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Tales from the (Cuban) Peloton

Joe Papp's Vuelta a Cuba diary: Part III

Sweet success at the Vuelta a Cuba
Photo: © Joe Papp
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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 third part of Joe's diary, Papp continues his colourful journey in the event he's being training and racing for, the Vuelta a Cuba, a UCI 2.5 stage race over some 13 days.

Part I of Joe Papp's Vuelta a Cuba diary
Part II of Joe Papp's Vuelta a Cuba diary

Sunday, February 16, 2003 - Vuelta a Cuba - Stage 6 - 116km

As an interesting aside, yesterday's 190km escape was the longest successful break in the history of the Vuelta a Cuba, and the average speed - 47.2km/h - the highest recorded for a stage here. After the success of winning the stage, today UPMC wanted to protect Todd's 3rd place on GC and the team's spot in 3rd in the team competition. If we could contest the stage finish, it would be all the better.

With the race leader riding for the Cuba "B" team, and a Cienfuegos rider in second, those two teams had a strong interest in controlling today's stage to maintain their overall positions. We didn't want to see the race blow apart today in the crosswinds either, so I had a few words with the captains of Cuba B and Cienfuegos and we each informally agreed to contribute athletes to ride tempo at the front for as long as possible to dissuade any attacks.

The strategy worked, even though there were three intermediate sprints that disrupted our echelon somewhat. The only hitch today was helping Todd stay out of the wind and in the front part of the field. He doesn't have much experience racing in crosswinds, which is understandable given that he lives in New York City and races mainly on the East Coast (props to him for his huge, huge win at the Univest GP last year, of course!). He also doesn't have much confidence in some of the Cuban riders, which is understandable if you look at the condition of many of their bikes, unfortunately. I think I went back for him three times, and I know Jerry dropped back at least four times to drag Todd up to the front. He could definitely be the Fernando Escartin of our peloton.

We had another brief scare when Cuba A attacked with five of their six riders over a causeway when the wind was at its worst. I covered the move quickly and was sitting on Eliecer V's wheel, with Todd on mine, when Valdes rode smack into a huge pothole. Though he almost crashed, somehow he avoided breaking his bike or flatting. Unfortunately, I destroyed my front wheel when I hit the same hole (Todd got around it) and had to stop for a replacement - at the moment when the race was at its hardest.

Our crackerjack mechanic, Neil Aldridge (who worked the Tour of Cuba for us last year), gave me a great wheel-change and the team car paced me back to the caravan. While the punishment for extended drafting behind a vehicle is 38 Swiss francs and a 20 second time penalty, it made sense to risk it, since I would have lost a lot more time than that and would have been cracked after the chase. As it was, I still had to cross a huge gap between the commissar's car and the last rider in line. I made it, and teammate Larry Perera helped me move back up through the field.

It took a while for me to recover after the effort, but thankfully, Mateo, Jerry and Alvaro had things under control in the front. After I rejoined the echelon, we kept riding tempo with Cienfuegos and Cuba B, sometimes with the help of the Sancti Spiritus team, until 5km to go, when Cuba A attacked again, sending its riders up the road in pairs. Their attacks shattered the field, but UPMC stayed cool we kept rolling, picking off riders one after another, until we started the final lead-out with 1km to go. Jerry pulled the first leg, and then Alvaro took over until the final turn, which came with 400m to go. Mateo launched in his 11 after the corner and I hung on tight. As I was about to come off his wheel, Joel Mariño passed us on the left with an Italian on his wheel. I jumped hard to get on them, and just as I made contact with the Italian, I hit another pothole and lost my line. Immediately after that, the Italian hit another hole (It wasn't the prettiest of finishing straights, but that's Cuba, and no es fácil, compañero.) and lost Mariño's wheel. So there we were, floundering in the wake of one of the fastest road sprinters in the Western Hemisphere. For what it's worth, Mariño regularly beat Ivan Dominguez on the road and track before the latter defected, and he did the same to us today. The Italian finished second and I crossed in third.

While it would have been incredibly beautiful for us to win two stages in a row, especially after all of the work the team did today and the excellent lead-out the boys prepared, we have to be content with another podium finish en route to accomplishing our main goals of protecting Todd and the team's overall positions. Tomorrow is a longer, slightly hilly stage, and Tuesday is the last "easy" day (157km, rolling with wind) before the horrible 167km ninth stage on Wednesday, during which we climb Topes de Collantes. Last year, I rode that 7km climb in a 39x26, weaving back and forth across the face of the mountain. Eddie B. calls it one of the toughest climbs in the world (the Latin American Angliru, perhaps?) and I am not looking forward to the replay next week.

Stage 6 results

Monday, February 17, 2003 - Vuelta a Cuba - Stage 7 - 146km

Surviving a stage race is all about the simple pleasures, and convincing yourself during the grim moments of the stage that if you dig just a bit deeper and put up with the suffering for awhile longer, you'll make it to the line to enjoy those treats. Today, in order to protect Todd's position, we spent most of the race chasing breaks and riding tempo on the front. It was brutally hot, the sun was fierce, there was a blast furnace-like crosswind and there was no shade at all on the route. Cuba A was attacking our brains out all day, and for the last 30km, all I wanted was to cross the line with the first group and enjoy a cold bottle of Hammer Pro Whey and have an ice massage. After the 10km ride to the hotel on a dusty highway after the stage, Larry and I stopped for 7Ups at a roadside stand. Simple pleasures.

Though it took us until the final 2km, we shut down every attack (minus the Spaniard who slipped away at the end to take a well-deserved win) and kept Todd in third overall with only one more stage before the mountain. The downside was that we were too blown to contest the sprint, but after two days on the podium, that wasn't too hard to deal with.

We are hoping beyond belief that tomorrow's stage is easier for us, and we don't have any designs on controlling like we did today. A stage win isn't out of the question, however.

Despite their awesome strength, Cuba A is a team divided, and with Pedro Pablo out of the cycling picture, the national team needs a new king. All six of the Cuba A riders would like to assume that role, and they're settling it on the road. Makes for great racing, at least. Stay tuned for more from Castro Country.

Stage 7 results

Tuesday, February 18, 2003 - Vuelta a Cuba - Stage 8 - 156km

Inspired (adj): of such surpassing excellence as to suggest divine inspiration.

Today the performance of the UPMC team was most decidedly inspired. During last night's meeting, we decided to ride conservatively in hopes of protecting Todd's lead while also saving as much energy as possible for tomorrow's epic assault on the mountains. However, as they say, the best laid plans of mice and men.

The stage started very fast, with a stiff crosswind, and Cuba B was having difficulty controlling the field for their leader. Serious attacks started going off the front after less than 15km, and after we moved Todd into position in the first echelon, Mateo covered one move before instigating another. His group was caught after a hard chase led by the Cienfuegos team (protecting their 2nd place rider), but sensing the opportunity for a counterattack, I said to Todd, "watch this," and attacked hard uphill into the crosswind.

To my delight, Lizardo Benitez of Cuba A, the best climber in the race, bridged across to me. He was breathing heavily after crossing the gap, which was nice, since it meant that the attack was potent. Benitez's teammate Eliecer Valdes, an Italian, and a rider from Matanzas quickly joined us. The next time I glanced back, I saw the huge Russian from Cropusa, with my teammate Todd Herriott on his wheel! As Todd passed me in the echelon he said, "This is the move, let's drive it," and drive we did.

The course was rolling with either a crosswind or headwind for the entire day, and the seven-man break was committed to riding together. However, just like on Saturday, it took us a substantial amount of time to gain a minute on the field. Suddenly, however, the gap was up to two, and then three minutes, and word came to us that the peloton was splintering. I'm known as a sprinter, and though I enjoy riding in some breakaways, the thought of another 100km of riding at my maximum would not usually thrill me. Today though, with Todd in 3rd overall and the yellow jersey in difficulty behind, we suddenly had the chance to take over the lead on GC. The thought of Todd in yellow at the end of the stage inspired me to ride like I never have before. To the credit of my companions, no one missed a pull, and we all rode on the rivet - everyone had something to gain.

I suffered horribly, but as the gap grew, the pain started to diminish, and with 20km to go and our lead up to almost eight minutes on the chase and 17 on the peloton, we knew we had accomplished the unthinkable: we raced ourselves into the yellow jersey!

With 5km to go to the line, the break's longstanding truce was broken as first Eliecer and then Lizardo attacked in hopes of taking the stage win. However, Todd went to the front and set a ferocious pace, knowing that he would have the jersey if he just crossed the line with our group. While the Russian and Italian each tried attacks, they were impotent to ride away from Todd - who led our group into the finishing straight at 60kph. Todd controlled the break until the final turn, a 180-degree u-turn to the left. The line was about 500m from the turn, and I sat a few riders back, looking for another lead-out from Eliecer. The Russian and Italian also wanted his wheel, but after banging the Cropusa rider once they realized I wasn't going to give up my spot. After Vicente Zanabria from Matanzas exploded, Eliecer took charge and provided a perfect lead-out. I came off his wheel with 150m to go and won handily - my second stage of the Vuelta, and icing on the cake after Todd took the jersey.

We are facing a daunting task tomorrow, having to control the peloton for 80km to the base of the climb. Our director Mike Fraysse also hopes that we can put at least one other rider over the top of the KOM with Todd, which means that Jerry or Mateo will have to sprout wings and fly up the hill, so infernal will be the pace. Me, I'm just hoping to survive tomorrow, since I will be setting tempo at the front until the hill. After that, we'll see what happens, but no matter what, this Vuelta is a success for UPMC.

Stage 8 results

Editor's note: Stages 9-13 to follow soon

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