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Cuba Diary '04

Skylands Cycling
Day 1 Day 2 Day 3 Day 4 Conclusion
Day 2 Monday, October 11

We are leaving for the velodrome at 7:15 a.m., riding our bikes there. Therese Lea has decreed the starting time, which I think is a little early. Therese, mother of national track cycling champ Bobby Lea, is somewhat of an organizer. In addition to being one of the handful of women masters racers, she helps Mike with some of the details-and there are many of them-which arise in the course of taking thirty-some cyclists to Cuba for five days of racing. Although the bus will be leaving for the velodrome at 8:00 a.m. and most of the riders will take it, Therese believes in the long slow warm-up we'll get by cycling the 10 miles or so. I agree.

I get to the lobby with my road bike a few minutes before 7:00 a.m. It's still pretty dark outside. I have a bag which will be taken to the velodrome on the bus containing a few bottles of water, a couple of tools, a small towel, a pair of Teva sandals and a T-shirt that says "Pan American Masters Team Member." I am also sending my Silca floor pump on the bus. Although there will be many pumps at the track, I want to be sure there's one that will pump my tires up over 200 pounds. I need all the help I can get.

The restaurant opens for breakfast at 7:00 a.m., but when they unlock the doors and we enter, it appears that not all of the food has been placed in the self-service buffet. There are some pancakes, some green beans, and a lot of cut up fruit: oranges, grapefruits, guava, papaya, and a couple I don't recognize. There's also some very thinly sliced ham and cheese, next to a plate of rolls, in case you want to make a little sandwich, I guess. I grab some of everything, ladle some pancake syrup onto the pancakes and green beans, and head for the long tables by the windows which have been reserved for us cyclists. There's a pitcher of orange-colored juice on the table that is not orange juice. I'm not sure what it is, but it's cold and delicious. Although the sun has yet to come up, the sky is getting brighter. In a few minutes, it will be light enough to ride.

Therese does not come down for breakfast until 7:10, so I know that we will not be leaving at quarter after, which is fine with me because it's still a little dark. It's about 7:30 a.m. when four of depart for the velodrome on our road bikes: Therese, me, Bill Thompson, a track sprinting specialist from Texas, and Dan, a 30 year old CAT 2 racer from southern California. Last night at dinner, Dan told us how he sent a letter to Mike Fraysse, detailing his cycling accomplishments, including the California state time trial championship, and asking to be included in the Pan American masters team. "Did Mike ask you if you have $2000," I asked. "Yeah, basically," Dan replied.

There's no selection process for this team. If you have the money and are a USCF licensed racer, you can go, although most of the riders are here because they think they have a legitimate shot at the podium. Some of us, on the other hand, are just here for the thrill and experience, knowing we'll be thoroughly clobbered in international competition.

The four of us head west before sunrise along the beachfront road at an easy pace. There are a few nice-looking homes scattered about and I wonder who, in this socialist country, they belong to. We pass a restaurant and a little store, both closed. As we turn left and start making our way up the hill toward the highway which will take us toward Havana and the velodrome, we see a few other riders ahead. It's Joe Papp, sprinter and leader of Mike Fraysse's America's Cycling Team, along with Mark Albert and a couple of others.

We ride up a gradual incline, on a kind of boulevard with a divider in the middle. The right side is dirt and gravel; only the left side is paved. We cross over to the paved side and stay to the right as an old smoking truck passes in the opposite direction. Two older Cuban men are standing in the back. One is holding some kind of tool. Off to our right, among overgrown vegetation, stands a five story abandoned building with only it's concrete frame in tact. You can look in one side and out the other.

We take the entry ramp onto the limited access highway running east from Havana along the coast toward Matanzas and the rest of the island. This is the only way to get to the velodrome. The ramp is rough and bumpy, and the highway is not much better. Some of the asphalt has sunk in places. Chunks have broken off, and there are occasional cracks. It's no wonder they told us not to bring tubular tires. You have to watch where you are going, obviously.

Traffic is fairly light, and the few drivers on the road give us plenty of room. Some wave, some toot their horns hello. We pass a few people standing on the roadside, stone-faced at first, but when we pass and say "buenas dias," they respond warmly, always smiling and waving. Cubans have been isolated from our country for a long time, and our people are as strange to them as they are to us. Neither of us is quite sure what to expect.

The trucks passing on the highway are almost all old--some American from the fifties and earlier, some a little newer and weird looking, as if of Russian or eastern European design. Every once in a while, a more modern tanker truck passes. The cars are all small, except for the American classics. These are the cars of my childhood, and I try to guess their years, in Spanish. "Cincuenta y tres, cincuenta y nueve," and so on. There's an occasional cart pulled by a horse or a mule, carrying sugar cane or mangoes, and some beat-up old slowly pedaled bicycles. Even though we are riding at a slow pace, we're going a lot faster than these guys.

It's common courtesy not to just blow by a slower bike as if it doesn't exist, so I usually slow down and briefly ride along side. Sometimes I look over and say "carerra?" This Spanish word for race always gets a smile, even a little furious pedaling. "Vamos al velodromo-we're going to the velodrome" I say to one guy. He makes a circular motion with his finger, like a bike going in circles around a track. It's humbling to have your Spanish translated into sign language but, hey, at least he understood.

Bill and Dan accelerate and bridge up to Joe and Mark and the others. Therese and I continue our leisurely pace. "They're going too fast," she says. I agree. We continue our slow warm up as the morning sun goes behind some clouds and it starts to rain. It rains gently and steadily for about fifteen minutes, but I don't really feel wet.

We approach an intersection with a traffic light. A fairly large group of people is milling about on both sides, and there are cars pulled over. A sign in Spanish says something like "control point." As we get closer, I can see some of the gray-uniformed police talking to car drivers who have obviously been pulled over and are getting their papers checked. On the right is a big gas station with a sign that says "Servicio rapido." Cars are at the gas pumps, and you can see a couple of cars on lifts in the bays. One of the cops steps into the road and motions for a car to pull over. No one seems agitated; everything is pretty "tranquilo," and I assume the Cubans accept random checking as a fact of life. We get this type of checking in the US now, too. If you don't believe me, try driving a Ryder rental truck into the Lincoln tunnel.

The light for us is red, but nothing is coming on the intersecting road. Therese goes around a stopped truck and blows the light. This would make me a little uncomfortable in the US, where we have due process, and at most, a $100 fine. Here in Cuba, at the control point, no less, I imagine the cops writing out a ticket at the scene of the crime which includes the sentence, say 20 years at hard labor. They take us away. No trials, no lawyers no appeals, just swift and sure justice. I look around to see if the cops are watching. They're not, and I follow Therese through the red light.

After a long downhill, we take a ramp to the right, and merge onto another limited access highway, this one with a divider in the middle. It's clearly an important road. The sign says it leads directly to the tunnel under La Bahia de Habana, the bay on which Havana sits. The road climbs gradually for about a mile. Halfway up the grade, a bus sits on the side of the road, disabled. It is an old bus, and it reminds me of the DeCamp busses we used to take to the city when I was a kid. Spread out behind the bus, for about fifty meters or so, are several large branches. At first I thought these were left over from Hurricane Ivan, a few weeks ago. But no, the branches have been dragged out from the side of the road to warn motorists of the presence of a disabled vehicle in the travel lane. There is also a large tin can behind the bus with a plume of thick black smoke emanating from it, as if a rag soaked in diesel fuel were burning inside the can, which there probably was.

We leave the divided highway, go around a small rotary, and turn right. As we head down the wide road approaching the velodrome, we pass a group of about 30 or 40 cyclists going the other way. It's the Cuban national teams, men and women, on their morning training ride from the velodrome. Joe and Mark are with them, since they are not racing in the day's track events. Therese and I turn into the entrance and a man in a light brown uniform opens a chain link gate. We roll into the velodrome complex. It's 8:30, sunny and warm. Several Cuban cyclists are sitting and standing in the shade. We exchange "holas."

We enter through a door and descend into what quickly becomes a tunnel. There is incandescent lighting, but not much of it. If you go straight, the tunnel goes down hill, then slightly uphill, emerging in the track's infield. There are hallways to the left and to the right. We take the first left, guided by friendly Cubans, and enter the second door on the right. Our cleats make a weird echoing clip-clop sound as we walk on the concrete floor. The bikes, and the boxes theyn were shipped in, are stuffed into a windowless room, maybe 12x15, underneath the grandstand. I had taken my bike out of its box the day before and put the wheels on. Now, all I need to do is turn the handlebars around, put the seat post in and the pedals on, and tighten everything. The whole process takes about three minutes, but I work up a complete sweat while doing it.

I walk my bike out into the hallway and down to the main tunnel, which leads to the infield. I throw my right leg over the top tube, clip into the right pedal, and push off, heading down the incline. A track bike has a fixed gear, not a freewheel, so there's no coasting, of course. Normally, on a road bike, you coast while clipping in your pedals. I can't do that. I have to clip in my left pedal while it's going around, and believe me, it's much harder to hit a moving target. Plus, as I try to clip in, the bike is going downhill, gathering speed, and I can't brake. Once I clip in, I can apply some back pressure to the pedals to control my speed, but the moving-target-left-pedal keeps going around faster and faster and I never do get fully clipped in. I blast out of the mouth of the tunnel like a cannonball, narrowly missing two Cubans and an Ecadorian who are standing there. Once on level ground, I slow down a little, get my left foot in, and pedal across the infield.

The first event of the day is the 200 meter flying start, which is the qualifier for the match sprints. We will have to ride 200 meters all out, with almost a lap and a half to get up to speed. Hence the name "flying start." Our times will be used to determine seeding later in the match sprints, where two riders at a time will compete in a two-lap race. The match sprint is the event where you see two riders going slowly around the track, jockeying for position, sometimes coming to a complete standing stop, until somebody takes off in a mad dash for the finish line.

The flying start qualifier is conducted one rider at a time. You ride around, slowly building speed along the very top of the banked track. With one lap to go, they ring a bell and you really start accelerating. As you come out of the second turn, you are supposed to be just about at top speed, usually out of the saddle, and then you dive down the banking, pedaling as fast as you can. As the track begins to level out, you pass the starting line, and they start timing you.

I've done this event three times in the past, and I'm not very good at it. Sprinting is not my thing. I've had times of 14.6, 14.3 and 13.18, so I'm improving, but I figure to be in the bottom of my group. My figuring is correct. Even though I have my best time ever, 13.01, I'm third out of four guys who have entered the 50-54 sprints. The best time was 12.7 and the second best was 12.9. It seems that, although there are many more competitors in my age group, most of the riders have only entered a couple of events, preferring top save themselves for their specialties. I've entered all five track events. I like to get tired.

The younger guys on our team log some pretty fast times in their sprints. Ryan and Farrell Crane, Adam Smith and Roger Hernandez all get times in the 11-second range. These guys can really sprint, and I look forward to their match sprints, which will take place the next day. I have nothing more to do until the 500 meter time trial in the afternoon, so I just hang out, chatting with other riders and trying to stay hydrated. I get to know Bill Thompson, who is in my age group. He's a transplanted New Yorker who now lives in Texas. He had the fastest sprint in our age group at 12.7. "I hope I don't have to go against you in the match sprints," I tell him.

We take our school bus back to the hotel for lunch. The afternoon events don't start until 3:30 p.m., and the bus isn't leaving until 2:30, so I take a quick nap after lunch on a soft couch in the hotel lobby just outside the restaurant door. I put my feet on the glass coffee table. As I'm drifting off, one of the maids come along and points at my feet. I assume she is telling me that my feet don't belong on their nice coffee table, so I take them off. The maid then disappears for a minute and comes back with a pillow. She makes a motion with her hands indicating that I should like down on the couch and put my head on the pillow. I decline her offer, and sink a little lower into the softness of the couch, feet still on the floor. The maid smiles, and gestures that I should put my feet back on the table. Whatever.

When we arrive at the velodrome at 3:00 o'clock, it is hot, around 90 degrees, and none of the other teams is there. We are told the start time is 4 p.m. The other teams start filtering in, and riders start warming up on the track. I give my tires a gentle squeeze to check the pressure and find that the tire on my rear disc wheel is soft. I pump it up, hoping that maybe it will hold through my 500. I have another wheel, a deep dish Zipp, but I have lent it to Earl Henry who accidentally brought two front wheels. So I track down Earl and tell him I may need my wheel, and that after his 500, he should immediately find me so I can get the wheel if I need it. I know I am going to need it. Leaky tires don't fix themselves.

I have chosen to use clip-on aero bars for the 500 meter time trial. There is apparently some debate over whether aero bars are really beneficial in a time trial so short, but I'm hoping to gain a second with them, which is a lot. Most of the times in my group will be around 40 seconds, give or take a second or two, so one second could be huge.

Unlike the flying start 200, the 500 is a standing start. They hold your bike and count down from five to zero, then you go, staying out of the saddle for at least half a lap to build speed, then holding on for the remaining last lap. I had a pretty good start, not too wobbly, and felt good accelerating out of the saddle through the first two turns. After half a lap, I sat down, but forgot to get on my aero bars. I was in between turns one and two on the bell lap, with three quarters of a lap to go, when I remembered the aero bars. I quickly took my hands from the drops and placed my forearms on the resting pads, lightly gripping the ends of the aero bars. And then a strange thing happened. The left bar rotated downward and my left hand and arm dropped with it. I hadn't tightened the clamp enough. This mishap, at full speed on the 38 degree banking, had the effect of abruptly forcing my bike to the right, up the track.

I swiftly corrected my path, but the damage was done. In these timed events on the track, you have to ride as close to the inside of the track as you can, so you travel the shortest distance between two points. Not only did my little swerve make the track longer, as they say, but when you go up the track, even briefly, you lose a lot of speed. So I felt doomed, and dumb, as I finished up my 500 meter time trial, thinking I had lost two or maybe three seconds.

My friend Big John, not to be confused with Cuban Big John, agrees. "Dude," he said. "It looked like the race was over." I clocked a 42. The winner is Bill Thompson with a 39. Second place was 41 seconds. I was third. Drat, I think. I could have won that race.

The 500 meter time trial is for men over 50 in masters competition, and women. The under 50 men get to do the kilo, 1000 meters, three laps around the track. As we watch the younger guys do their kilos, the skies open up. The riders huddle under the roofs of the little cubicles which line the infield as torrential rains pound the velodrome. It's no wonder Cuba is so green. After a few minutes, lightening flashes, which inspires a few guys to make a break for the mouth of the tunnel with their bikes. You have to wonder what kind of logic says to run across an open infield when the lightening starts. I stay put.

After a while, the sky starts to lighten up, the rain lets up a little, and eventually slows down to a drizzle. Patches of blue sky appear, and we head for the bus. It is well after 6:00 p.m., a long day at the track. I walk my road bike down the aisle of the bus and took a seat, not really tired. I have only ridden about 700 hard meters. Tomorrow will be the test, with match sprints, a 2000 meter pursuit, a points race and a scratch race.

Back at the Tropicoco, I hustle up to the third floor to sign up for a massage with Alejandro. I shower, and head down for dinner. I hadn't really burned a lot of calories, but I'm hungry, and the generous buffet looks pretty good. Cuban food is not markedly ethnic, like Mexican food. There's beef, chicken, fish, pork, potatoes, rice, vegetables, salad and fruit. There's plenty of it, and it's good--perfect food for cyclists, in my view.

After dinner, I retire to the bar to drink a mojito and puff on a cigar while I await my turn on the massage table. Drinks are included in the price of our trip, except the Cuban signature drink, the mojito. You have to pay for these because they are labor intensive. The bartender crushes a bunch of mint leaves in a glass, adds some sugar and a little "agua con gas," sparking water, and mixes it all together. Then he adds the rum, preferable Havana Club aged for three years, a little more sparking water and some ice. Delicious.

Bob Cary October 11, 2004