Inspiration comes in many forms, but the easiest way to find inspiration is in the heart of a champion. Some champions were born to win, but most are not. Lots of hard work, a good attitude and a little luck are what make a winner. Melvin, the Honduran bicycle champion, was molded from the mud of poverty and hard baked in the hot tropical sun. When I met him, in the middle of nowhere, I came away with a deeper appreciation of determination and heart.
I’d been riding through the west coast of northern Nicaragua to get to El Salvador. My journey was a continuation of a long sojourn through Latin America. I had spent six months riding through Peru and Bolivia, and two months through Panama, Costa Rica and Nicaragua.
I wanted to get to the Mayan Empire, after having spent so much time exploring the enormous Incan Empire. The journey had plenty of dangerous elements. Heavily armed ex-contras roamed the eastern interior, so I chose to avoid them by taking the Pacific route. Also, there were numerous left over soldiers from the Salvadorian Honduran conflicts, so the locals constantly warned me,
“Peligroso es el interior. No queremos que vayas a morir.”
(The interior is dangerous. We don’t want you to die.)
Despite following their advice, I encountered M-16 toting Honduran troops upon entry. They didn’t bother me, since I didn’t look like a typical tourist, but the experience alerted me to the fact that I was traveling through recovering war zones.
At the border station of Nicaragua and Honduras, I met two Norwegian cyclists, Jans and Sven. They started their journey at Tierra Del Fuego, in Chile and would finish at Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, covering the ends of the planet by bicycle.
Driven to complete the journey as quickly as possible, they were a little cold when I asked if I could tag along. Fearful that I would slow them down, I reassured them that it was just for the day.
After traveling alone for so long, I hungered just to have a decent conversation. Although I didn’t mind going solo, the lonely nights were taking a toll, and I decided there was a reason why people had social lives. After all, my partner in this affair was my bicycle. Although I loved her, my bicycle wasn’t what I called an exemplary conversationalist.
Sven, a tall red head with a beard, and I biked the main road onto a dirt path, which lead into a town called El Triunfo that didn’t even appear in our maps. Surprised it existed, yet also hungry, we loaded up on gourmet items – spaghetti, ketchup, salt, and Top Ramen. The other cyclist, Jans, went down the road to find fuel for our stoves, while Sven and I got back to the main road. Night settled upon us, but Jans failed to show up. Hours passed in silence. “Where was Jans?”
Suddenly, a light flashed in the distance, and a short man in a bicycling jersey walked over to us. He asked us if we were friends with a blonde haired cyclist. “He’s in my house. Please, come with me.”
It was at this point that I learned about Central American hospitality. Despite their conditions, they were surrounded by hospitality, warmness and friendliness. “Hey guys!” yelled Jans, who stood behind a makeshift barbed wire fence. We followed the man into his mud and adobe home. It was roofed in corrugated metal and enclosed with plastic and canvas. The toilet was a hole in the ground, surrounded by 4 pieces of wood. Water was received about two or three times a week, and they often depended on rainfall.
We entered the garage/bedroom/dining room. In the dim light of a candle, we sat down on several aluminum chairs on the bare dirt floor.
I looked around, and sitting on a broken TV were several cycling trophies. “Campeon de Honduras, 2000,” said one trophy. On his jersey, in large letters, were the words, “El Campeon” (The Champion).
“I’m also a cyclist,” our host beamed, “and we’re all brothers in the world. Therefore, I want to extend my hands for brotherhood.”
No matter where I traveled, bicyclists everywhere were united in a strange global family, due to the perception that only mad people would choose to ride such contraptions to travel. Thus, the bicycle gave us passage to enter the heart of his family and home.
Curious, I observed him. He was about 5 feet 2 inches (1.57m) tall, dark, thin, 21 years old, and with well defined quadriceps dressed in cycling shorts. On the wall in a corner of the room, were two bicycles, one of which was a Trek 5000, a US$ 2,000 bicycle.
My eyes widened with allure. He then showed me his prize—two Italian racing bicycles made of carbon fiber and specialized aluminum. Each bicycle was appraised at US$ 3,000. He used one, and his younger brother used the other.
“You are the champion?” I asked in surprise.
“Yes, of Honduras. My name is Melvin. Melvin Betancourt.”
Later, his family joined us. The mother, father and his brother, all lived, literally, under one roof and in one room. His mother took the food we bought and cooked for all of us – spaghetti with ketchup and fried plantains.
Being in Melvin’s presence elicited a sense of admiration. How was it possible, in this poor home, that he could maintain his training and diet? I thought about the pampered people that I used to work out and train with in the gym.
I remembered them and how they would complain about a lack of this or not having that. In the U.S., we had everything at our disposal: science, nutrition, equipment and experts. Yet, unlike us, he did not complain about his conditions.
“I was born here, and with God, I do what I can,” he said simply and I noted the strength in his voice, as well as a sense of resignation.
It was inspirational to meet Melvin. Despite his circumstances, he won through determination and hard work. But how could he afford such expensive bicycles? The cost of just one of those bikes would help lift his family out of poverty. Was he a professional bicyclist?
Melvin laughed: “People here do not consider bicycling as a sport to pay for. We are not like soccer players or baseball players. We are a minority here. Everything I do comes out of my pocket and with the support of my family.” And the expensive bikes were donations of an association for poor athletes. And yes, he had thought about selling them to help his family. “But no one can buy them,” he said with his eyes looking at the floor. “It is too expensive for the people here.”
In the glow of the candlelight, we told stories, swapped training tips and talked about ways to exercise. He would get up at 5 a.m., eat a light breakfast and then bicycle about 180 to 250 miles (300 to 400 km). When he got back home, he would eat lunch, and help out his younger brother to sell food on the highway. They used a wagon attached to a bicycle.
Although it was a rough life, it trained him very well. I lived and breathed training science and diet, and it baffled me when Melvin told me of his daily routines. Melvin subsisted on a diet of honey, whole grain cereal and milk for breakfast. He also ate whatever his mother threw at him. He had no access to vitamin pills, nutritional information or diet experts.
His training equipment was the Honduran roads, a keen sense of his body, tropical sun and rain, and enough hills making the knees scream. He had always wanted to compete outside his home country, but it was too difficult to get the money together. But Melvin did not give up hope. “I dream of competing in the Olympics,” he said quietly.
The next morning, Melvin decided to escort us for a portion of our journey. As he darted ahead of me, I silently cheered him on. I swore that when I got home, I would try to help Melvin finding a sponsor. Still, sponsor or no sponsor, I knew he would find the determination to compete and win.