Spring Training, Update #1

Returning back to this thread while in a “lull” between volume pops. My spring schedule has been:

  • Mini OS mid Feb-Mid Mar
  • 12 days x 100 km/day in Cuba end of March
  • 3 Weeks of HIM flavored prep work aimed at 3K/120K/30K A race end of August
  • 5 days at the Blue Ridge Camp
  • 5 days to travel, swim, and recoup
  • 9 days of biking and running along the So Cal coast LA & SD
  • 5 days hammering with Cronk and Tallo…

During that time, swimming suffered, meaning I got in 35,000 meters in 21 sessions over the past three months. Enough to keep my form up, but certainly no fitness improvement. I *was* able to get in volume biking, 48 cycling sessions, 1700 miles (8 hours, 120 miles/week avg) and 4-6 days of running each week.

At present, I am as I said in a “lull”, which means I am faithfully following the EN Int HIM plan with an end date of Aug 27. Then one final week of volume biking with maybe one swim session, and 5 runs (but three of them in a 24 hour period!).

When I get back home, I’ll try to remember to examine my Strava and TP/WKO fitness charts, to see what if anything I can learn from this.

Just a reminder, a schedule like this requires acute and constant attention to nutrition, hydration, recovery and fatigue monitoring. It is *very* easy to dig and fall into a hole doing stuff like this. So far, so good…

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Al T ‘Tude Bad Ass Camp Athlete’s Guide

June 2-12, I’m hosting a dozen athletes at my home in Snowmass for a week long frenzy of biking and running. Springtime in the Rockies. Here is the preview I gave to them:

Base Camp: My family’s home in Snowmass Village, CO. I share this with my sister. Because my son, who manages the property, rents it out half the year, we have 15 “pillows” when filled to the max. Three bedrooms (Blue, Black, and Master) with attached baths, a loft with a nearby half bath, and a bunk room with nearby half bath.

Directions: Most people will be coming from the East, through Denver. While Independence Pass is scenic and appears to be a shorter route, it is easier and quicker to come via I-70 through Glenwood Springs to SR 82. At about MP 36, right turn @ light onto Brush Creek Road towards Snowmass Village (don’t confuse with town of Snowmass, 8 miles closer to Glenwood). 4 miles, turn right on SInclair, 0.6 miles to a right on Lemond, house is third driveway on the left, 281. There should be an EN flag attached to the house.

Eating: There is, of course, a fully equipped (though small for 13 people!) kitchen with coffee maker, blender, microwave, dishwasher, etc. Stocked with condiments, spices, and staples. I will buy food a few days before the camp, per requests given at the Group Facebook page. Breakfast will be at the house, lunch on the road, and dinner mostly going out to local places in Aspen or Snowmass, with 1 or 2 nights group meal @ home. After you check the shopping list on FB, if there is anything else you need (special powders, favorite food) either bring it with you or buy @ the City Market or Whole Foods, both of which are in Willits/ElJebel/Basalt in a shopping area off to the right about 19 miles from Glenwood.

Weather: June is the driest month of the year here, but I can’t promise no rain. Key to understanding the weather is: we are IN the mountains. The Roaring Fork Valley runs from 5700’ @ Glenwood to 12,000’ @ Independence Pass. My house is @ 8300’. Temperatures vary about 3-5 deg F for every 1000’. So a typical day might be 80+ downvalley in Glenwood, 67F @ my house, and in the 50s at 10,000’ and above. Most of our riding will be between 6000-10000’, except for the day we go up (and over) the Pass. It’s not uncommon for afternoon clouds to form, and even rarely some rain, usually higher up. So the main idea: bring clothing for all conditions! A light stuff-able wind jacket, arm warmers and a base layer are often needed.

The Riding: All rides start and end at my house, which means a climb of 3-600’ up 6-8% grade at the end of the day. As we say, “That’s where the training happens.” All rides flow out from and back into the Roaring Fork Valley, through which some back roads run, as well as a bike path the entire distance from Glenwood to Aspen. There is also an extensive network of bike paths in and around each of the towns. AND, almost all our rides are out and back on dead end roads. So, expect little traffic worries. Also, the people here are very used to cyclists, and conflict with drivers is exceedingly rare (like, I have never experienced it.)

The Rides: I have a tentative schedule, but reserve the right to call audibles based on the weather and people’s interests. All rides will be designed with both shorter and longer routes. Shorter does not necessarily mean easier, just fewer miles in the same general area. Because people are arriving and leaving at different times over a ten day period, I’ve listed rides on all days except Saturday, June 10, the day of the Ragnar relay. The rides show “Candy Ass” option, or the shortest possible route that day, along with the “Bad Ass” option, the longest possible route. Of course, if that’s not enough, you could always do what Dave Tallo did, a few hill “repeats” added on. Personally, I plan on doing mostly either the Candy Ass option, or somewhere in between the two. My goal is to “have fun with my fitness”, not destroy it.

Two links here, first to the schedule of rides: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1vl3WsMLtw09DTQfsd1tuqyVvyLEWZiaWznrKVH6jIuU/edit#gid=0 And the route maps/descriptions on Ride With GPS: https://ridewithgps.com/users/364131/routes

Bikes. I have a bike rack on which to hang 13 bikes against the wall, so we don’t have to leave them leaning all over everything. I have several pumps, including two screw-on LeZynes. I have a fairly complete set of bike tools, including a chain whip, torque wrench, and thanks to Attila, a derailleur hanger adjustment tool (hope no one needs THAT). I also have a bike stand. And, about 10 CO2 cartridges you can use while you’re here.

Ragnar: Oh, yeah, almost forgot. Most of us are doing the Ragnar Trail Relay on the evening/night of June 9th + the day of June 10th. For those who have not done this before, make sure you bring a headlamp, warm clothing for your night run – last year Jeremy ran 65 minutes at midnight in shorts and a t-shirt, but most of the rest of us had a watch cap or headband, long tights, and several layers upstairs. Expect a clear night with temps in the 30s – 40s if we’re lucky. But NO SUN between 8 PM and 6 AM. The schedule for the relay will be finalized at the camp. Those few folk who need to leave early will get the first start times, and should be done by 11 AM at the latest. I assume you already have the link to Ragnar and the athlete guide.

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Spring Training

In response to our Coach writing about “Mid-Season Volume Pops”, I penned the following:

Last week, as I was getting crushed in a week long volume camp with Tim Cronk and Dave Tallo. As two of EN’s most successful athletes, they showed a level of commitment and fitness which was inspiring, and tiring. Dave in particular cycled for 7 straight days (including a day when 6″+ snow had fallen, and another with temps in the upper 30s), 4-5 hours most days, as well as running an hour at least four times and even swimming for 90 minutes once. He was still smiling at the end. He felt this was perfect timing for his assault on IM Canada end of July. Tim, at the tail end of his recovery from Ultraman FL three months earlier, and on his semiannual cross-country trek between Tucson and AZ, had no intention of keeping up with Dave, even though he’s aiming for IM LP a week earlier. His main focus is Kona in October, and he used this week to kick start his ramp up to training for that.

I attribute a fair part of my long success in triathlon to several decades of multi-day efforts, primarily in cycling. I swam competitively (not very well) from age 11-21, and I have a natural talent (due tony body type) for running. While I have never been in a cycling race, nonetheless I have spent a LOT of time doing things like: cycling across the USA in 1997, annual week long bike tours with family and friends 1999-2005 (Pacific Coast, Eastern Oregon, Canadian Rockies, BC/Vancouver Island, etc.), and since 2005, twice yearly 1-3 week “camps” at my family’s retreat in the central Colorado mountains near Aspen, along with Rich’s ToC in 2015 &16.

Getting such efforts right requires balancing a delicate equation which includes the following:

  • bike fitness leading into the event
  • number of days to be cycling
  • timing in relation to the season’s target (“A”) race
  • hours of cycling each day
  • resulting in: daily effort goals, and managing efforts within each day’s ride

Attention to the factors on Training Peaks’  Performance Management Chart – CTL, ATL, TSB, Ramp – is critical, as is attention to nutrition and recovery. I have a lot to say on this, but I have to go out and run 45 minutes, followed by a swim as the Aspen Rec Center, so I’ll return in the PM with a synopsis of my spring, which has basically been one cycling camp after another (Cuba: 12 days; Blue Ridge: 5 days; SoCal: 5 days; Tim/Dave camp: 6 days; Al T
‘Tude camp June 2-11), and an exploration of how I’m trying to solve the above quadratic equation to achieve best performance in my goal race this year, the ITU Long Course WC in Penticton, August 26.

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Granma

“Look! It’s Granma!” I pointed at the cartoonish billboard with the word splashed in red across a white stone base, a small wooden boat rising from frothy waters in the lower left corner.

“We need to stop – up there at the bus shelter, OK?” But the billboard provided a bit more shelter from the sun, and also from the road for those who wanted a natural break. Besides, we’d been hearing so much about Granma, it was a mandatory photo op.

A week into our trip, and it seemed every day, we heard another story about Granma. The Granma province. The Granma memorial. The stealthy arrival of Granma from Mexico, into Bahia de Santiago de Cuba. Our tour guide, Alejandro, had only a glancing acquaintance with American English pronunciation and idiom – he was a lot better at German – and he kept alluding to Granma as if we already knew what it was, and its significance.

By the end of the trip, after a visit to the Museo de la Revolucion and the Granma memorial, we emerged with a clearer picture of the deep iconic hold that little launch has on patriotic Cuban Communists.

On July 26, 1953, Fidel, his brother Raul, with about 125 factory workers and farmers, staged a symbolic attack on the Moncada barracks in Santiago. Easily defeated by the overwhelming force of Batista’s army, Fidel fled into the nearby Sierra Maestre mountains with his remaining troops, but was quickly captured and imprisoned. After a show trial, during which he outlined his vision for the future of Cuba in a four hour tirade – a Cuba free of influence from the imperialist United States, its puppet Batista, with dignity, land and work for all – he was imprisoned, and that should have been the end of him.

But by 1955, his ideas had sparked a large political movement, the July 26th movement, and Batista bowed to pressure, releasing the brothers, who immediately fled to Mexico. There, they met a young Argentinian doctor-in-training, Ernesto Guevara. Together, they honed their philosophy of equality for all workers and farmers, with universal education and health care, and armed revolution to achieve those goals. They attracted a few score comrades, and purchased an old American 60 foot leisure yacht, which had been named by its former owner for his grandmother.

Eventually, in late November, they set off across the Caribbean for, once again, Santiago. 82 men on a craft designed ideally for 12 almost immediately ran into foul weather and nearly foundered. Having a radio which only could only receive, they had no way of telling their loyalists waiting in Cuba they would be delayed, so the revolution started without them, and seemed ready to fizzle once again. After another disastrous encounter with a superior fighting force, only about a dozen men accompanied the Castro brothers back into the Sierra Maestres. But from that small kernel, within two years they would gather supporters across the country and overwhelm the entire Cuban army, driving Batista to the Dominican Republic on January 1, 1959.

In the great Cuban foundation myth, it all started with Granma. It was their “shot heard ‘round the world.”  Today, the boat, not Castro, is entombed in glass, displayed for visitors much the same as our own Declaration of Independence. It is as sacred to the Communist Party there as any cathedral. When I visited, I was chastised not once, but twice by the guards around the site, first for wearing my small backpack which I had retrieved from the Museo next door, and another time for having the temerity to sit down  on the edge of the sidewalk. Granma is so highly thought of by the leaders of Cuba, they named their official news service after it.

At the time, though, all we wanted to do was get out of the sun, so we hid behind the funny little billboard for a few minutes. A tour of a cathedral had squandered the cooler morning hours for riding, and we still had 30 kilometers of hot, muggy, flat and boring riding ahead of us into Bayamo. I was ready to hop on the air-conditioned bus if it came along.

Which it did. But it was preceded by John and Liz on their snazzy titanium S&S coupled tandem, whizzing by at 30+ kph, immediately followed by Yoanis, our guide-on-the-road and mechanic. To a tired cyclist, a tandem on the flats is manna from heaven. With four legs instead of two powering a bike only 1.4 times the weight of a single (or “half-bike” as tandenistas like to say), their normal pace on the flats and downhill along with the draft their size creates makes for an easy ride when sucking wheel directly behind. I hopped on the train immediately.

One difficulty with following a tandem for long distances is the discrepancy between their power on the ups and the downs. Going up, they tend to fall way behind, necessitating a frustrating wait at the top of many climbs. Then, headed downhill, all that momentum, and they can sometimes pull away, even with the singles behind pedaling furiously “on the rivet”.

So we were hauling ass at the end of the day, cruising through Granma province towards Bayamo. Despite the gentle downslope for those last 30 km, occasional rises in the road would have the tandem fall behind. We’d slow at the top, and catch back on. But on the fourth rise, the tandem came screaming by about 100 meters from the crest. Were they playing games? No time to wonder, just work to get back on their wheel.

As they flew by, however, I saw Yoanis with his right hand on the stoker’s saddle, push the whole machine up past us, while climbing faster than our paceline himself. Every time he did this, we had to work that much harder just to be ready for the explosion downhill. After the fifth uphill sprint, I cried foul.

“I’m not playing that game again!” They could ride into town by themselves. Yoanis must have got the idea; after that, we just followed the pace. It almost seemed like cheating.

https://www.strava.com/activities/926343819

https://www.strava.com/activities/926344042

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Santiago de Cuba

Santiago de Cuba is the country’s second city. Founded five hundred years ago at the upper reaches of the Bahia (Bay) de Santiago de Cuba, it has long been a linch pin to control of the island nation. Plundered repeatedly by French and British in the 16th and 17th centuries, swelled by white escapees from the Haitian slave revolt in 1791, site of the Spanish defeat at San Juan hill in 1898, it was fitting that Fidel Castro proclaimed victory over the Batista and his “imperialist backers” (the US) from the balcony of Santiago’s city hall on January 1, 1959, a week before his rebel army triumphantly entered Havana.

Our next two days of riding were sandwiched around a visit to this city, strikingly placed at the northern end of the luscious bay, surrounded by tan and green hills on three sides. The first day’s plan was lunch at Morro Castle, centerpiece of the three hundred yer old fortifications the Spanish build at the narrow mouth of the bay, which finally put an end to raids by those pesky English sailors, and their tacit allies, Caribbean pirates.

I had gotten used to horse carriages on the roads, but looking out my third story hotel window at 7 AM down to Guantanamo’s main street, I saw a fleet of horse taxis, clop-clop-clopping on the rutted asphalt roadway. Everyone going to work, it seemed, hitched a ride on these archaic buggies. I felt transported back to the quieter era just before Benz and Chevrolet and Olds and Ford and all those other men married the internal combustion engine to a horse carriage, and set us down what seems now like a highway to our doom.

Each horse had a little canvas bag stretched out below his tail, to catch any stray droppings. Cubans are nothing if not neat. Women sweep out store fronts at the start of every day; most road sides are free of plastic bags, exploded tires, and other litter.

Today’s ride would be short, under 40 kilometers. Our bus took us 58 km to Alto Songo; Alejandro insisted we could not ride on the A1, what served as the major East/West highway in Cuba’s Oriente (east). The road seemed safe enough to me, but after the first day’s metric century, a quick jaunt down to the sea would probably be very relaxing.

I did not count on the risks of trying to stay with the Viejo Gringo racers, and our pilot fish, Yoany. He kept promising “a hill”, but all I saw after the first 6 miles of rollers was an endless downhill dropping 200 meters to the sea. No traffic, a determined set of riders, and that ever-present tailwind contributed to an average speed of 29 mph for that segment, without even working too hard.

We finished with an uphill climb to the “castle”. But once we learned it cost $10 to sightsee in there, we opted to just hang out in the shade, waiting for the bus and our bayside tour.

Alejandro pulled another of his surprises. Originally promising us a snack lunch at at the Morro Castle park, instead he and Juan remembered they had government vouchers for a meal at the Zunzun restaurant in the restored Vista Alegre section of Santiago. This small area houses consul buildings, local government offices, and residences for the few people who had actually accumulated enough money to buy a home. The tourist-friendly eatery fills an elegant old colonial building with 9 foot ceilings and thick adobe walls. A small Cuban guitar band strolls among the tables. Since we arrived at 3 PM, we had the place – and the staff – to ourselves. We enjoyed the outing, but probably because we had not yet realised the dreary sameness of Cuban food. We still thought rice with black beans, potato, beets, guava, pineapple, and a choice among pork, fish, chicken and ropa vieja (stringy old beef, I think is the translation) was exotic. Still, superior to what we would find that night in the hotel.

The “3-star” hotels we usually stayed in all had the same stolid, crumbling  mid-century Soviet style. We quickly learned a few things about the layout of these places, built for USSR apparatchiks to escape the brutal Russian winters. Cafeteria restaurants are always on the second floor. Several bars surround the reception desk, and were always ready with our free “welcome cocktail”, a Cuba Libre (rum & coke) designed to only make one want a real drink. Elevators were often out of service, or if operating, a risky venture. The buildings seemed to have settled over the years; bathroom doors never seemed to line up properly with their frames. Blankets were provided, but always hidden in a closet or drawer. The air conditioner and TV seemed to have identical remote controls. It was always a long walk – from one end to the other, to get to the Piscina (swimming pool), which, more often than not, was empty, or draining, or otherwise not available.

And the internet. Oh, the internet, in Cuba. Rumor has it the only country less well connected to the web is North Korea. There are government run hot spots in city squares, and each hotel usually has a functioning router. But speeds made me long for the brisk days of dial-up – when they worked at all. To get “online”, one buys a card with two 20 character sets to be typed in as name and password. For $3, you get an hour. The hour may actually allow some email to be downloaded, and maybe even sent. But, on the other hand, precious minutes are used up with what might well be a human government censor contemplating the URL you’ve typed in, deciding whether to allow it or not. So Cheryl and I didn’t even try for the first two weeks we were there. I don’t think we missed anything, really. No coups, no celebrity deaths, no US administration embarrassments, unless you count failure to pass health care legislation.

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Guantanamo

Cheryl and I left the seaside lunch stop together. On the first day of biking, I figured 56 kilometers of fast riding was enough, and spending the next 40 riding with Cheryl into the town of Guantanamo would be more fun than working hard.

Cycling heaven surrounded us;  temperature around 87F, blue sky punctuated by foamy floating clouds, air softened by the sea breeze pulled inland as the day heated up. While not totally flat, the gentle rolling road never steepened into a hard climb. The only real hill came half way through, rising 300 feet in 2 miles. Looking ahead from the crest, the road ran straight for several miles to a sharp right turn in what appeared to be marshland.

Signs appeared which announced an area of heightened security. A couple of little checkpoints housed lounging soldiers, hiding from the sun on the shady side of their shack. They barely looked up as we rolled by. That right turn took us away from the northern arm of Guantanamo Bay.

Between 1868 and 1898, Cubans fought intermittently for their independence from Spain. In the final convulsion, the US became involved. We had coveted the Island for decades, even trying to buy it from the Spaniards several times. Initially, Southern politicians envisioned adding Cuba as another slave-holding state. After our Civil War, Cuba’s George Washington, Jose Marti, ignited the islanders’ own war of independence, which erupted in open battle three times over the next 30 years.

During the final episode, the Spaniards began using concentration camps to control querulous rebels. Crowded conditions there led to deaths from yellow fever and starvation. In the US, rival newspaper publishers Jospeh Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst spouted competing headlines meant to inflame our public. In response, the US sent a war ship, the USS Maine, to Havana harbor. One night, an explosion ripped open the side of the wooden vessel, killing 260 sailors. Cries of “Remember the Maine!” screamed the headlines of papers across the US. We went to war with Spain, ostensibly to seek revenge and support Cuban independence.

By July of 1898, US troops were on Cuban soil. Col. Theodore Roosevelt led the Rough Riders calvary up San Juan Hill into Santiago, the island’s second city. Soon enough, Spain realised it no longer had the global reach necessary to sustain control of its empire half a world away in the face of rising American power. All parties went to Paris for negotiations, where Cuba was granted its independence, and the US gained control of Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. To protect out interests in the Caribbean, we were granted sovereignty over the southern half of Cuba’s Guantanamo Bay. In 1931, that control was formally recognized in perpetuity by the Cuban government, with the stipulation that no commercial enterprise be allowed there, “just” a Naval base.

Guantanamo Bay is shaped like an hour glass. The northern, more inland half, remains part of Cuba. The town of Guantanamo sits a bit to the north of the bay itself. The US controls the southern half of the bay, with direct access to the sea, along with land on either side. On the western shore, just north of the US zone, is the village of Caimanera. It was there we planned to stay this evening, within sight of the US facilities.

Caimanera is also the location of a little known escape route for Cubans to the US. Alejandro (our guide) has family there. A few years ago, his brother and an uncle headed south, and emerged in US waters, seeking asylum. So he felt persona non grata in the area, and would not be joining us there.

Cheryl and I were not thinking about any of this as we turned away from the bay, swinging north and west towards the city. The mountains to our left had sprouted storm clouds, growing darker by the minute. It sure looked like it would rain before we got to the meeting point. As the air grew colder and moister, we speculated on what a sudden shower might feel like. We were sweating from exertion as well as the heat, and a cooling shower might be refreshing. But curtains of rain shimmered ahead of us, looking more like a gully washer than a gentle shower. We started scanning the roadside for shelter.

It soon appeared, in the form of our bus. The tandem pulled up behind us, we all stopped, and Alejandro appeared at the door. We’d gone 92 kilometers, 4 short of our goal.

“It’s time to stop. Rain.”

“Are we the last ones?” I asked.

“Everyone else is on the bus.”

Liz, the tandem stoker, announced with authority, “We’re going to quit. We don’t want to get wet.”

That did it. No way did we want to be the last ones on the road, followed by a transcontinental bus flashing its lights behind us, going 12 mph.

The bikes were quickly stowed inside, and within three minutes, the sky erupted. Rivers filled the road-side gullies, and we wondered where the final few riders were hiding out. We picked them up at one of the rare gas stations, at the edge of town. They’d gotten under the canopy just before the rain hit. No harm, no foul. It looked like we would get a shower and welcome cocktail with time to spare for some sightseeing before dinner. We might even get to sneak a peek into Gitmo!

First, we had to drop Alejandro off at the Hotel Guantanamo, in the center of town. He’d hide out there while we enjoyed the evening in Caimanera, 15 km around the other side of the bay.

Rain still fell as we stopped in front of the only control point we’d see on the entire island with its red and white striped barrier pulled down to block traffic. Without our ostensible translator (Alejandro) to help us, we only gradually learned we were being denied entry into Caimanera because our travel permit lacked one key signature, from the local Commandante. We would have to go back into town, try and find him, persuade him to sign, and return. At least that was one story. The other was: our group was not allowed in without a guide, and our guide was not allowed in due to his family’s transgressions. In either case, we couldn’t stay in Caimanera that night, and we had no other rooms.

Luckily, someone got the bright idea to call Alejandro at the hotel, and catch him before he’d gone out carousing for the evening. He managed to arrange lodging for us, noting that, “It’s Sunday and you wouldn’t be able to find the Commandante anyway.”

Relieved, we brightened and chattered about all the Bucaneros to be drunk that night. From the back of the bus, I noticed the streets were getting more and more narrow, and we seemed to be heading towards, not away from the bay. We were clearly lost – unthinkable, given how much we had already come to trust Juan, our bus driver, to navigate any treachery Cuban roads might serve up.

“Hey, Al! Come up here, we need your navigation!” Leader Jim was calling, and I stumbled to the front, opening up the Maps.me app as I lurched from side-to-side. Juan was holding his cell phone, and Yoany his, all while trying to drive and avoid the donkey carts, bicycles and weaving pedestrians taking up most of the alleyway.

Here’s where Maps.me really shines. It does not need a cell phone or Wi-Fi connection, using native GPS to give a pinpoint location. And because it is open source, hundreds of thousands of travelers before us had littered the map with the location of every establishment, public facility, and street name. A few “Directo”s, “Izquierdo”s, and “Derecho”s later, I had Juan driving into the spacious Hotel Guantanamo entry way. Evening salvaged; ready to try and figure out the next day’s route.

 

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On The Road Again

The load out seemed so familiar. A baker’s dozen bike riders, clacking along the asphalt, surrounded by the “snap/hiss” of pump heads being released from tire valves, anxious and eager. Leaderless, we each rolled out when everything seemed ready. Our instructions were: “Ride along the shore until the road turns inland. We’ll re-group at the paladar [tourist restaurant] in Playa [Beach] Tortuguilla for lunch. Remember – Tortuguilla, the turtles. It’s where they come ashore to lay their eggs” Seemed simple enough.

These folks were ready. I was just about the last to leave. But in the first few minutes, I’d passed everyone on the road and found myself tete de la course. I wasn’t ready for how deserted the highway became. Soon, it was just the Caribbean Sea on my left, the misty mountain ridge on my right, a tail wind to my back, and the narrow Cuban pavement singing beneath my tires. I quickly fell into a trance of pedal strokes and sensuous enjoyment with warming air enveloping my skin in a moist blanket, cooled by my forward progress.

I was going about 26-28 kph. I had switched by bike computer to metric; it seemed the right thing to do outside the U.S., and besides, the numbers clicked by just that much quicker.

I knew from the bus ride in the day before we would hug the coast in three sections, with two intervening excursions inland, but without much in the way of climbing. The first turn away from the shore, I quickly found myself in the little town of Imias, marked by a bright blue road sign. A few small trucks were parked haphazardly near the village center, and a clot of people appeared to be waiting at a transit stop. But mainly, the road was criss-crossed by foot traffic and beater bikes. No stop signs, no traffic lights. No billboards or business signs. A few homes had open windows where folks collected, buying a drink or sandwich, but nothing indicated it was a place of business. Then, it was all over, the end marked by another blue sign, the name “Imias” appearing with a red slash through it. So you knew when you were leaving.

Down a little incline to the next seaside stretch of road, I checked my time, and decided to take a mini-break at one hour into the ride. I pulled over to a scraggly bush perched just above the water. With one deep breath, I gave a quick inner thanks for both the strength and the luck to be riding in such a foreign land, so close to my home country,

My reverie was broken within a minute, as two riders appeared. Tony, leading John by about a meter. I suspected they wouldn’t stop for me; even with a tail wind on the flats, a bit of a draft might be nice. I jumped up on my bike, and merged into their mini pace line.

Tony was hauling along, maybe 2 kph faster than I’d been going. Tucking in behind was no problem. We came up to a small rise, and John immediately moved ahead. He seemed to want to keep the same speed, without downshifting.

“I’ve been trying to tell him to take it a bit easier on these “hills”, but he seems to want to grind up them. I don’t know if he likes riding close in a group,” Tony explained.

John, while friendly, was the archetype of the stoic Down-Easter. He has a wonderful Maine accent, having lived there all his life. Loving the outdoors, he joined our crew in Baracoa, after having attempted a trek up the island’s highest peak the day before. It didn’t seem to have affected his cycling one bit.

Tony and I traded off for the next hour or so, leaving John, who, despite his prowess on the climbs, seemed to mosey a bit on the flats. We cruised along a mostly uninhabited coastline. In Maui, or California, it would have been pocked with condos or hotels, but here – just another bit of the island, far enough away from the population centers that hardly anyone visited or even lived here.

We passed a shady little beach, just a thumbnail under a pair of palm trees. A couple of motor cycles and about five young Cubans were hanging out, in the shade or testing the calm water. One km down the road, we saw the blue Tortuguilla sign.

“This is where we’re supposed to wait, right?”

“Uh, I think so.”

“Well, I’m going to go back to that little beach. Hang out there until some more folks come along. If I’m going to get lost finding the restaurant, I want to do it in a group,” I said.

“Sounds like a plan to me.”

So we headed back to the palm trees, and leaned our cycles, nose-to-tail, against each other, thus proving we were experienced cycle tourists. Soon enough, John showed up, and close behind, Jim and Geoff, two more ex-racers who could more than hold their own. Grouped up, we decided the little beer window with a concrete palapa was the place to wait. Jim, a veteran of several Cuban bike trips, who is planning to live there part time now that he’s retired, immediately loaded up with several cans of Bucaneros.

A brief word about Cuban products and branding. In the tourist hotels and restaurants, only one brand of beer is available, with two types. Bucanero, featuring a pirate scowling across the red can, pointing at the word “Fuerte” [strong] was the robust choice. Cristal, in a pale green can, was “light”. That’s it. Any color you want, as long as it’s red or green. There are a few other beer brands, which the locals mainly drink, But because of the funky two-currency economy, it’s pretty hard for foreigners to buy anything other than these two.

Once the crew had gone thru its first round of Bucanero, our tour leader Alejandro, came rolling up.

“This apparently is Alejandro’s first bike trip. I don’t think he even knew how to shift his bike when he started out today. I caught up to him spinning away and had to show him how to get into a better gear. And look at his shoes!”

Rather than the stiff soled cycling shoes we all sported, he had cheap blue running shoes. Still, he managed to ride faster than half the folks in our crew. Of course, he’s less than half our age.

Once all the riders and the bus arrived, some of us in the lead group were ready to roll out again to our final stop in the Cuban town of Guantanamo. But Alejandro seemed to be following a different script. While our tour covered only breakfast and dinner costs, as tour leader, he and the bus driver were provided vouchers for lunch at specific restaurants along our route. Since Cubans would never pass up the opportunity to eat for free, he intended to take full advantage every chance he got. Given the way Cuban food establishments operate – sometimes, it seems they are out catching the fish or killing the chicken after you give your order – lunch could easily turn into a two hour affair. Leaving us to bike not only on a very full stomach, but in the hottest part of the afternoon as well. And, we would learn later that day, risk running into afternoon downpours. To say nothing of: loading up the bikes on the bus, navigating through narrow streets with our huge extra tall tourist bus, finding that evening’s lodging, then waiting for Alejandro to check us all in, another 30 minute event involving much paperwork and examination of all our passports.

But we didn’t know any of that on this, our first day. So we just followed along with the plan as envisioned by Alejandro, leading to some rather unfortunate events that evening.

(To be cont’d)

 

 

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Cuba: The Environment

Cuba is a Caribbean island, sure, but on a much grander scale than, say Puerto Rico or Jamaica. It is, indeed, the greatest of the Antilles. To gain an idea of its breadth, were Cuba rotated clockwise a bit and moved a few hundred miles to the northwest, it would fit neatly, end-to-end, from New Orleans to Miami, right along the Gulf Coast. At its narrowest, it’s about as wide as the Florida panhandle; the widest point from the Gulf to the Caribbean Sea is about the same as the width of Florida from Tampa to the Atlantic.

But unlike that section of the US, where nearly 30,000,000 people live (of whom over a million are Cuban themselves), only 11,000,000 occupy the island. Havana, of course, is the major city, with 2,000,000 in its environs. The second and third largest are Santiago de Cuba and Camaguey, with a half and quarter million respectively. Much of the nation is rural, engaged in raising crops and livestock: cassava, citrus fruits, other tropical fruits (mango, guava, pineapple), coffee, potatoes, rice, sugar (cane), goats, cows, chickens, pigs, horses, oxen. And, of course, tobacco. From the road side, farming appears much less mechanized than in the US. No mighty irrigation systems, no John Deere tractors – oxen pulling hand plows is a common sight – no heavy fertilizer usage, horse drawn wagons carrying produce to town.

Given the year-round growing season in the tropics, the narrow island and low terrain allowing windward storms to easily filter inland, generous amounts of flat land and only a moderate population, Cuba should be able to feed itself. But, according to a 2016 Reuters article, “The country spends more than $2 billion a year importing rice, meat, grains and other foods which analysts and local farmers say could be produced at home.” That’s probably a symptom of the socialist centrally controlled economy, which I’ll explore more fully in another post.

While the rural poverty and crowding in the cities can be a bit hard to take for those of us from a much more favored nation, the weather and landscape were nearly ideal. Temperatures were rarely above 90 or below 72; skies were blue with puffy clouds everyday. And the rains which did come, on about 4/17 days, while heavy, were brief, not like the day-long affairs we’d left the Pacific Northwest to escape. It felt good knowing I could wake up every day, and be assured of wearing shorts, t shirt, and sandals, never feeling a nip nor oppressively sweltering.

Getting to the eastern tip of the island, where our biking would start, was a multi-day affair. First, wake up at 1:30 AM for our 5 AM PDT departure from Seattle. A through flight on Alaska Airlines (stopping for several hours in LAX) had us scheduled to land in Havana around 5 PM EDT. A balky warning light, which necessitated a turnaround on the Sea-Tac tarmac and an hour’s delay, pushed that to nearly 6. Once on Cuban soil, we could see the terminal 200 meters away. But, we had to board a bus, then drive 3/4 of a mile, rather than take that short stroll. Once inside, a half hour wait each for luggage, customs check, and currency exchange (more on THAT in the economy post). Finally, Alejandro, our tour guide, found us outside the doors, and escorted us to a gleaming jumbo-sized Chinese-made Yutong tour bus with our driver, Juan, ready to roll. All three were part of the state monopoly on tourist services.

I’ll return to Havana in a future post; the next 30 hours were spent getting to know the city and our riding partners at meals, on the bus, and generally walking around. Trying to establish a relaxing routine was out of the question. The first night, we didn’t get to bed until after midnight, and the next, we had to wake up at 3 AM to get to the airport for our 6:10 AM flight to Holguin, which didn’t actually depart until 7:30. Then, more than 8 hours of travel through the Cuban city of Guantanamo (north of the US naval base), along the southern coast, over the misty Paso de Cuba into the isolated Gulf village of Baracoa.

The later half of that trip covered in reverse our cycling route for the first two days. We were getting anxious to start riding, but first, a few challenges. While the trip was billed as a Trans-Cuba bike tour, we would not be riding every single kilometer. Rather than starting in Baracoa, which is about as far east as you can get on a decent-surfaced road, it would be wheels up in Cajobabo, 45 kilometers (28 miles) to the south. More significantly, the two are separated by the Nipe Sagua Baracoa Massif. Although the intervening Paso de Cuba is only 400 meters high, that’s more than enough to capture the moisture in the trade winds and drip it perpetually onto the road as it twists and winds from the Gulf to the Sea. In places, the road was cantilevered out over the precipitous drop, a small barrier the only protection between us and a long way down. Meeting another vehicle here required a lot of tolerance and courtesy. “For our safety” we would not be riding this portion.

But the nearest tourist beds to Cajobabo are in Baracoa, so up we went as darkness fell, and back over we came the next morning. Each time, we passed a group of roadside entrepreneurs selling drinks and the local chocolate bars for which Baracoa is famous.

The other challenge: assembling our bikes. Cheryl and I had brought our own, S&S coupled 20-year old machines, fitted out to our size and taste, and weathered by 1,000s of miles crisscrossing the US and Puget Sound. Our casa host fancied himself a bike mechanic (as did half of the island’s population), but once he saw the jigsaw puzzle awaiting us inside the airline standard size suitcases, he was content to kibitz and watch the tour’s mechanic, Yoanis, show off his skills. He’d never seen coupled bikes before, but he immediately got the idea, and had the bikes in working order in under half an hour. Giving us plenty of time to wash for dinner and lay out our next days riding clothes, at last.

Sleep came easily after those exhausting three days of travel, but ended at 5 the next morning. Everyone in Baracoa, it seems, keeps chickens, for eggs and food, and all the roosters started demanding attention, most of them, it seemed, just beneath our second story balcony window. We didn’t mind, though. We were in Cuba, for real, and about to ride from one end to the other, on what would become one of our life-defining adventures.

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It’s All About The Cars

“Look! The new ’59’s!”

September, 1958, 5th grade at Pleasant Ridge elementary school. I was seated at the far right of the classroom, right behind Kathy MacNeil and her long black wavy hair. The left side looked out over our asphalt playground onto Montgomery Pike, a major north-south thoroughfare. Before the advent of Interstates, it was the primary route large car carriers would be taking from Detroit to points south of the Ohio River. A mass of 9 year old boys crammed the window sills, straining to look at the changes made in next year’s Fords.

Before I could get over to the window, Mrs. Sauer, after a few moments of indulgence, had herded the class back into their seats. But they still buzzed with comments like: “Wow, did you see those fins – even bigger this year!”

The Fifties  – the decade in which I grew from infancy to pre-pubescence – were a time of irrational exuberance in American car design. Maybe it was a release of animal spirits after the decades of repression during the Great Depression, WWII, and the immediate aftermath – a time when cars of necessity were both rare and unchanging. Or maybe it was the discovery of “planned obsolescence”, changing the exterior to inspire more frequent purchases. Boys like me knew all the cars, and could tell one year’s model from the next, quite easily. We were already being indoctrinated into the sex appeal of personal transportation.

Visiting Cuba is like taking a country-sized amusement park ride back into those times, with all the emotional charge that a return to long-hidden childhood feelings carries. My family only bought Fords. From the early rounded form of the ’51, through a ’55 Country Squire wagon, to a ’59 Fairlane, I had a front row seat to the unique evolution of Ford’s form in that decade. The introduction of curved, single sheet front windshields, about 1952. The appearance of bullet taillights in ’53, evolving into the understated fin on the ‘55s. A small supernumerary tail-light appeared at the top of the fin in ’56, disappeared in ’57’s angled fin, re-appeared larger and higher in ’59 after the bullet was replaced for one year only by twin tail-lights (to match the new twin headlamps) in ’58.

All those cars, and their GM and Chrysler counterparts, still roam the city streets and country byways of Cuba. Not because it’s an island of classic car lovers, but due to 56 years of entrenched – no, ossified – policies by the governments of both the US and Cuba.

In 1961, after Fidel Castro publicly announced his allegiance to Communism, we began an economic boycott which persists to this day. So no US cars were imported to the Island after the the 1959 model year. Also, no new parts, no gasoline, no food, no financial ties – nothing.

There are other cars in Cuba. By the 70s and 80s, Russia had become entrenched as Castro’s patron, and thus tiny, tinny, shock-less Ladas can be seen roaming the streets. They have no intrinsic visual or emotional appeal, all having the same generic and under-engineered appearance, a socialist throwback to the old Henry Ford philosophy of “Any color you want as long as it’s black” with which he peddled his unchanging Model Ts. And a few well-healed Cubans can afford late model Chinese Geelys and Korean Kias. But, due to the tight control the Cuban government holds over imports, a car we would buy here for under $20,000 goes for two or three times that, a princely sum in a country with a fake economy.

So the Cubans have become, in the words of one member of our trip, “The best mechanics in the world.” About half of the remaining cars from the ‘50s have been re-purposed into tourist taxis, held together with spit and baling wire, bright enamel paint jobs, and belching tail pipes. The one we rode down Havana’s seaside Malecon back to our casa from the Museo de Revolucion was proudly said to get 3 km/liter (7 mpg).

Cheryl and I were determined to to ride at least once in a convertible. After walking the 3 km from our casa and back to various museums on the penultimate and final days of our trip, we stepped out of the Museo and spied several gleaming rag-tops nearly sweating in the noon-time tropical sun.

Sweat beaded across my eyes and the back of my shirt as a couple of touts approached. “Taxi, senior!”

“We want a convertible.”

“OK. Open, you take my open.”

[This entire conversation was carried on in a mixture of Spanish and English on both sides, but for purposes of clarity, I’m putting it all in English, as I have no idea how to render the mangled Spanglish we each were using.]

“How much? To Calle 19, between N and O. Near Nacional Hotel.”

“20 CUC”

Astonishment. Bluster. “¿20? No, 10!”

“Oh, no, for open you have to pay 20”

“Ok, we walk then.”

Sincere gaze into my eyes, deep concern for the well being of these viejos. “It is very far. Very Hot. You want open, you pay $20.”

I keep walking. I insist we are strong, we have walked this way two or three times before yesterday and this morning.

“15?” I hear a slight tone of apology and urgency.

“No, 10 is all I want to pay. We walk.” And we do. We keep walking north, towards the Malecon. A new voice rushes up behind me – the closer, maybe.

“You want open, Señor?”

“Yes.” I say no price.

“I get you for $12.”

“Open? $12?” Simultaneously, I clap my hands once, sending my left hand up into space. “You’ve got a deal!”

And so Cheryl and I found ourselves burning up one liter of Venezuelan petrol, stinking up the six lanes of the Malecon, while a driver festooned in a bandana head scarf and vaquero hat regaled us with tales that this vehicle still had it’s original engine. It sounded like it.

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Cycling in Cuba: An Introduction

I’ve been off the grid the past three weeks, biking in Cuba. I plan to write a full set of reports on the trip on the blog, but will serve up the outline for the experience first.

Intro: Cheryl and I are now retired for three years, and have been doing one major trip each spring, having “fun with our fitness”. Last year, a two week trek in the Mustang region of Nepal. This year: cycling across Cuba under the aegis of a Canadian company, Canbicuba, which has had a presence on the island for over a decade.

The trip: 17 days, 12 days of cycling bookended by 2 days on each end in Havana. Starting in Baracoa, ending in Maria La Gorda, going east to west with the prevailing northeasterly trade winds which are prevalent at this latitude. 80-100 km most days, one rest day in the middle, ending with 140 km the last day.

The group: 13 US cyclists, all in their 60s and early 70s. Two types: about 6 racers/former racers … meaning guys like me, although they were pure cyclists, I was the only triathlete. We made up a good group for long, windy, flat stretches. A tandem.  About 5 women Cheryl’s age or older; very strong cyclists, intrepid each and every one. Cubans: bus driver Juan, on the road bike leader and mechanic Yoanis, and trip leader Alejandro. A serious group when it came to the road, but fun loving off it.

Cuba and tourism: Cuba has been hosting tourists since the 1800s, even during its current socialist incarnation. It’s just the US which has been isolated, not the entire world. There is a Cancun-like area of modern hotels at Veradero, and many other beach resorts. Since 2011, private BnB type “Casa Particulaires” have been allowed, a mushrooming segment. In the larger cities, there are industrial strength Soviet era and style hotels for foreigners. Since last November, there have been 1000’s of US airline direct flight seats going in and out of Cuba each week, so we are no longer oddities there, although, Europeans and Latin Americans make up the vast majority of tourists. US citizens still need to fit into one of a dozen approved categories of travel, but as long as you don’t spend all your time lounging at the beach, fitting into the “Education – People to People” category is a snap.

The Economy: Totally artificial. There is a currency for foreigners and to deal with the outside world: CUC, pegged at (oddly) 1 CUC: 1 US $. For Cubans, it’s CUP, pegged at 1 CUC = 25 CUP. The entire internal system of prices and costs is totally planned and managed by the government (duh, socialism), so it is disconnected from any real connection to the value of the work or materials involved. Prices for foreigners in the government controlled segments (hotels, museums, rum, cigars, etc) are in most cases similar to what you’d pay in the US. In the Casas and privately owned restaurants, it can be a bit cheaper.

The roads: Yes, Cuba is the last bastion of those 50’s big-finned US cars. No pollution control so much exhaust and diesel everywhere. BUT: very few vehicles at all – a dream compared to the US, and especially to other developing countries when it comes to traffic. Most Cuban roads are VERY lightly traveled. A sprinkling of private autos, a few transport trucks, some “truck/buses” (think: cattle cars), and many horse-drawn carriages and beat up bicycles share the road. With all the different speeds, Cuban drivers are safe, cautious and polite – everyone stops for railroad crossings, motor vehicles give the human and animal powered ones a wide berth, making the cycling very safe.

The climate: Exactly like Hawaii. Same latitude, same trade winds, same wet/dry side, same winds, same humidity, same temps. If I closed my eyes, I was on Maui or the Big Island

The people: EVERYONE is educated. 100% literacy. And no one worries about health care. It’s free, and there are clinics and hospitals everywhere. Everyone is fed, and there is basically no homelessness. So the people have a minimum level of security, and are free to have a bit of fun with life. There is a lot of music, a lot conversation, and lot of smiling. Never felt threatened, or even stared at. On the down side, of course, are the invariable shortages and lines for the basics of life (outside of food and shelter). EG, this month, no one had pens, and those of us who knew this and brought a bunch were treated with broad smiles and “Gracias”.

Stories: I have dozens, but here’s one: on my last day there (Sunday), I was running along the Malecon, an 8km stretch of road at the seaside in Havana, with a broad sidewalk at the water’s edge. Early Morning just before sunrise. Almost no traffic, some young people still congregated at the seawall after the previous night’s weekly fest of music, dancing and food, along with about a dozen tourist runners like me (and 4 Cubans running as a group in a traffic lane). As I get to my half way point, a young man runs up along me, shouting, “Hey, Ultra-marathon”, and waving a numbered racing bib. I can understand and speak a little Spanish (with apparently a very good Tijuana accent, from my years working at LA County hospital, where 95% of my patients spoke only Spanish), so we were able to communicate somewhat. He claims he is in town from Santiago (a day’s drive away) for a half marathon, which he plans to run in 1:10. He looks in his mid 20s, very lean, about 5’6″, with small calves, big veins and an easy stride, and a small back-pack. Easily keeping up with me so a real runner. He learns I’m a triathlete, so starts asking for things like shoes, shirt, shorts, even a bicycle wheel. While part of this might be a scam, part of it is real: Cubans can’t import anything privately, so real athletic gear is in short supply. EG we brought a bunch of bike parts and kit for a local junior racing team. He also asks for $ for his wife and him to buy some milk. He asks for the equivalent of one US penny! Anyway, when I finish at my casa, I get him to write his name and address so I can send him one of the wheels I have in my garage which I haven’t used in a decade. I gave him my running shoes (he’s been going 5 K with me with the toes blown out of his), and a “Team USA” USAT shirt. And the pen and 25¢. He knows about the Havana triathlon which USAT has gone to the past two years, and I allow as how, after my three weeks on the Island, I may just come back for that race next February.

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