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Flying high

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!


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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.