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Cuba Diary '04

Skylands Cycling
Day 1 Day 2 Day 3 Day 4 Conclusion
Day 4 Wednesday, October 13

Last night, after the races ended, we had an awards ceremony at the velodrome. They gave out medals to the top three finishers in each event and a jersey to each winner. They played the different national anthems over a cheesy PA system as we stood on the podium. I've never been on a podium before. We don't really have them in New Jersey bike racing, and if we did, it would be a rare day you'd find me up there. But I got to climb up and down a few times--not an easy task in cleated bike shoes--collect five medals, and a neat jersey that said UCI Pan American Champion on it. Before we left, I ripped the tire off my rear track wheel so I could glue it on my disc for the time trial. I put the jersey on, hung the medals around my neck, and, tire and disc in hand, climbed aboard the bus for the ride back to the hotel. It was dark, after 7:00 p.m., by the time we got back.

Today is the individual time trial, 15 kilometers for my group, on a slightly rolling out-and-back course. Several of us are riding out to the start, which we figure to be about 16 miles from the hotel. The first riders are off at 9:00 a.m., so we leave the hotel at 7:15 a.m. sharp. I've sent my time trial wheels on the bus, and attached my clip-on aero bars that morning in my hotel room. Some of the guys have brought time trial helmets, but I figured mine was too bulky to pack, so I left it home. I have a pair of silver shoe covers in my back pockets.

Although the sun is just coming up as we leave, you can tell it is going to be a hot day. I work up a little sweat riding up the hill to the main highway. I'm riding with Earl Peretti, who has not been feeling well since we arrived. Earl and I race together most weekends back home in the 45+ category. He is a contender in every race, and wins his share. As a domestique on our 45+ team, I often have the assignment of watching Earl, making sure he doesn't get away. I spend a lot of time chasing him because he is a relentless attacker. It's good training.

We follow the main coastal highway west toward Havana, as if we are going to the velodrome, but after about eight miles, we take another highway to the south, away from the coast. The character of the countryside changes a little as we pedal inland. There are more small houses tucked into the vegetation, some of them quite run down, more farm animals wandering around, and fewer people than we see on the coastal highway. We pass a group of men cutting the long grass on the side of the road with machetes. It looks like hot work, even early in the morning, but they are all wearing long pants, and some are wearing long sleeved shirts. It looks like they don't have anything to drink. There are no igloo coolers like you'll find on any jobsite in the US on a hot day.

I get down on my aero bars and put in a few hard efforts of one or two minutes as part of my warm-up for the ITT. I am hoping to have an early start time so I can get to the start, put on my wheels and go, without a lot of waiting around. Last night, I managed to get a massage at 9:00 p.m. Alejandro was completely booked by the time we got back from the velodrome, but one of the riders who had booked an hour was kind enough to give me half. I feel fairly well recovered from yesterday, and, bolstered by my successes at the velodrome, have visions of climbing up on the podium once more following the time trial.

After several miles, we come to our turn. Earl and another guy have ridden ahead and missed the turn. I contemplate trying to catch them to let them know, but decide against it. They'll figure it out, we conclude.

The start is in a completely open area, unshaded by trees. There are many riders milling around, maybe a hundred and fifty or more. The course is on a big, wide highway, which, although it has no lane markings, could easily have held six lanes. It seems to be a slight down grade from the start, but in the distance, you can see the road begin to rise, and continue to rise for some time. So it is rolling, but the rollers are long and gradual, not the short steep rollers we have back home in northwest New Jersey. I try to gauge the wind direction, and as best I can tell, it is blowing out, so the head wind will be after the turn around. Not that it makes a difference. I usually just ignore the wind, especially a headwind.

The start order is from oldest to youngest, so I'm scheduled to go off around 9:20. I take off my training wheels and replace them with a rear disc and front carbon Zipp, both with tubulars pumped up to around 180. These are the Tufo 135 gram tires, and you don't want to be warming up on these babies. After putting on the wheels, I'm so paranoid about flatting that I carry my bike over to the starting area and get in line.

I put my bike in the 52x16 for the start without really thinking about it. This combination is just a little lower than the gearing I've been using on the track, so I'm pretty sure it will be comfortable to start in. I guess comfortable is a poor word to use in this context. What I mean is, as any time trialist knows, that in this gearing, the pain, while excruciating, should be tolerable.

Following the start, I get up to a good speed, about 29 miles per hour, because the first half-mile is slightly down hill, and there is a little tailwind. I think about using a bigger gear, but I stay in the 52x16. At that speed, my cadence is over 110, a good place to be, in my opinion. Traditionally, time trialists have aimed for a cadence of between 88 and 93 rpms. Lance, however, spins at around 105 in a flat time trial. So I'm a little above that, but it feels good. My heart rate is in the mid 140s, about 20 beats lower than where I'll eventually end up, but you don't want to drive your heart rate up too fast in a time trial. Better to start out gradually and avoid any lactic acid buildup in the adrenalin-charged beginning that could come back to haunt you later.

The slight downgrade ends and the road begins to tilt slightly upward. My speed slows, 25 mph, 24 mph. While the upgrade is gentle, it seems to last forever. My cadence drops to the low nineties, and my heart rate breaks the 150 barrier. The individual time trial requires persistence, and over the years, I've found that I tend to do better is sports that require more persistence than skill. I just keep turning the pedals, knowing that eventually, the road will level out again.

The time trial course is on a big wide road. Like the other roads, there are no lane markings, but this thing is wide. You have to wonder what they were thinking when they built a road this wide. There are so few cars. The pavement, like all the pavement we've seen in Cuba, is funky. Some places it's rough. Some places it's rougher. It's hardly ever smooth, but in a time trial, you have to keep your eye out for the path of least roughness. You can ride any place on the road you want. The few cars that pass are going slow, not a whole lot faster that the cyclists.

Eventually, the road flattens out and I crank it up to 26, then 27 miles per hour. My heart rate nudges up to the mid 150s. It's hard work, but I feel like I can hold on. Some people say that in a time trial, if you don't feel like you are about to crack, you're not trying hard enough. I am not sure about this logic. When I feel like I'm about to crack, I usually crack. So I try to avoid that feeling.

I'm pleasantly surprised to see the turn around up ahead. The time seems to be passing quickly, a good sign. There are a couple of vehicles, a few people standing around, and a lot of orange. On such a wide road, you could really hold your speed through a one-eighty turn, but they have these cones all over the place, which I assume are intended to designate the path I'm supposed to follow. For the life of me, I can't figure out what that path is, so I slow down, try to keep some cones on my left, some cones to my right and hope for the best. From what I've seen of the Cuban officials, I doubt they would disqualify you for going around the wrong cone in a time trial. They are way to tranquilo for that.

On the way back, it's a little more downhill, but the wind is in your face. I'm able to keep my speed in the 26 to 27 mph range, staying in the 52x16. I haven't shifted yet, and I have no plans to. My heart rate climbs to 160 shortly after the turnaround. I could probably ride at least a few beats higher if I hadn't been buzzing around the velodrome all day yesterday. In the distance, I see a rider in yellow. As I get closer, I realize it's the guy who was in the breakaway in the points race at the track, a Colombian. He must be a little tired today, because I've caught him about halfway between the turn around and the finish. When I pass, he jumps on my wheel and stays there. I half-heartedly yell at him a little, telling him to get off my wheel, and make motions with my hand, as if I'm trying to swat him away like a fly.

I crest a little hill and see, way up in the distance, something yellow, like the color of a schoolbus, and know I'm looking at the finish line. I also know that it is more than a mile away, but I try to turn everything up a notch, put in a strong finish. I remember from the start that there would be a downhill, then an uphill to the finish, but I just keep cranking my 52x16 around and for me, there is no wind, no grade, no nothing. The schoolbus does not appear to be getting any closer, but, in endurance sports, you have to get that kind of stuff out of your mind. I've managed to put myself in some kind of trance, like I have no idea where I am or who I am or even what I'm doing, other than pedaling a bicycle just about as hard as I can.

My heart rate hits 162, then 165, then 169. That's a lot for me, but as I look at the numbers displayed on my handlebars, they are meaningless. It might as well be the price of a gallon of gas I'm looking at. Everything I am, everything I know, is focused on a tiny pinpoint of life. Just ride the bike; it's the final burst. As I cross the finish line, they wave a checkered flag, and I get this overpowering sensation that I am about to fall over and die, right here on a wide, hot, sunny Cuban highway. I fumble clumsily with my bar-end shifters to get the bike in its lowest gearing and pedal easily up the road for a half-mile or so. My breathing gradually starts returning to normal. The feeling starts returning to my legs and I stop seeing stars. My chest hurts and I cough several times. A biker rider I don't know pats me on the back as he passes by. I feel satisfied that I tried my hardest in the time trial.

The winner is Cuban Eduardo Del Campo, a tall, rail thin physician and triathlete, who broke twenty-one minutes. I'm second, in twenty-one something. They announce the seconds in Spanish over the crackling loudspeaker, but it's incomprehensible to me. They kindly give out the medals within a few minutes, so we don't have to stand around in the hot sun all morning. Eduardo and I hug on the podium. The Cubans and the Americans tend to make a big deal out of our friendship, and Eduardo and I are no exception. We chat about the time trial. He was at the track yesterday, watching, and I ask him why he doesn't race the track. No bicicleta, he says. I wonder whether his English is worse than my Spanish. It's a close call. Eduardo is very happy with his gold medal; he's beaming. I'm pretty happy, too. The time trial is, after all, the race of truth.

They call the individual time trial the race of truth because it measures your individual strength as a cyclist, without the benefit of drafting, team tactics, positioning, luck, and all the other things that go into determining the outcome of a mass start race. It's the true measure of who is the strongest cyclist, right? I'm not so sure. The time trial has become a measure of aerodynamics as much as anything else-who has the most aerodynamic frame, the most streamlined helmet, the best position on the bike and so forth. At the pro level, where all of the top riders have the best, most up to date, scientifically tested equipment, and have had their positions set up and tweaked out in the wind tunnel, the ITT may deserve to be called the race of truth. But in most of the amateur ranks, you have a wide variety of equipment and positions that affect the outcome. Here in Cuba, there are plenty of riders in the time trial riding their road bikes with no discs, no aero bars, no shoe covers, not even a skinsuit. So I'm happy with a silver medal, but there's no denying that I probably would have finished a little lower if I wasn't willing to pay an extra hundred bucks to ship my time trial wheels down here.

I have four bottles of water in the bus, and a big bottle of juice that I snagged at breakfast. I fill my water bottles for the ride home and drink the rest. I brought some Protein Plus Power Bars from home for occasions like this, but I ate them all in my hotel room in Miami on the first night. No problem, we'll be back at the hotel in plenty of time for lunch.

Several of the Americans leave for the hotel together together: me, Mark, Eric Perkins, Jane from New York, and a couple of the speedy guys from North Carolina, Pat Raines and Ronnie Hinson. There's also a steady stream of Cuban racers headed back in the general direction of Havana. We ride at an easy pace. I am tired. That time trial was an all out effort for me, as a time trial should be. The Cubans like to help the women and old men by pushing them up the hills. A guy name Jorge, wearing a Cuban national team outfit, gives me a push on a small hill. I brush his hand away from my back. Go push someone else, I say, gesturing with my thumb toward the rear. Jorge smiles, showing a gold tooth, and disappears.

It's a little past noon when we get back to the hotel. I head directly for the bar, not for anything alcoholic yet, but for the cold and delicious juice they serve there. I am not sure what fruit it is made of, and it's unclear to me whether this juice is made from a powder, a concentrate or squeezed directly from the fruit, but they have a big tank of it on the bar, and it's great. There's a lot of debate among endurance athletes about what is the best re-hydrating drink, which one has the most carbohydrate, or the best balance of carbohydrate and protein, and so forth. To me, it's simple. The best re-hydrating drinks are the ones that taste really good because you'll drink a lot of those. If you don't like it, you are probably not going to drink enough on these hot and humid days.

I order two glasses of juice at a time. After the first pair, I order four more pairs and drink them in rapid succession. That's ten altogether. At 10 ounces per glass, it's 100 ounces of rehydration, a little more than three quarts. That ought to do it for now. I wheel my bike into the elevator and head up to the fifth floor to my room.

I really had no idea what to expect from a Cuban hotel. The island has been so isolated from our country for so long, it's easy for your imagination to go wild. I envisioned chickens pecking around in the hotel lobby, men wearing bandoliers loitering about, primitive accommodations, maybe a gunfight now and then. In reality, the hotel was downright nice. I've stayed in a lot worse in the U.S.

The corridors upstairs are all open, with three feet high concrete walls, above which is nothing but air. My room is long and narrow and contains two beds, a night table, a desk and a chair. The bathroom looks like marble, although I doubt it is. There's a small TV mounted high on the wall. At the end of the room is a huge window looking directly out to the beautiful turquoise ocean. Although there is an air conditioner, I don't turn it on, but open the big window. There's a steady breeze blowing in off the ocean, and it feels fine.

After a cold shower, I dress and head downstairs. Two days ago, I ordered a box of cigars from a guy who works in the kitchen, Hoyo de Monterrey Double Coronas, and today is the day they are supposed to arrive. When I get downstairs, I go around to the back door to the kitchen and stick my head in. I catch the eye of Miguel, my connection, and he smiles, nods, and gives me a thumbs up sign. The Hoyos are here. He motions with his hand in the direction of the bar, and I go there. He follows me into the bar about thirty seconds later and puts a plastic bag on the floor beside the table in the corner where I have taken a seat. I peek inside at the closed box. "Gracias," I say. Looks like the real thing to me.

"Cuantos?" I ask. We hadn't yet discussed price. "Ochenta," Miguel says. Eighty bucks. There is a thriving black market for cigars in Cuba. This is a box of cigars that is worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $400, but believe it or not, eighty bucks is a little high on the black market. "Es mucho," I comment, raising my eyebrows. Miguel knows that I know what these cigars are worth, usually around fifty dollars, sometimes a little less. "Setente," he says, without conviction. Seventy. I offer him forty, and he immediately says sixty. I give in and press three folded twenties into his palm. I don't really feel inclined to haggle with this guy over ten bucks. I want to fire one of these babies up, get some beer, and continue the re-hydration process.

I take the box of cigars up to my room and open it. They are beautiful dark, aromatic cigars, 7 1/2 inches long and about an inch across. They don't get much bigger than this. Inside the box, a couple of thin sheets of cedar protect and separate the cigars, and you can smell the mixture of tobacco and cedar from three feet away. I didn't want to open the box downstairs because it would have made Miguel a little nervous, I'm sure. And it would have been rude, like I didn't trust him. I put two of the cigars in my pocket and head downstairs.

There are two bars at the Tropicoco. There is the free bar, where hotel guests drink for free because the price of their stay includes all the drinks you can drink. The free bar is actually in the lobby, just outside the door to the restaurant. You can see the front desk and the front entrance from the free bar, and vice versa. Then there is the other bar, where you have to pay for your drinks. The pay bar is tucked away in a corner of the first floor. To get there, you have to go past the elevators, through a small corridor, and past some palm trees. The pay bar has better furniture, better ambience, and the drinks are better than the ones they give away for free. The pay bar is where you have to go to get a mojito or a Café Cubano.

Since it's before lunch, I opt for the free bar to sit down with a cold Cristal and a Hoyo de Monterrey. I'm in the process of trying to light this huge cigar with an ordinary match when Mark strolls up. "Hey," he says, his eyes widening at the sight of my Hoyo, "Whatcha got there?" "Hoyo double," I tell him. "Want one?" Mark gets a beer and I give him a cigar.

It turns out that our cigars don't draw well. One of the problems with these black market cigars is that they can be a little green. That is, they need aging. Normally, Cuban cigars are aged for a while after they are made. These cigars, I suspect, were plucked from the system before they had a chance to go through the aging process and are therefore a little tight. They need some drying, it seems to me. So we chuck the Hoyos and light up a couple of Siglo VI Cohibas that Mark has on him. Good enough.

One of the good things about the free bar, as well as one of the bad things, is that everyone who comes through the lobby can see you. So you get to chat with just about every cyclist who comes through, find out how they did. You get some head-shaking, too, at the sight of bike racers drinking beer and smoking big cigars before lunch. After four or five glasses of beer-plastic cups, actually-- we go in for lunch.

I had some vague plans of taking a taxi to Havana and doing some sightseeing, but I opt for a nap after lunch. At 4:00 p.m., I go to the third floor for a massage. Alejandro, who is on loan from the Cuban national team, has lots of experience massaging cyclists, and when you are hoping to ride hard for five straight days, his treatment is essential to a proper recovery. And it's five bucks for a half hour. After the massage, it's a recovery ride, nice and easy on totally flat ground, to help complete the day-to-day healing process.

I look around the lobby to see if there's anyone who might want to join me for a thirty to forty minute spin, but find nobody, so I head out by myself. A couple of days ago, I overheard someone issuing a vague warning about Americans riding their bikes alone in Cuba, but I'm not the least bit concerned about my personal safety. The crime rate in Cuba is probably lower than in Sussex County.

I head east on the road that runs along the oceanfront, toward the town of Guanabo, spinning softly in the 39x23. At first, there are a few little cafes, and a couple of hotels, but after a mile or so, there's nothing. I can't see the ocean because of the jungle-like vegetation growing on the roadside-palm trees, bushes with huge leaves, tall grass-but there is sand on both sides of the road. In places, the sand has drifted over the road, and I have to carefully guide my bike through it. After a couple of miles, I cross a wide swath of sand on the road and come to a little bridge over a small, clear creek flowing through sand. To my left are beach, bright blue ocean and tall, skinny palm trees.

The decking of the narrow arching bridge is made of loose metal plates. I decide the best way to cross is to accelerate and gain some momentum, so I zoom across, with metal plates rattling and clanking beneath me. On the other side is a patch of sand, so I move back on the saddle a little, relax and let the bike glide through. Across the bridge, there are a few people walking along the road, and an occasional house appears. Before long, I reach a small rotary, with a road intersecting from the right, coming in off the main highway. A few more pedal strokes and I'm in Guanabo.

Like so many things I've seen in Cuba so far, Guanabo could use a coat of paint. I ride along the main street past old buildings that seem like they have received no maintenance since the revolution in 1959. There are stores on this main drag, but it's hard to tell what they are selling. Some of them have no signs. There are plenty of people on the street. This is a beach town, and teenagers and young adults in bathing suits mingle with the older Cubans, some slowly walking along, others just standing in small groups. A brown dog, long and low to the ground like a Dachsund, stands in the edge of the street, his body motionless, but his head turning back and forth to watch the passing traffic. There are cars, motorcycles, bicycles and a few horse-and-buggy rigs. I ride up behind a horse-and-buggy and carefully grab hold of the side, to catch a tow. The driver feels my presence, turns around and wags a finger at me. I let go and pass him.

For a town sitting on a spectacular beach, Guanabo is amazingly noncommercial, at least by our standards. No pizzerias, no neon, no real estate offices, no touristy shops. It is undeniably shabby, but it is also eerily beautiful in its own way. I feel a little out-of-place, a cyclist in brightly colored lycra on a four thousand dollar carbon fiber bike, but most of the people don't even notice me. Occasionally, I get a look, catch someone's eye, and I smile and wave, say "hola," or the truncated "buena." The Cubans never fail to smile in return.

Later that night, Big John and I sit in the hotel lobby, smoking cigars and drinking beer. We have retreated from the bar because the chairs here are plush, but it is hot, humid and sticky. We sweat a little as we drink and smoke. Pepe, a Cuban of about thirty years who is an official in the Cuban cycling federation, joins us with a plastic cup two thirds filled with dark rum. "You vote Bush?" He asks. He is not the first Cuban I have encountered who has brought up the impending election. There seems to be an interest here in our presidential politics. John and I share our differing views on the subject with Pepe, although he doesn't speak much English, and we don't speak much Spanish.

After a while, John asks Pepe if he voted for Castro. Pepe straightens up, leans forward and firmly, almost angrily, tells John in English to shut up. "You know," I observe, "they don't have free speech here." We change the subject to tomorrow's bike race. It's the road race, eighty kilometers for John's age group, sixty for mine. After a lengthy discussion about how many water bottles we'll need, we both head off to bed, leaving Pepe with his rum.

Bob Cary October 13, 2004