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 wins...talk 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 (www.joepapp.com). 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!