinion is that the races will get very boring and believe that they have it down to 1 foreigner which is very controllable and they should revisit that and leave it at 1 foreigner. If they think things are difficult now; in my opinion, when no foreigner is on the Belizean teams, in my estimation the Belizean teams will be at a disadvantage because I would not have a Guy East that can ride for Marlon Castillo, other teams will not have a good caliber rider that can ride for a Brandon Cattouse or a Byron Pope. So, personally, I think we’re going backwards and if they do that then it will be even harder for a Belizean to win the Cross Country”. Nonetheless, he is making plans for next year. “This year I only had a team of three, next year I plan to have a team of six. I have my eyes on different riders because when this season is over a lot of guys will be without a team. I’ve already spotted some guys and some have already asked me, so Santino’s will be there back in full force and Marlon has some serious making up to do”. So, while down right now, Santino’s is not out and Santino believes his team will endure with the gift and the curse in Marlon Castillo. “I’m the only one that makes him show some semblance of discipline and the key word there is some. Marlon is only about 75% and if he could get to 100% no other Belizean could touch him. But he owes me and I will try one more time and hopefully we could use that positively”.

About Isaac Rhys

Isaac Rhys is the Managing Editor at cyclebiz.com. Based in the Belize, he started Cyclebiz in 2015 intent on attracting more attention to local bike races and its participants.

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