I clearly remember my first conversations with Arlenis Sierra Cañadilla a couple of years ago. Under a brutal sun in the Reinaldo Paseirovelodrome, the cyclist was very reserved; she barely spoke, it was like, as the saying goes, trying to get blood from a stone.
Sometime later, after competing in high-level competitions against the best cyclists on the planet, the athlete from Manzanillo had lost all vestiges of her pervious stage-fright.
Now, Arlenis doesn’t hold back as she talks about her experiences in recent months, as part of Kazakhstan’s Astana Women's Team, based in Italy, and participating in the 2018 Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) World Tour.
“The level is very different from that of the Americas. Here the stages are a maximum of 100 kilometers, but on the Tour they are a minimum of 120. You also cycle on the most varied terrain imaginable, from cobblestone to muddy tracks, and the timetables are also complicated, because everything starts after midday,” states Arlenis, talking to Granma in the velodrome east of Havana, where she is taking a break from high performance competition.
“It doesn’t matter what time it is in winter, because the cold cushions you, but in the summer, cycling during the hottest part of the day, the exhaustion is incredible. What is more, the cyclists are also different, they cycle with more intensity, they don’t have limits or back down in the face of danger,” adds Arlenis.
It’s clear that the World Tour is designed for the strongest legs, able to overcome great obstacles. “I tell everyone the same thing, it’s hard, you suffer, but it’s worth it. I wish more Cuban cyclists had the opportunity to be contracted abroad, our level would increase enormously.”
THE DAILY CYCLE
Arlenis Sierra has been spending long periods away from her home and family ever since she was 11 years of age. She began training at an early age and at 16 made the national pre-selection team based in Havana. Perhaps this is why she doesn’t feel the distance which has kept her away from home for almost the entire year.
“I feel quite comfortable with the Astana Women’s Team. It’s a typical European club, very serious and meticulous. I was offered contracts with other teams from the United States, but nothing could be formalized due to the obstacles stemming from the blockade. But now, after having spent a few months in Italy, if I were offered another contract, I wouldn’t take it, because I’m well-established there,” notes the Toronto 2015 Pan American champion.
“This doesn’t mean that I’ve got an easy life. I wash, iron, and the fact that I don’t like to cook, for example, makes everything so much more difficult,” she states smiling, although she does admit to having made some progress in this regard.
The life of a professional athlete takes a lot of dedication and responsibility, principles which Arlenis has internalized. “I don’t go out much, in fact, my routine is rather monotonous. I train in the morning and then spend a lot of time laying down, resting. I’d like to socialize more, but I don’t know that many people. It’s during these moments of solitude when you miss your country and your surroundings the most.”
Another important barrier Arlenis has had to overcome is language, as although she understands Italian, she still finds it difficult to express herself. “Luckily the team’s coach and mechanic speak perfect Spanish. Language also becomes an issue during races, above all when we compete in English-speaking countries and all communication is done in that language. There, I understand very little.”
A LONG ROAD TO ASTANA
Before last year’s Río de Janeiro Olympic Games, where Arlenis achieved Cuba’s best-ever result in the road race event (28th place), the Astana Women's Team already had the athlete from Manzanillo in their sights.
At 23 years of age, Arlenis had one of her most outstanding seasons, securing third place in the San Luis Tour, and second in the mountain course of the race. She also dominated all stages of the Costa Rica Tour, won silver in the Pan American championship and gold in the Bretagne Tour, as a guest invited by the UCI World Cycling Center.
“They had been following me all year, and were very interested in adding another Latin cyclist after Carolina Rodríguez of Mexico. I was over the moon, I mean we’re talking about an important, well-established team. I think after the Olympic Games was when everything started to fall into place, because, although many people didn’t think I achieved a great result, others appreciated my effort under rather difficult conditions,” recalls Arlenis.
Ever since donning the sea-blue uniform of the Kazakhstani team, the Cuban has established herself as one of the most outstanding members of the team, despite finishing in 35th place in one of the early legs of the of the World Tour, in Strade Bianche de Toscana, Italy.
However, among the over 100 cyclists that took part in the 127 kilometer race, Arlenis made sure she was not among the 60 that failed to complete the circuit.
Since then she has remained in the top-25 in all the events in which she has competed. The cyclist from Manazanillo also won silver in the Valenciana Cycling Week and Alfredo Binda-Comune di Cittiglio Cup, in the Italian town of Gavirate, before leading her team in two world circuit stops; Gent–Wevelgem, in Belgium and the Flanders Tour.
However, the cherry on the cake would arrive in the California Tour and Giro Rosa leg in Italy; finishing third overall in the U.S. competition, top of the qualifying round on points and among the youngest athletes, while also securing ninth place in the mountain stage of the tour. Meanwhile, Arlenis finished 10th among 130 competitors during the Giro leg, considered to be the most prestigious event on the women’s cycling calendar, and placed among the top 10 in six out of ten stages.
“I was named team captain for the Giro leg, a great joy, but I remain humble, I’m ready to do anything, if I have to do the work for others, I’ll do it. I think that the result was due to the support of the rest of the team, which features girls who don’t have the same level of experience as other clubs, but who work really hard,” explained Arlenis, who was surpassed by veteran cycling stars in the transalpine competition. The winner of the Giro leg was Olympic Road Race Champion Anna van der Breggen from Holland, while the top 10 also included, double time-trail World Champion Karol-Ann Canuel (Canada), and Olympic and World bronze medalist Elisa Longo Borghini (Italy).
In the overall race, however, Arlenis beat out other stellar cyclists such as Shara Gillow, time-trial World silver medalist in Valkenburg, Holland (2012).
Such achievements have boosted her confidence and Arlenis believes that Cuban cyclists are now in a better position to secure an important result for their country.
“We have more vision and references, because Marlies Mejías and Iraida García have also constantly been competing in races. We now know the inner-workings of our rivals and when it comes to competitions by countries we will have more elements with which to plan out a strategy.”
Like all athletes, Arlenis has dreams she is eager to fulfill. “There are things that you want and are difficult to achieve, but not impossible. My goal is to be World Champion and win an Olympic medal, either on the track or the road, because I’m not considering giving up the track. I like group events most of all, and I think that that’s where I have the best chance, as those races feature 20 cyclists, but in the road competition there are over 100. It’s true that I am young and still have a long way to go, but time is moving on and there’s no moment like the present to try.