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Cuba Diary '04

Skylands Cycling
Day 1 Day 2 Day 3 Day 4 Conclusion
Day 3 Tuesday, October 12

When we got back to the hotel last night, the road out front was entirely covered with water from the deluge. For this reason, I am not going to ride to the velodrome this morning, even though, when I get up, the road looks like it has drained. Too late to change plans now. I have a little extra time before the bus leaves, and decide to hit the bar for a café Cubano. The Cubans drink strong, dark, thick, bitter coffee in little cups, a drink identical to straight espresso. It's made on an espresso machine. At the bar in the Tropicoco, you can get it with milk, con leche, and they steam the milk just like a latte at Starbucks.

When I get to the bar, Peter Volpe is sitting there with two small cups in front of him. "Hey man," he says gently, almost rhythmically. He's wearing his USA baseball cap, and his small ponytail is sticking out from the back. Peter is a slight man who won the 60-64 national criterium championship a couple of years ago. I was thoroughly shocked when I found out his age. He looks a lot younger, especially on the bike. "What's up Peter, " I say as I pull up a barstool next to him and say "dos" to the bartender, gesturing toward the espresso machine and holding up two fingers.

At home, I never take sugar with my espresso. But café Cubano is supposed to be sweet, and the Cubans drink it with one and a half to two small spoons of sugar. I put two heaping spoons of sugar in each of my cups. Bill Thompson sidles up to the bar, points to the machine, and simply says "Cubano" to the bartender. I ask him "are you ready, dude?" He rolls his eyes and smiles. "I hope so." He puts a sugar and a half in his coffee, then drinks it like a shot and orders another. I nurse mine because otherwise I'll end up drinking twelve of them. They cost a dollar.

On the bus on the way over to the track, Billy and I conspire. "Look," I say to him, "I'll lead you out for every set of points in the points race." He told me the day before that he usually does pretty well in points races. He picks up on this quickly. "And I'll help you in the scratch race," he says. "I'm not really interested in winning that." But I am, and a deal is struck. It's cool to have a teammate, and we both feel that vibe. When you throw guys together, who have never met before, or trained together, give them the same jersey and call them teammates, it's usually not realistic to expect them to sacrifice their own interests to benefit another guys finish. At the pro level, riders work for the team because they are paid to do so. At the amateur level, especially among masters, there's really only one reason to help a teammate. It's because you're friends. And Bill and I have bonded. This is going to be fun, I think.

At the velodrome, the sun is shining and it is already nice and warm at 8:30 a.m. as we all ride laps to warm up. There are a few puddles in the infield, evidence of last night's downpour. The sun has yet to hit the portion of the track between turns one and two, and not only is it a little damp there, but somebody has reported that a tiny stream of water is running out of a crack. This information is disconcerting. On the 38 degree banking, it wouldn't take much to send you flying. Before long, the sun shines on the entire track, and it is dry and fine.

Some of the guys have to do their kilos which were rained out the night before. As we stand around waiting for the match sprints, Big John and I listen to Ryan and Farrell Crane explain match sprinting 101. We are both new to this, and John unabashedly seeks out people who can teach him things. He sucks up what they say like a steroid driven sponge. John starts the conversation by asking the Crane brothers, "what strategy should I use in my match sprint." Nice question.

They explain that the traditional approach to match sprinting was to try to get behind the opponent, stay on his wheel when he took off, go around him in the final turn. The strategy most popular today is different, and seeks to win the sprint from the front. You start cranking up the pace almost immediately, and keep accelerating until you are going almost at top speed. The high pace will discourage the opponent from attacking and keep him on your hip. Somewhere between turns three and four, the opponent will usually try to start going around you, and to do so, will back off a little bit so he can accelerate into your draft for a few pedal strokes before going around. The trick is, just when the opponent starts to back off to go around, you let go of that little bit you've been holding back, and accelerate to an all out effort. If all goes well, the opponent can't get by before you get to the finish line. "Of course," Farrell says, smiling, "if the guy is a lot faster than you, he's gonna beat you."

That's going to be my problem, trying to figure out a strategy that will beat a guy who is a lot faster than me. Good luck. I read somewhere that all strategy begins with superior strength. I have to sprint against Silvio, a big, strong Cuban from Matanzas. His qualifying time was one tenth better than mine, and over the course of 200 meters, a tenth is a lot. He is no doubt going to crush me. Honestly, I rarely encounter a bike rider who can't out sprint me. It's just not a strong point for me.

I ask Bill Thompson about the strategy the Crane brothers told us. It's the one he uses most of the time, he says. I tell Billy I never out sprinted anyone, and I was considering just taking off from the gitgo and turning the sprint into a two lap pursuit. He encourages this strategy. "He's not as fit as you. He's not going to be able to get around you." I run my proposed strategy by Mike Fraysse. Mike has seen me race a lot on the road, and he knows I'm usually not within 50 meters of the winner in a sprint finish "OK," Mike says, hardly pausing. "What you do, when you start, just ride up to the rail and attack down the bank. Make him catch you." Done deal.

And so it comes to pass. I draw the higher starting position in the coin flip, and ride a straight line from the start up to the rail. Looking to my left, I see Silvio down in the sprinters lane, non-chalantly looking up at me. It may be my imagination, but he almost seems to be smiling. I'm no expert in track racing, but I know that this is where I want to be. I start accelerating. Silvio starts accelerating. Pretty soon, we are both riding all out. Only thing is, I'm going downhill and he's not. When I get into turn three, I look around and see Silvio in the middle of the back stretch. I think, but don't really know, that this must be a pretty good gap with a lap and a half to go.

I keep riding, as hard as I can, not holding anything in reserve. I don't look back, I just ride. There's a lot of noise, but I can't hear a word anyone is saying. Later, I'm told that my teammates were yelling "he's on your wheel." I find this out just after I go through turn three of the last lap. My gaze drifts to my right, and I'm startled to see Silvio has not only caught up, he is beginning to come around. He's out in the wind, not in my draft. So we are equal in that respect. He's been sucking my wheel, but he had to close a gap. OK, I think to myself in an uncharacteristic flash of clarity, this is going to be a drag race. Let's see what happens.

Even though I've been going pretty much all out, I know I need to jack it up just a little more to hold this guy off. There's no shifting to a bigger gear here, you just gotta move your feet faster than the other guy, and I concentrate on my spin. Remarkably, my bike seems to pick up a little speed. We are blasting down the home stretch. The finish line is not far away. Silvio is almost along side me now, but a weird thing has happened. He's not gaining on me anymore. In fact, he seems to be slipping back a little, when abruptly, his bike starts moving to his left, towards me, into my space. Just before his shoulder slams into mine, I let up a little, guide my bike to the left, off the track and onto the blue apron. I'm not giving my life for a match sprint. Silvio pips me at the line, and I cruise by on the apron, sitting up, with one hand on the bars, the other palm facing skyward in the universal "what's up with that" symbol.

My initial reaction is that it seems a little unfair for this guy to beat me by coming over into my lane, but it was exciting and a lot of fun. Circling in the infield, I extend my hand to Silvio, who takes it and tells me in Spanish that he did not intentionally try to body slam me. "Entiendo," I reply. I understand. They disqualify Silvio, and I move on to the next round. Mike says my opponent was so tired that he couldn't control his bike. I chuckle at the thought of this. It's always good to make the other guy tired. And if he's more tired than you, you might win. Now there's a strategy.

So now I'm in the improbably position of being guaranteed at least a silver medal in the match sprints, but I have to face my teammate Bill Thompson in the finals. Billy has been to the nationals and to the worlds, in Manchester, England. He is a fast and experienced sprinter. Like I have a chance against this guy, who beat me by more than three tenths in the qualifying round. "Do me a favor, don't humiliate me out there," I tell Billy as we sit on a bench in the shade near the officials desk by the start/finish line. "Absolutely not," he says sincerely. "I'll even tell you my strategy."

He plans to ride the race at the front, in the middle of the track, above the sprinters lane. He'll start out pretty fast and gradually build speed. Just before the final turn, he'll kick it into overdrive and scream for the line. "I don't think you'll be able to get around me," he says forthrightly. Quite right, I think to myself.

"Well," I say. "If you do that, here's what I'll do." I tell him I will go up to the rail and attack him from behind, hoping to open a gap that I can hold to the finish. "That's what I'd do," Billy says. So now we know each other's plans. Pretty sporting, if you ask me. But I am still in for a clobbering.

Thompson takes the lead from the start. Like he said, he's riding in the middle of the track, looking around or under his arm frequently to check my position. I just hang to the rear and above him. I like the high ground. In between turns three and four of the first lap, I start to drift a little higher, toward the rail. My opponent sees this and reacts by veering sharply to his right, up the track, directly into my path. In other words, he cuts me off and forces me up to the rail. The crowd lets out an "ooooooh!"

This seems like a no brainer to me. I ease up a little to get clear of Billy's back wheels, and as soon as he turns his head around, I dive down the bank, pedaling as fast as I can. As I pass the start/finish line, the bell is ringing and the crowd is cheering. One lap to go. I don't know where Billy is, and don't care. I'm not about to look back now; I just pedal as hard and as fast as I can. I'm in a strange state of equilibrium. My legs don't hurt, and I don't feel out of breath, although I am, of course, totally out-riding the ability of my lungs to take in oxygen. The only things I am aware of are the warm Cuban sun, my spinning feet, and this black line on the track I have to follow for another 333 meters.

Somewhere between turns three and four, Billy Thompson blows by me like I'm a mule pulling a cart full of sugar cane. I'm happy for him. He deserves to win, and he certainly doesn't deserve to get beat by a melon ball like me. By the time we get to the line, he's opened up a three bike-length lead. Good sprinters have that kind of explosiveness. "You scared me out there," Billy later tells me. Yeah, right, I think. "Good job," I say.

The match sprints are a blast, and I bask in the post adrenalin glow for a while. After a time I realize that the pursuit is next, and I need to attach my clip-on aero bars. Clip-on is something on a misnomer-there are at least 8 Allen bolts that have to be fiddled with to get these confangled things on your handlebars. I'm about halfway through putting the first one on when I hear my name called. Yikes, it's my turn. I don't know what to do. Should I finish putting them on, take off the one I've started to attach, or just go out there and ride with one aero bar? I struggle with this issue for what seems like a long time, before I finally decide that the quickest thing to do is take off the one aero bar I've started to clip on.

Billy Thompson is yelling to one of our team members who is half way across the infield "tell Mike he has a mechanical." I toss the aero bar, the little spacers and a few of Allen bolts on a bench and head out of the cubicle. Billy takes my bike and runs it over to the start/finish line. I follow. When I get there, I realize I am on the wrong side. In the pursuit, two riders race at a time. They start on either side of the track and, at least theoretically, try to catch each other. I'm supposed to start on the backstretch, so I get on my bike to pedal over there. I'm in such a frenzy I hardly notice that the Cuban officials don't seem bothered by this. I don't think they mind waiting a couple of minutes for someone to start his pursuit.

I ride to the backstretch, counterclockwise, and just after I pass the pursuit line, make a U-turn and slow to a stop. The holder kind of catches me and then picks up the back of my bike a little so I can adjust my pedals for the start. When we are done, he asks if I'm ready and I say "si." Another guy raises a green flag and the countdown begins. I am exhaling in an exaggerated manner, kind of like LeMaz childbirth. When they hit cinco, I rise from the saddle. Quatro, tres, dos, uno and I'm off. The first few pedal strokes after a standing start are really difficult. It seems as though the pedals just won't turn. Mike Fraysse has taught us to thrust our pelvis forward toward the handlebars in these first few strokes-humping the stem, he calls it-in order to efficiently generate the most power possible. So I'm humping away, pulling on the bars, arms straight, elbows locked. I've forgotten that I don't have aero bars, forgotten that my disc wheel has a flat tire, forgotten that I didn't bring my time trial helmet, and forgotten that I forgot my shoe covers. I'm totally non-aero, but I could care less. This is just too much fun, and I focus completely on the black line that encircles the very inside of the track.

I accelerate up to a speed I think I can hold for six laps. That's all it is, six laps. 2000 meters. Two kilometers. Nice and short. I feel like I'm gliding through space, weightless and far removed from any reality other than the nanosecond of each pedal stroke. There has been a good headwind blowing down the backstretch all day, but I can't feel it. Every breath is like I'm blowing out candles on a birthday cake. My thighs feel like they are in another country and my toes feel like hummingbird wings. As the laps peel away, I get more and more lost in this pursuit, until, with a little more than one and a half laps to go, I come out of turn four, and who should I see, squarely in front of me, but my nemesis from the match sprint, the Cuban, Silvio. I plunge back to earth. This hombre must be fried, I think, for me to have picked up so much time on him.

When it's over, I cruise around the infield, trying to catch my breath. They have a nice circular sidewalk on one side of the infield at this velodrome, with mown grass in the middle. My chest hurts a little, probably from blowing out umpteen million birthday candles. As I'm just about done cooling down, Mike calls me over. He's standing on the edge of the concrete platform that abuts the start/finish area where the officials congregate. "One guy had a better time than you," he says, "but he's not in your age group. You won." Holy cow, I think, the good guys must really have stayed home today. But I'll take it.

In the afternoon, we have the points race. It's 30 laps. Every six laps, the first four guys across the line get points: five for first, three for second, two for third and one for fourth. At the end, the guy with the most points wins. So there are five sprints. I usually get killed in these points races, being the un-sprinter, so I've pledged to help Billy if I can. All of the age groups from 50 up, plus the women, have been thrown together for this race, and it will be up to the officials to figure out how the points stack up in each age group at the end.

The group stays together for the first six laps. I make a valiant effort to nail some points on the first sprint, but finish fifth, pipped at the line for the last point by a sixty-five year old guy with a respiratory ailment, I find out later. As we float through turn one after the sprint, Raul Vasquez attacks down low. Raul is in the 55-59 age group, a former Cuban national team member. His nickname is "The Locomotive." Because he is in a different age group, there is no reason for me to chase him, although I wouldn't mind being on his wheel as he pedals away from the pack. The fact is, I'm too darn tired to chase him, which is just as well, since I've pledged to help Bill Thompson in this race. A guy in yellow takes off after Vasquez. I'm not sure what group he's in.

Several laps later, Billy attacks just before the start/finish line. I move to the front of the pack. We come out of turn two, into the headwind, and Billy is only a few bike lengths off the front. The wind is beating him up a little, no doubt. I go as slow as I think I can get away with, and he gradually starts to open the gap. The faster he goes, the faster I go, but I always try to make sure he is riding faster than me, building a lead. Pretty soon, we can't see him anymore.

I've been at the front for four laps now, and no one has tried to go around me to chase or bridge up to Billy, Raul and the guy in yellow. I pass Mike Fraysse standing along side the track in turn four and he yells "get off the front. Let somebody else do the work." I find this gratifying, because good blocking is supposed to look like you're chasing. I don't want Mike to think I don't listen to his advice, however, so I peel up the track and slow down. When we come around again, I am pretty high up on the track, above the field. Mike is screaming "dive! Dive now!" So I dive. Billy is safely in the break with two other guys, and I might as well try to get off the front and scoop up some points.

I spend the last twelve laps or so riding around by myself. Unbeknownst to me, as they say, a strange thing has happened, a quirk of points racing. The three guys off the front lap the field. That is, they catch up with the rest of the guys they earlier left behind. For doing this, they each get a bonus of twenty points. However, for the purpose of subsequent points, they are now considered part of the field and the leader is-you guessed it-yours truly. So while I'm cruising around, thinking I'm picking up the fourth place point on each points lap, I'm actually getting 5 points at a time. Who'd have thunk it? I end up fourth overall, and third in my age group, behind Bill Thompson and the guy in yellow.

"Go ride around until the scratch race starts," Mike yells at me. "It's the only way you're going to recover." He's probably thinking I'm finished after spending so much time off the front, and he's probably right, I figure, as I slowly navigate the concrete ring. Billy rides up along side me. "I really owe you, man. Thanks a lot," he says. I tell him I'm glad it worked out. He won the overall race, not just our age group, beating "The Locomotive" head-to-head. So far, our plan is working.

More than twenty-five riders line up along the rail for the 10 lap scratch race. A scratch race is just a regular race-no points, no times, just everybody racing for the finish line. Again, it's all age groups from 50 on up, plus the women. They are going to put an X with a magic marker on the numbers of all the guys in our group, Mike tells me when I complain that we don't know who our competitors are. That's the trouble with these mixed age group masters races: you sometimes don't know who the competition is.

The race starts with a neutral lap. I briefly contemplate attacking from the start, but they don't blow the whistle until we are almost at the start/finish line, and the banking there isn't steep enough to get a proper launching. I keep to the outside, rolling comfortably along above and slightly behind the riders at the front. At the end of the second lap, coming out of turn four, I accelerate briefly and get a few bike lengths off the front. I figure if they are going to give me this high position, I might as well give them a little gap to close. The pack promptly reels me in. After two more laps, I again attack out of turn four, this time with conviction, and ride hard for a lap without looking back. Like in the pursuit, I feel kind of detached from everything, like I'm operating a remote control bike rider. Crossing the start/finish line with five to go, I look back. I'm not very far ahead. The pack is chasing hard. Out of turn two, I look again, and they are really closing now.

So I float down the backstretch. Floating is when you back off on your pedaling effort just enough so that you are resting, yet still going pretty fast. As I head into turn three, I peel up toward the rail. The pack comes by on my left, led by none other than Bill Thompson. They are all below the blue stayers line. As often happens, the pack has let up after catching me, and my vigilant teammate has jumped on the front. Perfect. I'm up on the rail. The pack is low and slow, no doubt a little tired from chasing while I was floating. And my teammate is at the front. I get out of the saddle and gleefully sprint down the bank. As I pass Billy, he turns his head and yells "you better freakin' stay out there this time." No problem, I think. Hasta la vista, baby.

I stay away. Billy stays at the front and mucks up the chase. Just before the bell lap, Mike yells "you have to jump now, or they're going to catch you." He's kidding, right, I think. But I dutifully try to pedal a little faster, and the bike actually seems to respond. When I get over to the backstretch, I look around, and it seems, although I'm not sure because my eyes aren't very good, that I'm going to make it. As I glide through the start/finish area, still ahead, I hear some cheering from the bleachers, but most of all I hear my friend Big John bellowing like a wounded moose "yeeaaaaahh, baby."

Bob Cary October 12, 2004