Doing a few new things

November 22, 2005

I actually had to skip my morning training session today to start work on this diary, so tired have I been each evening by 6pm for the past three weeks. You see, after a horrific 2005 season in which I floundered for most of the year, I'm back on track - literally! Last night I trained at the Encino Velodrome in Encino, CA and tonight I'm off to the ADT Event Centre in Carson, CA. No, I haven't quit road racing for a return to the track! I'm just trying to go back to basics and rebuild the speed and acceleration that I had early in my career, but which has ebbed away since I started focusing more on longer stage races and hillier one-day classics in 2002.

I used to have one fast finish for a roadie and won stuff like two stages of the Vuelta a Cuba, a stage in the Vuelta a Uruguay (for which I was credited 2nd!), the NYC BMC Criterium, a stage at Superweek, etc, etc…I haven't felt "fast" since 2003, and the change in my body has been noticeable. In fact, it became a matter of saving my health this season, when - after returning from Italy and winning a big criterium in West Chester against some good pros - I started going backwards. By the end of the season, I think I had abandoned seven races in succession, and in races that I normally would have been a key player, I couldn't even lead out my teammates.

I'm lucky to have gotten four good results - in the Vuelta a Cuba, the Taipei Road Race, the Pan Am Championships and that crit in West Chester, PA - but at my last race of the year, the Univest GP (in which I once finished third behind Alex Lavalle and Tom Boonen), I climbed off in the first feed zone and dropped my bike on the ground - I had had enough!

Just before that weekend, however, I had visited the doctors at the UPMC Cycling Performance Centre (a team sponsor) and a few days after Univest I got a phone call and learned what was going on - my endocrine system was all "out of whack" and my adrenal glands were overstressed and begging for a rest. So that was why I vomited on the side of the road after crossing the finish line of the Central Park Mengoni GP and why I couldn't maintain my blood sugar. It was a relief, to say the least, to finally understand what was wrong, and the prescription for recovery was great - rest! I obviously made some big mistakes in 2005 with respect to my training and recovery decisions, but there were also external sources of stress that compounded the problem, not least of which is my wife's ongoing immigration difficulties and our extended separation.

With a trip to Cuba for the Masters Pan Am Cup still on the schedule for October, I bid my Latino teammates Wendy Cruz, Mateo Sasso and Alvaro Tardaguila farewell as they headed back to their respective home countries, and more for the chance to finally see Yuliet again after five months apart than to race, I packed my Fuji bike one more time and headed to Havana via Miami (my favourite airport in the USA). It was just what the doctor ordered.

Hurricane season in the Caribbean means that "beach weather" is in short supply, but even an abbreviated amount of sunshine and the proverbial warm tropical breeze is a potent elixir for making one feel human again. The bike was only unpacked so that I had a commuter machine to move around through the old Pan Am Games village near Yuliet's house, until a Cuban friend who is a triathlete invited me to the Pan Am Cup Triathlon, in which several of the US masters who were there to race road would participate.

Relishing a chance to pedal lightly down to Santa María del Mar, I set off helmet-less on the lightly traveled Cuban roads and arrived before the swimmers made it out of the ocean and into the beach transition area. What I thought would be a chance to sip a rum and coke and watch the bike leg (laps on a short circuit along the beach) quickly became a scramble to find a helmet as my friend castigated me for arriving late when I had to RIDE the bike leg! Nooooooooo! I couldn't refuse a buddy who's done so much for me by looking out for Yuliet (he has internet access, she doesn't), so with a borrowed helmet (the stinkiest helmet I'd ever worn!) I staged my bike and waited for my swimmer to come in.

And waited...and waited...

As I saw one of the last competitors clamber over the sand dunes and into the transition area, it dawned on me that I'd been teamed up with a junior swimmer and my friend, who would run! Thinking back, it was actually good that she came out of the water so far back (but not last!), because I had a ton of people to try to pick off on the circuits. There was a lot of standing water on the course because of the recent rains, so I was able to take the turns a lot faster than the triathletes, who aren't used to really having to throw the bike around in a pack of riders. One national team girl fell in front of me going into the first turn on the second lap, and it was all I could do to avoid running over her, which, had I done so, would have seriously diminished my reputation as the friendly American within the Cuban cycling and triathlon communities. Disaster (for me, at least) was avoided and I set about to gobbling up the other bikers. Of course I had the unfair advantage of being able to use all my waning energy on the bike leg, since my friend would do the run for our team, but still - I caught everyone except the first two riders, who have been the first and second place finishers in the national championships for the last three years running.

No problem though, because my friend could start the run in third place, and though he hadn't been training, he had enough gas to hold on for a top-5 overall, and the team win! This was a pleasant surprise, and the most fun I'd had riding my bike all year. The rest of the trip was a dream, and it looked like the Americans who were first-time participants in the Pan Am races in Cuba had a great time. The rest of the trip for me was spent trying to maximize the quantity and quality of my time with Yuliet, which inevitably came to a bittersweet end on October 9, when I returned to the USA.

Physically I was feeling loads better than when I'd abandoned at Univest, and mentally I was refreshed (except for the horror and pain of again having to leave my wife behind). In fact, I was motivated enough to finally be honest with myself about what I want to get out of my last few seasons racing full-time, and what I would need to do in order to get there.

I've been lucky to be supported by some very generous companies and individuals during my career, especially the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, Dr. Freddie H. Fu, my family (my brother Dave most of all, who has played a big role in keeping me going forward this last year), and Mike Fraysse, who was recently elected 1st Vice Chair of USCF. Mike knows more about cycling as both a coach and administrator than could be covered in a two volume book, and he's one of the most generous people I've ever met. He'd have to be to have put up with me living in an apartment in his Victorian mansion in Glen Spey, NY for four years. Mike can be a caustic, blunt guy, however, but in this case I appreciated it when he told me point blank while driving home from the Newark airport after my return from Miami that I needed to get my shit together, change my attitude and focus on making positive moves on the things I could change, like where I was living in the short-term.

At first I thought he was going to tell me to pack my bags, put my furniture in storage and find new lodgings, but it wasn't so bad. He was kind enough to suggest some post-riding careers that he thought would suit my knowledge, skills set and personality, but what he really wanted to say was that I needed to not spend three months living in rural New York during the fall and winter if I wanted to survive another separation from my wife and recoup my previous level of form and fitness. Though Mike is the kind of coach who can prepare you to win the points race on the track at Nationals but wouldn't be able to download a workout from my SRM powermeter, he is smart and experienced enough to point out that besides messing up my endocrine system, my vagabond, globe-trotting lifestyle and racing calendar were leaving me a weak, emasculated pseudo-stage racer, and not the kind of rider who once out-sprinted Jonas Carney at the finish in the Tour of Somerville. "You need to get stronger," he said, "because I'm an arthritic, 62 year-old man and I can lift more weight around this house than you."

Like I said, Mike is not one to mince words, and in this case, he was right on target. The next step was to decide where to go, when, and what to do when I got there. It wasn't a tough decision though, since it was obvious that I needed to start preparing for 2006 by starting a strength and conditioning program that would do everything from correct muscle imbalances and strengthen my core to help me improve my LT wattage by increasing the force I could generate while pedaling. I could have gone home to Pittsburgh, PA but the fall and winter there is no good for riding, and I didn't want to go abroad since access to a quality gym facility would be unlikely, so another great supporter of mine stepped up to the plate and invited back to his SoCal pad - Jay Wolkoff. Ack, cycling is such a small sport, that my advice to all you youngsters out there is to keep your noses clean and make friends with everyone and try not to piss off ANYONE, because 10 years down the line, you'll probably need a favor from them.

I met Jay back in 1990 and he's been there for me ever since. That's how I find myself out here in Altadena, just above Pasadena, getting my Fuji Track Pro bike ready for a trip to the ADT Center tonight with another one of the supporters, a friend of Jay's named Gene! Again, kids, be likeable! Be professional! Be grateful! I for one wouldn't be able to continue racing this year if it wasn't for guys like Gene who schlep my butt to ADT, Encino, Simi Valley…all because they're happy that I'm living what they perceive to be the dream.

I'm not done, however! I wouldn't have known what to do when I finally got to the gym (a 24Hour Fitness in Pasadena; attention USA Cycling members - you get a discount if you sign up at this chain because of some sponsorship deal between the corporation and our governing body!) if it wasn't for my new strength and conditioning coach, Jeb Stewart of EnduroFit and the Peaks Coaching Group. I am a USA Cycling Level 1 coach, and I get paid to coach riders, but I can't stress enough the value that I place on actually having a coach or trainer to guide my efforts. Like all coaches, I have a good understanding of physiology and training principles and nutrition and I especially know what works for me, but on a day-to-day basis it is a huge benefit and advantage to have an even more knowledgeable source to aid in the planning and review process. And as far as the strength training, Jeb brings a whole new approach to the work I'll do this fall and winter.

Whereas I used to do a machine-based, periodized program that focused on major muscle groups and included exercises like squats, leg press, bench press and rows, it wasn't a sports-specific program that was tailored to the unique demands of cycling. I know Jeb because he is President of PCG, the coaching group that I work with, and it was his colleague Hunter Allen (a power training guru) who guided me through the 2004 season, when I won some big races and had top finishes in others, like the Pan Ams and Univest. I'm even more excited to be working with Jeb, because his expertise in strength and conditioning dovetails with my weaknesses in the same areas, and I hope that by working with him I'll not only rebuild my own body, but learn a methodology that I can employ with my own clients. Before Jeb and I even agreed to work together, I had watched the DVD he created, titled The Next Level, and in short order was convinced that there was a lot I could do between now and February to literally get myself back up to the level of racing to which I'm accustomed.

There is a monetary cost to all of this, of course, but I think that makes it an even more serious endeavour for me. The fact that I pay for these services, albeit with a professional discount, means that I'm even more motivated and serious about the training. I've been in the gym for four weeks now, and the effects are fantastic! I'm starting to feel like a physically fit human being again, though it's a strange feeling to work with a stability ball and a medicine ball and small hand weights when I was used to throwing around twelve 45lb-plates on the leg press machine with Tim O'Toole back in the day. Jay has been great, too, because even though he works full-time as a massage therapist, he finds time to treat my aching limbs, and despite the fact that he's trying to finish renovating his house he hasn't put me to work hauling bricks or stripping paint. You might be laughing, but this is important stuff. I want to win four stages at the 2006 Vuelta a Cuba (UCI 2.2), and I want to earn selection to the US team for the 2006 Pan Am Championships (UCI CC) in Brazil, and those kinds of results won't be possible without a fully-focused effort.

I owe a debt of gratitude to everyone who is supporting me now and who has been there for me over the years, because without people like the folks I mention here giving of themselves, knowing that equitable financial or material compensation from me is basically impossible for me to provide, I'd be done with the bike and no longer "living the dream."

I still suffer from some minor after-effects of the crashes I had since 2002, and the scar on my left knee isn't any less ugly now than in 2003, but the good sensations are finally coming back. I feel like a rider reborn, and I think this will be my best year ever. Even from an organizational standpoint I'm happy! The UPMC Cycling Performance Center is supporting my team through 2006, and there is talking of expanding the program this year to include more riders and a more ambitious racing schedule. I'll make my road debut on December 26th at the Tour of the South China Seas, a UCI 2.2 on the Asia Calendar. I'm going with a composite team organized by David Sommerville from NYC, with the aim of getting some (very) early season results to show the USA Cycling selectors that I am worthy of representing the USA at the Pan Am Championships. Despite having always ridden well there (in '96, '04 and this year), and despite almost no other American men having ridden the road race (notable exception: current CSC-pro Christian Vande Velde who was my teammate in '96), nothing is guaranteed and I want to present a watertight case full of UCI America and Asia Tour results to complement my past history in the Pan Ams. Heck, maybe I'll try to ride UCI races in all five Tours (America, Asia, Africa, Oceania and Europe) and score points on each continent. That wouldn't get me a Pro Tour contract, but it would be a goofy statistic. After China it's back to California in January and then the Vuelta a Cuba in February. And both races should offer excellent diary-writing opportunities!

Speaking of UCI tours, can we get a big round of applause for Aaron Olson, an all-around-good-guy pro bike rider who signed for Saunier Duval for two years. I had the pleasure of racing with AO in the '05 Vuelta a Cuba, where he selflessly rode his butt off every day to help me finish on the podium in the points competition, and I am so happy for him. He's going to be living the real dream, not my third-world pro dream, and I hope everyone reading this has a chance to show the guy some support. Someone should start by making him a website to chronicle his adventures in Europe!

I just talked to Aaron last night, and he was in Colorado doing some training at altitude before heading to Europe for a mini-camp. The good news is that he will be in SoCal in early December and we're going to get together for a ride and then some drinks at a Cuban café in Burbank. Or maybe we'll just skip the ride part and go straight for the mojitos.

Alas, two guys who won't be back in the paid ranks in 2006 as riders are John Lieswyn and David McKenzie. I had the pleasure of racing against both of them, and while I was never buddy-buddy with either, they always impressed me with their professionalism and willingness not to flick the little guy. And I'll always appreciate the fact that McKenzie didn't give me a load of "shit" over my abandoning the Herald Sun Tour in 2003. He took one look at the scar on my knee, which I'd mangled in the early summer, and was amazed to even see me on the bike. I tried to return his kindness but not taking him down with me when I fell after hitting a sign in a one-day race in New Jersey in 2004.

And while I remember fondly in 1994 when Lieswyn, then riding with a mullet for Coors Light, was less than pleased to have a yappy 19-year-old kid (me) on the starting line next to him at the Ocala, FL road race, I tried to play it cool and everything seems like it's now back on track for me.

I have never been this positive about an upcoming season in a long time. From the first moment I arrived in SoCal and was recognized as a diarist while shopping at Velo Pasadena, the local high-end bike shop that has Greg LeMond's 1989 Tour de France-winning Bottechia time trial bike on display, to working out on the velodrome again without forgetting to keep pedaling (guess I didn't need that sticker on my stem anyway), all the auspicious signs are in place. There are many riders and even complete teams interested in racing the Vuelta a Cuba with me this year, and every Saturday I can do the Montrose Ride with 100 other of my closest friends and horse around with pros like Rahsaan Bahati who are as desperate as me to get into race shape for early season events (he's got Tour of Quatar, I've got China). If you've never done Montrose, and I hadn't until last year, this is the best description of it I found, from

"The Montrose ride, which starts at Descanso Gardens in La Canada (about 3 miles northwest of the Rose Bowl in Pasadena), covers about 45 miles on it's way to the official "end" of the ride in Sierra Madre. This ride is fast, dangerous, and can also be expensive. Expensive you ask? Well, the group routinely runs stop signs and stop lights along its route, and every so often annoyed officers pull over dozens of riders at a time issuing citations. If you are lucky enough not to get a ticket, watch out for riders joining the pack along the way as they often surprise riders who are flying along at speeds of up to 40mph, particularly along Huntington Drive in San Marino. Don't get me wrong, this is a fun ride, but it's no Sunday stroll (maybe that's why it's on Saturday). So bring a fairly fresh set of legs and be SURE to wear your helmet!"

It's one of those classic winter group (race) rides that your coach warns you about. But for me it is serving a purpose and I actually love the spectacle of being in a group that big - we just don't have them in Pennsylvania or New York. Us "Easterners" just couldn't imagine it. All in good fun, however.

The last bit before I have to sign off, get some sleep and get ready to do it all again tomorrow (the training, not the diary writing) is a shout-out to my ex-teammate Jeanne Farrell, who I've lost contact with. If anyone out there reading this knows Jeanne, ask her to email me at the address below.

Thanks for reading, and good luck during the off-season. Train hard and be well!


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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.