Interview: Joe Papp discusses his experiences racing in Latin America

Joe Papp is known by many for having been a key witness in the Floyd Landis USADA arbitration hearing. Papp was called on during that hearing because of his experience with taking testosterone as a cyclist. While that portion of Papp's career is of great interest to some, I think it's been well documented already (see here and here). As such, I felt that there were other things that I'd rather ask him about. Plus, as I've stated before, the subject of doping is not of great interest to me, particularly when more important topics like De Vlaeminck's hair plugs can be discussed. As a matter of fact, I can tell you that my mental list of things I'd rather not do reads like this:

1. I don't want to discuss doping, it's more boring than listening to Sean Kelly do race commentary

2. I don't want to split my scrotum in half while trying to hop over a parking meter, I suspect it would be more painful than listening to Sean Kelly do race commentary

3. I don't want to sniff Sean Kelly's freshly used chamois, because I fear that it will actually be more pleasant and exciting than listening to him do race commentary

Even if we put my list aside for a second, I feel that the mere mention of doping seems to bring out the uninformed, as well as the (seemingly over-informed) conspiracy theorists. You see, my interest in Papp's career is based on his ample experience racing in Latin America, which I find to be highly unusual for an American cyclist. After all, how many American cyclists can say they've been to Cuba, let alone raced the Vuelta A Cuba five times? Although I'm Colombian, I know little about the inner workings of races in South America, and I imagine that few people in the English speaking world do. Joe is certainly unusual in that respect, and I thought others would enjoy his insights and observations. Some of you may think that interviewing Joe and not asking him lots of questions about doping would be like:

Interviewing Michael Jordan and not asking him about basketball, or

Interviewing the singer from the Crash Test Dummies and not asking him about their groundbreaking and inspirational hit "Mmm, Mmm, Mmm" , or

Interviewing Miguel Indurain and not asking him about his Muppet-like unibrow

If that's your opinion, you're entitled to it...but you're also wrong. Because I said so.

Also of interest to me, I must admit, are Joe's efforts to be reunited with his Cuban wife (who is also a cyclist). It's a complicated subject, since politics, travel restrictions and general international craziness are a huge factor in any dealing with Cuba and Cuban citizens. Having lived in southern Florida around plenty of Cubans, I can tell you that prior to September 11, Cubans were perhaps the only people in the world who had a harder time traveling than us Colombians. For us, getting a visa in order to take a vacation in the US (or pretty much any other country) could take up to a year, and that's if you got approved. Few ever did. Cubans had it worse, and they never even stood a chance, and still don't.

So, in my attempt to continuously shed some light on the subject of Latin American cycling, I contacted Joe to ask him a few questions. I'd like to thank him for agreeing to do the interview.

(Please note: the captions on the pictures were written by Joe)

During your cycling career, you raced an unusually high number of races in Latin American countries. How did you begin doing races in the Caribbean and Latin America?

In 1993 I graduated high school and that fall began studies at the University of Pittsburgh on an academic scholarship. I was bike crazy, however, and despite a strong showing in my first semester, I had no desire to be in school, and could only think about cycling. Through sheer force of will I convinced my mom, then the university, to let me take a leave-of-absence for an indeterminate period of time so that I could race. So, in 1994 I raced professionally with the Pittsburgh Power, and late in the season received an invite to compete with the US National Team in the Vuelta A Venezuela. I only received notice a few days before the start of the race, so I flew from Pittsburgh to New York, met my teammates at JFK and headed south. I’d already been to Europe twice that year to race, but this was my first Latin American competition, and despite the circumstances, I was hooked. I say "despite" because I contracted salmonella and giardia in the opening days and rode the entire tour sick to my stomach. I barely made it through the mountains, but several top-5 finishes on the flat stages convinced me I had a future as a sprinter. I still can’t say why Latin America enchanted me so much – maybe it was because I studied Spanish for several years in high school and thus enjoyed some rudimentary communication skills, but you’d think that after getting sick and spending the next six months trying to regain my strength I would have sworn-off the region. But the next year I raced in Panama, then in ’96 I did the UCI Continental Championship in Venezuela again, and so on. So it was initially just a random occurrence that took me to Latin America, but something clicked and I, from a sporting and cultural perspective I realized that I derived a huge amount of satisfaction from racing in Latin America and the Caribbean. 

You raced in the Vuelta A Cuba, and other races in Cuba many times. Most Americans think of Cuba as a place more far-fetched than Saturn, perhaps due to its political isolation, and political taboos in the United States. Did you feel comfortable there as an American?

That’s funny that you would compare Cuba to Saturn, because my close friends and I referred to Cuba as “Planeta Cuba” – it was such a surreal place. But surreal in a good way, an enchanting way…one that drew me back to that island over twenty times. From the first day, I felt comfortable in Cuba as an American and realized that whatever “official” tension there was between the two countries, it existed at a governmental level, and didn’t translate to a sentiment shared by the general population. Only once was I ever uncomfortable in Cuba, and that was during a minor stage race that finished in Guantanamo, at a time when Fidel Castro was whipping up a froth of negative feelings towards the US presence via the naval station. I’m staunchly anti-communist and lay 100% of the responsibility for the suffering of the Cuban people at the feet of the regime there, but I was also realistic enough to focus my energies on the sporting aspects of my trips to Cuba, and not make them overtly political. I think I accomplished far more by being a friend of the Cuban people and a ferocious competitor, than if I’d pissed on a statue of Castro (which happened once, by accident). 

Vuelta A Cuba 2005

What were the logistics like when traveling to Cuba as an American? Even now that travel is less restricted there are no direct flights there that I know of.

Because I had the permission of the US government to be in Cuba for all of my trips there, I was able to take direct flights from Miami to Havana and back. While the frequency of these flights has decreased since the Bush administration tightened restrictions on sanctioned travel to Cuba, I never had to resort to any skullduggery or other devious means to get to Cuba. Once inside the country, travel was always possible by car, bus or airplane, though not always in the most comfortable or luxurious vehicles. In Cuba I traveled in everything from an old Hungarian bus, to Soviet-era planes made by Ilyushin and Tupolev and flown by Cubana, to Mercedes and Audi and Lada and Moscovich autos. I even survived a trip on the Cuban cameo, when it was still in service (once was truly enough, and it was an experience that I would never again knowingly subject myself to). And just for the record, most US citizens who travel to Cuba on the sly do so by flying first to a “third-party” country like Canada or Mexico, and then catching a flight to Cuba from there. 

Are there any remnants of Soviet-style sports development in Cuba? Soviets certainly took sports extremely seriously (and even saw it as a political affair). Based on how amazingly good Cubans are at track and field, I suspect some of that sentiment may still linger.

The shell of the Soviet-style sports system still exists in Cuba, and is managed by INDER: The Cuban Institute of Sports, Physical Education and Recreation. I have enormous respect for Cuban athletes, who live, train and compete under conditions that border on inhumane, but it still pains me to see sport used for political purposes by the state. A great quote comes from this 1999 article,"A Cuban mix of muscle and ideology":
“Sport, a mainstay of Cuba's socialist Government, seeks to affirm 'patriotic values and national identity'…Higher, stronger, faster . . . and more revolutionary. Outside the sports arena, a Cuban athlete may be treated as a prince or a villain, depending on an imaginary borderline traced by his own loyalty to the state. The boxer Teofilo Stevenson, Olympic champion in 1972, 1976 and 1980, was admitted to the "revolutionary hall of fame" because he rejected lucrative professional contracts abroad. A different fate has awaited other eminent sportsmen and women, mostly baseball players, who, having opted for the temptations of professional status and for exile, have had their names struck off the official roster. Desertions are a thorn in the revolution's side.”

If there are, in fact, some big patriotic (and perhaps almost strategically political) sentiments behind events like the Vuelta A Cuba, did you feel a bit like a marked man in the peloton due to being an American, racing for an American team, and wearing a kit with the American flag? This is not to say that it was like Rocky IV, but I imagine it made for some unusual race dynamics. If not, were nationality and politics set aside?

I personally never felt like a marked man, and actually enjoyed a very harmonious relationship with the Cuban peloton. It certainly helped that I spoke Spanish, went out of my way to understand the natives’ culture, didn’t disrespect them individually, collectively, or poke fun at their circumstances (like some of the foreigners would). There really isn’t any animosity towards Americans in particular at a person-to-person level in Cuba, but if there was, I could always flash my Irish passport and claim European-status! That’s not to say that solidarity didn’t exist between the Cuban riders, and that it wasn’t enforced by the coaches at strategic times. In fact, on several occasions when a foreign rider was threatening the Cubans’ position on GC, the national team and the provincial Cuban teams – under pressure from their directors and the Cuban Cycling Federation personnel – would band together to ride against the foreigner(s) and for Cuba!

I think that winning two stages in 2003 and my teammate’s winning the overall that year – only our second attempt at the Vuelta – and our being very gracious about it gave my teammates and I a bit of latitude with the Cubans, such that they were willing to consider us as equals, status that we worked hard to validate. That said, I would be lying if I didn’t say that I really enjoyed those moments in my last two Vuelta’s when, for example, there was a strong crosswind blowing and the field was splitting into echelons, and the Cubans always, always let me slide into position in the first group. But then I repaid that courtesy, for example, by not trying to poach every intermediate sprint or 9th place stage finish when it was far more significant to a local rider.
Now if you want to talk about actual ex-Soviets like the Kazakhs, that’s a different story entirely! I was booted from the 2004 Vuelta a Chile after coming to blows with a kid who would later ride for Astana

With the greatest Cuban cyclist of the past decade, Pedro Pablo Perez, after the 2004 Vuelta a Cuba

Was the general lack of funds and poverty faced by cyclists from other countries visible and obvious to you even in the midst of racing?

Yes. It was especially obvious when a 7-speed friction shifted rear derailleur would explode off of some local’s bike and pepper my carbon-fiber, 10spd-equipped wonder-bike with shrapnel.

Competitive cycling at an amateur level in the United States is (generally speaking) mostly comprised of well-off white males who can afford to buy Cervelo frames, as well as owning a home and multiple cars. Though this is perhaps not true of ALL cyclists here, the difference between American cyclists and those in other countries must have been obvious to you. Did you notice a difference in commitment and passion in other countries, or was it just a matter of how it was expressed?

Absolutely. Not to make broad generalities, but most of the cyclists competing in these UCI races in Latin America were racing full-time en lieu of working as low-wage, unskilled labor. Whilst Latin American cyclists were as passionate or more so that their brethren in the USA, it was less an avocation than it was a vocation for many of them. And I think one thing that makes it easier for a foreign rider to integrate into the Hispanic peloton is to understand and acknowledge the genuine professionalism of the domestic riders, and respect them for the fact that their trying to earn a living racing their bikes, even if the machine they’re riding is two seasons old or their team clothing was made in Venezuela instead of Italy.

What do you think are the greatest misconceptions that Americans have about places like Cuba and countries in South America?

I think the greatest misconceptions are those that you’ve alluded to previously – namely that there is no potable water in those countries, or the natives are running around in grass skirts, or you’re only one-generation removed from shamanism and the age of Simon Bolivar. Granted, we look at a place like Haiti after the terrible disaster that has destroyed so much of that country, and it’s clear the material difference with the United States, but I challenge any of your readers to go to Buenos Aires and come home not thinking of it as the Rome of Latin America.

In Havana, Cuba.

How different was racing in places like Chile and Uruguay when compared to the American racing scene? Where there significant differences in how racers approached cycling, decorum in the peloton or other basic aspects of racing?

By and large, the racing in those countries was harder and the riders were more skilled than most of the non-professionals in the US. That’s a generality, of course, and there are always exceptions, but I think that owing to the nature of the sport in countries like Chile and Uruguay, where many of the riders who are competing in the national tours are doing so as a wage-earning endeavor, they manifested a more serious attitude and greater professionalism – even though they were almost always in a materially-inferior position to US cyclists. Do I need to mention that the roads are much better in the US? LOL. One other thing I always noticed was that in Latin American countries, there was almost always a support crew attached to each team that would rival those of almost any amateur squad in the US…massage therapist, mechanic, director, second-director, someone’s mom doing the cooking. Oh and the podium girls in Latin America, holy smokes. And we’re talking nearly every race.

2004 Vuelta a Chile

Having grown up in Colombia, and knowing the circumstances in which most Latin American cyclists grow up, I have often commented that the drive for a Latin American cyclist to dope may be greater than that of an American one. I say this because of the level of poverty that many Latin American cyclists come from, and their drive to continue to have an income that they will likely never again reach in their lifetime. Based on your experience racing in Latin America (and with Latin American cyclists) would you find this to be true? Is their willingness to dope perhaps greater or different as a result?

I can’t speak to the willingness to dope of any particular athlete vs. a cyclist in the US, but what I will say is that I saw a greater awareness and knowledge of doping practices in Latin America, and a profoundly more liberal attitude to the self-administration of pharmaceuticals. Combine this with the fact that in most countries in South America you can walk into any pharmacy and buy testosterone, injectable vitamins, corticosteroids, etc. and the fact that if not racing the typical Chilean rider would be earning a living…how?, and is it a surprise that doping there was not a practice of the masters-age weekend warriors but rather the top riders in the country? Just look at a guy like Juan Francisco Cabrera Torres, top sprinter for the #1 team in Chile (Lider), and he eventually tested positive EPO. Do you think he was the only rider on that team who doped? He was just the only one who got caught. Well, actually, he wasn’t – his teammate the Russian Andrei Sartassov also tested positive.

In your opinion, is the amount of doping going on in Latin American cycling similar to that of other countries? 

I think that – at least during the period 2003-2006, there was more doping in general in Latin America than in the USA, but less than in Western Europe – and it was also less-sophisticated. This also is just a generality. I guess what one could do is analyze all of the positive results reported on the UCI’s website and segment the sanctions by region – but in the end that would only reveal who got caught, when and where. It wouldn’t take into account the endemic corruption in anti-doping and how, in certain countries (especially those in Latin America), it’s much easier to avoid a positive control by subverting the testing process, or – as we saw in the brazen attack this week on a DHL courier ferrying B-samples of riders for testing in Guatemala – simply halt it all together.

In the book Kings Of the Mountains, Matt Rendell writes about the issues that dark skinned cyclists like Victor Hugo Peña had in the European peloton. Peña would go as far as wearing both leg and arm warmers during summer days due to comments that had been made by European riders. Having raced all over the world, did you see any issues regarding race or ethnicity within the peloton? Is cycling an inherently Euro-centric sport as it appears to be to an outsider?
 [Correction: Having just had the chance to speak with Matt Rendell in person today here in London, it was Alvaro Mejia, not Peña who had this issue.]

Though I don’t have any reason to doubt his words, Rendell’s reporting of Peña’s account reads like an urban myth. I mean, it sounds incredible. Based on my personal experience, I never saw overt racism or ethnic bias. Granted, I competed on very “international” teams, which always mixed Latin Americans with US or Western European cyclists, but in Cuba, for example, the peloton was made-up of riders from black to white, and the riders judged each other not on skin color, but rather – on speed and fitness. Of course there is always an exception, and it’s fully conceivable to imagine Spanish fans, for example, heckling a dark-skinned Colombian, or Colombians mocking pasty-white gringos, but cycling seemed to me to be such an internationalized, global sport, that racism within the peloton was unimaginable. The media’s coverage of cycling certainly could make it seem euro-centric, but that’s only based on a reading of the popular press. Go to a website like this, and you realize that Latin American cycling enjoys significant media coverage within the region. 

During your time as a pro, were you ever forced to wear anything as amazingly ugly as the new Footon-Servetto kit? Do you think Ivan Dominguez left the team because he knew that new kit was around the corner?

Yes. When I raced the 1999 Univest GP and finished third behind Tom Boonen and winner Alex Lavalle, I had to wear a composite team jersey for a squad sponsored by Alderfer Meats, which in color can best be described as yucky-grasshopper-guts-green. It was only one race, however, so I can’t compare it to the suffering thrust upon the Footon-Servetto riders. Ivan Dominguez always struck me as a style-conscious rider, so it’s fully-conceivable to me that he quit the team in favor of riding with Rock Racing. Though not necessarily the most financially-stable team on the circuit (and certainly not one that is always on the up-and-up – trust me, I know, having managed the squad at Redlands 2007), it is the only one sponsored by a fashion industry firm…(is there even a Rock Racing for 2010?)

What were the best and worst bikes that you were issued by teams you raced for?

Best: Whistle Creek
Worst: KHS True Temper steel bike with a curved seat tube.

Posing with the Whistle prior to the final stage of the 2006 Tour of Turkey – the ride that would be my downfall…

Climbing the Poggio in Italy in 1994, aboard the bike in question

A slide scan showing me in the hills above Monaco, with the offending bike propped up against a wall – notice the sickly-curved seat tube

What is your opinion (if any) regarding Floyd Landis' comeback and the level of success he accomplished (or failed to accomplish)?

Wow. I think another “Joe” (Joe Lindsey) presents the best commentary on the Landis comeback, here, aptly describes it as a “strange ride”:

You raced for Pittsburgh Power, a team owned by famed Steelers running back Franco Harris. What was that experience like? Did you have much contact with Harris?

Racing for the Power was a wonderful experience. I remember being chased around Pittsburgh by Chris Horner during one race in 1994, good times. Since I was never a football fan, I didn’t have an oversized-vision of Franco, which made it possible to interact with him both professionally and personally without his accomplishments as an athlete and lasting fame getting in the way. I would often stop-by his office in the North Hills of Pittsburgh and leave with muffins and donuts from his “Super Bakery” enterprise – which was the polar opposite of the kind of dealings I had with team staff in Italy. His mother was with us when we competed in the NCL* world title race in Monaco in 1994, and I’ll never forget her sharing a plate of risotto with me. It was the first time I’d ever had the dish – we were sitting next to each other, she’d ordered a plate of risotto and when it arrived I asked what it was…she insisted I try it and actually handed-off her serving to me and ordered a second helping! She reminded me of the World’s-Best-Grandmother! It was easy to then see how Franco himself could be so down-to-earth, friendly and approachable. His son ran for mayor of Pittsburgh this fall. I bumped into Franco at an event in Pittsburgh in ’08, after not having seen him for some years, and have to say that I still have a debt of gratitude to him for the opportunities he created for my teammates and me during the days of the NCL. Thanks Franco!

*Lucho says: The NCL was an NFL-like cycling league in the early 90s, with teams in multiple cities including Atlanta Ruffians, Las Vegas Falcons, Miami Wave, Houston Outlaws, Boston Banshees, New York Ghosts, LA Wings, Portland Thunder. I could find very little information about the league. If anyone knows more, please post it in the comments.)

NCL race in Monte Carlo, Monaco – 1994

Do you still ride from time to time?

Yes! I started riding regularly this summer after watching nearly every stage of the Giro online. With the onset of winter I basically stopped riding outside, though it will be the first thing I do once the weather improves! I’ve found that riding for an hour – even just spinning the legs on the bike path – is a better tonic than any drug or “therapy” for improving one’s mood and well-being. Most of my riding is now with my friend Joe Lydic, who spent several years playing minor league baseball and is now trying his hand at cycling. Though he’s a few years too late to hope for a professional career in Europe, he’s one of the most-talented natural athletes I’ve ever met and could very easily become a national-caliber rider if he can develop his skills and tactical sense as quickly as his fitness.

In full Fred mode, sporting a World Champion kit provided by Vermarc USA – I never would have done something as crass as wearing another trade team’s kit when I was racing full-time, let alone the World Champion’s!

Anyone you'd like to thank or acknowledge?

The usual suspects, especially my mom and brother, but also a few other names: Mike Fraysse, even though we’re estranged, for giving me my first opportunity to compete in Cuba; Tim O’Toole, for supporting and encouraging my riding when I was still a Junior; Mark Albert of Westwood Cycle for supporting and encouraging my riding when I was a Senior (lol). Also the Bruns Family for their encouragement and support outside the world of cycling, especially after I came home in disgrace in 2006.

I’d also like to thank all of the Latin American and Caribbean cyclists who I raced with and against, as teammates and competitors - and for welcoming me to their countries and into their homes. I appreciate how you all refrained from judging me based on my high school Spanish and pale skin, but rather, let me prove myself a worthy competitor and, in some cases, a friend. Not being dismissed outright as just another gringo or European prick meant a lot because you all gave me the chance not just to race my bike, but also to develop an awareness and appreciation of an entire people and their cultures. The relationships that I formed with you, while strained by the complications of doping and later accepting personal responsibility for having cheated, are ones that I will think of always.

With Joe Lydic after a spin in 2009

With Mark Albert at his shop Westwood Cycle in Spring 2009

With teammates Alvaro Tardaguila (center) and Gerardo Castro (right) at the 2004 Vuelta a Cuba.

With Tim O’Toole in Cuba in 2003

Joe's blog

Article by Joe explaining how cyclists defeat doping controls

If you're into the subject, an interview detailing his use of EPO on Velo News. More here.

Joe's Wikipedia entry