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Joe Papp

The author Joe Papp

Ignominious End

Cycling News
July 31, 2006, 1:00 BST,
April 22, 2009, 20:26 BST

With one kilometre to go in my last European race of the season, after bridging back up to a...

With one kilometre to go in my last European race of the season, after bridging back up to a three-man break that included my teammate Juan Torres and two Italians, I attacked to set-up Juan for the finish. We were racing in the GF Michele Bartoli, which started and finished in Montecarlo, Lucca and took in a part of Tuscany that I've come to love and where I trained almost daily. For 10 kilometres we had been on the attack after separating ourselves from a small group that formed less than 50 kilometres from the line, with Juan and I doing the majority of the work. I felt great, very strong, but was suffering from some cramping in my right thigh and told Juan I would ride for him.

The final climb started with three kilometres to go and I set a fast tempo that I knew Juan could handle, but which would be uncomfortable for the Italians. Unfortunately, it proved to be uncomfortable for me, too, as the cramping worsened and I was dropped after a kilometre! Our team car passed me by with Maurizio De Pasquale at the wheel and 'Depa' urged me on up the climb. I was still losing time and while I was confident that Juan would win I still wanted to be there for the finale, not limping home several minutes off the pace.

As we climbed up towards Montecarlo and the ancient archway at the entrance to the city, Juan had slipped to last wheel in the break, forcing the Italians to dictate the speed. The pace ahead dropped slightly, and the Italians' hesitation gave me a chance to fight my way back into contention. I clawed my way to the back of the race caravan, and as I moved through the cars I passed Depa, who cheered me on his heavily-accented but, strangely, barely-audible English, 'Go Joe, go!'

I exploded past the lead car and passed the break at full speed uphill, forcing an early reaction from the Italians. Alessando Merlo was cooked, couldn't respond and was dropped, while Michel Chocol worked hard to catch up to me, with Juan sitting comfortably on his wheel. I was cracking, but the 500-metre long attack had its desired effect. We only had two turns to go before the finish, including the final right through the archway and as Chocol connected with me, Juan attacked. He shot up the road like the skinny climber that he is and headed for a comfortable victory. Chocol tried to respond and follow Juan's jump, and that was when fortune again abandoned me for the umpteenth time this year. Chocol tried to pass me on the left, where there was no room because we were already along the gutter. He must have thought that such a line would offer him a shorter line to Juan's back wheel, even though he had no hope of catching the Venezuelan. Regardless, he stuck his bike alongside me and rode straight into my handlebars, yanking them out from underneath me and sending me down to the tarmac.

Since we were climbing, there was no skid or slide to dissipate energy and I slammed full force onto the hot, rough Tuscan road. I fell heavily onto my left side and, to add insult to injury, my entire right quadriceps cramped with intensity far worse than what I'd suffered going uphill. I would have screamed in frustration and thrown my bike into the nearby olive trees if I still hadn't been tangled up on the road, trying to massage the cramp out of my leg.

The last three weeks were utterly hellish for me in every area, from finances to personal relationships to future plans and I was basically left feeling that everything that could go wrong, did. I had already decided that the Bartoli would be my last race of the season, if not my career, because my wife Yuliet had finally escaped communist Cuba and I need to support us both - something that was not easily done with my bike racing wages. Nonetheless, after a taking a three-week break from racing following the Tour of Turkey, I started a progressive training plan and gradually returned to top-form. In fact, I even sourced an FSA SRM powermeter and was dancing on the pedals these last few weeks.

I won the Pinarello race last weekend after a 120-kilometre breakaway (Juan was seventh). I was fourth in the Giro dell'Alto Verbano near Switzerland and third behind Juan and Juan Pablo Dotti in the GF Valli Parmensi in Parma. I didn't feel the need to prove myself to anyone by winning the Bartoli. Still, I wanted to finish strongly in an event that is held only 15 kilometres from Montecatini Terme.

At least twice a week, I ride through the ancient streets of Montecarlo and then pass through Pescia and its acres and acres of commercial flower fields. These sessions through the exquisite Tuscan countryside are what I will miss most about Italy and for me the Bartoli was to be my last chance to savor a landscape that is far different than Pennsylvania.

After finally hauling myself up off the road and straightening my handlebars, I remounted my bike and made the first tentative pedal strokes towards the finish line with a pain that I felt came from my heart, and not the almost insignificant scrapes and bruises.

Before I finished the chase group of three riders caught and passed me, and I crossed the line in seventh, Juan and I having swapped our order of finish from the previous week. I was happy for my young team-mate, who is on the cusp of a professional career and will have many great results in the years to come. But I couldn't help feeling bitterly disappointed with my own rotten luck.

There is some cliché about how things can always be worse and, in this case, to my utter frustration and impotence, they were. In my last Italian diary for I wanted to write about what it was like to be team-mates for a day with Cipollini's lead-out man, Gian-Matteo Fagnini, about how it felt to bump shoulders at 50kph with Dimitri Konyshev, about having the luxury of drinking fine espresso every day and the ridiculousness of my not having learned passable Italian despite being here for more than four months. I was going to salute my team-mates but lament our flying off to different continents, perhaps never to see each other again, like a band of soldiers breaking up after that last heroic battle. I even wanted to write about the brilliance of the idea to sell espresso from vending machines, like Lavazza does, and how one of the premier distributors of these machines in this region is located on Via Fausto Coppi.

Instead, my head is clouded with negative feelings. I've been stewing in the hospital for almost a week after the 'innocuous' crash last Sunday produced a 125cm³ gluteal haematoma that required surgery to drain. I suffered the ignominy of having a catheter inserted in my penis when I couldn't urinate for six hours after surgery and then succumbed to a urinary tract infection. My team-mates have all flown home, and our planned final celebration was replaced by their passing almost silently through my hospital room in ones and twos to bid me farewell. And now I have lost contact with Yuliet, who naively thought she could escape from Communist Cuba via another country with restrictive civil liberties. Attempts to re-establish contact have been futile.

I love cycling. I think it is one of the most beautiful sports in the world and I was lucky enough to spend ten years as an elite athlete competing across the globe. But right now, I am incredibly frustrated and disheartened. The costs that cycling extracts from the rider - physically, emotionally and materially - are enormous in some cases, and I'm just now realising how skewed my balance sheet is.

Nonetheless, while cycling has created enormous tension in my life it also has given me peace and solace and I'll never be able to leave it behind completely, no matter what I feel right now. I'll keep riding my bike for as long as my body lets me, and I even plan to take on more coaching clients when I get settled back in the States. I've invested too much in this sport to delude myself into thinking that I could ever wash my hands of it. Like Ivan Parra told me in 2003 at the Vuelta a Chile, cycling is like a chronic disease that we can't cure!

But now I must focus on my non-sporting life.

Isn't it beautiful?

Talking Turkey: Part I

Cycling News
June 13, 2006, 1:00 BST,
April 22, 2009, 20:26 BST

Greetings Cyclingnews readers! I hope you all are well and, like me, are living your dreams out on...

Greetings Cyclingnews readers! I hope you all are well and, like me, are living your dreams out on the bike every day that you ride. Right now, I'm writing to you from Izmir, Turkey, on the eve of the start of the International Presidency Tour of Turkey, an eight-day UCI stage race in - you guessed it - Turkey. This time around I'm back racing with Team Whistle, after being loaned to our sister squad Bianchi-Cinghiale for the Volta a Sao Paulo in Brazil last month.

That race was another great adventure, though from a sporting perspective for me it was a huge disappointment. My form was waaaaaay off and the best placing I managed was 6th in the second stage. I should've/could've/would've won the 250km fourth stage after a perfectly-timed sprint, except for the fact that my cleat broke in the final 50m, launching me out of the pedal and half-way across the road. Thankfully I didn't crash, though I came close to doing serious damage to a very important part of my anatomy.

There was some redemption for me and the team on the penultimate stage when, after almost having abandoned, I led out Vladimir Smirnov for the field sprint for third. He won it handily - our only podium finish of the tour. So, while Brazil proved to be an incredibly beautiful country from a variety of perspectives, the race itself was in no way professionally pleasurable and I was happy to return to Italy.

Alas, after 1100km in under a week, I was again creeping like an invalid and not looking forward to my next race, the GF Selle Italia Prestige, one of the more mountainous one-day events on our schedule. In the hopes of avoiding total anonymity, I went with the early break to represent Team Whistle and take some pressure off our leader for the day, Juan Torres. It paid off, as half-way up the third-climb, when Raimondas Rumsas flashed past (in the big-ring) Torres was comfortably lodged on his wheel. At the end of the day, Rumsas still won, with Bianchi-Cinghiale's Gianluca Cavalli in second, but Juan hung on for third.

After I was dropped, I found myself in a group that included Gilberto Simoni of Saunier-Duval. Of course, I didn't know he was in the group until I'd blown my nose before looking back - only to see that I'd sprayed the Giro winner with my snot. Shit. Not one of my prouder moments, but another brush with fame nonetheless.

We had a week off with no racing following Selle Italia, but it was back to the office on April 15th for the GF Lambrusco in Parma. Rumsas collectively spanked us again, winning his umpteenth race after breaking away with Andrea Paluan, but I posted a good result. I finished 10th after attacking out of my small chase group in the final km's. This race was a classic, and we rode it like a boxing match, slugging the crap out of each other in the final 30km when it was obvious that third place would come out of what was then a 15-man chase group. I thought I had a good chance to podium until we made a left turn with 12km to go and faced a short, 1.5km long wall. Definite "doh!" moment, as I'd been on the attack on the flats before the hill and quickly found myself spit back into the second group. This group then fractured as three more riders went up the road, to make a total of nine. With everyone looking pretty grim as we approached the red kite, my teammate Igor Pugaci gave me a wink and a grin and I took off, claiming 10th spot on the line.

A note on Rumsas: say what you want about the Lithuanian with respect to his various brushes with the law and anti-doping authorities, but the guy's natural talent is incredible. It's a shame that he is remembered for his mistakes and transgressions, when the reality is that he really is one of those rare humans who is naturally world-class-fast on a bike. When he is on-form and shows up on the start line of a granfondo, it's no longer a question of who will win, but rather, who can finish second. But hey, let's keep it all in perspective:

Back to the racing - two days later, we were in Perugia for the 150km GF Umbria Verde, where my teammate Andrea Gurayev took a surprise win after rolling off the front with one other rider with just 20km to go. Third place went to ex-Acqua e Sapone rider Kyrilo Pospeyev (Ukraine) who attacked in the final kilometer, while Igor Pugaci led me out for fourth. "Puga" and I are really getting on much better now, and his betraying me at the GF Ceriale is conveniently forgotten. He's a cool guy, but definitely mas raro que un perro verde (sorry, I don't know how to say that in Italian, hence the Spanish). It's all fine, though, because I'm a quirky dude too and the result is that we're pretty compatible as roommates. Still, I'm trying to break him of the habit of hanging wet clothes all around the room like ever so many soppy mobiles.

My form through this period of racing was not the best in the world and I was definitely still searching for peak fitness. So when we embarked on an epic road trip to the south of Italy for the Giro di Terra D'Otranto in Puglia on April 23rd, I was flattered that the team made me the designated leader but trepid about actually having the legs to do the job.

I'm a worrier by nature, but even my gloomiest predictions of heavy legs and a too-high pulse rate weren't going to get in the way of enjoying my first visit to Italy's south. Yes, it's as beautiful as you've been told, and no, I didn't meet anyone who identified themselves as belonging to Cosa Nostra. Nonetheless, I saw more than a few men who could have played parts in "The Godfather" movies. Besides the natural beauty of the place, one of the highlights of the trip was having a coffee and beer (great combo) with my teammate Igor Pugaci in a bar/caffé located off of the town square in Bagnolo del Salento. I wish I'd taken some photos, but I felt too conspicuous as it was, walking around with an Italian speaking ex-Soviet. So I played it safe and tried not to offend the locals while still taking in the spectacle of a South Italian town and all the color and flavor it has to offer.

Speaking of flavor, Italian coffee is the best in the world, and every morning when I'm in Montecatini I simply jump out of bed and bound down the stairs to fire up the espresso machine. However, in case you didn't know - and I didn't until I arrived here - you can order far more than just the standard espresso or cappuccino. For example, there is caffè alla valdostana (with grappa, lemon peel and spices), caffè americano (long and black), caffè corretto (with a dash of liqueur), caffè doppio (long, strong and black), caffè macchiato (strong coffee with a drop of milk), caffè ristretto (super strong black coffee) and ristretto (very short black coffee). Don't order a latte unless you're after a glass of milk! Instead, request a caffellatte, but keep in mind that it's something usually only served at breakfast.

But back to the racing... The weather at the start in San Cesarea Terme was gorgeous, the course was fantastic, the scenery was beautiful (along the Adriatic Sea), and my team was strong! On the second climb we launched a flurry of attacks, shattered the field and eventually, after Pugaci and I bridged up to the first group, put five riders into a 7-man escape! It didn't make for the most exciting of races as we rode a team time trial to the finish, but there was some excitement in the final 10km as I had to attack three times to finally get away with my teammate "Falza" (Alfonso Falzarano) and Michele Laddomada. Fabio Ciccarese, who'd sat on the entire time, insisted on chasing me down because he thought he deserved third! Doh! We had offered him fourth if he would work with us in the break and not cause trouble, just as we'd offered Laddomada second, but Ciccarese insisted on riding his own race and instead finished sixth. That bit of cycling mafia drama aside, after we were finally up the road, I completed the last formality of the escape and attacked with 2km to go, taking my first win in Italy.

I'm never one to look the proverbial gift horse in the mouth, but this wasn't the most satisfying victory for me. Don't get me wrong - a win is a win is a win and I'm happy to have one to list on my results sheet for 2006 - but the team definitely gifted it to me. I was the weakest of the five of us in the break (our last teammate, Antonio Marotti, was chasing on his own and would finish eighth) and finished first only because it was the will of the squadra.

Leaving the realm of racing for a second to comment on training in Tuscany - I have died and gone to heaven. In my short time here, I have been on training rides with guys from Saunier Duval-Prodir, Lampre-Fondital, Quickstep-Innergetic, Team Milram, Amore & Vita-McDonald's, Acqua & Sapone and Naturino-Sapore di Mare. I also ran into one Jan Ulrich on Monte Serra, which is the major "testing" climb in this part of Tuscany. I think Basso holds the record for the 6.125km climb at 16 minutes and change, though Thomas Dekker supposedly broke the Italian's record for a "winter" ascent during this past off-season. Anyway, Jan was super-gracious and actually stopped with me on the climb so that I could snap a photo of us together. In my excitement, I forgot to save the picture to my camera phone, so you'll just have to believe me. And he didn't look fat.

Tuscany seems far away now as I listen to the azan, or call to prayer, emanating from a nearby mosque. But I know that I will soon be part of the traveling circus of international cycling and I hope that the good sensations that finally returned to me during my last few days of training in Italy carry over to the International Presidency Tour of Turkey. Stay tuned to find out!

A pizza lover's dream... menu at the Pasticceria Magnifica.

Vuelta a Cuba and Italy

Cycling News
March 31, 2006, 1:00 BST,
April 22, 2009, 20:26 BST

When Erik Zabel was beaten - or better said, when he "lost" - Milan-San Remo to Oscar Freire, I...

February 25, 2006

When Erik Zabel was beaten - or better said, when he "lost" - Milan-San Remo to Oscar Freire, I couldn't believe it and felt enormous empathy for the German sprinter. How horrible it must have been for Zabel to be knocked off the first step on the podium because of his own stupidity. I'm ashamed to admit it but I chuckled a bit, thinking that someone with Zabel's experience, and paycheck, should know better. Ha ha ha.

Now I sympathize with the Milram rider because I am the idiot who lost a great race after a perfect lead out because of my own moronic decision. I'm speaking about the final stage of the 2006 Vuelta a Cuba, ridden on February 19th from Cacahual to the Plaza de la Revolución in Havana, where cycling legend Eddy Merckx was in attendance to present the victor's prize.

With only a few meters to go the line, and with the stage win clearly within my grasp, I prematurely raised my arm only to see a yellow flash on my right as the Slovenian Borut Bozic passed me to claim first prize. While I was devastated for my own loss, I felt even worse for my teammates, who'd ridden exclusively for me that day. While I was walking onto the podium, Merckx gave me a sympathetic look, though I don't remember him ever having made the same mistake.

(Aside that I can't seem to fit anywhere else in my diary: It was completely surreal to see Merckx walk by me while I was leaning against the team car before the start of the final stage. I had no idea that he was going to be in Cuba, and though my wife had been told about his possible arrival in Cuba, she wrote it off as something that wouldn't happen so she didn't tell me. I was shocked to see Eddy and posed for a photograph with him. I also talked to the Belgian ambassador for a bit, and the director of the Lotto team, who is interested in bringing the team to the Vuelta in 2007. I think of all the surreal Cuban experiences I've had in five years, this was the most surreal...meeting the greatest cyclist every on the final day of my favorite race.)

Anyway, it's late-February and I'm in Italy (more on that later), and while I've come to grips with what happened in Cuba from a sporting perspective, I don't think I'll ever forget it. In fact, I'll forget very little about this year's Vuelta, which regular readers of my diary know is to me what the Tour de France is to many ProTour riders - the event I most look forward to during the cycling season. By starting serious training in October, and working out in the gym and riding the track throughout the California winter, I was able to race with mid-summer fitness first in China in January and just now in Cuba...something I'd never done before. Not sure whether or not I'll continue racing full-time after this season, I wanted to arrive in Cuba with the best form I could possibly attain so to be better able to contend for stage wins and the points jersey.

All those hellish workouts prescribed for me by my coach Jeb Stewart and those endless kilometers whizzing around the ADT center track trying to keep up with speedsters like Gene Poyonera and Jay Wolkoff paid off in spades in Cuba. While I decided against writing a day-by-day diary for this year's race, since I don't think I could top what I wrote during last year's race (which for me was one of the most inspired works of creative non-fiction cycling writing I've ever done), I am sitting down in my room at our team's hotel in Montecatini Terme in Tuscany to write about what the Vuelta was like, and how it's come to be that I'm in Italy and not flying back to the States.

I raced the Vuelta this year for Italian team Partizan-Whistle, which is the international designation for the grande fondo squad Team Whistle that is captained by ex-Saeco professional Simone Biasci. Some version of the team has participated in Vuelta since 2003, when I first met Simone and my now-very-good-friend Andrea Panarese, who helped to arrange my integration into the Partizan-Whistle team. I'm a dual-citizen (holding US and Irish passports), so my status as a European-American cyclist was actually attractive to the team's sponsors, some of whom have business interests in the States.

As intended, I arrived in Cuba 10 days before the start of the Vuelta to ensure my acclimatization to the normally-brutal tropical heat and humidity. This year's Tour of Cuba was a bird of a different feather, however, since the weather was far more mild than normal and one morning - the day of the Sancti Spiritus-Santa Clara mountain stage - the temperature was around 50 degrees when we were riding to the start. As seems to be par for the course, I had only a limited amount of time to spend with my wife Yuliet before the start of the Vuelta, because her commitments to the Cuban national team saw her shipped off to the province of Ciego de Avila only five days after I arrived. Grrrr.

Closely following the plan laid out for me by Jeb, I completed specific workouts every day that were designed to maintain my metabolic activity and energy systems without adding much fatigue, and by the time I arrived in Baracoa with my teammates on Sunday the 5th of February, I had only to do a short tune-up ride on Monday in order to be ready for stage one the next day.

During that quick pedal (in the rain, unfortunately) on Monday, I saw something happen to my teammate Juan that left me doubled-over with laughter...something I didn't think occurred in real-life, only on TV. While we were out training two-by-two in the rain on the road from Baracoa to the climb of La Farola, a large truck approached our 6-rider group from the other direction. Juan (Torres), a skinny Venezuelan who is an awesome climber, was riding on the front on the left (closest to the oncoming traffic), and as the truck passed us, it drove through an enormous puddle of water, sending a plume up into the air and directly onto poor Juan. The wave that crashed over JT left him soaked from head-to-toe, and the rest of us shaking our heads in disbelief. "Did that really just happen?" I can honestly say that I never thought the car-passes-through-the-puddle-and-soaks-hapless-bystander scenario played out in real-life.

There was only one other non-cycling occurrence in Cuba that I actually took a note on with the intention of mentioning in my diary. It was on Saturday the 4th of February, when I took a mini-van taxi to accommodate all of my luggage and equipment from Cojímar in Habana del Este to Old Havana to meet my teammates who were arriving that night from Italy via Madrid. The driver was a not-so-old man by the name of Roberto, who with no prompting from me did something very unusual - he spoke honestly about the conditions of life for the average Cuban and openly criticized the regime and its leader. Heady stuff, especially when he told me about the 24 months he spent as an infantry soldier fighting in Angola, and how he had first been called up and sent to Africa with less than a day's notice to arrange his affairs and say goodbye to his family.

In the midst of whining about my own stupidity in throwing up my arms before the line in the last stage, I thought about what that taxi driver had told me and gave thanks for not having to "kill or be killed" (to quote him directly; my translation) in Africa because of a "capricious government" (again, quoting him directly, my translation). I just want to get my wife OUT of that country before relations between Cuba and the USA deteriorate even more. That's one of the reasons why I'm in Italy. If you're religious, please pray for us.

As I said before, I was very motivated for this year's Vuelta and put in many, many hours of training over the course of four months in preparation for it. Despite feeling a bit blocked on Monday (which is actually a good sign for me - remember the 2005 Pan Am Championships, when I could barely turn the pedals the day before the race but then finished top-10?), I absolutely soared up the KOM's in the first stage and knew immediately that I was on the best form of my life. I'd used up a lot of energy chasing back to the first group after flatting in that stage, so I was pretty tired by the time we arrived in Guantanamo for a field sprint, but after leading out Juan I had enough gas left in the tank to hang on for 7th (the first of five 7th-place finishes!). In four previous Vueltas, I never finished stage one with the lead group and knew this was a sign of things to come.

My teammates for the race, in addition to Torres, Cavalli and Biasci, were Andrea Gurayev and another ex-Saeco pro Igor Pugaci from Moldova. Look him up on the Internet and you'll see that he was one of the key support riders for Gilberto Simoni during one of his Giro about class! It was actually a great honor for me to race with Igor and I really admire him. After riding with one of the biggest pro teams in the peloton and then not being able to find a comparable contract with another squad, he isn't angry or bitter but just gets on with the job of riding his bike. Actually, he's a really, really nice guy and has a great personality and made the difficult moments in Cuba tolerable simply by being there.

As a team we raced conservatively in Cuba, though we always intended to support Gianluca for the overall classification. A stage win in Sancti Spiritus and a strong ride in the time trial, where he finished third at 35 seconds, kept him in the running for the GC, though the time bonuses Pedro Pablo Perez kept picking up gave him the victory. Matija Kvasina (Cro) of Perutnina finished second at 0.23, Franklin Chacón (Ven) of the Venezuelan national team third at 0.34 and Cavalli (Ita) fourth at 0.48. We were also fourth in the team classification behind Venezuela, Cuba and Perutnina. Neither Igor nor I could stay with the lead group on the Topes de Collantes mountain stage, and while Cavalli and Juan both finished in the break, the 9+ minutes that Igor and I lost (either one of us counted as the third and final rider for the team GC that day) meant that we would never get back onto equal terms with the top-3 squads.

Our team's two stage wins (Simone won in Bayamo after I gave him the best lead-out I possibly could, earning myself another 7th-place!) and multiple podium appearances more than made up for any lost chances, though it would have been a dream for me to win in Havana. That would have been the third time the team won the final stage, as Simone triumphed there twice, first in 2003 and again last year.

Despite failing to win a stage, and never donning the points jersey like I'd hoped, I finished 19th overall, having lost the bulk of my time with Igor after Topes de Collantes and then in the time trial, which I rode at 85%. Still, a top-20 GC finish was a pleasant surprise, and nine top-10 stage finishes plus 5th in the points competition proved that I can race consistently well over two weeks if I'm well prepared.

The real payoff, besides the immense personal satisfaction that came from being a protagonist in the Vuelta a Cuba from day one, was being invited to join Simone, Igor, Juan and Andrea, plus several other riders, in Italy for the granfondo season! Despite getting my butt kicked last year in the two GF's that I rode, the team has enough confidence in the new me to give me another shot as a fully-integrated member of Team Whistle. This opportunity couldn't come at a better time, because the contract I had to race as an amateur in the United States with Champion System is now voided, after the sponsor I was to bring to the team, UPMC, pulled out (after 10 years of supporting cycling) in the aftermath of the announcement of my ex-teammate's positive drug test.

Not having any financial support to race in the States (which is how the situation appears to me today) is a disappointment, but this offer from Whistle seems providential, and that is how I came to find myself saying goodbye again to Yuliet after only a pair of days together and flying first to Madrid, and then to Rome. Moving to Europe with less than 24 hours' notice is not the most ideal way to change one's life, especially because of the fact that my "affairs" in the USA are definitely not settled, but having turned down several rare cycling opportunities in the past, I was loathe to miss another. Eerily, this reminds me of how I first came to race internationally, when I received a mysterious phone calling offering me a spot on the US national team for the 1994 Vuelta a Venezuela, if only I could get to JFK airport in New York within 36 hours.

This time I didn't have to arrange for my own transportation, as Sandro Biasci, Simone's brother, handed me my one-way ticket from Havana to Rome on the day of our departure. I'll say one thing for this team - it's well organized and well supported. From the moment I had to change a wheel during stage two in the Vuelta, and the entire team dropped off the back of the field to wait for me in the caravan, it became obvious that the squad is amateur only in name. When we arrived in Rome, there were two team cars (a BMW 5-series wagon and an Audi A4 wagon) and the box truck waiting to bring us to Montecatini Terme. Everyone's luggage matches, we all have warm-up suits, casual clothing, winter casual jackets, fleece jackets and vests, all the equipment you could ever need, full winter riding kit, cycling shoes, etc., etc. The team has its own garage and business center where spare bikes, travel cases, tools and other supplies are stored (along with the box truck and RV). I've died and gone to heaven, except it is cold and raining here!

I spent the first few days in Italy trying to sort out my equipment and new bike (something I still haven't completed), getting the lay of the land and basically trying not to be discombobulated after going from Cuba to Europe without having planned for it. Simone and Andrea Panarese have both been very fair and just with me, and Juan Torres, Gabriel Moureu and I are living in the same hotel in Montecatini, the Mignon, along with the Bianchi soigneur Maurizio De Pasquale. Moureu rode for Whistle last year but is now with Bianchi-Cinghiale, another team based here, and De Pasquale is an ex-professional from Sicily who I know from various Tours of Cuba.

Our team uses Whistle carbon fiber bikes (we ride the "Creek" model, which is made of Columbus Carve Mega carbon and weighs 950g!) with Campagnolo groupsets, FSA cranks, bars, stems and seatposts, Look KEO pedals, San Marco saddles, and Mavic wheels. Our clothing is manufactured by Ellegi and we're using handmade Hti shoes.

I now have an Italian mobile phone number and have been slowly updating my coaching clients, friends and family as to my current location and plans. I've also been posting photos from Cuba and Italy to my website ( If you take a look at them, see if you can spot the now-retired classic superstar Michele Bartoli, who attended our team presentation last week at the BK1 Concept Factory. It was kind of like running into Eddy Merckx in Cuba...Bartoli swept into the parking lot in his silver Ferrari while I was standing outside with Juan and Igor, who was kind enough to introduce me to the Tuscan as he came strolling up to the entrance. He and Simone go way back, and his presence at the team launch definitely added to the night's excitement.

As if beautiful Lithuanian models, a DJ spinning with two tables and roving waiters offering fresh shots of espresso instead of champagne flutes weren't enough, Bartoli raised the event's profile and ensured the attendance of the national media. This is definitely the way to experience racing in Europe (even if the events are not UCI-sanctioned) and I have to pinch myself to make sure I'm not dreaming.

Despite the abruptness with which I arrived in Italy and the fact that I have many loose ends that require tying-up in the States, thus far being here is a net positive. And besides the cycling, there are some components of Italian life that are simply irresistible. I love being able to go to the pasticceria on our block for a fresh pastry, or to any of a number of gelato shops for incredible ice cream or to any bar for a cappuccino that only costs €1.10. And when we don't want to go out for coffee, we have the use of the hotel's two-head espresso machine.

Some of the things I'm not crazy about, however, are paying €5.00 to dry a load of laundry, not being able to mount my SRM onto my new bike because of the FSA sponsorship and having to go to a cybercafé and pay €3.00/hour for Internet access instead of having DSL and Wi-Fi in my room! Life is all about compromises, I guess.

After the presentation, we had a team dinner at the Belvedere, one of the nicest hotels in Montecatini, but again there was no champagne and only a rationed amount of red wine, as tomorrow is our first race, the GF Val di Cecina. I'll be sure to let you know how it goes, and how I'm adapting to life in Italia!

G.F. Città di Ceriale

Cycling News
March 31, 2006, 1:00 BST,
April 21, 2009, 11:56 BST

Cazzo de la Madonna ! I'm not ashamed to admit that was what I said to myself, albeit in Spanish, as...

March 4, 2006

Cazzo de la Madonna! I'm not ashamed to admit that was what I said to myself, albeit in Spanish, as I watched my teammate Igor Pugaci from Moldova skirt up the road and win the G.F. Città di Ceriale today. With 25km to go in the 155km race, Igor and I dropped the remnants of a 12-man breakaway on the final climb of the difficult course and rode a two-man time trial to the line, putting almost two minutes into the chasers.

Hoping to avoid what eventually transpired, with just over 1km to the line and not a pursuer in sight, I called up our team car and asked Simone Biasci, our team captain who had abandoned the race after a crash, who should win - Igor or I? Yes, it was only a granfondo, but it was a damn hard one and I had sweated blood to climb with the leaders over the four big passes (which included a 15km climb at the start) and watched as first my teammate Juan Torres and then the sole remaining Italian in the break crash heavily on the last technical descent on which I, too, almost fell, and I wanted to win. Simone knew how close I'd been to victory in Cuba, and he was keyed in to the fact that I had three second place finishes in China, and for once the little guy (me) caught a break as it was announced that I should cross the line first, with my arms raised "high overhead towards the heavens" (literal quote from Biasci).

In the short time I've known him Igor has been a good friend and is always willing to lend a hand. He rode himself into the ground for me in the last kilometer of the last stage of the Tour of Cuba, ensuring (with the help of Gianluca Cavalli) that I was perfectly positioned to win the sprint. Maybe with the memory of my loss in Havana still fresh in his mind, he figured that I would most likely find a way to lose to him too even when he was trying to let me win, so he would be proactive and just take the victory outright. Whatever it was, after 154.6km, when he jumped away from me after the last turn and coasted across the line, I couldn't help but think "bastardo," after muttering the Spanish version of the phrase referenced above.

I don't think that Igor's a bastard by any means, and when our teammates - especially Simone - were calling him "Judas" in the team car on the drive home, you could tell that he felt genuinely sorry, or at least embarrassed. Let's chalk it up to trying to communicate across four languages, as Igor is Moldovan, so he speaks Russian as his native tongue, though he also speaks Italian after several years with Saeco, whereas I'm a native English speaker whose second language is Spanish. Lost in translation is what must have happened to Simone's instructions.

Regardless of another bitter, humiliating personal defeat for me, Team Whistle kicked serious butt today and I would hasten to guess that we could even have finished 1-2-3 if Juan had not crashed and gone over the guardrail and into a ravine (in true European classic style) on the final descent to Vellego. The race started with 6km through the streets of Ceriale and out of town before the huge peloton of elite, ex-professional and ex-dilitante riders hit the first climb, which was 15km in length. Four riders from the Scott team, none of whose names I yet know, drove the pace uphill and by the summit, the winning break was formed and we were 12 riders. Over the next 80km we held the chase group at around 1:30, though per our director Lucca's instructions (functioning race radios are great!), we stayed tranquillo and let Scott do most of the work.

On a course that featured no flat terrain until the final 20km, conservation would be proven the most effective strategy, for when we hit the third climb of the day, my two teammates and I had no difficulty staying ahead. The break shattered on the Passo del Ginestro, and while the crashes on the descent that eliminated the two Italian riders from contention (both would finish, however) were unfortunate, they were academic. Thankfully Juan wasn't hurt and he finished the race, winning the U23 classification and thereby giving us three riders on the podium.

This was not the hardest GF of the season. In fact, it is supposedly one of the easier ones, but the terrain was spectacular and I felt like I was racing in Milan-San Remo or some other classic that zigzags across the Italian countryside. If I survive the season here I will definitely leave having been transformed into a climber, because the events are all about going uphill fast. Out of curiosity, in the expo area I picked up flyers for some upcoming races, including the GF Michele Bartoli and the GC Massimiliano Lelli...Christ! Bartoli's race features 10 climbs, while Lelli's six. Next week's GF Geotermia e Balze in Pomarance also has six climbs. It was small consolation when Simone told me the entire squad would be at my disposition to help me win in Pomarance, as I'm not climbing that well yet, and today's more moderate race still kicked my ass. Not one stage of the Tour of Cuba was as hard as today's amateur race.

Next week's race actually kicks off a nine-race series, the VIII Giro del Granducato di Toscana. Our team is helping to organize the penultimate event to be held June 11 in Montecatini Terme where our team is based. Simone, who is 37 years-old, says it will be his last competition as a rider before he retires, so we're all keen to do well there. Some of the other towns that will host the events are Lucca, San Giustino and Manciano, if you can find them on a map.

If geography isn't your thing, at least let me add to your cycling vocabulary with a few cycling terms that will come in handy if you're ever training in Italy and need to replace a component or two on your bike:

Telaio - frame
Serie sterzo - headset
Guarnitura - crankset
Attacco manubrio - stem
Piego manubrio - handlebar
Cambio - rear derailleur
Deragliatore - front derailleur
Freni - brakes
Comandi - shift levers
Sella - saddle
Reggisella - seatpost
Pacco pignoni - cassette

And should you happen upon a stage of the Giro and need to carry the conversation with the local of your choice, try:

Dove finisce la gara? - Where does the race finish?
Dove passa? - Where does it pass through?
Chi vince? - Who's winning?
La tappa di oggi è di quanti chilometri? - How many kilometers is today's stage?
Il mio ciclista preferito è (insert name) - My favorite cyclist is...

Landing in Italy is certainly an unexpected twist in my cycling career. How fortuitous that with no prospects of getting paid a salary to race the same-old, same-old in the USA, I find myself part of the best-supported granfondo team in Italy, on par with Raimondas Rumsas's Park Pre squad...if you wanted to be derisive, you could say that we're professional hobbyists, as GF racing doesn't carry UCI points, but that would be a gross misstatement. Sure, granfonodo's are mass-start races open to all comers, but there is an elite competition within the race amongst several hundred riders who have or still do compete at the international level. At the end of the day there are podium presentations, media coverage, autographs and all the trappings of pro bike racing. Maybe it's like some level of minor league baseball, but without the hope for us older guys (Juan, at 19 years-old, is an exception) of getting back up into "the show" (aside from races like the Tour of Cuba and other UCI continental circuit events).

I'll take what I can get, however, especially because I'm finally where I hoped to be 10 years ago. Back in the early-1990s I wanted so desperately to race in Europe (I had no idea how hard it was nor how ill-suited I was to the longer, hilly events that characterize all amateur and professional racing here in Italy) that I used to comb through back issues of Winning Magazine trying to figure out how a kid from Pennsylvania could ride up the Poggio and into San Remo. If I'd been as naturally gifted as Bobby Julich or Scott McKinley, it would have happened of its own accord, but absent those genetic gifts, I had to find a way on my own. Even if little time remains for me as a cycling gypsy, I intend to squeeze every last bit of satisfaction from whatever opportunities are yet to appear before me.

Email Joe at

Another view of the ideal seatmate on a transoceanic flight: Nok Soubannarath.

The South China Sea experience - Part I ()

Cycling News
January 18, 2006, 0:00 GMT,
April 22, 2009, 20:25 BST

Greetings readers! When last I wrote, I was flying at 30,000 ft. somewhere over...

The South China Sea experience - Part I (read Part II here)

December 23, 2005

Greetings readers!

When last I wrote, I was flying at 30,000 ft. somewhere over Siberia. Well, I arrived in Hong Kong tonight after a relatively easy flight from LAX and another adventure is underway. I will be racing in the Tour of the South China Sea, an eight-day stage race on the UCI Asia Tour calendar. The event is one of the premier stage races in Asia, and will be contested by national teams from a variety of countries including Japan, Malaysia, Hong Kong and mainland China, plus regional teams from Australia, various provinces in the PRC and of course Champion System. Most all of the Asian riders will be in peak form, as will the Australians, who have their open national championships soon after this race finishes. While my form is good, I'm not peaking but I hope to still be competitive.

Teammate David Sommerville met me at the airport with Champion System team support person "Gilbert." We drove to the Hong Kong Sports Institute, where Jared Bunde, Dave and I are going to be staying with our HK teammate Simon for tonight. After checking me in and dropping off the gear, Gilbert drove us to a nearby market for a classic street food dinner with our other teammate Derek Wong (second overall in the Tour of the South China Sea last year) and his girlfriend Colleen, plus a rider from the Shanghai team and his girlfriend.

Got my Champion System kit tonight - holy smokes. It's good to be riding for a clothing manufacturer! More clothing than I've ever received at one time. Five jerseys with my name and country flag printed on each collar, five bib shorts, leg warmers, arm warmers, caps, gloves, wind vest, thermal jacket, and enough leisure clothing to replace the wardrobe I brought with me. Doh! I'm going to end up leaving most of the clothing I schlepped to Hong Kong here at the Sports Institute with my bike case once we get on the road. Note to self - pack less next time.

We also received special "Champion System" edition watches from Accord. I can check off another box on my "things to achieve in cycling before I retire" list, as riding for a team that issued me a watch has been a goal since I first read the Bob Roll diary in which he mourns the loss of his 7-Eleven team issue Tag Heuer. That anecdote, in which Roll loses his watch while snowboarding, only to recover it months later after the spring thaw, forever biased me to the Tag Heuer brand. I own several, including one received from a trade with Greg LeMond in 1996. Greg, if you're reading this, thanks again. And an aside to my brother - don't lose or break the limited edition T.H. Chronometer that you're supposed to be keeping safe for me!

I'm rooming with Simon tonight, and he snores like an animal. I didn't think someone so unimposing could make such noises!

December 24, 2005

I couldn't sleep in as much as I'd hoped after the long flight, but I did enjoy a leisurely breakfast with Dave and Jared at the Sports Institute (think Olympic Training Center, without the wide variety of food). There is a truism of stage racing in foreign countries: your first few meals upon arrival, which always seem utterly horrible because you've just come from your home country and its wonderful cuisine, will inevitably end-up being the best meals that you'll be served until the conclusion of the Tour when the boss takes you to dinner and puts it on the sponsor's tab. Except Italy.

After breakfast and clothes sorting I assembled my bike, in this case a battered old team bike from 2004. I definitely need a new ride. Derek Wong, the nominal team captain, wanted the entire team together for a training ride today, no doubt to test me out in front of the others and see if I pass muster. Dave told me that he and Jared were already put through this meat grinder courtesy of our teammates a few days ago.

Thankfully the ride was short at just under 2.5 hours, though we did complete two 2km paceline efforts and an eight-minute climb to "loosen" the legs. Derek told me later that he felt bad about subjecting me to so much intensity since I was just off the plane, but that he had to test me just like he'd tested D and J the previous two days. After I'd taken a few pulls and he realized my legs were as lean looking as our other teammate Daniel Lee's, it was clear I would be ok for the tour.

Before finishing the ride we stopped near where Louis - the Boss - lives and had lunch on his tab at an Italian restaurant. Note that this lunch was the third meal of the trip, and would be the best. There is another Boss/Sponsor here, Scott Kaylin, and he and his female companion Helena joined us, as did Louis's wife.

After returning to the Sports Institute, we packed up everything and drove to the Metropole Hotel in Kowloon, where we'll stay for the next two nights. It's the race hotel.

Christmas Eve was very subdued. I don't even remember what I did...

I'm rooming with Derek and I went to bed early. When I got up to pee, there was Colleen in bed with him. Oops. Not exactly protocol, and I'll have to watch out for that in the future. Good thing I gave up sleeping naked.

December 25, 2005 - Christmas Day

Merry Christmas! Today marks the fourth consecutive Navidad that I've spent outside of the USA.

All of the Champion System riders are together now at the Metropole, and Dave's girlfriend in NYC sent a small present with him to be opened this morning. It was a pack of English-language slang/hip-hop flash cards from This may be one of the best gifts I've ever seen, and I intend to buy a set upon my return to the USA, finances-willing.

We had a quick review of current slang terms and quizzed our Hong Kong teammates, especially Daniel, who is proud to "represent." Nonetheless, despite the instant camaraderie that we're building and the total ease with which all of the riders and staff are interacting, this definitely doesn't feel like Christmas to me. It doesn't feel like the prelude to a bike race, either, and I can only hope that in the next 24 hours I switch on. Maybe it's the jet-lag?

After breakfast we drove out of town to the circuit that will be used for tomorrow's stage. I felt surprisingly good, which is never a positive sign for me the day before a race - seriously. The fact that I felt great today means I'm in trouble tomorrow.

Nonetheless, I thought that the rolling circuit was awesome and could totally suit my abilities. I am obviously not 100% and haven't had any road racing yet, but I still felt good on the course which is up-and-down with almost no flat. It's going to shatter tomorrow, for sure, especially since the field size is small.

In the evening we attended a low-key press conference for the race, and we did our best to look good and smile for the cameras.

Kam Po Wong (HKg) got most of the media attention, but Daniel received his fair share, too. He is a top athlete in the Asian triathlon circuit, and is in the ITU rankings, which is great for us because he could be a source of media interest and a powerful engine for the squad. It bears mentioning that both Daniel and Simon are very inexperienced road racers, so it will be up to Derek and me to help them channel their efforts. Dave brought a full set of Alinco credit card radios with him, which will make communications much easier during the stages.

Stage 1 - December 26, 2005: Hong Kong Broadway Cup (Tsimshatsui to Tsing Yi, Hong Kong) - 100.1km

My legs just weren't working today. I felt totally blocked and was pedaling with only one leg, just like in the stage of the '05 Vuelta a Cuba that finished in Bayamo, when I almost quit the race. I think that it's a neuromuscular issue that is also affected by tightness and lack of flexibility in the joint and the muscle tissue, which inhibits proper muscle contraction and full range of motion. Maybe.

Tactically we were good, with Derek going in what would be the winning break, and both Simon and Daniel going up the road in small groups while Kam Po Wong - the pre-race favourite - was back in my group. Even when Wong started to go across on his own, we were still in a tactically solid position, with three riders up ahead. However, Wong went straight by Simon, and then Derek! Unbeknownst to us, Derek had broken his chain and had to change bikes, then took the 50 Swiss franc fine for motorpacing back up to the break. By that point, however, it was no longer one group, with Kam Po up ahead with several others, and Derek in the second group, Simon and Daniel in the third, me in the fourth, and Dave and Jared still further back. Shit. More out of frustration that anything I won the sprint from my small group, but on the whole my teammates and I gave up our chances of a high overall GC finish by losing so much time today.

Spirits were low and tensions high back at the Metropole as we tried to find our bus for the transfer to the PRC. I saw my first genuine Chinese fire drill and yet eventually we exited Hong Kong, crossed the border into the PRC and arrived in Shenzhen where we checked in to the Shenzhen Guest House hotel. Dave and I have a great view of the city skyline out of our room. Sweet.

One thing that has kept me amused since I arrived in Asia is the bastardised translations of various Chinese-language signs that adorn hotel bathrooms, elevators, and lobbies. My favourite was the towel exchange sign that proclaimed, "Be Careful Throw Down!"

Tonight Dave played one of the best practical jokes on me that I've ever experienced. While I chilled in the hotel to rest for tomorrow's stage, Dave and some of the others walked over to a nearby mall. When they came back, Dave had with him a plastic bag filled with chocolate, cans of Coke and sundry foodstuffs. We were shooting the shit when he tossed me a bag of Lays potato chips … I didn't think anything of it (other than it was nice of him to get me some chips) and after bs'ing for about 15 minutes I reached for the Lays and made ready to chomp.

Without stopping the conversation, I opened the bag and absently pulled out a few chips and popped them into my mouth. Hilarity ensued as I ran around the room struggling to find a place to retch - Dave had brought me Shacha Chicken flavoured chips, which he said were the most un-Western he could find. Thanks man. I did some research on the Internet later, and Lays offers quite a few unique flavours of chips in China, including: Cool Cucumber, Crisp Hokkaido Seaweed, Fresh Lemon, Spicy Crab and Five Spice Fish. But Shacha Chicken was terrible. Horrible. Disgusting. If I want the flavour of chicken, I'll eat a chicken. I can't even describe how bad it was.

Stage 2 - December 27, 2005: Shenzhen Longhua Jin Xiu Jiang Nan Cup (Longhua, Shenzhen, PRC) - 88km

The Champion System factory is based near where we are, and this region is known for its factories producing bicycles and other cycling components. I think it should be known for excessive traffic and noodle shops.

We had a short bus transfer to the start venue, which I undertook with the IPOD plugged in pumping a pre-race playlist that included Big Boy, Orishas, Paul Oakenfold and Daddy Yankee, among others.

The Hong Kong guys were saying there would be a bunch of spectators today, but there were only a few people milling about in the immediate vicinity of the drop-off point. I made a wise-ass comment about the apparent lack of fans as we were riding to the team paddock, when - wham! - there they were. Tens of thousands of excited Chinese surrounding the Longhua circuit. Wow.

The race itself was very aggressive, but owing to the wide open course and small field, it was difficult for attacks to stay away - except, of course, for the late-race move that we missed. However, Simon "Little Bear" Chau bridged across to it after a major effort, and with a Champion System rider up the road, we were free to sit on as the other teams chased.

I wasn't feeling very good today, and I think the shock of an abrupt return to racing is what's to blame. I trained well this winter, but racing is a different game entirely, and it takes the body some time to adapt. Owing to feeling like crap, I didn't try to go for the points sprints, and I was thanking God when Simon went up the road and latched onto the back of the break so we didn't have to chase. Nonetheless, when the field came back together in the final kilometres, I switched-on and promised to have a go in the sprint. Neither Daniel nor Simon are very good at fighting for position because of their relative inexperience in road racing, so it was up to Derek and me to represent in the mad dash to the line.

The City of Perth team - all of whom seem like a nice bunch of guys - took control coming out of the final corner on the last lap with just under 2km to go to the line, but their train fell apart far short of the finish banner. Good bike handling and positioning saw me right behind their last rider, with Kam Po Wong on my wheel and Derek on his as we passed the 500m sign. As the Aussies imploded, and the best rider in the race watching me like a hawk, it suddenly seemed like I wasn't so well placed after all. Shit.

I hesitated for as long as I could, but with my line along the barriers on the left side of the road about to be blocked by a fading John Wordan (Aus), I had to jump. There were still more than 300m to go, but I gave everything I had and was averaging over 1000w to the line. I kept hoping that Derek was going to come over the top of Kam Po and that we could pinch him and take the win, but "Nippolini" (as we would affectionately come to call him) simply obliterated us. A picture at the finish line reveals by just how much Asia's best rider smoked Derek and me.

A double podium finish made the sponsor happy, however, and what we couldn't do to Kam Po in the race, Derek and I did to him on the podium, drenching the little bastard in champagne with a concentrated attack. I'm just kidding when I call him a bastard. Kam Po seems like a nice enough guy.

Since we don't have a soigneur with us, the team boss treated me to a massage in the salon that is attached to our hotel.

I'll have to finish on the podium more often.

Stage 3 - December 28, 2005: Foshan Circuit Race (Lake Qianden, Nanhai, Foshan, PRC) - 100km

Bad day for me with little to report except for the fact that I crashed in the rain and then mistakenly turned down the chance to return to the race with what would become the winning break after I took my free lap. Instead, I rejoined the main field even though I guess I did technically crash out of the break, and finished 4th in the field sprint for 8th on the stage.

It's been awhile since I crashed and had proper road rash, but one never forgets the utter horror and pain of having to clean bits of gravel out of freshly-mauled tissue. Nothing is pleasant right now.

A major thumbs down to the organizers, who took what could have been a fun (or at least safe), rectangular four-corner circuit and instead added two additional sections of road with u-turns on each end with rows of carpet-covered turtle-like reflectors throughout. I'm just going to take a picture of the course diagram rather than trying to explain it.

Joe Papp

Flying high

Cycling News
December 27, 2005, 0:00 GMT,
April 22, 2009, 20:27 BST

Greetings Cyclingnews readers! Having just crossed the International Date Line, I'm writing this...

December 23, 2005

Greetings Cyclingnews readers!

Having just crossed the International Date Line, I'm writing this update from aboard a Cathay Pacific flight somewhere over Siberia, en route to Hong Kong and the Tour of the South China Sea (UCI 2.2), my first race of the 2006 season. We're cruising at 30,000ft, well above the cloud cover and heading into a brilliant, radiant sun...I also feel like I'm flying at high altitude on the bike and on the cusp of my best season ever.

When last I wrote, I was getting into the meat of my first training block after a disastrous end to my '04 season, and I'm overjoyed to report that everything has gone according to plan! I guess that fortune eventually has to be kind to everyone, and this seems to be my time. According to my power data, I've attained 90% of the best condition I had in 2005 before I got sick, and it's not even January! I've completed an almost perfect eight week training cycle, during which time I've rebuilt most of the muscle mass I lost and have thoroughly improved my stability and flexibility. Getting back into the gym and following the specific strength and conditioning program created for me by my coach, Jeb Stewart, definitely accelerated the process, since I was in such poor form when I landed in LA.

Back in the 1990's when I mistakenly wintered in Western Pennsylvania instead of seeking out warmer climates, I worked out in the gym religiously with Tim O'Toole, and my current host in California, Jay Wolkoff. What I didn't do was train on the bike enough (owing to the dreaded winter there). The reverse was true when I was in South America. I specifically went to California so that I would be able to combine the two, taking advantage of the mild weather and great riding while also having access to world-class gym facilities.

I didn't expect to add track riding to the mix, but with the ADT Center Velodrome just down the road in Carson, CA, and ready-made training sessions courtesy of Roger Young, I couldn't resist. I've been on the boards at least once per week, and completed my last session before departing on Tuesday night. Despite almost crashing on the last lap of the last workout there, when Paul "The Machete" Che chopped me as we were winding it out to sprint from a breakaway of four riders, I kept the bike upright and avoided what could have been a spectacular tumble. Aggressive riding obviously equates to danger and the risk of a fall, but thanks to the tight confines of the 250m wooden track, I've improved my bike handling such that I think I'll be even better positioned to win a stage in China.

My teammates are already in Hong Kong, and I'm excited to meet up with them later today. Champion Systems, the major sponsor of our composite team, has put together a great group of riders for the race, including last year's 2nd place GC rider, Derek Wong. Because my own team situation for 2006 is still not sorted, I'm thankful to Ray Alba and David Somerville and the folks at Champion Systems for getting me a ride in one of the first UCI races of the season. Hopefully this will be a chance for me to shine on the international stage and to maybe attract the attention of a team that somehow has a roster opening (inquiries from team directors welcome). The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and Dr. Freddie H. Fu have been my longtime sponsors, and I hope that their support will continue through 2006, but if it should not, I will always appreciate what Dr. Fu and Larry Grollman helped me to accomplish.

That said, my immediate focus in the TSCS, and I've been hired to win a stage, which I plan on doing. The race starts in Hong Kong on December 26, 2005 and ends in Macau on January 2, 2006.

Last year I was able to celebrate Christmas with my wife in Havana, but the current political climate makes that impossible. I guess it's better to be halfway around the world and missing your loved ones rather than a short plane ride away in California and still separated. I'm incredibly proud of Yuliet, however, because despite all of the hardships that confront her on a daily basis, she won national championships in both the road race and individual time trial in Cuba this month.

I think she'd really like California, with the variety of terrain and enormous number of cyclists who live here. During the past eight weeks, I've trained a lot with one in particular, an Armenian by the name of Hrach Gevrikyan, who owns the Velo Pasadena bike shop. In a short period of time, Hrach has become a good friend and a great riding partner, and I appreciate the moral and material support he offered me in the build up to this trip. For an older guy who doesn't ride nearly as much as he did when he was in the Soviet sports program, Hrach still gets up the hills, and he even had the sack to take me on a route that included the climbs of Hwy 39 and the backside of Glendora Mtn Road!

For my last group road training session in California I did the Simi Valley ride, a classic course that attracts hundreds of cyclists every Saturday. I caught a ride to the start with Tina, Manny and Gus, and despite flatting early, I was able to rejoin the main group and spend some time hammering with my friend Aaron Olson, who was resplendent in his new banana yellow Saunier Duval clothing! Just kidding Aaron. He is a guy who's going places, and I urge all you English speakers out there to support AO and his North American teammates on SD in 2006. Aaron promises to write a diary for Cyclingnews, which I'm sure will make for great reading as he tackles such epic races as Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.

Heading back to the parking area after the ride's official finish, Ivan Dominguez and I caught up with each other and reminisced about Cuba and Cuban cycling and Cuban food and Cuba this and Cuba that - and I'm not even Cuban! No matter, because Ivan is a helluva good guy. I really admire everything that "Papa" has done, risking everything to defect to the United States to pursue his sport. I know it hasn't been easy for him, since the day of the Simi ride was the 1-year anniversary of his mother's death. He never saw her again after he decided to remain in the USA after the Goodwill Games in 1998.

Racing in communist China should provide an interesting counterpoint to racing in communist Cuba, both from a sociopolitical and sporting standpoint. I promise to write more about the latter in addition to all the juicy travelogue details. Thanks for reading, stay tuned for a report from stage 1 next week, and a happy holiday season to everyone!


Joe Papp

Joe Papp is a UCI Elite rider with the UPMC cycling team. He was a double stage winner at the 2003 Vuelta a Cuba (UCI 2.5) and has finished in the top-10 three times at the UCI Pan American Continental Championships (2005, 2004, 1996). Joe's writing is good enough to make boring races intriguing and intriguing races captivating.