These days, the word “legend” is thrown around almost casually, making one long for the days when such terms actually held some weight. Thankfully, in the world of professional sports, where scores, records, and victories are recorded for posterity, such words remain reserved for the very best.
Not many people can lay claim to being legends in their sports, but athletes like first-ever Tour champion Antonio Arzala did just that with their contributions to Philippine cycling.
Born in Sta. Rosa Laguuna in 1938 and orphaned early on, Arzala made his way to Manila at the age of 17 in hopes of continuing his studies. When he was unable to pay his fees, he was forced to give up schooling and take on employment as a caretaker at the North Cemetary, where he performed a number of odd jobs. It was while he was working at the cemetery that he would discover his affinity for cycling.
Hoping for a better work environment, young Arzala bought a bicycle to work as a courier with Spanish-language magazine Voz De Manila. Proving to be skilled in the position, he would soon be performing the same function for newspaper The Manila Times. As Arzala pursued his career as a courier, he was also, knowingly or unknowingly, training for the amazing cycling legacy he had yet to forge.
By the time he was 22, Arzala was a veteran of the Manila bike racing scene, playing for spare tires and spare parts. His first big race, complete with then-substantial cash prize of 1,000 PHP, would be held in 1955, and stretch from Manila to Vigan. Arzala won, despite stiff competition from more seasoned riders. He would repeat the performance when he joined the inaugural Tour of Luzon race (which would evolve into Tour of the Philippines in 1976 and has continued, in one form or another until the present day).
Back then, the prize was 3,000PHP, and it went to Arzala. The following year, would see the young cyclist repeat his performance, once again claiming the top spot. In 1957, tragedy struck as a breakdown caused Arzala to be injured when the fork of his bike came apart in the first lap of that year’s Tour. Despite the breakdown not being his fault, there were whispers that the young cyclist’s career was over, especially when he came in fourth in the 1958 edition the following year. Determined to prove himself, Arzala would silence his doubters by winning the 1959 race, making him the first multi-race winning champion, and cementing his “legend” status. Not bad for someone who only began biking in earnest when he had to work as a courier.
Truly, Arzala was made for the sport, once sharing with the Manila Times that, “During the Tour, I prefer the rain because it refreshes me. The slippery roads pose no handicaps. Mountain-climbing or flat source makes no difference.”
Today, the race Arzala conquered is known as the Le Tour de Filipinas, and takes place annually in April. The race has been conducted every year since 1955, save for a 3-year hiatus that ended in 2001 when it was revived by local sportsman Bert Lina. It remains, to date, the first and only local road race sanctioned by the Swiss-based Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI).
Antonio Arzala passed away on January 1, 2011, and on that day, the Philippine cycling world lost one of its guiding lights. Since 2010, the race first conquered by Arzala was won an Irishman, a pair of Iranian, a Frenchman, and a Kazakhstani. Two Filipinos have won in that time, but neither of them made quite the impact that Arzala did.
While attracting foreign talent and sports tourism were always a part of Lina’s intended result in reviving the race for modern athletes, it nevertheless brings about an intriguing question: Who among our countrymen will be strong enough to take up the torch – who will be our next cycling legend?