REMEMBERING VICENTE YNFANTE GOMEZ –
A Pasadena bicycling legend and Vietnam veteran hero
Vicente Ynfante Gomez, October 24, 1946 to August 4, 2017
[by Christopher Nyerges]
Great people always walk amongst us, yet most of us are too busy in our very narrow lives (me too) to recognize and acknowledge them for who they are.
Vicente and Rafael Gomez were the famous Apache Brothers racing team, brothers who won numerous state and district bicycle racing championships, often defying all odds on their tandem bicycle.
A bit of background. Lifelong Pasadena resident, Vicente was a cross-country runner at John Muir High School, and graduated in 1965. Both Vicente and Rafael were Vietnam vets. Vicente was an Army paratrooper with the 101st Airborne’s “Hatchet Brigade,” serving as a ranger in the recon. He was decorated with the bronze star for valor in combat during the 1968 Tet Offensive. But he never talked about it much – you remember how terribly returning Vietnam vets were treated? Younger brother Rafael entered the service when Vicente returned home, wanted to follow in big brother’s footsteps.
For 40 years, Vicente and partner -brother Rafael were competitive members of the U.S. Cycling Federation. Vicente was one of the two only masters (age 55 and older) to win four national track racing championship medals in the elite mens’ tandem. With the help of Sport Chalet in 1984 (where both brothers worked) Vicente and Rafael were instrumental in establishing bike racing practice around the Rose Bowl. And they mentored many other up-and-coming bicyclists, including women such as Katie Safford, who became champions.
Those of us who knew this unique brother-team got to witness the rarest form of true and pure brotherhood. They lived together and supported one another through thick and thin. Vicente was the quiet brother, and Rafael loud and gregarious. They represented the totality of the yin and yang, not as opposing forces, but as a duality representing the totality of the whole. As Katie Safford stated at Vicente’s funeral, “Yes, I know Rafael is still alive, but ‘The Gomez Brothers’ have died,” referring to the inseparable nature of the dynamic brother team.
Safford – who won 53 district championships and 5 nationals in racing – had many bicycling mentors. “But most of the men weren’t so keen having us race with them,” she explained, “because we were faster. But Vicente and Rafael were always kind to us.” She describes the Apache brothers as constantly encouraging her, and congratulating her, even when Safford beat the Gomez brothers in the Southern California/ Nevada District Championships at the velodrone in Encino.
Here is a part of what Kathy Safford said at Vicente’s funeral mass:
“When I was 26 I found bicycle racing…. My life changed. I was competitive. Someone said I should try track racing on the velodrome – you know, no brakes and high speeds. I borrowed a bike and headed to Encino and the Gomez brothers.
“I didn’t know them but I had heard about these two crazy brothers who raced. They drove a van. They were fast. They were fearless…. We got along from the first moment… They protected me and all of us on the front lines. They liked me and took me in as their little sister, their ‘hermanita,’ as brothers and mentors.
In track racing, it’s all about the lead out-block the wind for your sprinter and let her win. The Gomez brothers would come from the back and Vince (never loud) would say ‘Vamos, hermanita, al frente’ – come little sister to the front. And there would be Rafael helping me get situated at 35 mph. Go little sister, go, he yelled. And I would follow those wheels and I won! I won every race they helped me win. And Vince would smile, ‘good hermanita,’ always a man of few words. And Rafael would scream ‘You did it, little sis! You won!’ I would offer to split the cash winnings -- $20. ‘No, m’hija, you won it, you keep it.”
There were district championships for bragging rights and a California Bear jersey. I gathered a team of fast women and entered the team pursuit event – in the men’s category. There were not enough women to have a women’s category. Can you guess who we were up against? You got that right – The Gomez brothers, my brothers, my mentors. We beat them – the chicks beat the boys. And what did Vicente say? ‘Good hermanita, good.’ And what did Rafael say? He screamed and whooped with pure joy and pride for us. Those are some really good guys.”
During a few of the radio interviews I did with ostensibly both brothers, Rafael would do most of the talking and it took a major effort to get Vicente to speak about his love of bicycling, herbalism, and his roots. But speak he did, though slowly, and with great intent. Sometimes, he presumed that one well placed look at me was enough to answer my questions, as if radio listeners can hear the look!
Vicente was surfing on Friday, August 4 at San Onofre State Beach with his brother Rafael and friends. He died that day in Rafael’s arms, at age 70.
At the wake for Vicente, “The Function at the Junction” (as Rafael called it), I took the time to “be with” Vicente at the little shrine out back that Rafael had created for his brother.
As some of you may know, I talk to the dead all the time. Usually there are no responses. I burned sage to Vicente, and sat with this quiet giant at his shrine, this Apache “medicine man” now gone.
Finally, Vicente had a lot to say. He was happy that I was there with him. He wanted me to pass along a message, letting me know that everything was different for him now that he no longer had his body to deal with. He was light, but still serious as ever.
I’ll paraphrase, from memory, what he wanted me to know. “Look, we didn’t live for money, but we took care of each other, and others in need.” Then he went on another track. “Tell people not to be so pre-occupied with their bodies, and just pleasures of the senses. That’s not really who we are,” Vicente communicated. This quiet brother was often deep in inner thought each time I met with him and Rafael.
“I see so clearly now, that anything we do that is not moving us forward spiritually is a waste of our precious time and energy.”
I’ll miss such thoughtfulness and insight from Vicente, and will do my best to follow the spirit of what he told me.