Master’s Pan American Games – Havana, Cuba – 2010

In order for an American athlete to enter Cuba, Mike Fraysee, who organized this trip had to petition to the US Treasury Department for permission to take 64 athletes to compete. We had to provide our USA Cycling license and our passport to prove who we were and all converged on the Miami airport to board a charter flight.

After a long check-in process (about three and a half hours) we all boarded a brand new 737 and within 35 minutes, landed in Havana, Cuba. It seems they had flown all of our gear and luggage on another plane so we all sat in the airport for about an hour and a half before our gear arrived. The airport was very simple. The grass around the runaway was unkempt and the waiting area for customers reminded me of the small airport in Maui.

The Cuban equivalent of TSA was delightful. They use cocker spaniels as sniff-dogs and me, being the “dog lover” that I am, met all three of them. As a part of the Customs Official uniform, the women wore black fish-net stockings which were fine by me. Since I’m fluent in Spanish I acted as a translator to the representative of the Federation of Sport who came to meet us. He directed us to the buses outside where I also translated. On the way I met a few stray dogs that were also cute and very friendly. I couldn’t help but pet them. As we drove from the airport, I saw many decrepit homes with children playing outside and clothes hanging on a line.

It took a while to check-in 64 guests into a hotel. Unfortunately, for me, all the standing in customs and the hotel check-in caused my left knee to swell and ache. It’s odd, even after five knee operations; I can ride 140 miles in a day, race seven days in a row and have no knee problems. Last week I filmed two days in Las Vegas where I had to remain on a “mark” for hours or stood in line today and my knee swells and gives me pain. Just proves that synovial joints gain their nutrition from movement orimbibition, especially, as in my case, after arthritis has set in.

Got my gear to my room, went downstairs to have dinner with my brother and his friend Mark. The food was not great, which worked in my favor since I’m restricting my calories for the Huntsman Senior World Games in three weeks where the races are very hilly. Returned to my room, built my bikes and then met my brother Eric and Mark at the pool area to watch a fashion show which was cool. It gave us something to do.

Back up to the bar to fraternize with some of the riders I had met the year before in the Dominican Republic. Fraysee bought me a drink; rum on the rocks. Whew! I don’t drink, so it lit me up. Standing there talking with my friend Cathy McNamara from Los Angeles (she’s one of my training partners at home) listening to the drumming of Cuban rhythms, standing in the balmy weather and looking around at our surroundings we felt like were in Guiana. Just last weekend we had both raced in California and we both agreed “this doesn’t look like Kansas!”

10k Time Trial

After a few days of light training, swimming in the beautiful Caribbean and lying in the sun, we rode out to the TT course. It was approximately 18 miles. At 90 degrees and 98% humidity, you could say I was warmed up. I had done my three mandatory “leg openers” which consisted of 1-3 minute all-out efforts. Once I got to the course, I changed into my skin suit and then rode the course with my brother. Mostly flat, but once again, a lot of wind. Cuba is an island and the wind never stops. My goal was to go under 14 minutes. I really wanted to win, but it wasn’t meant to be. I lost the gold by 23 seconds and missed my goal by two seconds with a time of 14:02. Oh well, I guess I’ll have to fight it out at the criterium and the road race to win a gold medal.

2k Pursuit on the Track

There are many different ways to ride a bike: road racing, mountain biking, cycle cross and the track. I’ve never been on the track. Well, I take that back. I did ride on the track last year in the Dominican Republic. However, no one was there, it was closed and it was nighttime with no lights. I had just started to ride and then it began to rain. Not a good idea to ride on a 45 degree banked track in the rain, especially if you’ve never ridden one. I had heard the track in Cuba was just as steep but, I had a few days between my next race and another racer graciously offered to lend me his track bike, so, even though I hadn’t planned on racing the track, I decided to give it a whirl. If the universe presents you with an opportunity, it’s best to take it.

The pursuit is where each competitor lines up on the opposite side of the track and basically case goes like a bat out of hell for six laps or two kilometers. Sounded easy enough. A couple of things you should know about a track bike. There are no gears and no brakes! You ride a “fixed gear,” which means you can’t stop pedaling and if you do, you’ll get thrown off the bike.

We set up the bike for me and off I went. In the pursuit you don’t have to climb up on the steep pitches of the banks and instead it’s best to stay closest to the bottom or the “black line.” The black line is the shortest distance around the track or the apex. This is why I chose the pursuit. No one around for me to knock down or the other way around, plus I thought I could stay on the flat part of the track. Wrong! There is no flat part. The bottom of the track is banked as well.

Riding a track bike for the first time feels like the bike is controlling you. You can’t stop pedaling to fix your cleat and you can’t brake, which means you have to constantly think ahead as to where you’re going and what you’re going to have to do.

In the Pursuit, competitors have to race a qualifying heat in order to get in the finals. In the final, the two best times compete for the gold and silver while the next two best times compete for bronze.

I went around a lap or two and for a slight moment had a feeling of vertigo. Once I “gave in” or let go to the fact that my bike (and me) wasn’t going to slide down the embankment I was fine. I found it a little difficult to remain close the black line but it wasn’t too bad. What I discovered was that the one “fixed gear” I was riding was too big. It was a 96 inch gear. (This means a bike with a 27 inch wheel will travel 96 inches with one revolution of the pedal). I had no way to warm up and no one told me to bring my road bike (which has gears) to warm up. We had to change gears two more times before we found one (I had a bunch of people giving me suggestions) that seemed like it might work. It was a 90 or 91 inch gear. Tracy Leah gave me a 2:39 schedule and Tracy was going to time me each lap to let me know if I was going to fast or too slow. It seems most novices go way too fast and then die with two laps to go, which hopefully wasn’t going to happen with Tracy giving me splits as I went by.

I went out fairly well, but even though I held my back, my second lap was two seconds too fast. By lap four I was hurting and with two laps to go (it’s a six lap race on this track) I gave it everything I had, but lost by .3 seconds. Nevertheless, it turned out my time had qualified me anyway! I would be riding against Argentina in the afternoon session.

The team went back to the hotel for lunch and we were to meet in the lobby at 2:30pm for the return for the afternoon session. I was so “knackered” as the Brits would say that I fell asleep in my room after lunch and missed the darn bus. That stressed me out, but luckily I got on another bus and didn’t have to ride in the 96 degree heat and humidity all the way to the track.

The Final for the Bronze medal.

I brought my road bike this time and warmed up outside of the track (I thought it might be cooler; not really, it was 96 degrees!) but the wind was ridiculous and my legs felt horrible. I could barely move them. I figured I’d better rest. After about two hours of watching the finals for matched sprints for all the categories and trying to feel what used to be my legs, they called my name.

This time, I was told to watch Mike Fraysse (my coach) on each lap. He told me if he was standing a certain distance on one side of the line that meant I was leading by that distance. If he was standing a certain distance on the other side of the line then I was losing by that distance. You see, on a track bike that is set up for the pursuit, you’re on profile bars that have you stretched out on the bike, which means you can’t see the other competitor, plus he’s on the other side of the track going in the same direction so you can’t really see each other. On the track, speed and aerodynamics are everything. I needed the profile bars and would just watch Mike. Seemed simple enough. ARGH! I had a terrible start. I couldn’t get going. I came around the first lap and it seemed Mike was about 10 ft past the line. Could I be leading by that much on the first lap?

Lap 2: I remembered going way too fast on the second lap in my qualifying round so I had held back, but it appeared Mike was even further away from the line. Was I killing this guy?

On the third lap, it was starting to hurt and the wind was really strong on one side so I had to dig deep. As I approached Mike for the third time, he and Betsy, another coach, were both yelling at me. I’ve heard of track riders describing “tunnel vision” because you’re so bonkers you can’t hear or see anything. Now I know what they meant. I had no idea what they were saying and they seemed weirdly out of focus, like everything outside of the tunnel was in water.

On the fourth lap, Mike still positioned himself way down from the line, which according to him meant I was winning but, I could make out him waving his hands. As I went by, he put his hands around his mouth and yelled “stay on the black line!” Oops! In my lack of experience I had forgotten to stay close to the black line which meant I was riding about 40 meters further than my competitor. The Argentinean also had a rear disc and a tri-spoke wheel set, which I didn’t have, so I was working harder and riding further. The end result was I was getting killed and worse off, I didn’t know it because according to Mike’s position on the track , I was winning.

Every racer I had spoke to had advised me that with two laps to go, to “pull out all the stops” and that’s what I did. And this time, I hugged that black line.

I didn’t see it, but according to everyone, the Argentinean had a quarter of a lap on me with one lap to go. In three quarters of a lap, or in less than 300 meters, I scorched it and beat him convincingly to win the bronze medal! At the moment I didn’t know who had won but I got such a surprising round of applause from the crowd that I figured either I had won, or it had been real close.

Once I made it down onto the center of the track I could tell by the congratulations the race had been cool to watch. An American told me the Argentinean had an illegal start and left the holder a few seconds early. He had been way out in front, but I slowly gained on him throughout the race and then really closed it in the last lap. I was the “Come Back Kid.” I still had no gold medal or winner’s jersey, but I had to feel good. The first time on the track in an international event and I got a bronze medal. It turns out I was the only cyclist of all the categories who was seated fourth that actually won the bronze. Imagine if I trained, rode my own bike and had some aero wheels? Maybe I need to invest in a track bike. Anyone want to sponsor me? J

The Criterium

Another windy day in 96 degree heat. As Mark, my brother Eric and I warmed up around the course, my legs felt so tired. The track had worn me out. I just hoped the wind would slow the race down and keep the aggression at an average level. Our plan was for me to cover all the early attacks in case they could stay away and Eric and Mark were to stay back, block if I got away and stay fresh for the end. The course was a 1.5 kilometer rectangle with four corners.

The first lap of a crit is always interesting. There’s always some hot shot that goes from the gun which is exactly what happened. He was good for a half a lap until we turned directly into the wind, which effectively humbled him. The race was not really hard, which was lucky for me, because my legs were toast. I was able to cover any attack and if I couldn’t, Mark or Eric would close it down. Here’s how it works. If a racer goes off the front and another American goes with him, it’s not up to us to chase. I, or any other American can sit back and wait for another country to chase. You don’t chase your teammate.

At five laps to go, you must stay vigilant. You must go with anyone who attacks. With three to go, two guys got a gap and we caught them at the line with two laps to go. If I had been feeling better, that would have been the time to attack, but I was too tired. I stayed at the front and on the last lap I was right in the sweet spot. I went into the third corner in third position, maintained my position through the last corner and now we had a long straight-away to the finish directly into the wind. The third corner had been dicey because it was really bumpy and if you went in too hot your back wheel would bounce around and lose traction which could cause you to slide out. I had lowered my pressure in my back tire to 110psi and I was still bouncing around. I knew I had to be in the front on that last corner to avoid any mishaps which is exactly what happened. A crash occurred right in front of Mark and Eric which removed them both out of contention. It was all up to me.

The first guy went hard, but way too soon. The Canadian in second position was right behind him and I was drafting him. With about 300 meters to go the Canadian went for it. The wind was so strong I was trying to time it perfectly and with about 100 meters to go I gunned it. He accelerated as he saw my wheel gaining on him and as the line approached we both lunged for the line. He beat me by two lousy inches. I just ran out of road. Two more feet and I would have had him. Another silver medal! I’m pissed. I really want to win that gold medal. Tomorrow is my last chance.

Road Race

Another windy, hot, muggy day. Felt much better after a massage last night. I actually got massaged on a massage table instead of a desk! Try to relax while someone is smushing your body into a desk….. Welcome to Cuba.

The course was about 3 kilometers with a steep 12-13% short, power climb followed by a 180 degree turn at the top. One side was a head wind and the other side a tail wind.

On the third lap a break-a-way ensued of about eight guys. My brother Eric was in there with me which was impressive because he didn’t feel good at all. By the next lap it was down to five of us: Canada, Argentina, Puerto Rico, Venezuela and yours truly, el gringo. Although it was really hard I was hanging in there. Every lap I was first or second at the top of the hill and then would coast on the way down, letting a few guys pass, shielding me into the right turn, directly into the wind. The heat was brutal. My face stung like I had some kind of acid peel. However, so far; so good.

With three laps to go, we passed the younger group (45-49) on the way to the hill. I jammed it up the hill, crested it in second position and on the way down I got swarmed by the younger group. Groups aren’t supposed to mix so as we went into the wind the official on the motorbike tried to separate us. For the exception of two racers, the younger group dropped back and our group jammed it to get away from them. The two younger guys who stayed with us were pissing me off because I knew there was no way their pack was going to let those guys go. I motioned to the official on the motorbike that these two guys were not with us and to tell them to pull back. Nothing! No response. I tried again. Remember, I’m fluent in Spanish so I know they understood what I was saying. I don’t get it. Nothing happened. Just as a thought, here came the whole pack as we went into the 180 degree corner that would take us back with a huge tailwind.

Then the attacks started. I was okay dealing with the four guys in my break-a-way, but I didn’t have the strength to sustain the additional fire power. Kudos to the other four guys in my break, but I couldn’t stay with that much attacking. That was it. It was over. I wasn’t going to drag myself around two more laps so, just like that, I was done. That was my 47th race of the year. I have 11 more to go and then I’m done. After that, I won’t even look at my bike for a week!

There would be no gold medal for me. I did four races and medaled in three; two silvers and a bronze. I found out I had improved my time in the final for the pursuit to a 2:45:787. I’m happy about that. I improved my time trial position from last year from bronze to silver. I’ll be knocking on the gold medal door next time. I gave away my cleats, helmet, shoes, socks, t-shirts, gloves and some dress shirts to a poor 20-year-old Cuban racer. He was so happy.

I’m looking forward to next year.