So Orlando, where are you from?
I’m from El Salvador.
How did you get into biking?
This guy used to come to my neighborhood [in San Salvador] on a very, very beautiful racing bike. Fancy, clean, beautiful – he was a professional racer. So he used to go and see his girlfriend in my neighborhood, but my neighborhood was so bad he didn’t want to leave the bike by itself. So he used to ask me to watch his bike. I did it a couple of times, and he would go and see his girlfriend and come back and say goodbye. One day I got tired of watching his bike, so I told him, “You know what, if you want me to watch your bike you have to at least allow me to go one time around the block.”
Might as well get some use out of it.
Exactly! “Oh, no,” he said. “This bike is too fancy, I can’t let you ride it.” I said, “Well, then you’re going to have to walk or you’re not going to see your girlfriend.” So finally he said, “OK.”
That’s great. So when did you really start riding?
I’ve been riding since… forever. I used to go out and rent bikes. It was 25 cents for an hour rental so I used every quarter that I had in my pocket. My mom used to go out and look for me because she didn’t want me to be riding in the street.
Was it dangerous?
Oh, definitely. Third world country? Forget it. Crazy traffic. My mom would chase me and say, “You’ve been renting! You’ve been renting a bike!,” and I would say, “Oh, no no no!”
So that’s how you got so fast!
That’s what made me fast. But then I saw that guy with that fancy bike, and he invited me to a cycling race. That was great.
And this first race, was it on a track?
No, a road race. But the teams used to have a support team, and he got them to let me ride in the pickup truck. Then one day I heard somebody was selling a used bike. I was in sixth grade and I was working [as a messenger] for a famous lawyer in San Salvador when I heard this guy was selling the bike for 60 calones – we’re talking $25. It was a race bike, but it was a used one, an old one. I didn’t have 60 calones in those days, so I asked my employer, Dr. Conseca, “Can you lend me 60 calones? I’ll pay you monthly.” The guy didn’t want to give me 60 calones. So finally I told him, “Listen, you’re not going to be paying for transportation anymore, I’m going to be doing it on a bike!”
How did you get around as a messenger before that?
Public transportation. He used to send me with documents to different agencies in San Salvador so he had to pay for the transportation. So I said, “Listen, you lend me the 60 calones and you’re not going to pay for transportation anymore. Not only that, I’m going to do it so fast that I can go to different places for you.” And he said, “Let me think about it.” The following day he gave me 60 calones. I ran to City Hall where the guy [who was selling the bike] worked. I still remember: I rode that bike home for the first time in the middle of the day in San Salvador in 95 degree weather. My mom looked at me and said, “What are you doing?!,” and I said, “I just bought this bike.” She wanted to kill me. That was my first bike.
And you used that bike to work as a messenger for a while?
Yeah, I was flying all over San Salvador.
When did you start training as a competitive cyclist?
1970. And in 1972 I was already racing. I still remember they didn’t want to give me a jersey because they didn’t trust me [because I had only been riding for two years]. I still have the picture of my first race with a white t-shirt on – not even a logo. Nothing.
How long did you race competitively?
I was racing competitively in 1972, ’73, and ‘74. Three full competitive years. Those years I went to race a couple vueltas [stage races] in El Salvador. In 1972, I raced the Vuelta de Ciclismo a El Salvador for the under 23’s.
How long are vueltas?
Seven to eight days.
How many kilometers a day?
The average is about 120 kilometers. The longest one I did was 220 kilometers [in a day] in Costa Rica. That was in December 1974.
That’s like 75 to over 130 miles a day! How many days was the race in Costa Rica?
It was about 12 days.
How did you do?
I came in second place in the longest stage. That was 210 or 220 kilometers. There was a group of six or seven cyclists and we broke away five kilometers after the takeoff.
Were you riding as a team or an individual?
I was on a national team. The Salvadoran national team.
When did you come to the United States?
What did you do when you got here?
I got my first job on 79th Street. They gave me a job from midnight to 8AM because I didn’t speak any English at all, so the guy did me a great favor and gave me a job where I didn’t have to communicate with people.
What happened to your biking life?
It totally changed. I started going to local races, but I had no connections at all. No connections whatsoever – and not only that, I had to dedicate my life to work. I had to survive. It’s a survival thing. I remember one morning I finished working at 8AM and I went to a race without training or anything. We took off from the George Washington Bridge, went all the way up 9W to Bear Mountain, and rode around to finish in Yonkers. I hadn’t been training or sleeping. I came in second place.
You’re a monster.
When I came to New York City, I had to survive, find a job, learn the language. I never got to race [professionally] again, but I always rode my bike.
And you were building a life.
Yeah – my wife and I are married 38 years now. Three kids. A nice life.
Do your kids ride?
My oldest son, Orlando Jr., never wanted to ride a bicycle. That was always a big fight. “Forget it; never.” And then before he went to college, he came to me and said, “Dad, I watched the Tour de France and I want to ask you to train me.” He was 18, so I was honest with him and I told him, “Listen… you’re kinda late… I asked you years ago.” But I thought, “You know what? He’s going to college; if I refuse, the other option in college is party time, party time, party time. So maybe this will keep him out of trouble.” So I started training him, but I was honest: I told him, “You’re kind of late, but I will make you a cyclist to the point where you can enjoy at least five to seven years of real cycling.”
Was this when you began coaching cyclists?
I always liked to teach people how to ride, but I started seriously coaching in 2002. I went back to El Salvador and got in touch with the [cycling] federation (Federacion Salvadorena de Ciclismo)… and then in 2005, I created El Puente. That was the name of our cycling team. We raced the Vuelta de Ciclismo a El Salvador in 2005. That was the first time we raced.
Did you continue with that team?
In 2007, [I was asked] to create a team for the Vuelta de Ciclismo a El Salvador. I created a team of cyclists from Costa Rica – one of the best teams that year in Costa Rica. I took my son Orlando Jr. with that team also. And then the Federacion asked me to make another team of Salvadoran cyclists to compete with them. So we put a team together called Bicicletas Corsario, and we raced in 2007 under my coaching.
Was that at the semi-pro or pro level?
You can call them semi-pro; there is no real professional cycling in Latin America.
So the best Latin American cyclists go somewhere else?
Exactly. They export their best riders to Europe. Costa Rica has some good riders racing in Spain and Columbia goes to Spain. It’s pretty much semi-pro [in Latin America], but some of them make a living out of it. That was the idea of El Puente: to bring them to that [semi-pro] level would be the first step to jump into that professional level.
You’re retiring from UPS in January 2014. What’s next?
I’ve been with UPS for 28 years, so I’m going to retire with my company and I’m going to bring back El Puente. I’m going to have time now to create the teams in the USA and bring them to race so they can have an idea of what Latin American racing looks like.
What’s your favorite ride in the New York region?
Once you hit 9W you can discover tons of rides. If you stay on 9W at Piermont there are beautiful rides. The cycling roads are amazing. I mean, you can ride whatever you choose to ride. You want flat terrain? You have flat terrain. You want beaches, mountains, rivers? They’re there. I used to ride a lot on Long Island – the ride to Oyster Bay is beautiful. There is a place off exit 32 [off the Long Island Expressway] that we call The Triangle where a lot of nationalities get together every Saturday or Sunday for a ride to Oyster Bay.
One last question: what is your favorite thing about cycling?
I mean… it’s everything. Cycling is a family. Once you ride, you get to know the people. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but on many occasions if you have a flat, someone will stop and ask, “Are you OK?” They want to help you. Not that they want to know your business, but they want to help. You don’t see that in any other sport. With cycling, you’re on the open road and you don’t know the people, but if you see them stopped, you ask, “Are you OK?” And they say, “Yeah, I’m OK.” And that’s beautiful. I love that.
Interview by Samuel Slaton. See more portraits of New York City cyclists at Preferred Mode.