How did a men’s team end up on a women’s startlist?

Two competing realities come out to play at the women's Vuelta a Andalucia, where Guinea Bissau entered its national men's team.

Iain Treloar
by Iain Treloar 05.06.2024 Photography by
Vuelta a Andalucia Women's and Cor Vos
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With all due respect to other weird sports, cycling seems unusually prone to bouts of oddity. It’s there lurking at the fringes of even the biggest bike races, in the sponsors, in the promotional caravan and at the highest levels of power. But even in this context, a story out of Spain last week is particularly odd. In brief, it is this: the national men’s team of the West African country of Guinea Bissau was on the startlist of the women’s edition of Vuelta a Andalucia – a fact that was only discovered the day before the bike race, with the Guinea Bissau delegation nowhere to be found. 

Intriguing, no?

Over the past week, I’ve been trying to get to the bottom of what happened here. There are two sides to the story, both of them quite different, and there are questions to ask about what it means for the health and integrity of the sport in West Africa. Time to dig into this curiosity. 

Some background

The Vuelta a Andalucia is not one race but two: the five-stage 2.Pro rated men’s edition (Vuelta a Andalucia Ruta del Sol) held in February, and the four-stage 2.1 rated women’s race (Vuelta Ciclista Andalucia Women, also sometimes called Ruta Del Sol) held this year from 29 May-1 June. They have location in common, in the history-rich south of the country, and are organised by the same group, Deporinter. 

2024 has been a particularly chaotic vintage of the Vueltas a Andalucia, and it’s not just because they had a men’s team registered in the women’s race. In February, the men’s race – slated to run over five stages – saw successive stage cancellations due to the disruptions of a farmer’s strike. In total, the only racing the riders saw was a hastily modified time-trial of 4.95 km, won by Lotto-Dstny’s Maxim Van Gils. When you have a combined average of less than a kilometre of racing per day of a five-day tour, I think it’s safe to say that things did not turn out ideally – for the organisers, for the teams, for the sponsors. 

Race director Joaquín Cuevas delivers an update prior to the sole 4.95 km stage of the men’s race.

So in late May, it was a chance for a redo. The startlist included the established likes of Uno-X Mobility, Movistar, Liv AlUla Jayco and Human Powered Health, along with development teams for Canyon-SRAM and UAE, and a swathe of smaller Italian and Spanish teams. The last team to be added to the lineup: Guinea Bissau Federation Cycling. 

A history lesson

Guinea Bissau – a small West African country with a population of around two million people – suffers, as many African countries do, from limited financial means, with more than two-thirds of the population living below the poverty line. Its modern political history, meanwhile, is a roll-call of assassinations and attempted coups, the most recent at the end of last year, with drug traffickers seizing on the instability to make Guinea Bissau a hub of the cocaine trade. 

It has little notable history in the sport of cycling, other than being the country of registration for the now-notorious Kiwi-Atlantico team in 2019; last year its cycling federation had an internal power struggle with two separate boards of directors claiming simultaneous leadership. But globally, the sport has a mandate to broaden its reach beyond its European heartland, and that context, perhaps, explains why the organisation behind the women’s Vuelta a Andalucia decided to respond favourably to a request from the Guinea Bissau Cycling Federation’s president, Cabi da Costa Blute, on April 25. 

“My Federation is interested in participating in the women’s Vuelta Ciclista Andalucia Elite,” Blute wrote in an email seen by Escape Collective. The same day, the race organisers agreed on the proviso that the Guinea Bissau delegation paid for hotels and vehicles due to a lack of available budget. By April 29, the necessary forms – again viewed by Escape Collective – had been sent and signed in both directions, and the countdown to the event began. The rider list, race director Joaquín Cuevas told Escape Collective, was supplied by the Guinea Bissau Cycling Federation: “We [did] not know [initially] if they are men or women – there are more than 35 nationalities in the peloton and in [some countries] a name is identical for men or women, so we [did] not give more importance since at all times we talk about the VUELTA CICLISTA ANDALUCIA ELITE WOMEN,” he wrote to me in an email (the all caps are all his, which perhaps reveals the level of tension at play here).  

By May 28 – the day before the race began, when the team directors’ meeting was scheduled – a couple of problems revealed themselves. For one: the Guinea Bissau women’s team wasn’t there. For another: an investigation of the riders’ names and UCI ID numbers showed that this wasn’t a women’s team at all. 

The nitty gritty

The mysteriously missing men’s team raised eyebrows from those at the event and online, with some assuming that it was a ploy to get the riders out of Guinea Bissau and then abscond. There is precedent: 14 out of 21 athletes from Sierra Leone failed to return home after the 2006 Commonwealth Games, as did a cyclist at the 2014 edition; Rwanda has also seen a number of athletes seeking asylum, most recently in 2022. That in itself compounds pre-existing access issues for African sportspeople, as was demonstrated at the Glasgow World Championships last year when four of seven riders on the Eritrean team (including Biniam Girmay) were unable to secure visas. Several prominent western actors in African cycling told Escape Collective that a prominent abscondment would further hamper opportunities for those on the continent. 

On the morning of May 28, having had no contact in weeks from the Guinea Bissau Cycling Federation, Joaquín Cuevas sent an email to Cabi da Costa Blute, the federation president. “We have no news from the Federation or the participating team,” he wrote. “It’s alright?” More than 24 hours later, after the event had already begun, Blute responded to Cuevas, saying that “it took us a while to get a response from the Spanish embassy, it’s not easy to get an appointment.” He had, he said, been involved in a car accident “which made it difficult for me to fight so that we can participate in the Tour Andalucia women elite.” Attached were a sequence of pictures of a comprehensively crashed car. However, image file names suggest they were taken that day, long after the team should have already left for Spain.

In an alternative version of events Blute provided for the Spanish news site Relevo, he said that he had requested participation in both the men’s and women’s events. Cuevas, Blute claims, told him that “registration has closed” and that “he [had] sent a request to the UCI so that my Federation can participate. I decided to participate with female cyclists, because it would be the first opportunity for female cyclists from Guinea-Bissau.”  He also claimed that “due to the bad luck of the car accident, I was injured and couldn’t get to the embassy doors. We wanted to participate in both rounds, men’s and women’s. Therefore, we sent registration for both.” (This does not correspond with the email trail seen by Escape Collective, in which Blute asked for entry only to the women’s race and received confirmation from Deporinter within 15 minutes.)

In response to a request for comment from Escape Collective on 30 April, Blute said that “it was an administrative error … [it’s] only now that I came across the news [that] the names they sent were male and not female”. [The use of the word ‘they’ is curious here, as Blute was the sole signatory on the paperwork from the Federation, and was listed as travelling with the team.] His delegation “did not travel to Spain, nor did we take visas”, said Blute, and the men’s team were “very disappointed, because they wanted to be able to participate in the international competition in Europe for the first time.”

In response to the question “how soon before they were going to leave did you find out the error?”, Blute responded “no”. In response to follow-up questions, he sent a local news clip, in Portuguese, of him extolling the health benefits of cycling on the occasion of World Bicycle Day

The final podium of the women’s Vuelta a Andalucia: Mavi Garcia (Liv Jayco Alula) in first, Silke Smulders (Liv Jayco Alula) in second, and Ella Wylie (Liv Jayco Alula) in third.

The bigger picture

There are two competing realities here. 

From the race organiser’s perspective, there is bewilderment: “the men’s race is held in FEBRUARY every year, so it makes no sense what they allege about their ‘confusion’”, wrote Cuevas. But Deporinter is left holding the tab: the organisation booked hotel rooms for the 10 people of the Guinea-Bissau team (four double rooms, two single rooms) in Andalucia during high season, and are unable to recoup their costs. “… We are economically and sportingly harmed by not allowing other women’s teams to participate in favour of the Guinea Bissau team,” Cuevas told me. 

For Blute, his country’s cycling federation is making a ripple for strange reasons. I asked him whether there is a women’s team that could travel to future events. His response, “yes, [if there will] be an invitation”, followed by 20 pictures of Guinea Bissau’s female cyclists posing with trophies, hand-me-down kits and bikes in varying degrees of functionality. These are people finding their way in the sport against a backdrop of hardship unimaginable to Western audiences, and any opportunity – any invitation – can only be a good thing. But, as Cuevas told me, the whole episode is “a real pity that does not benefit cycling in any way, and may even harm the presence of the Guinea Bissau National Team in other European organisations, be they men or women.” 

For the men’s team on the startlist of the women’s race – and the women’s team that never made it to Europe, even on a form – that’s the real tragedy of this strange episode.

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