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Tales from the (Cuban) Peloton
Joe Papp's Vuelta a Cuba diary: Part IV
Joe Papp, 28, is a UCI Elite rider with the UPMC cycling team. In 2002 he won the GS Mengoni Grand Prix, the BMC NYC Cycling Classic for elite amateur men and a stage at Superweek, among other events.
In the final part of Joe's diary, Papp records his feelings and experiences as teammate Todd Herriot becomes only the fifth foreign rider to win the Vuelta a Cuba, in its 28 year history.
Wednesday, February 19, 2003 - Vuelta a Cuba - Stage 9 - 167km
Just a quick "I'm sorry" if I messed up the dates and stage numbers in that last journal submission. Things can get a bit cloudy during a stage race…wake-up, eat, pack, ride to start, sign-in, hang-out, race really, really hard, ride to hotel, unpack, shower, eat, nap, massage, eat, sleep, repeat…
Anyway, we did it today and achieved the impossible: Coto and I controlled the race to the climb and Todd did his stuff, holding onto the jersey with ease after the hardest stage of the race. The first 10km from Cienfuegos into the foothills was very fast, and the wind favorable or slightly crossed, so we had little trouble keeping the peloton in check. While a small group jumped away about 2km before a left turn into the hills, we just kept rotating and brought the speed up a wee bit before we hit the first roller. As soon as we started climbing, we brought the break right back, though it was definitely hard work as some of the local riders were trying to tweak Todd for the sake of returning the jersey to Cuba.
Coto and I were doing most of the work with some help from Norton and Larry, until one of the Italians, Roberto Moretti (who has a sharp Team Telekom-issue Pinarello Prince), came up and started pulling with us. Moretti, an experienced pro, kept rotating with us and when his teammate Federico Grassi joined him, Jerry and Mateo dropped out of the echelon to rest for the climb.
Another small break went after the rollers, and since there were no GC contenders in it, we were happy to let it go up the road a bit. For the next 70km, Coto, the two Italians and I rode a hard, hard tempo, keeping most of the field in the gutter but our UPMC teammates protected from the wind. The Italians weren't riding to do us a favor, however, but rather to set-up their teammate Stefano Penetta, who wore the KOM jersey after stage one. Sure enough, as we reached the climb, Moretti took a huge pull that put us all on the ropes before Penetta came over the top and attacked on the first pitch of the mountain.
I drilled it up the same slope, and then down the first descent in 53x12 to bring the Italian back to the group before Coto made his last effort before the hard climbing started. After two hours of very solid work, we both sat-up as the GC men eyed each other on the ascent. Of course, sitting-up is relative, since the climb is so steep as to necessitate weaving across the face of the road in some spots, even in 39x25. (Photo: Joe Papp after the stage finish, credit: Franklin Reyes)
Todd cracked everyone on the mountain and rode away from Cuban contenders Eliecer Valdes and Lizardo Benitiez. Only a Spaniard stayed with him, but Todd convincingly won each of the two KOM's and had several minutes on the next group over the top of the last summit. Unfortunately, because the descent was so dangerous due to poor road conditions, the officials neutralized the race and forced the leaders to stop at the bottom of the hill for 40 minutes to allow all of the riders to descend safely (we knew this would be the case in advance). While it was a justifiable decision on their part to protect the riders, it had the secondary effect of neutralizing Todd's heroic effort on the climb. He had to start again from the bottom of the descent with cold legs and was quickly caught by a chase group of very motivated Cubans.
They could not drop him, however, despite all of their attacks, and Todd finished the stage with his lead intact, conceding only a few seconds to a small group that slipped his grasp in the final kilometer. Jerry and Mateo both fared equally well, riding strongly enough to maintain UPMC's second place position in the team standings. Larry, Norton and I finished in the laughing group (though no one was laughing), which also included Grassi and Moretti - who were showing the effects of the day's efforts. Because of the crosswind, we had to ride a double echelon for the last 20km and didn't have the luxury of conserving much energy. Tomorrow is 180km, which will be a test of the team's ability to defend Todd's lead. We did a lot of work today and will face the same tomorrow, though I don't think the Italians will be so quick to lend a hand.
Thursday, February 20, 2003 - Vuelta a Cuba - Stage 10 - 180km
Despite the pasting they took yesterday, or perhaps because of it, the Cuba A team started today's stage with a vicious series of attacks. Their strategy was to first send one of their riders who is not in contention up the road - either Falcon, Amaran Romero, Damian or Reldys - and then try to bridge either Eliecer or Costa Rica. Since the wind was favorable or only slightly crossed, this resulted in surges of up to 65kph on the flats - almost an all-out sprint. UPMC was trying to organize at the front, but the attacks were coming so fast that we had trouble getting our train rolling. However, after 15 minutes of sheer hell the Cubans finally had to take a breather, and we rallied and got Coto, Jerry, and me on the front with Todd sitting comfortably behind.
The next strategy that the Cubans tried was to use all six men of a provincial team to form a lead-out train for Eliecer or Costa Rica. However, because the larger formation couldn't jump us as quickly as one or two riders, we had an easier time of responding to these moves. The Cubans would attack on the right side of the road when the crosswind was right to left. We, in turn, would keep rotating on the left side of the road, increasing the speed of our echelon to match and then exceed the Cubans before they could come over the top and get in front of us.
After 50km, Mateo joined the rotation, and the four of us seemed to have the situation well enough in hand to send Larry back to the car for feeds. Of course, it was at this moment that another attack went and quickly gained 20, then 30 seconds, while we waited so as not to flick Larry. I knew there would be trouble when one of the Italians jumped across the gap, but I was starting to feel very, very bad and didn't have the wherewithal to go with him.
Unfortunately, we stumbled tactically here, because the end result was a threatening break getting away from us during a point in the stage when the wind and course were more favorable to a small group than the peloton. The escape had over a minute before we started chasing hard, and by then we were doing turns of 50-55kph at the front, in a crosswind. Ugh.
The Colombian from Cropusa, who I don't think wants to go to Spain after this race and instead would prefer to ride in the USA, lent a strong hand, but we needed 8-9 riders chasing instead of only five. Jerry and I each blew once but both of us fought our way back into the front (the field was single-file in the left hand gutter) and started taking turns again. We finally caught the break after almost a half-hour on the rivet.
The counterattack that went immediately after didn't include a GC threat, so we let it go and started riding tempo again to protect Todd (who has not taken any wind on the flats - a far change from before he won the jersey). After 120km, my strength abandoned me and I dropped out of the line. I felt as bad as I did on the first stage and couldn't hold the pace of the field for long, going out the back with 50km to go to line. While I know that it's a simple question of fatigue and not recuperating enough after having been so sick for so long, it was still bitterly disappointing not to be able to protect Todd all the way to the line. The guys are great, and this team is a like a family, so no one had any negative comments - it's happened to the best of us.
Jerry, Mateo and Coto kept control on the front, and pulled back most of the break's lead before the finale. Joel Mariño, who is from Matanzas (where the stage finished), won for the fourth year in a row, and we successfully defended the jersey for another day. Who would have believed it? We came here to train and maybe win a stage, and now we're contesting the overall victory and have won two stages with two other podium finishes.
I don't remember if I mentioned this before, but Verge Sport's Polish office (through the UCI's Pan American Cycling Confederation: COPACI) provided clothing for not just the four leader's jersey in this Vuelta a Cuba, but also for the entire Cuban peloton. What was once a rag-tag looking group of cyclists outfitted in hand-me-down, mismatched kit and old Soviet-issue clothing now looks as good as any group of bike racers anywhere. What's next is for COPACI to secure more donations to its Pan American Solidarity program to redistribute newer equipment not just to cyclists in Cuba, but those in all of Latin America.
Friday, February 21, 2003 - Vuelta a Cuba - Stage 11 - 149km
After a long conversation with our director Mike Fraysse, I decided not to start today's stage. While it will make the job of protecting Todd all the more difficult for Jerry, Coto, Mateo, Larry and Norton, I am definitely sick again and do not want to jeopardize our chances in the Vuelta a Chile in March by riding myself into oblivion here. I've won two stages and finished on the podium a third time, earning eight UCI points along the way, and have to be satisfied with that. It is disappointing that I won't ride into Havana with my teammate Todd, who I am sure will win the Vuelta, but at least I'll have time to set-up the team party for Sunday night.
Today's stage was another brutal battle, with the Cubans attacking UPMC all day long in hopes of cracking Todd. It didn't happen, and our Uruguayans rode themselves into the ground to help Todd make the final breakaway.
Unfortunately for the Cubans, Eliecer made the escape but Costa Rica did not, meaning there is only one other rider who can hope to challenge Todd for the GC win. We did drop to third in the team standings today after the Italians put two riders into the final break and Jerry cracked, losing several minutes to the chase group.
I empathize with the coach of Cuba A, Eduardo Alonso, six-time winner of the Vuelta a Cuba. With Pedro Pablo out of the picture, there is no dominant leader (PPP won the Vuelta handily in 2000 and 2001) and the six best riders in the country have spent the race up until now racing more or less against each other in hopes of winning rather than coming together as a team to win the tour. Despite what Alonso might tell his athletes at dinner and when the drop back to the team car for feeds during the race, they haven't adopted the tactics necessary to take the jersey and he is banging his head in frustration. This is what happens, however, when the emperor is dethroned and there is no clear successor. These guys should be killing us on GC, but they're not. At least in the European system the domestiques are financially compensated well enough to have the incentive to sacrifice their own chances of victory for the designated leader.
Saturday, February 22, 2003 - Vuelta a Cuba - Stage 12a - 130km
Today is split into a "short" 130km road stage in the morning and a 30km uphill time trial in the afternoon. There was a horrible wind coming out of Matanzas this morning, and while the Cubans again tried to crack UPMC (never say die), they couldn't do it and Todd held on. When the wind shifted from being crossed to a direct headwind, the bunch all but crawled to a stop and the attacks died down.
Want to know what other foreign riders have won the Vuelta a Cuba? Here they are:
I apologize for any spelling errors, but this info comes directly from the 2003 Vuelta technical guide.
Saturday, February 22, 2003 - Vuelta a Cuba - Stage 12b - 30km - ITT
As soon as Todd got back to the hotel, our mechanic Neil Aldridge prepared his bike for the ITT, while our soigneur Ricardo Salazar made sure Todd was following his recovery protocol. Herriott had an electrolyte replacement drink then a light lunch before leaving with Fraysse and our driver Pepito Pelaez (son of the president of the Cuban Cycling Federation) to recon the time trial course. To lend a hand, I washed Todd's bike, pinned his number and cleaned water bottles in hopes of making myself useful. The Spanish have had three riders abandon and the Italians one, and since we all have to travel together from stage to stage on the wawa, we're like a rolling ex-pat club
Todd said he rode today's stage on sheer willpower, so shot are his legs. Regardless, he did a great job, finishing 5th on the day and losing less than 30 seconds to Eliecer. We'd been led to believe before coming to Cuba that this ITT would feature much more serious climbing than it did, so we brought little aero equipment. The course turned out to be much faster than expected, and Todd was lamenting not having a 55-tooth chainring to go with his 11 cog.
Sunday, February 23, 2003 - Vuelta a Cuba - Stage 13 - 109km
Holy smokes. We won the Vuelta a Cuba. My team rode to perfection today, protecting our leader Todd Herriott, who becomes the first American and only the fifth foreign rider to ever win the Tour of Cuba. So desperate were the Cubans not to lose the Vuelta that they broke protocol in a big way and attacked Todd all day long, despite the fact that final stage is traditionally a promenade from San Cristobal (in Pinar del Rio) to Havana, with the real racing coming only in the final 20km. Alas, with Eliecer less than two minutes behind Todd, and national prestige at stake, the Cubans could not afford to be seen as conceding victory before the final line was crossed.
American Mike Norton, who has had a difficult Vuelta for the second year in a row, rallied today and spent the entire stage in the echelon rotating to help Todd. Jerry and Mateo also did tremendous work, though Todd said later that Coto was the hero of the day (and in my opinion, one of the most effective riders in this event). The hardest attack of the day came on a gradual uphill that was made exceptionally difficult by another - you guessed it - fierce crosswind. Todd covered the move but was suffering in the gutter when Alvaro (el Coto) motored up alongside of him and matched the pace of the line on his own, shielding Todd from the wind for the rest of the climb. Wow. This dude is hard, and I can't wait to see him in action against some of the US-based pros.
As it was, I rode to the line from about 60km out with the ex-pat club - Italian Andrea Gurayev and three Spaniards. We had a leisurely cruise into Havana and arrived about 30 minutes before the bunch. The finish was in front of the Capitolio in Central Havana, which is an exact replica of the US Capitol building. It was fitting then, that Todd received his final leader's jersey on the steps of that very building. (Photo: final jersey podium, credit - Neil Aldridge)
After the finish of the stage, we were mobbed at the team car by friends, spectators, press and other riders. Eliecer even stopped by and expressed his regret to Todd for having to attack him on the last day, but we understood. Alonso would have gotten his marching orders if he didn't tell his riders to attack, just as they would have been canned if they'd conceded victory to another foreigner, especially an American. The Italians and the Spanish lent a bit of a hand today to us, but UPMC really shouldered the burden of controlling the race - and control we did.
The magnitude of what we accomplished is definitely not lost on the team, though it's still hard to believe that we won the race and two stages along the way. We came here with the intention of training and (maybe) winning a stage (thinking we'd need a lot of luck to do it), and look where we've ended up…
After the post-race ceremonies finished, we headed to our hotel in Habana del Este and showered and shaved before heading to Parque Lenin for the unofficial awards ceremony and post-race fiesta. Last year, Mapei, the members of Germany's Team Weisenhof and us USA riders had a beer-drinking contest that will live in infamy in the annals of Cuban cycling history. This year the celebration was a bit more tranquil, though we still danced much salsa and cleaned-out the bar of Havana Club rum.
Todd received some more of his trophies (1st overall GC, third KOM competition) while I accepted our team honor (third overall) and almost everyone else walked around with a big smile of happiness and relief after the end of the Vuelta.
For me personally, the experience was 98% positive. While I'm bummed that I didn't finish (for the second year in a row no less), and am disappointed not to have been able to ride the last few stages at my best friend Todd's side, I rejoice in having won two stages and played a crucial role in helping Todd to take, and then protect, the jersey. I also met a lot of great new people and renewed those friendships I already had. Bike racing - not a bad life…
Images by Neil Aldridge
Images by Joe Papp and Mike Fraysse
Images by Franklin Reyes and Neil Aldridge