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Not dead yet

USA, January 22, 2005

From Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)

The Dead Collector: "Bring out yer dead."

[a man puts a body on the cart]

Large man with dead body: "Here's one."

The dead collector: "That'll be ninepence."

The dead body that claims it isn't: "I'm not dead."

The dead collector: "What?"

Large man with dead body: "Nothing. There's your ninepence."

The dead body that claims it isn't: "I'm not dead."

The dead collector: "'Ere, he says he's not dead."

Large man with dead body: "Yes he is."

The dead body that claims it isn't: "I'm not."


I'm sitting in a hotel room in Miami on the eve of my departure for the Tour of Cienfuegos and the Vuelta a Cuba, and I've been having a difficult time trying to write an update for my diary without coming across as being a depressed whiner. Haha. That's why I just finished searching the web for the bit of dialogue pasted in above - to remind myself that, despite feeling otherwise, I'm not dead yet.

The unfortunate truth, however, is that I feel like I'm in as bad of shape both physically and mentally as I was after the June 2003 crash that almost cost me my left leg. This time it's my lower back, and after finally getting MRI's done in November to understand why I was suffering pain and numbness in my right leg, I was diagnosed with a severe herniated lumbar disc and nerve impingement.

That's why there was no update from the Tour of Taiwan, which I completed in November 2004 along with Scott Zwizanski, Rob Giannini and Eneas Freyre. The race was a disaster for me, and it was because I was pedaling with one leg. For the same reason I stayed home from the recently-completed Vuelta a Tachira in Venezuela. Apparently, the disc herniation caused swelling and irritation of one of the nerve branches that controls muscles from my quads to my tippy toes, and as a result I can accomplish a lot less work with my right leg than with my left (the whole pedaling with one leg thing).

Nonetheless, hoping it would go away, I kept riding and working out during the winter, though to a much lesser degree than the past two years, and it shows in the form. I've done a lot of core strengthening, structural integration, acupuncture, massage and even epidural cortisone injections (owwww) in order to get the pain in my back under control, but the damage to the nerve remains. It's a bummer, since I bet a lot on finally, finally getting back to my pre-2003 crash fitness and showing the domestic cycling world that I was definitely underrated as a rider and should "officially" be in the pro ranks and not just one of the top-ranked amateurs in the USA. Sorry, shameless self aggrandizement there.

Despite bailing on one UCI stage race already this season, I'm going to Cuba for my fourth Vuelta a Cuba, and will be riding the Tour of Cienfuegos as "preparation." And after marrying Yuliet Rodriguez-Jimenez, one of the best Cuban road cyclists, last October, I now have a familial interest in returning to race there in addition to my own love for the Vuelta! As if I needed one more reason, photojournalist extraordinaire Chris Milliman will be covering the event for a US-based cycling publication and I want to be there when the Vuelta finally gets the coverage it deserves.

Thoughts of winning a few more Vuelta stages to go along with the two I collected in 2003 went out the window awhile ago, but I'm hoping that since my leg isn't getting any worse, riding these races will keep me focused and help me to get a bit more form in case the nerve really does heal itself. I'm also really looking forward to sharing my experience in the Tour of Cuba with a new group of riders, including Aaron Olson from Colavita, who'll be one of our best hopes for stage win. I was in California for a few weeks before coming to Miami, and I had the chance to do the Simi Valley ride with Aaron, and he was flying. If he actually makes it to Cuba and stays healthy, I don't see any reason why he shouldn't be able to take a stage or two with a bit of luck.

Regardless, I'll be happy to ride for whichever one of us has the best fitness, and have only a limited set of goals. Firstly, I want to make it as far as the finish of stage six in Ciego de Avila - my wife's home province. Secondly, I'd like to finish the entire Tour and cross the line in Havana. Thirdly, I'd like to win an intermediate sprint along the way. I'm not even dreaming about a stage win for myself, since I just haven't been able to train sufficiently.

There's a lot of change and uncertainty in my life right now, but I'm not dead yet. My wife and I are working to get her a visa to finally come to the USA, my team is facing a loss of sponsorship and I've been doing the math and bike racing alone won't pay the bills for Yuliet and me. I don't want to retire, especially now while dealing with an injury, but if that's the way that Fortuna's Wheel ultimately turns against me, then I'll bow out gracefully, thankful for having had the opportunity to see the world through my sport and delighted at having been able to write a diary that appears alongside those of such great riders as John Lieswyn, Paolo Bettini and Scott Sunderland.

Maybe that uncertainty is really opportunity and there's something even more incredible than bike racing waiting for me on the horizon. Marriage has certainly changed my outlook and even with the bad leg I still feel like the luckiest guy on the planet (thanks, Y).

I know for sure that the day that I have to stop riding full-time, I'll dedicate myself in the short term at least to helping my wife get a contract with one of the US-based women's teams. She's an incredible climber, time trialist and pursuiter, though of course she's unknown outside of Cuba and some of the Pan Am Confederation because of the political drama surrounding her country.

So readers, let's see what happens. I'm not giving myself a definite date to make a decision about continuing in cycling, though I suspect that it will become rather obvious whether or not I can still race. Until then, I invite you to follow me on at least one more adventure, as I sign on for another Vuelta around Cuba - the Pearl of the Antilles.

Email Joe at

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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.