Cuba, March 7, 2007
Tour of Cuba...."Why not?"
"Why not?" That's what I said when I got the call from Kevin Cunningham. Kevin is the head of the Symmetrics Road Cycling Team which I have joined up with for 2007 for a little part time work. Thirteen days, 14 stages, 1850km+ of bike practice down in the sun, and a unique chance to get to see Cuba while under Castro: Little did I know what was in store for me at my first banana tour experience. It was definitely like going to another world and it was my biggest break from the internet since the internet; my only communications were a few three minute calls to my wife Keri.
I think I am pretty much ready for any trip this year after just surviving the journey to the start of Tour; three full days' travel capped off by a 15 hour day and 4:30am start just to get from one end of the island to the other. This included a flight on one very old, aging Russian prop plane, which had everyone just a little nervous and maybe praying a bit. We figured this was just part of the Cuban's shock and awe plan to mess up and disorient the gringos.
Now give credit to the Cubans; they know how to stack the cards in their favor. First they enter about ten provincial teams, then a Cuba A squad and a Cuba B squad. And as we soon figured out, these seventy or so riders are all riding for one man - Pedro Pablo or "El Diablo". What was most impressive was the bikes a lot of these provincial guys were rolling on; some of them were thrift store style, down tube shifters, hoopty wheels, plastic BMX saddles... one guy was even rolling with half his helmet missing. We got to know these guys well as they fought for their lives all week hacking and slashing their way to the front; it was a bit of a war.
So I can't really give a play by play of fourteen stages but I can kind of split the race into three parts. First there were stages that were hard because the profile was difficult. Stage one was hot as balls and hit out hard with a couple mountains after about 20km; a nice way to gently roll into the tour. Stage eight was another doozy though and maybe a bit of a disgrace at times. Very steep, very hard hills....that was unless you were Cuban.
Normally you get a bit of a charity push if you are getting dropped or near the back; however in Cuba these guys had locals launching them off the front into the KOM jersey, and the yellow jersey, "El Diablo", had people running into the middle of the pack to launch him up, up, and away. To put it lightly I started getting a little pissed about this, so whenever I saw a guy beside me getting launched I just hooked on to his jersey for a little ride. Oooh boy, they didn't like that too much so they started swinging at me; and then to top it off guys would come up to fake a push and then steal a water bottle off my bike and hand it to a Cuban. Real classy.
Secondly there were stages that were difficult and I suffered because I was sick. It is really amazing what the body can endure; I was in a bit of a body bag after stage five with a fever/cold and thought it might be all over. Somehow I continued to race and improve as the race went on; it really kind of blows the mind.
Thirdly, there were stages that were immensely painful because we were at the front flogging ourselves trying to protect Svein's chances for the overall. Day four was one that was clutch; a break had gotten away with "El Diablo" and our man Pinner who eventually got second on the stage. The break went up to 3:30 or so and probably much to the surprise of many, we got on the front and throttled ourselves over the last 45km to get the gap down close to a minute.
This chase revealed itself to be critical when Svein rode an absolutely incredible TT to snag the lead from "El Diablo" by 33 seconds on Stage 11A; which was a really ridiculous day. It was 30K TT in the morning followed by 150km stage in the afternoon which was absolutely full throttle. Then, just to top it off, was a nice long bus ride to the hotel. We did manage to hold on to the yellow jersey over the last couple of very difficult days for what was a huge victory for Svein and Symmetrics. Everyone on the team and the staff did a great to hold things together under trying conditions at times.
My impressions of Cuba were that you could really see how beautiful the country would be with a good coat of paint; especially Habana. Cuba is much more relaxed than other Latin countries I have seen; and cleaner. They are pretty restricted with their resources, and you can tell they make the most of everything. They don't have access to a lot of food and the rate of obesity is probably the lowest I have ever seen. The traffic is pretty minimal and moves fairly slow; probably because of an interesting law where you have to pick up people on the side of the road if you are driving a car. Imagine if it was the same everywhere and each car, pedal carriage, or horse carriage in the world was full of people; goodbye global warming.
Anyway, I am still in a bit of a cocoon trying to get healthy because I only have less than a week before I head off for Argentina and the Pan Am MTB Championships. Time will tell if the bike practice in the sun paid off. Would I go again next year? You would have to ask me again next January.
Over and out.