The USA group! Notice how only the women and children are wearing our official jersey (well, plus Paco and Barry front and center)

It’s time for another coast-to-coast bike ride! After doing the 250km Dead2Red three times in 2009, 2010, and 2015 as part of a 5-person relay team, I’m ready for a new challenge – the 95km ride between Colon along the Caribbean coast down to Panama City on the Pacific. The race is in only three days, and while I don’t think I’ll bother to pay the ridiculous $100 registration fee (I’ve been told by multiple people that the support is terrible, they run out of water immediately, and the ‘celebration food’ at the end is mediocre) to become an official registered racer, there’s going to be approximately 3000 other riders milling around the starting line, so it’ll be easy enough to just bring a bike up to the starting line and just start pedaling.

I heard about the ride from the USA embassy, and was twofold lucky – first, I’ll be getting free transport for my borrowed bicycle and I up to Colon at 5:30 in the morning on Sunday, and second, the embassy is paying for free jerseys with USA Embassy of Panama proudly and prominently emblazoned on them. Ever since the USA ambassador to Panama suddenly announced his earlier-than-planned retirement a couple months ago *cough no idea why cough* I’ve heard that it’s a little bit of a wild west around the embassy. As long as you’re within your budgetary goals for your division, you can get a lot of stuff greenlit and quickly approved. Another commemorative bicycle jersey, hurray! My 2009 jersey from assisting the Rome to Mecca bike group from the border of Syria down to Amman is starting to get a little long in the tooth…

Anyway, where was I? Our practice ride last night – about 150 people, including a few children, met at the Hotel Miramar on Avenida Balboa (right along the Pacific coast) was larger than usual, as we were joined by some young Marines on a new deployment to the city, a lot of jersey-clad embassy employees who’d be doing the Ocean To Ocean this weekend, and even the president of the USA Triathlon club, Barry Siff.

Unfortunately, I almost got lost and missed the entire thing! I had no idea that the hotel would actually be located inside the giant median between the northbound and southbound lanes of traffic on Balboa. I had waited the entire 5 minutes for the light on the southbound side to allow me to cross, then took the pedestrian overpass over the northbound, before I realized – wait a minute, the hotel couldn’t possibly be on the pacific-side of the highway. There’s no room over here! It must be on the other side! But where…? So then I had to backtrack for 15 minutes to get all the way to where I’d originally waited on the other side of the highway, then back down the street with the traffic to finally find the hotel, which I promptly got lost at again trying to find the parking area everyone was waiting in.

Thankfully though, I made it in time to catch the last bit of Barry’s greeting to the assembled audience, and my embassy contact Paco also greeted everyone and, to my untrained spanish-hearing ear, extended greetings on behalf of the United States too. Pretty cool. When you work at an embassy, maybe you get to extend greetings on behalf of your country a lot if you want to!

There was something surprising about the jerseys: they’d all been ordered in strange women’s sizes. Normally I wear a Medium or Large, but as I grunted, strained, and discovered I couldn’t even close the front of the jersey enough to zip it up, it was revealed that only the XXL’s and XXXL’s fit even the normal sized men in our group. Paco kindly told us that we’d be provided with larger jerseys by the time the ride would start on Sunday morning – either way it’s fine by me.

Then we were off! It took about 5-10 minutes to get the group going each time we stopped; there’s a lot of entropy with a 150 person cycling group, but after rolling about a bit in the parking lot, building up speed, we hit southbound Balboa at about 10km per hour, to the sound of resounding whistles of the orange-shirted CCP (a local cycling club) volunteers skirting about the outsides of our 200 meter long caravan.

The cars had…mixed reactions to us. We’d end up doing two hours cycling together, on many different kinds of roads, but it was a little collar-pullingly nervous to be constantly surrounded by honking cars. Were they honking in friendly camaraderie? Look at you go, cycling at night, way to go? Or were they honking in irritation and frustration that they had places to be and our 200 meter tight column was impeding their progress? Probably both. It didn’t take us long to reach first Calidonia neighborhood, then Casco Viejo itself. The old city was designed with horse-driven carts in mind, and the city decided to keep the classic old buildings as they were and not increase the width of the streets. There was no way any cars were getting around us. I remarked to one of the Marines, a friendly young man with a round face, that it seemed like the streets were deserted, which was surprising to me. Minutes later, much like the phone game Snake, we doubled back around on ourselves, almost eating our “tail” of straggler bikers, and we saw where the cars were: backed up behind us for several blocks. I saw a Traffic Cop pointedly flag down one of the CCP volunteers and I caught the Spanish phrase for “what are you doing here….” before I had pedaled past them. I figured we were pretty safe though; the traffic cops are on the lookout for ongoing stuck traffic jams, not slow moving traffic. As long as we didn’t stay in one place for too long, they’d ignore us.

Disaster almost struck when another one of the Marines, a pretty woman with long black hair took a spill right in front of me. The front wheel of her collapsible “1-800-RentMe” bicycle had slipped into the slots of a sewer drain, “el cantaria,” and laid her out flat instantly. She hopped back up immediately, a little red-faced but no worse for wear, but since I was behind her, I got off my bike and immediately started waving people around the drain pit. If the slots had been going in the other direction there’d be no risk at all but with so many inexperienced bikers, much less people not used to group or night riding, I figured it couldn’t hurt for me to help out where I could.

We wound through Casco for another fifteen minutes, snaking past the quiet church ruins and lively pubs and trendy nightclubs, and then headed northwest toward Ancon Hill and the Panama Canal Administration Zone. These streets were stately, with nice BMW’s and Mercedes in the driveways of the large but still modest looking houses. Rich people always like living next to parks and nature reserves, and Ancon Hill is no exception. There were few streetlights here, but just like a school of fish, we each just followed the cyclist in front of us, trusting that our CCP leaders knew where they were going and would steer us correctly. We could have been gaily led off a cliff and our last thoughts would be “hmm, the person in front of me is descending quickly, I wonder wh-”

You’d be forgiven for thinking you were in D.C.!

The rest area of the ride was given to us in front of the clearly-Washington D.C. inspired monument to George Goethels, one of the leading men responsible for the completion of the Panama Canal. It seems like every D.C. monument has to have “that particular font/typeset” (you know the one I mean) for its text and that severe yet beautiful white marble for its construction. We rested and stretched on the lawn and cobbles surrounding the obelisk, as me and several other of the overly-hydrated cyclists stared about desperately for some kind of public bathroom. We knew we wouldn’t find one, of course, or at least I did and I told the American tourists that had surrounded me. Panama has a very low opinion of providing public bathrooms, and they’d never have them for free in any case; it’d be 25-50 cents per person even if they were around the monument – which they weren’t. After the CCP prevented a birthday cake to one of their members and encouraged people to sign up for a raffle to win a beautiful Netherlands-crafted wooden/metal commuter’s bicycle, we grimly saddled back up again and hoped that there would be a bathroom somewhere in the near future.

I’d love to own this bad boy…but then I realize, what would I actually do with it besides admire it?

And there was – the final few kilometers were just to loop us back up past Ancon Hill again, up a highway onramp and directly over the 5 de Mayo metro and bus stations. Up there, away from the traffic and buildings, the cool evening breeze finally had a chance to strike us full on, and with our CCP controller hanging back to wave his arms at the artery of the onramp, preventing cars from hitting the rest of us, we finally had a chance to go as fast as we wanted, for a few minutes at least. He came whistling past at high speed a few minutes later of course, shouting that we had left the slower group members behind and we needed to stick together. He was right of course, and we grudgingly slowed down….but that was definitely my favorite part of the actual cycling.

Now we were going back up Avenida Balboa, northbound this time. At least seven semi trucks and dump trucks passed us on the right, courteously engine braking no more than two meters from our heads. Once again, I had to wonder if it was accidentally they were all making such loud noises while right next to us, or whether it was intentional. We gracefully 180’d to get back on the southbound route, and we were able to smoothly glide back into the Miramar’s parking lot. If you’d like to see a copy of our route, you can download this kmz file and put it in Google Earth Pro, which is free!

Now, only a few nights of sleep separate me from our 6:30 start time for the Ocean To Ocean. Thanks to my friend Denis’s generous loan of his camelback water pack and bike gloves, and his friend Paul’s loan of his bicycle to me, I’m all set!