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Cuba Diary '04

Skylands Cycling
Day 1 Day 2 Day 3 Day 4 Conclusion
Day 1 Sunday, October 10

I got the wakeup call at 4:30 a.m. on Sunday, October 10, 2004. The hotel would have a shuttle bus to the Miami airport at 5:00 o'clock a.m., so I threw on my clothes and hustled out to the lobby with my gear-a track bike packed in a cardboard box, my road bike, packed in a hard plastic case, a duffle bag and a laptop. Our flight to Havana was scheduled to leave at 8:00 a.m. and we needed to be at the airport by shortly after 5:00 a.m. to begin the laborious check-in process.

Direct travel between the U.S, and Cuba has been prohibited for many years under the embargo imposed by our government, but there are exceptions. American citizens, for example, have been permitted to travel to Cuba to visit family members, and travel is possible for legitimate scientific, educational and cultural purposes. We are traveling under the exception for sports teams competing in sanctioned international competitions. Along with 30 or so other American bike racers, I am going to the UCI Pan American Masters Cycling Championships, which are going to be held in the greater Havana area over the next five days. Two days of track racing will include match sprints, a 500meter time trial, individual pursuits, points races and scratch races. The road events will include an individual time trial, a road race and a criterium. The distances will vary according to age groups.

So this is a perfectly legal trip, not some shady undercover venture to the mysterious island of Cuba through Canada or Mexico. Nonetheless, we are subjected to the highest level of security at every step. They will scrutinize our passports, our visas, our tickets, our invitation letters from the USCF, not to mention open and thoroughly search our bike boxes, checked luggage and carry on bags. And, of course, the shoes. It's hard to believe that one wacko who had the crazy idea of putting explosives in his sneakers has resulted in millions of people the world over walking barefoot through airport metal detectors.

Our check in line at American Airlines is already fifty feet long when I arrive at concourse D. It's all cyclists with bikes, wheels and luggage piled on carts. Thirty-one racers in all will make this trip, along with a handful of support personnel. I say hello to a few people: NJ 45+ warrior Earl Peretti, who I race against every week, multiple world track champion Earl Henry, former Argentina national team member Mike Lyach. There are a lot of T-shirts here, and read together, they are an impressive resume. About half of them are from either the masters nationals, track or road, or the masters track worlds in Manchester England. Several proclaim state championships. There's at least one ironman and one RAAM (Race Across America). My T-shirt simply says Carhart.

It takes about an hour to get checked in. There's a problem here that we don't normally encounter when we travel by air in this country. It seems the plane may not be big enough to carry our entire luggage. We are not flying on a jumbo jet, but rather on a twin turbo prop plane, and the cargo space is limited. The bikes, of course, create the issue. So a couple of guys are, under Mike Fraysse's supervision, trying to sort the bikes into two groups-track bikes, which we will need for the races the next day, and road bikes, which we will not need until Wednesday. Gus Ferrar is marking the bikes with duct tape. "Can you mark this? Gus," I ask, handing him my wheelbag with the Zipp rear disc and deep dish carbon fiber front wheel. "It's for the track?" he asks. I tell him it is, and he puts a piece of duct tape on the wheelbag, on which he writes "Vuelo #1." Flight # 1. Vuelo also means lap in Spanish, I later learn. The road bikes may have to wait for a later flight. This doesn't bother me. All I can think about is the track right now; the road races might as well be next year.

It takes another hour to get through the metal detectors and down to the gate. My ticket has been stamped with "SSS." According to the apologetic TSA agent, this is a designation handed out by the airlines which triggers the highest level of personal searching before you're allowed to go to your gate. So they open my toothpaste tube and I remove my laptop from its case and turn it on, but honestly, I find the whole thing reassuring. It's amazing how our mindset about this kind of stuff has changed.

I finally get down to our gate at about 7:00 a.m. and no one is there. I find this puzzling, because there were plenty of people in front of me in the check-in line. I double-check the gate number, my ticket and the departure board. I'm in the right place. I decide to take a stroll through the terminal to look for other members of our group. On my way up the stairs from the ground level gate (you have to walk across the tarmac to get to the plane) I encounter the Crane brothers, Ryan from Louisiana and Farrell from Texas. "Can you guys think of a reason why there would be no one at our gate?" I ask.

Ryan and Farrell look at each other, half smiling, half concerned. Together, we go back down the stairs and take seats at the gate. These guys are track specialists, I learn, and we chat about velodromes. It's 7:10 a.m. No one else has shown up at the gate. We double check our tickets again, and try to come up with a hypothesis to explain the absence of our teammates. There's no denying that at least one plausible explanation is that we are at the wrong gate. "At quarter after, I'm going to start worrying," Farrell says, in his modified drawl. He's a non-practicing lawyer, the older of the two brothers by 10 years. Ryan looks a little worried, too, although he's less verbal about it than Farrell and me. I later learn from someone else that Ryan is the reigning national sprint champ in the 30-34 age group. You don't get to that level of achievement on the track without doing a little worrying.

After a while, the other members of our group start to drift in. Who knows where they were? Maybe they just didn't feel the compulsion to rush down to the gate and sit in plastic chairs for an hour. Actually, it was an hour and a half, because it took some extra time for the TSA to search all the bike boxes and get them down to the gate.

They finally open the door, and we walk out onto the tarmac to board the plane. It's 8:30 a.m., and already it is hot and humid in Miami. The sun is shining brightly on this October day. We sit and watch from the plane as they load luggage and bikes on the little turbo prop. After a while, the luggage wagon pulls away from the plane and heads on back toward the terminal. A couple of suitcases and two modern looking gray bike boxes are all that remain on the wagon. The bikes belong to Adam Smith, from California. Adam is the guy that Ryan Crane beat in the finals to win the sprint championship. Both his road bike and track bike have been left behind. So much for the sorting.

The flight to Havana is not a long one. The plane, which seats about 50, is mostly filled with bike racers and a few Cubans. Travel by Cubans to Cuba for family visits has been cut back by our government to one visit every three years, and the airlines are feeling it. We head south out of Miami down along the Florida coast and trace the long fingers of the Keys though beautiful blue-turquoise water. The turbo prop flies much lower than a big jet, and you can see boats and even whitecaps. Before long the hulking mass of Cuba appears against the ocean. The air above the island is a little less than clear. A smokestack or two rises among the lush greenery.

We land at Jose Marti International Airport outside of Havana. Jose Marti was a 19th century leader of the Cuban fight for independence from Spain. The Spanish, fearful of this young intellectual's influence, exiled him at age 17 to Spain, where he attended law school. After getting his degree, he emigrated to the US where he became a journalist and leader of the movement to over throw the Spanish rule of Cuba. He was later killed in battle while fighting the Spanish in Cuba. Jose Marti is right up there with Che Guevara among the great men of Cuban history. The airport they have named after him, however, is not the major Havana international jetport. Rather, it is a small, one terminal, one runway facility that seems to serve only flights to and from the US. There is also a brand of cigar named after Jose Marti.

We stand in several lines to wait our turn at the customs booth. The customs official is cordial. She smiles and asks in Spanish why I have come to Cuba. "Las carerras de las bicicletas," I tell her, hoping this is the right way to say "bike races" in Spanish. I add "Pan American. Masters" in my faux-Spanish accent. She nods approvingly and smiles, then looks at my passport photo, then my face. She stops smiling and shakes her head. "Muchos anos pasados," I say. She smiles and hands the passport back to me. I wonder if I've managed to say "many years ago" correctly in Spanish. I wanted to say "another life," but didn't know how.

The guy at the metal detector smiles when I say "hola" and place my laptop on the conveyor belt. He says "Buena" which, I believe, is short for buenas dias, a standard Spanish daytime greeting, and waves me through. The laptop stays in its case, my shoes stay on my feet, and in a flash, I'm in. The Miami airport makes this place look like a summer camp. I feel as if I have penetrated some huge barrier, and I guess I have, as I head for Jose Marti's single luggage carousel. The luggage is already starting to come through and is being taken off the conveyor by Cuban guys hired, I think, by Mike Fraysse to help us with our baggage. There are a few officials in khaki uniforms around, both men and women. The women's uniform include short tight skirts. I am not sure what the function of these people is-they look like police-but I smile and say "hola." They look me in the eye and smile warmly.

In short order, my two bikes and bag come through the carousel. There is a line of standard airport luggage carts nearby, with a guy standing next to them. I ask him how much. "Cuantos?" One dollar, he says, in English. I give him a dollar and he puts it in the machine, and gives me a cart. "Gracia" I say, dropping the "s" in "gracias," like I've heard native Spanish speakers do. He smiles, nods and gives a little bow. Cuba does not have the most robust economy in the hemisphere, to put it mildly, and this guy has a good gig here. His job reminds me of the elevator operator they used to have in the Hudson County Courthouse in Jersey City. You tell him what floor you want, and he pushes the appropriate button. Nice work if you can get it.

I load my stuff onto the cart and slowly push it toward the exit. A lot of cyclists with loaded carts, are milling around, unsure what to do. There is a barrier between us and the door, but a gate is open. Next to the gates stands one of the uniformed, short-skirted women. Beyond the barrier, I spot Cuban Big John, an employee of the Cuban national cycling federation. I have met this guy before, and he recognizes me. "Robert," he yells, and waves me toward him. I calculate a line through the other cyclists and their carts, and accelerate. Just about when I hit full speed, the khaki-woman steps in front of the open gate. I slow down, hoping my two bikes don't slide off the cart and she steps out of the way just as I reach the opening. I smile at her and say "gracias" as I go through. She smiles and says "hola," dragging out the first syllable. You don't pronounce the "h" so it's kind of like "ohhh-la" the way she says it. It sounds cool.

I shake hands with and hug Cuban Big John. He's a friendly, rotund man with a goatee whose job it is to greet visiting cycling teams and assist them with their transportation and accommodations. "Como esta?" I ask, dropping the "s." How are you? "Bien, bien," he replies. The Cubans rarely reply with just one "bien." Usually, it's two or more, something like "well, well, well." I guess that means really well. "Y su familia?" I ask. "Bien, bien." He's all portly smiles.

I head out of the Jose Marti terminal, cool and dimly lit, into the hot humid Cuban morning. Looking around for another cyclist to follow, or some clue about where to go, I spot a man in a classic Cuban white short-sleeved shirt with four pockets, a guayaverde, they call it. He's waving me toward him. I go through another gate, and he points at a yellow schoolbus parked next to the terminal. This is our ride to the Hotel Tropicoco. I wonder if the guy who pointed me in the right direction is an employee of the Cuban federation, but when I see him walking away from the terminal with a child, I conclude he was just a helpful soul who knew more about where I was going than I did.

It turns out that we have two schoolbusses and a truck to take our stuff back to the hotel. We head out onto highway, passing little cars with no nameplates, made in Russia, I think, smoky box-like trucks, and some American cars. Cuba is known for it's classic American cars, and the Cubans are proud of them. But to me, it's kind of sad. It's been illegal to import an American car into Cuba since 1960, so all the cars you see are from 1959 or earlier, some of them immaculately restored, some of them rusting hulks. These cars are a symbol of Cuba's isolation for the last 45 years.

The Cuban landscape whizzes by at 50 mph. We're on a four lane highway which is not exactly modern, but not exactly primitive either. The road is bumpy. There are lots of potholes and defects in the asphalt. The area we are traveling through, as we circle south and east of Havana, is more rural than anything else. There is a lot of low green vegetation, and no shortage of palm trees. But there are also plenty of buildings along the road--small houses, bigger apartment houses, some abandoned and crumbling buildings, an occasional café or store--as well as a few horses and cows. It's a rare building that doesn't at least need a coat of paint.

Frequently, along the highway, we pass crowds of Cubans waiting at bus stops. They are casually dressed, with most of the men in long pants and most of the women in skirts, and don't look particularly impoverished. We pass huge busses, tractor-trailor busses like a railroad passenger car pulled by a truck, jammed with people sitting and standing. You don't see these things in the U.S. People stand along side the road, often in pairs, like they are hitchhiking, but without their thumb out. I'm told that the law in Cuba requires you to stop and pick up passengers if you have space in your vehicle. That's illegal in a lot of places in our country.

Before going to the Tropicoco, we have to stop at the velodrome to drop off our track bikes. The velodrome is a large concrete structure across the highway from the national soccer stadium. Both were built about 10 years ago when Cuba hosted the Pan American games. The Cuban driver of the truck and his assistant make a big production out of backing the truck up to the door through which we'll take our bikes to the storage room Mike has arranged for us to use during the two days of racing at the Velodromo Nacional Reinaldo Paseiro. In order to get really close to the door, they need to back the truck under this concrete portico type thing, which can't be any more than an inch above the top of the truck. There is much discussion about this dilemma. Standing in the shade, watching this show with a few of our riders and a few Cuban racers, I have the bright idea that they should let some of the air out of the tires to lower the truck a little. One of the Cubans suggests, using hand gestures, that when the truck is unloaded, it will rise and get stuck under the portico-thing.

It is past lunchtime, it is hot and we have been traveling since 5:00 a.m., but everyone is relaxed, no one seems frazzled. We have been absorbed into Planeta Cuba, the warm sun, humid air and friendly locals acting like a huge tranquilizer for the high-strung American bike racers. Tranquilo is the word Cubans sometimes use to describe their life-style. It means calm, tranquil, relaxed, laid-back. And that we are, as we watch the Cubans finally start to unload our track bikes and carry them into the depths of the velodrome.

We can see the Tropicoco rising from the greenery as we approach. It is a large blue six-story building that looks like it could have been made out of Legos. It's all plain, conjoined rectangles of different sizes. One of the women comments that this hotel reflects a Russian style of architecture called brutalism. There are lots of palm trees, and to our left we can see the ocean. On the road along the beach that leads to the hotel, there are several gray-uniformed and stern-looking policemen, standing motionless. Their only weapons appear to be nightsticks. These guys look like they mean business. Fortunately, they are outnumbered by the palm trees.

We pull up to the entrance to the hotel. There are no visible doors. It looks to be an open air building that you sometimes see in tropical climates, like a few of the gigantic blue legos are missing here and there. I can see some big leafy plants insidel and I'm not sure whether they are in pots or actually planted in dirt inside the hotel. The interior is dimly lit, even in broad daylight. As I climb out of the bus, I see two birds fly into the hotel, one chasing the other. Two uniformed security guards stand inside the entrance, at the base of the steps that lead to the front desk. Palm fronds nearly touch their head. A couple of middle aged, European-looking blond women in bathing suits pass by, headed toward the beach.

There are a couple of Cuban cyclists standing near the entrance, leaning on their bikes, as we disembark. These guys are here to hustle us for tires, tubes, gloves or whatever, Mike warned when we pulled in. Cycling gear is in short supply in Cuba, and what little equipment there is, these riders don't have the money to buy.

When Mike Fraysse first visited Cuba five or six years ago, the cyclists had nothing. The bikes were all 40 some years old, like the American cars. There was no lycra, there were no helmets, no jerseys. Since that first visit, Mike has brought literally hundreds of bikes, frames and components from the US to donate to the Cuban Cycling Federation. The equipment, donated by American cyclists and bike shops, tends to be one or two generations old, but the things we throw away in the US are better than anything the Cubans could otherwise get.

Now, the Cuban cyclists that we race against have pretty decent bikes-5 year old Cannondales, for example-and some sharp looking clothing. The donated gear is given to the Cuban cycling federation, which decide which riders get what. There is probably some politics involved, but overall, it seems pretty fair. Mike tells us not to give anything to individual cyclists we might befriend. If we have anything to give away, we should give it to the federation, and they will decide who needs it most.

I suppose this system makes sense. It's a socialist country. There's no illiteracy, no malnutrition, no untreated disease. But there is no material wealth, either. Oh yeah, and it's a police state. I try not to be judgmental, but I wonder whether, if I lived in Cuba, I'd be willing to let a couple of people starve so I could have a nicer house.

I walk into the hotel, up the stairs and join the crowd of newly arrived cyclists who are registering and milling about. Cuban Big John is standing at the front desk, assisting with registration. I walk up and ask him if he can get me a room on an upper floor with an ocean view. Can't hurt to ask, I figure. He talks to the girl behind the desk in Spanish, and tells me, in English, "no problem." Those are two of the few English words he knows. The room will not be ready for an hour, however, so I have to chill for a while. Perfect. I turn my head about ninety degrees and locate the bar.

As I walk toward the bar, I run into Mark Albert, bike racer and owner of Westwood Cycle, a New Jersey guy with some serious tatoos. In his hand is a cigar. "What's this," I ask, even before saying hello. "Siglo VI," he replies with a grin, using the Spanish pronunciation. The Siglo VI is a Cohiba, introduced for the first time about a year ago. For many years, the consensus among smokers of Cuban cigars was that the best cigar in the world was the Cohiba Esplendido. This was the cigar Castro smoked before he quit. Now, however, it is the humble opinion of some of us that the Siglo VI is better than the Esplendido.

"Is this for me?" I ask. Mark has been in Cuba for a week. He knows I have just arrived, have no cigars, and want one badly. "I had this in my mouth," Mark says. "I'll go upstairs and get you one. I have a box."

"Sweet," I say. "Want me to get us a couple of beers?" Mark nods. Later, I'll check into my room, put my bike together, get a massage. For now, all I can think about is a Siglo VI and an ice cold Cristal. I'm in Cuba.

Bob Cary October 10, 2004