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Arlenis Sierra: Cuban star

Arlenis Sierra
Arlenis Sierra (Image credit: Getty Images)

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This article first appeared in Procycling magazine, issue 255 2019.

Arlenis Sierra had little knowledge of the European cycling scene when she left her home in Cuba to move to Italy and join Astana in 2017.  She tells Procycling about how she learnt to adjust to her new life.

Arlenis Sierra is perhaps still best known for celebrating on the finish line of a race she didn't win. It was the 2017 Trofeo Alfredo Binda and Coryn Rivera must have felt somewhat aggrieved that the photo capturing what was the biggest achievement of her career had been well and truly bombed. Indeed, Sierra was unceremoniously cropped out of the follow-up Instagram post. While Rivera leans back, sticking her thumb and pinky out on each hand, Sierra is in the background with her mouth wide open and arms raised straight up in the air, as if she's on a rollercoaster. The wild, childlike exuberance contrasts with the controlled cool of the American to her left.

"Everyone was asking me why I raised my arms when I finished second. I know full well I didn't win! I did it because of the emotion that came over me," Sierra tells Procycling. "Lots of people said to me, 'You don't celebrate second place,' and that annoyed me a bit. Who are they to say what I should or shouldn't be happy with?"

Perhaps the questioners, mockers, and castigators weren't aware that this was Sierra's first big result since moving from Cuba to Europe to pursue a career as a fully-fledged professional cyclist. Her justification for her enthusiasm is revealing of how far she had come to get to that point. "At that moment, I knew that making it over here wasn't so impossible as everyone was making out," she says.

Cuba is a small island country in Central America with a population of just over 11 million and a single-party political system. Prospects of a career as a cyclist are dim, for a number of reasons, chiefly the lack of infrastructure and the Communist government's restrictions on athletes moving abroad to compete. It's what makes Sierra's journey all the more remarkable. The 26-year-old, who has gone on to confirm herself as one of the most promising – if still unpolished – all-rounders in the women's peloton, was born and raised in Manzanillo, a coastal city in the province of Granma.

"My whole family lived in the same small house," she recalls. "It belonged to my grandparents, but they had separated, so my grandpa had a room on one side of the house, my grandma a room on the other, and there was only one room left for us five – my parents, my sister, my brother, and me. I was perfectly happy. I wasn't really thinking about the future. People would call me 'poor', but I realised that if I wasn't so well off, then there were always people who were worse off."

Sierra took up cycling at the age of 11 on the command of her father, who sought an outlet for her excess energy. They'd already tried and failed with other sports, like tennis, so he insisted – despite her reluctance – on signing her up for cycling at the Manzanillo municipality sports centre. "There were only three bikes, and they were very basic," Sierra says. "The tyres were fraying and there was only one brake. Three of us would go out and, when we were finished, another three would start."

After a year or so, Sierra had shown enough potential to earn a scholarship at an EIDE, one of the provincial sport-specialist boarding schools, and left home aged 12. The conditions were hardly much better. There were no bikes available in her first year, and in the following years it was another pool system where groups would take turns to train.

That this was the case in a dedicated sports school is illustrative of the lack of resources for cycling in Cuba. In fact, most such schools rely on donations from abroad. It's common for charities and even individuals to collect equipment that's either unwanted or unused, and share it out among young riders. Often the contents of the much-anticipated 'container' are distributed via a raffle, but 17-year-old Sierra was singled out when she was given a second-hand Concorde by a Norwegian man who goes over with equipment every year. It was her first bike. 

"I don't think there are the conditions in Cuba to make cycling more popular or achieve more success," Sierra says. "There aren't enough bikes, and most of them are male-specific, but the men probably have worse prospects than women, because we do a lot of races together, which raises our level, but not theirs. Cuba doesn't have the budget to put on many races, nor to pay its riders. The Vuelta a Cuba, which used to be a big event with riders coming over from abroad, has stopped now. It's hard to race on roads that are littered with potholes.

"There are very good young riders who are capable of riding at international level, as I'm doing, but there aren't enough opportunities for them. In Italy, you go training and run into under-23 teams all the time. If that was the case in Cuba, things would be different."

After four years in the EIDE, Sierra moved up to the national team and began competing abroad for the first time, both on the road and the track. Her big breakthrough came at the age of 18 at the 2011 Pan-American Games in Guadalajara, where she was down to mark attacks but ended up slipping away to a solo victory. "That's when I started thinking there could be something in cycling for me," she recalls. 

After steady improvement racing predominantly in Latin America, she represented Cuba in her first World Championships in 2015, on the track in Paris, where she finished eighth in the points race. 

2016 was the pivotal year. The big opportunity came in the summer when José Manuel Pelaez, president of the Cuban Cycling Federation, set her up with a one-month spell at the UCI's World Cycling Centre in Switzerland, a development base for promising riders from countries without clear pathways to the professional ranks.  It introduced her to what she describes as a "new approach to cycling", but it clearly didn't take long to adapt. That July Sierra won two stages and the overall at the Tour de Bretagne.

Then the professional teams came knocking. UnitedHealthcare had been tracking her since the Tour de San Luis earlier in the year, but Cuban athletes aren't allowed to sign for American teams. Professional sport was banned by the Fidel Castro regime in the 1960s and, despite a relaxation of the rules on athletes moving abroad to work a few years ago, the economic sanctions still imposed on Cuba have made the USA a no-go zone. Former Fuji-Servetto rider Iván Domínguez defected to the USA in 1998 in a process that's still all-too common in baseball, Cuba's most popular sport. Permission to head anywhere else is far from a given and is invariably granted with the condition of returning for important events such as the Pan-American Games. That was the case for Sierra when Astana women's team manager Aldo Piccolo made his approach that autumn. 

"I never imagined it was possible to ride for a team and get paid. I didn't know what that was. I had no concept of it," she says.

Sierra admits to having no real idea who UnitedHealthcare or Astana were. She leaned towards the former out of a sense of loyalty, since they were the first to take an interest, but the latter turned out to be the only possibility. This naivety to the Euro-centric professional cycling scene – so clear in that Binda finish line shot – is what's endearing about Sierra. We meet her at an old house in Ninove, Belgium, where the Astana women's team are staying for the spring classics. It's regularly used by Belgian youth teams and has also seen a number of foreign teams pass through. There's a signed rainbow jersey from Ed Clancy and pictures of him with Bradley Wiggins, Geraint Thomas and Paul Manning with their gold medals from the 2008 Olympics.

When we ask Sierra about being surrounded by this sense of heritage, she shrugs: "Bradley Wiggins? Who's that?" Breaking the stunned silence, she adds: "I'm sorry – I really don't know much about cycling."

The novelty of it all made it difficult to adapt when she did turn pro in 2017. With an agreement to split her time between Europe and Cuba, Astana set her up with a house in Treviso, northern Italy, and she hated every minute of it. 

"We don't have the same way of life as Europeans. They're more independent, whereas we're more rooted – to family, to our homeland. We need to talk, to connect. I'm not saying I don't like the European lifestyle, but it's not me," she says. "I was alone in this house in Italy. Well, it was me and a Polish girl on the team. She didn't understand anything I said and I didn't understand anything she said, so it was basically like being on my own. I would train, eat, go to bed... The days moved so slowly."

Then there was the difficulty of adapting to a new peloton and new races. "I was so shocked when I raced Strade Bianche for the first time. I couldn't believe we were racing in the wet in two degrees," she says, laughing. "Then Flanders and the cobblestones. I had no idea these races existed. In Cuba I'd never raced below 15 degrees, and if it was raining, the race would be cancelled. In those first months I went into every race with the same mindset, telling myself I had to finish, no matter what."

Sierra did far more than that. She was 35th in that Strade Bianche, then won a stage in Valencia and placed second at Binda. After a spell back in the Americas – featuring a strong performance at the Tour of California – she returned to her European home with "a sense of dread" but placed 10th overall at the Giro d'Italia. The latter portion of 2017 was complicated by illness and injury but she was more consistent in 2018, winning stages at California and Ardèche and then claiming her first WorldTour victory at the Tour of Guangxi. 2019 started just as impressively, with victory in the Cadel Evans Race.

Looking at the results alone, you wouldn't guess what Sierra was going through. The 2016 Olympics is a case in point. The way she describes it, it was this infernal day of suffering that made elite cycling seem a pipe dream. Yet she finished 28th, the best-ever result from a Cuban rider in an Olympic road race. It is, perhaps, all proof of raw talent.

"I'm improving all the time. The aim is for each year to be a little better than the last," says Sierra, who struggles to define herself as a rider. "I can climb a bit, I can sprint a bit, and I'm okay on the flat. I'm neither one thing nor the other. I still don't really know what I am."

The social side is improving steadily, too. Though she still speaks no English, she knows enough Italian to communicate with her team-mates, and at least have some fun during the shared experience in Belgium. Back in Italy, the days are still long but move a little quicker thanks to Jeidi Pradera, a young Cuban who Sierra requested Astana bring to the team in 2018. "She's like a sister to me, we're practically family. We're always together," Sierra says. "They can't take her away from me because I don't know what I'd do."

Given those hardships and that detachment from the pro cycling bubble, we ask Sierra if she's ever thought about ditching it all and heading back to Cuba. "I have, but this is the only way I can improve my future," she says. "I want to have children and I want to be able to give them a better future. I'm no millionaire but I'm better off than if I hadn't done this. The money I earn, I'm saving for tomorrow."

She has a husband back in Cuba, and they're planning when to start a family, the chief complication being the congested Olympic and Pan-American Games cycle. But when we mention the prospect of focusing on her career in Europe for another 10 years, by which point she'd be 36, she recoils in horror. "10 years over here racing?! No, no, no. I don't think so. No way."

However long she stays, Sierra still has ambition. Becoming world champion is something that stands out. Only three other Cuban cyclists have done it – Yoanka González in the scratch race at the 2004 Track Worlds, Yumari González in the same event in 2007 and Lisandra Guerra in the 500m time trial in 2008. Sierra's chances of pulling on a rainbow jersey are compromised by the fact her track programme has been vastly reduced since joining Astana, yet there's encouragement from her performances in tough one-day road races. Whisper it, but the Yorkshire Worlds in September might just suit her perfectly. [Sierra finished 12th place at the 2019 UCI Road World Championships - ed.]

"Becoming world champion is a dream. I think it's a dream of all cyclists, all athletes. I'm going to fight for it, but it's not something I'm going to get hung up about," Sierra says.

"I already have results which I feel very happy about, as if they were the best thing in the world. Maybe they're not, maybe people will tell me you can't compare your results with a gold medal at Worlds, but I say, 'I don't know, they're mine, and I'll celebrate them, and I'll see them from my own point of view."

Just like the Trofeo Binda two years ago. Given where she started, the finish line is positioned differently for Arlenis Sierra. 

Procycling magazine: the best writing and photography from inside the world's toughest sport. Pick up your copy now in all good newsagents and supermarkets, or get a Procycling print or digital subscription, and never miss an issue.

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