Hot Bod: Cycling in the Azuero

Mark Perkins, Happy Las Tablas Cyclist

Mark Perkins,
Happy Las Tablas Cyclist

When Mark Perkins and his wife Susanna (of Future Expats Blog fame) selected Las Tablas for their home in Panama, Mark was delighted to discover an active cycling community.  Mark had always liked to ride.  When he was working on his advanced degree he had lots of desk time with no exercise, so when he graduated he bought himself a road bike as gift.  An unexpected part of the gift was an introduction to cycling in a group.  That was in Orlando, Florida, where the attitude of car drivers seems to be that cyclists are children and belong on the sidewalk. Nothing could be further from reality.  Cycling is a real sport performed by adults of all ages, and one of the most dangerous places to ride (for both cyclists and pedestrians) is on the sidewalk.  (It’s also illegal in most states.) In the US, the street is also a pretty dangerous place for both pedestrians and cyclists.  Part of the appeal of cycling in a group is increased visibility and the associated increased safety.  “Of course,” says Mark, “that is somewhat offset by the amount of knowledge and practice needed to ride safely in a group, because you have to rely on those around you knowing the ropes and following the rules.  But trust is built over time, and riding with others who have similar expectations of a ride – that it will be safe, for instance – makes it comfortable and more fun.  A rider can also go faster in a group with less effort, because of the slip-stream, or ‘drafting’ effect.” Apparently, Sports Scientists have determined that pedaling in someone else’s slipstream can save you up to 18% in energy cost.  Some say up to 40%. How do teams use this?  Different physiques have different abilities.  Some are fast, some are efficient hill climbers, others have tremendous endurance.   So cycling teams develop strategies for utilizing drafting accordingly, protecting their strongest member for the times his skill will be most needed. There is also a social aspect to group cycling, seeing the same people each week, all of them with different lives.  Mark says the folks in his Las Tablas group range in age from about 19 through their sixties.  They include an orthodontic surgeon, engineers, dentists, mechanics, and a bordello owner.  The collective energy provides a powerful stimulus to get out of bed, put on more clothes than you would otherwise wear in this heat, and go out to ride. Biking has really increased in popularity in the last ten years or so because the equipment is so much better now.  Bikes are made of lightweight carbon fiber, the highly sophisticated gearing makes them easier to ride, and the associated clothing and accessories are more aerodynamic.  The sport has also gained greater visibility through events like the Tour de France. It is Mark’s opinion that it is safer to ride here in Panama than in the States, possibly because, with more people forced by economics to ride bicycles for transportation, drivers are more used to accommodating bicyclists’ safety. Cycling is also more year-round here, because the weather is never cold, and that, too, gives visibility to the sport.  There are active sports cycling programs throughout Central America.  Columbia, for instance, took second place in the Tour de France a year or so ago.  The winner took home a significant monetary prize, which is inspirational to kids here.  Cycling may be a smaller niche than other sports, but the size of the prizes is enough to fire ambition. Rali Sports and similar companies bring equipment to Panama and sponsor races to make themselves visible.  Panama has an active race schedule for competing provinces.  The Panama Gran Fondo Ocean to Ocean race from Colon to the City of Panama had some 700 riders in 2013.  It featured food vendors, music, drawings for equipment and gifts, the whole enchilada.  The Tour de Panama, a ride across the provinces of Panama, Cocle, Herrera, Los Santos and Veraguas, is held annually, and videos of the races are available online.  Mark compares it to a scaled down Tour de France, with different days of riding offering the same kind of riding strategies found in the European contests.  Winners receive colored jerseys designating champions in various categories within the total event:  Overall, Youth, Fastest Time, Over Mountain, Sprinting, etc. Las Tablas has a claim to fame along this line.  Nineteen year old Roberto Carlos Gonzales Castillero took home a white jersey from the Tour de Panama two years ago as the winning Youngest New Rider.  Roberto is on Panama’s national team now.  Mark believes that if Roberto stays motivated, he may shortly find himself participating in world class events.  Not too long ago he rode from Las Tablas to Tonosi, a difficult +/- 55 mile course across intensely challenging hills, in three hours and forty-one minutes.

Such races out of Las Tablas, with prizes, are sponsored several times a year by Panamanian corporations.  For more information about the races, or just about riding with a local group, Mark invites you to contact him directly at markperk1138 on gmail.Mark Perkins