How One Los Angeles Cab Driver Led Mexico to Olympic Victory in Cycling

José Antonio Urbalejo was born in Cucurpe, a small town in the north of Sonora, near the banks of the Río San Miguel between the start of the Eastern Sierra Madre and the terrifying Altar Desert. For some time now, José Antonio had grown tired of the dusty Cucurpean afternoons and his neighborhood, painted gray by poverty. So he decided to leave and head north to California in favor of better opportunities. After a number of emergent jobs under the shadow of clandestine immigration, his fate set him up as a cab driver for hire in Los Angeles. Fast forward five years. José Antonio has been driving a 1979 Chevrolet Monte Carlo for the Yellow Cab company along the turbulent roads of the Californian metropolis ever since.

Today is Friday, August 3, 1984 and the city is throbbing with Olympic euphoria.


José Antonio drifts away from the ever-congested downtown of Los Angeles. While driving, he listens closely to the radio to find out the details of the Olympics sporting events. He remembers that this afternoon, the first Mexican contenders enter the action for the 20 kilometer trials. He decides to wait for it. A billboard reminds him that he’s close to the main campus of the University of Southern California, which harbors the Olympic Village. He turns onto Figueroa Street and goes straight along the wide avenue.

Suddenly he sees two individuals — one of them carrying a high-end competition bike — making desperate signals at him. José Antonio accelerates and pulls the car over. The two run towards him. They aren’t very tall and they both wear glasses. The smaller one is, however, the older one. It’s easy to figure that out because of his curly gray hair, the wrinkles already making furrows in his face, the thick crystal of his ancient goggles.

“Do you speak Spanish?”

“Like hell I don’t, paisas! Say no more ‘cause I’m your man.”

The other is young, very young, and sweats copiously. He has a brown, sunburnt face. His glasses are modern, with thin frames. Anxiety destroys both of their expressions. José Antonio discovers that they’re countrymen: on their green jackets, Mexico is written in white capital letters. The young one opens the door violently, sticks his face in, and asks, almost shouting, his stammered English bungling his words:

“Do you speak Spanish?”

“Like hell I don’t, paisas! Say no more ‘cause I’m your man.”

“Open your trunk, please, but quickly!” they asked.

“Put the bike on the luggage rack as well as you can.”

They throw some packages onto the seats.

The younger passenger takes the back seat. “Now let’s go — fly! — to the Olympic velodrome!”

The powerful eight-cylinder engine roars as soon as José Antonio slams his foot on the gas.

“We have to be there by 1 p.m. Will we get there?” the young one asks.

José Antonio looks at his watch. “Oof, paisa, it’s 12:35 and the velodrome is in Carson City. It’s going to be a little rough, but we’ll get there by 1!”

The Sonoran steers the Chevrolet Montecarlo towards the Harbor Freeway. As he’s heading south, he gets on Via Santa Barbara. He takes the center lane and begins to leave the other vehicles behind.

And while the car devours the burning asphalt, they argue heatedly:

“Excuse me, paisas, but are you going to leave the bike with someone?”

“But how is it possible that you didn’t even remember to bring your watch with the right time!” argues the adolescent. His companion doesn’t know what to reply.

“How many times have I told you to put the local time on your watch?!”

“I’m sorry,” the man admits tiredly. “You’re right. Forgive me.”

“I hope we get there on time.”


José Antonio dares to intervene. He asks, “Excuse me, paisas, but are you going to leave the bike with someone?”

The passenger in front replies. “No, man, we’re going to compete.” The driver looks at them strangely.

“Him?” he asks finally, incredulous. “But he’s practically a child!”

The person traveling at his side clarifies, “I’m José Luis Téllez, advisor to the national cycling team; he is Manuel Youshimatz and is going to take part in the final of the men’s 50k points race.”

He shakes his head smiling and ventures another glance through the rearview mirror.

“Him?” he asks finally, incredulous. “But he’s practically a child!” For the first time the athletes smile.

“Not really, not really,” says Youshimatz, who has turned the backseat of the car into an improvised changing room. He takes off his training clothes and adjusts the shiny uniform he has saved for the big final.

José Antonio finds out, then, that Manuel Youshimatz has had to survive two elimination heats to qualify for the final, that he would race in a few minutes, that this morning, as part of the last practice, José Luis Téllez had sent him to roll without noticing that the hour his watch was pointing to was the real time – Los Angeles time.

The Montecarlo gets off the concrete snake and veers to the left. It’s 12:48. Growing anxiety has silenced the cyclists.

Just one day before, he’d changed his watch from Mexican time: 120 minutes ahead. So that morning, when Téllez looked at his stopwatch and it said 11 a.m., the coach thought, “It’s 9 a.m.; there’s time.”

When he noticed his mistake he wanted to die. He looked for Manuel everywhere, but didn’t find him and so he decided to grab all the equipment and stand guard in the entrance of the Villa, the cyclist’s entrance. That was at 12:25. The daily bus that took them to the competetion site took forty-five minutes. No, they couldn’t wait for it. They would have to take a taxi because only then could they get to the velodrome on time. Maybe.

The sign reads, “Next Exit: 190 Street.” The Montecarlo gets off the concrete snake and veers to the left. It’s 12:48. Growing anxiety has silenced the cyclists.

“Chill. We’ll get there,” José Antonio promises. At 12:50, José Antonio speeds the yellow car along 190th Street, then turns right to take Avalon. Arriving at Victoria, he turns to the left and there in the distance appear the facilities of California State University, with Domínguez Hills and its undulating Olympic velodrome. The Montecarlo roars as it races towards its goal. Youshimatz closes his eyes. He exhales.


With a hard brake, José Antonio stops the rapid march of the car. The Montecarlo slides to the doors of the velodrome. Everyone gets out hurriedly. Manuel puts on his shoes and adjusts his helmet while Téllez and José Antonio get the bicycle down.

“What does it matter, paisa? Run, don’t waste your time! You’ll pay me some day.”

“How much do we owe you?” Téllez asks, nervously rummaging in his pockets while, with the bicycle on his shoulder, Youshimatz runs towards the entrance tunnel.

“What does it matter, paisa? Run, don’t waste your time! You’ll pay me some day.”

Téllez hugs him emotionally and also runs toward the tunnel.

He stops at the entrance of the big black mouth of the passage and shouts to the Sonoran, “If it hadn’t been for you, brother…”

“Good luck, good luck!” José Antonio shouts. “I’m going to listen to the race on the radio.”


The checkered flag drops.

His cheeks are getting red, enormous drops of sweat pour down his face.

The young man in glasses begins pedaling rhythmically.

His cheeks are getting red, enormous drops of sweat pour down his face. A little over an hour later, Youshimatz is on the podium, with a bronze medal shining on his chest and a bike cap in place of his helmet, while the Mexican flag flutters from one of the poles.

The first chapter in the story of Mexico’s cycling hero was written that day.

But what about José Antonio? Did he stop the Montecarlo on the side of the road to celebrate and raise his arms in victory? What road did he follow?