Words by Peter Cossins | Photo by swpix.com
After three decades during which Mexican cycling slipped almost totally from global consciousness, the phenomenal Isaac del Toro has changed his country’s fortunes around, kicking open a door to the top for more of his compatriots
Exactly thirty years ago this Friday, I spent a good part of my thirtieth birthday sitting in the lobby of a Mexican hotel waiting to interview Greg LeMond. The American was competing the Vuelta a Mexico, then one of the pre-eminent early season events when warm weather was almost guaranteed. That edition drew a number of major names including reigning world road champion Lance Armstrong, Canadian Steve Bauer and the home stars of that era, most notably Raúl Alcalá and Miguel Arroyo, who finished first and second overall, respectively, after 14 days of racing.
That hotel lobby apart, I don’t remember a great deal about the race, although one thing does still stand out – the huge popular fervour it created. The crowds in cities such as San Luis Potosí, León and Aguascalientes were immense, reminiscent of the numbers that have more recently thronged races in Rwanda and Colombia.
Witnessing that enthusiasm, you’d have bet on Mexican cycling producing more world-class riders who would follow in the wheeltracks of Alcalá and Arroyo. Yet, apart from occasional raiders such as Julio Alberto Pérez Cuapio, whose talent was spotted by Arroyo and went on to win three stages at the Giro, Mexico has all but disappeared from the WorldTour and the Women’s WorldTour pelotons.
It would be extremely premature to suggest that the blistering arrival of 20-year-old Isaac del Toro amidst road cycling’s elite has changed this situation. The Mexican showed in not only winning but totally dominating last year’s Tour de l’Avenir that he’s a quite extraordinary talent, with that success backed up earlier today when he took an astonishingly dashing stage win in Lobethal at the Tour Down Under on just his second day of pro racing. However, one swallow doesn’t make a summer.
Indeed, Del Toro apart, the main cycling stories to emerge from Mexico recently have highlighted administrative mismanagement and worse, resulting in riders’ ambitions being thwarted rather than supported. In 2021, the Mexican cycling federation was suspended by the UCI “for serious infringements of the obligations it is subject to under the UCI Constitution, in particular when it comes to governance and the electoral processes”. In the wake of that decision, the federation was embroiled in a lawsuit initiated by track stars Yareli Salazar and Jessica Salazar over alleged mismanagement of the selection process for the Tokyo Olympics, which both riders ended up missing.
During last year’s “Super” Worlds in Glasgow, the Mexican Olympic Committee showed that it was made of similar stuff to the national federation in its dealings with Belgium-based professional Andrea Martínez. She was initially selected for the road time trial event and self-financed her travels and stay in Scotland, travelling by bus from London to Glasgow to keep her costs down. No sooner had she completed that epic trek than her Olympic committee informed her that she couldn’t race because, as she told Spanish paper Marca, “there were other cyclists ahead of me. They gave me some excuse about points, something that I don’t understand, but I didn’t want to argue anymore… There is a political problem in my country, although I have tried to be neutral.”
Dig a little more deeply into Del Toro’s story and there is reason for optimism, though. You’ll quickly come to the A.R. Monex Pro Cycling Team, established and run by brothers Alejandro and Luis Rodríguez. The set-up started in mountain biking with the objective of providing Mexican riders with a pathway to the elite level. The team subsequently expanded into road racing with a junior and under-23 team, the latter providing five of Mexico’s six starters for the Tour de l’Avenir won by Del Toro.
In the wake of that success, our sister podcast RadioCycling spoke to Mexican journalist Goga Ruiz-Sandoval, who leads the cycling coverage on the Latin American Caracol channel. She’s become accustomed to commentating on the exploits of Colombian and Ecuadorean racers, and admitted she was relishing the prospect of reporting on her home country’s return to the sport’s elite following Del Toro’s Avenir success. “My first reaction [to that victory] was a feeling of relief, to know that it wasn’t a lack of talent but simply a matter of being able to find a platform to project this talent internationally despite the mismanagement and corruption of a Mexican cycling federation that at this moment no longer exists. We’re waiting for a new one and a reformed one to emerge,” Ruiz-Sandoval told RadioCycling.
She went on to explain how A.R. Monex have enabled upcoming Mexican cyclists to spend long periods in Europe learning their trade against most of the best youngsters in the world. “They are put in real and complex race situations, mostly in Belgium and Italy,” she said and she added that she expected that the repercussions of Del Toro’s Avenir triumph would be immediate.
“He is still young and that makes the dream of becoming a professional much more attainable for the immediate junior categories in Mexico. Those are the ones who will be the future for the A.R. Monex Pro Cycling project,” she said. She continued by saying that it’s vital, though, that companies also come forwards to support the team, suggesting that more support could transform it into the Mexican equivalent of the Hagens Berman Axeon development squad run by Axel Merckx.
Ruiz-Sandoval concluded by asserting that Mexican riders have the physiological and geographical means to compete with the very best. As in the Andean countries to the south, large parts of Mexico are well above 2,000 metres in altitude, while it has a long tradition of producing world-class endurance athletes. So, while all eyes will now be on Isaac del Toro, it will be interesting to keep a focus on his emerging compatriots too. Thirty years on from Alcalá and Arroyo, Mexican cycling may be on the march again.