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The Flight Of El Falcon

From issue 93 • Words: Paul Willerton; Illustrations: Matthew Burton

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On January 30, 2020, Miguel Arroyo passed away at a hospital in Puebla, Mexico, from respiratory failure during a surgical procedure. He was 53 years old. Quiet and humble, with exceptional grit and determination, Arroyo was less known outside of his small circle of friends. One of those was Paul Willerton, who writes this memoir.

flight of el falcon

January 1989 arrived with more urgency than previous years for North American cycling. U.S. teams had made their emergence on the international professional circuit. Seven months earlier, the 7-Eleven team had won the Giro d’Italia with Andy Hampsten. Domestically, Len Pettyjohn’s Coors Light team showcased a star-studded roster, and there were more than a handful of strong, well-funded programs feeding the ranks from junior level to professional. Road racing in North America had come of age. There were new events on the calendar too, including the Tour de Trump on the East coast in May. It would feature a world-class start list, good prize money and allow amateurs to participate. It would be nice preparation for the Giro.

But at the highest levels of cycling, an odd sort of vacuum had formed that could be felt all the way through the sport. Greg LeMond and Laurent Fignon had both been sidelined from accidents and injuries. The subsequent two-year free-for-all to fill their void sucked new riders into the limelight and ignited a chain reaction of hopes and dreams all the way into the junior ranks. The cycling industry seized the opportunity, as well. The 1989 Interbike trade show took place in Long Beach, California, right after the New Year dawned. The trade show was vibrant, with palpable anticipation of a big year ahead. That is where this story begins.

Greg LeMond was at the Interbike show that year. His LeMond Bicycles company was in another period of transition, and Greg had identified further evolution in carbon fiber; he was super excited about it. But he could hardly wait for the show to end so we could go riding. “Let’s head up the coast,” he said. “We’ll ride from here to Carmel.” It was a ride we knew well, and the weather was perfect. There were about eight of us, and as we assembled our bikes and put food in our pockets along the road, I noticed a rider I’d never seen.

“Who’s that?” I asked Greg. “Miguel Arroyo. He’s really good! He won the Tour of Mexico [last year]. We’re putting him on the team.” Greg was referring to the Belgium-based ADR-Agrigel-Bottecchia team. Being January, Greg was still in PDM colors from the year before. He’d given Miguel a mix of PDM and La Vie Claire cycling clothes to wear. Miguel was quiet, drinking a Coke. I didn’t know it then but the vision of Miguel pivoting around the back of a car drinking a Coke before a start would be one I’d witness hundreds of times in the coming years. It remains the most permanent, memorable form of him I remember.

The next two days were long. Early-season, two-by-two pacelines into incessant headwinds aren’t always the most enjoyable rides. Greg felt pretty good, apparently, sitting on the front and stringing us out single file for 40 minutes at a time. When he was done, Miguel would follow. Riding up next to him, I said “How’s it going? I’m Paul.” He looked at me and nodded, saying nothing. He wasn’t speaking English yet.

He looked like a bantam-weight boxer. In and out of the saddle, head bobbing, he rode with shoulders and arms pumping back and forth on his lever hoods. Beads of sweat flew off his face and bits of saliva shot out of his mouth as he exhaled. That’s how he ran his machine, like he was in the ring and everyone around him was an opponent. Miguel Arroyo was a fighter in the classic Mexican style, and you knew it from the first ride.

flight of el falcon

That LeMond opened the doors to Europe for Arroyo was no surprise. Greg’s long history in Northern California—training and staying with the Jacome family, racing in Mexico and eventually hiring Otto Jacome as his soigneur—was well known. If anyone was going to help a young Mexican rider with talent, good instincts and a humble demeanor get to Europe, it was going to be LeMond. Miguel would always refer to him as “Greh”, leaving the ‘g’ silent. Come to think of it, he pretty much left the end of almost every word silent. When he learned to swear it would go like “fuhh…shih…godammih! Aaa hha ha!”

Another Mexican racer, Raúl Alcalá, arrived in Europe two years before Arroyo. Having two riders at the highest level created a flurry of excitement in Mexico. Alcalá was the first Mexican to ride the Tour de France, taking the white jersey of Best Young Rider in 1987. Arroyo knew there would be adjustments to racing in Europe. That’s an understatement. Going from Mexico to Europe to race a bicycle professionally crosses an immense chasm. Everything is different, and all of it is exponentially more difficult: cold weather, extra clothing, wind, rain, foods, languages, speeds, riding skills, roads. Arroyo took his hits, one by one, and kept moving forward in his career.

In 1991, it was my turn to join LeMond and Arroyo, this time on the French Team, Z. That January, as the first Gulf War began, we again took Highway 1, this time to the south. The three of us along with Dutch pro Johan Lammerts rode from San Jose, California, to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, a distance of 1,500 miles. Miguel was in his happy place to train, and we had a blast. By February, I was rooming with Miguel at the Team Z training camp in the South of France. His English was workable, and we were able to share jokes and laugh. Our team spoke almost exclusively in French though. Orders were given in French, often directly to Miguel. He’d nod, then we’d go back to the room and try to figure out what was actually said.

On Team Z, Miguel was like the soldier in the platoon who gets sent on missions no one else wants to do or even could do—like the small guy elected to go down the foxhole with flashlight and pistol. Usually, that entailed setting tempo and breaking legs to create opportunities for teammates Robert Millar and Jérôme Simon. Ripping races apart at the seams. Those efforts forged him, over and over, and eventually led to times when Miguel was just better than anyone else in the team. He made some really impressive results, including fourth overall at the Tour de Suisse, and got the attention of every directeur sportif. He was opening his own doors to a future he could control.

mexican they called el falcon

“He was a Mexican they called El Falcon, racing abroad, flying the flag and celebrating youth and freedom in a way so few get to experience. I’ve always thought that cycling at its best is a celebration of life. Miguel Arroyo was a grand example of that.”Between races, Miguel and I shared an apartment above a shoe repair-and-locksmith shop in Kortrijk, Belgium. The proprietor was our landlord. The apartment had a very long set of extremely steep, straight stairs leading to the main floor. I stayed in the attic, with a similar set of stairs leading to it. I dubbed them the “Hillary Steps” after the famed, final technical obstacle at the summit of Mount Everest. The problem was, you couldn’t place more than about two thirds of your foot on each step, unless you walked sideways. Cycling shoes exacerbated the problem.

Miguel and I quickly learned the importance of wearing a buckled helmet on our way out of the apartment. The falls we both took down those stairs were some of the worst of our entire careers. Rarely a month went by that one of us didn’t come to each other’s aid after hearing the horrible, nearly endless sounds of a bone-jarring, somersaulting tumble. The downed rider needed time to breathe and safely move again, sometimes unable to actually start the ride. I think those moments may have been the ones when we showed the most compassion for each other.

We ended up staying there for more than three years. We were an odd couple, annoying each other as much as enjoying each other’s company. One day, I woke to Miguel crouching above me, slapping my face. “Eh, I though you die!” he said, laughing in his trademark, super high-pitched tone. I’d finished a long, crosswind-plagued, cold and rainy race, only to ride home another 20 kilometers from the finish. I’d fallen asleep on the floor of the apartment, next to the electric heater. I was soaking wet with my helmet, plastic raincoat and shoes still on. “Shih. You scare me,” he said. “I make a tacos. You wan?”

Mexican foods were easily the most important commodity in our household. Their worth could hardly be expressed in the form of a currency. If a certain sauce or jar of peppers was moved or, God forbid, went missing, a solemn spell was cast over the apartment. Sometimes for weeks blame was insinuated but never voiced. Once or twice a season, Miguel would go back to Mexico for a short break. He needed to see his wife and their young daughter. When he’d return to Brussels airport, I’d pick him up in the early ’80s BMW I bought for 500 bucks. Miguel disapproved of the car. He drove a Seat Ibiza—much nicer than mine, he assured me.

Each time I picked him up, shattered glass sloshed around inside his hard, plastic Samsonite case. “Oh, shih,” he’d say. “Agaih?” We’d get home and carefully sift through the contents, grouping peppers into new jars, scooping and scraping salsas and powders with spoons and knives. He’d pack meats into plastic bags, where glass shards of all sizes had penetrated them. Like forensic scientists performing an autopsy, we’d comb through chorizo sausages one by one, picking out any glass we could find. Our meals from these remains were magical, if somewhat dangerous. We’d eat without talking. We were transported back to Mexico, surrounded by peaceful sunsets, warm water, children playing with piñatas after dark. Senseless chatter would end the dream, so we refrained, eyes glazed.

Belgium was the wrong place for Miguel and me. It worked well enough as a base, but we both would have been more at home in the South of France, Italy, Switzerland or any alpine environment. We thought riding kermesses would be the best way to prepare for bigger events. Other Americans followed LeMond’s footsteps to Belgium. Frankie Andreu and John Tomac lived near us. I have dual U.S. and Swiss citizenship, but I had already become a Mexican at heart. Miguel and I were the hermanos mexicanos. But when we showed up at a kermesse and popped the trunk on my trashy BMW to pull out our bikes, it wasn’t like, “Yeah. Stand back, ijos de puta. El Falcon and the Snowman are here.” No. We were “ratas of the gutter” in those races. Then again, almost everybody was.

After Team Z, Miguel went to Patrick Lefevere’s GB team and I went to Subaru-Montgomery. There was something comical about seeing Miguel in a team with Italian superstars Franco Ballerini and Mario Cippolini. He was well respected at GB and kept improving during his stint there. Hearing him bash his way through Kortrijk using his broken Flemish never failed to put me in stitches. As the 1992 season ended, he told me he was again shopping for a new team. I promptly got on my fax machine and let my team know Miguel was a free agent. They acted, and we would become teammates yet again in 1993.

In February that year, racing in the Tour of Mexico, we got to see Mexicans embrace Miguel in their own special way. He had become a figure there, a sports celebrity. Although we weren’t able to lift him to the top of the podium, Fignon took that spot, Miguel did win a stage and stamped his signature on the race. Fignon himself was at the end of his halcyon years as a cyclist.

The sense of impending, urgent power I’d felt in January 1989 had proven to be spot on. That year and the years that followed were historical in scale. LeMond and Fignon regained their positions at the pinnacle of the sport and entertained the world with their most memorable final bursts. New opportunities in cycling emerged around the world with new teams, events and riders coming up. The pro peloton had more South Americans than ever. Then the fall of the Berlin Wall opened floodgates for riders from eastern European nations. There were batches of Americans on the rise and, of course, two Mexicans on the highest stage.

As quickly as those times had begun, storm clouds gathered on the horizon. Subaru-Montgomery disbanded in 1993 and over the next four years Miguel went to four different teams. He took part in the sport’s biggest events, as he had set out to do, but like for so many others an odd gap had formed between us and the riders at the top of the results pages. Ultimately, in a professional career that lasted nine years, Miguel raced for eight different teams. If that’s not some sort of record, it has to be close. I look at it as another testament to the determination he always displayed. He never worried about fitting in, surviving or having a job. He knew his skills were in demand. He rode the Tour de France twice, the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España.

When I think about all the friends and teammates I’ve known who’ve already passed away, I become lost in reflection. The number is abnormally high. Adding Miguel to the list feels so premature. I think about how serious so many of us were in our teens and twenties about our careers, jobs and incomes. In hindsight, that was absolutely not the path to fulfilment. I know Miguel had no regrets about his pursuit of cycling. If someone would have told him at 23 that he would live to only 53, I think he would have done exactly what he did at the same intensity.

He was a Mexican they called El Falcon, racing abroad, flying the flag and celebrating youth and freedom in a way so few get to experience. I’ve always thought that cycling at its best is a celebration of life. Miguel Arroyo was a grand example of that. In recent years I’ve come to believe more and more that we aren’t human beings having a spiritual experience, but spiritual beings having a human experience. I’m sure that Miguel’s spirit will somehow re-emerge, larger. For now, every rider and fan of cycling can feel a part of it.

mexican they called el falcon
From issue 93, get your copy here.