Arlenis Sierra heads up the Oude Kwaremont at the Tour of Flanders.

Arlenis Sierra: ‘I don’t know why people say I’m a sprinter’

Cuba's only WorldTour pro on her humble beginnings, homesickness, and why she's not a 'sprinter sprinter'

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Arlenis Sierra, Cuba’s only WorldTour rider across both the men’s and women’s peloton, has stamped her mark on the 2022 season. In her first year on a WorldTeam – Movistar – Sierra stormed through the Classics, taking fourth at Flanders followed by 15th at La Flèche Wallonne and seventh at Liège-Bastogne-Liège. 

This week, the 29-year-old won the first two stages and the GC of the newly minted Vuelta Ciclista Andalucia Ruta Del Sol in dominant fashion. All of these courses have significant climbs, so why has she been pegged as a sprinter for the last five years?

“I think this started because I won some races through sprints and then lots of people started to say I was a sprinter,” she mused in a conversation with CyclingTips. “I’ve never been a sprinter. Yes I can sprint but for me a sprinter is someone who when the race is flat they go head-to-head with other sprinters and win from a bunch. I am not a ‘sprinter sprinter.’”

Those both inside and outside of the peloton have misconstrued the Cuban national champion’s style, but, she says, it is a label that she entirely rejects.

“Maybe I’m quite fast but more from a small group. I can climb pretty well, depending on what form I’m in and who is in the race, I can be up there on long or short climbs so I don’t know why people say I’m a sprinter. I’m not a sprinter,” she said. 

Arlenis Sierra and Coryn Rivera at the Trofeo Alfredo Binda.

‘Humble’ beginnings   

Whether it’s on sprints or climbs, Sierra’s journey from Manzanillo to Movistar is distinct from those against whom she races.

In a 2018 article, she described how, growing up, she and her family lived in, “a humble house belonging to my grandfather. It was me, my parents, my siblings and my grandparents. In fact, my parents, my siblings and I all shared just one room in the house. It was crowded but we tried to make it as comfortable as possible.”

She described how, as a girl, she had been encouraged to get into sport by her father, “to burn some energy because I was very active.” After trying other sports – “I had already done tennis when I was five but it didn’t last long” – she settled on cycling, aged 11. 

After just one year on the bike she earned herself a scholarship to a sports school. Where, she describes in the same article, her cash-strapped nurse parents sent her and her sister, who was at a tennis school, their nursing gowns “just so we had something to wear.”

Although she took up the sport as a child, it wasn’t until 2017, at 24 years old, that Sierra signed for a UCI team. Far from being a result of poor performances or lack of interest – both UnitedHealthcare and Astana were keen to snap her up – it was Cuban law that prevented her from turning pro. 

Before 2013, very few Cuban athletes were granted government approval to join professional teams, and anyone who did so without prior approval was considered a defector. Even those who sign professional contracts abroad are under obligation to return for important events such as the Panamerican Games. It was under such an agreement that Sierra signed for Astana in 2017.

An exhausted Arlenis Sierra needing to recover post-finish in Oudenaarde at the Tour of Flanders.

Having narrowly missed out on selection for the 2012 Olympic Games in London, Sierra ensured that her international results guaranteed her entry to the 2016 Games in Rio, coming third overall in Tour de San Luis, and winning the Vuelta a Costa Rica that year. As well as gaining her a ticket to Rio, the results also earned her a spot at the UCI World Cycling Centre to train and race in Europe ahead of the Games. 

There, Sierra raced the Tour de Bretagne Feminin where she won two stages as well as both the overall and points classifications – and the best young rider’s jersey. Her results caught the eye of the Kazakhstani-registered team, for whom she then signed and with whom she would go on to spend five seasons.

Having raced just once in Europe, albeit successfully, Sierra found herself having to adjust to a style of racing that was alien to her. “When I started with Astana it was really different because racing in Europe is nothing like racing in Latin America,” she recalls.

It didn’t take her long to adjust, however. Sierra was incredibly consistent between 2017 and 2021, taking, amongst other notable results, multiple stages of the Tour Cycliste Féminin International de l’Ardèche, the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race, and the 2018 Women’s WorldTour Tour of Guangxi. 

“After a few years I started to feel more like an athlete and thinking with an athlete’s mentality at a higher level,” she says of her time there.

Stepping up

After A.R Monex folded at the end of last year, Sierra found herself without a team. Thanks to yet another consistent season, including winning one of the Navarra Women’s Elite Classics in a three-up sprint with Ruth Winder and Annemiek van Vleuten, she was picked up by Movistar in her first move to the WorldTour in her career. 

“I was a little nervous because it’s a new experience with a new team and I had spent five years on the same team before,” she said. “But I’m really happy, it’s like a family which is the most important aspect for performance.”

Sierra says she knew that the step up to WorldTour would also mean a different role on the team, “I knew it wouldn’t be the same as with A.R. Monex where I was always a leader, I knew I would be expected to work because there are really strong riders on this team,” she said.

“But I like to do that. I like that when it’s not a race that suits me I can work for a teammate, that makes me happy because then it’s a team result. It’s a WorldTour team with more opportunities and possibilities for more races which will help me to see what my potential is as an athlete.”

Arlenis Sierra wins Navarra Classic 2021

With her all-rounder capabilities and fast – but not “sprinter sprinter” – finish, Sierra is in a position to help both of Movistar’s leaders to victory with Van Vleuten in hillier races and Emma Norsgaard in sprints. 

“It’s like having a reference as an athlete and saying “I admire Annemiek a lot for her results that she has had on a world level for many years”, Emma too, she’s younger and I’ve known her very recently, but Annemiek I have been following for a long time, since I started cycling,” she said of her new teammates. 

“There are lots of riders you can reference and say, ‘I would like to be like her,’ like Marianne Vos, athletes that you want to follow and follow in their footsteps. Perhaps we weren’t born to be like them, but we were born to do something similar or at least have them in the team and say, ‘Well, I’m going to work for Annemiek, let her get a result and I can contribute a grain of sand,’ but you also feel happy to know that she has an important figure and that you can help her to have many more results.”

With five years’ experience in the women’s peloton and many more in Latin America, Sierra noted that women’s cycling has grown “muchisimo” (a lot) since she started out. 

“Before, there was a big difference between the 10 or 15 riders who were at the top and now the level is much higher,” she said.

“It wasn’t like the men where there are 50 riders who are very good and you can say they could win. There were five or six that you would say are, as we say in Cuba ‘fuera de serie’ [out of this world] and who win different types of races. But I think the level has grown a lot and it’s a lot more even, Annemiek can win but so can other riders and a lot of different riders are winning now.”

She notes the importance of having a strong team when it comes to getting results at WorldTour level nowadays. “If you don’t have a team it’s hard now because everyone rides as a team and in a team there are usually two or three really strong riders,” she said. “So if you don’t ride as a team now it’s really hard to get results.”

Homeward bound

Sierra may have adjusted well to her new team, but one thing she says she will never get used to is being away from home. “It’s quite hard because I like being at home and I like going home. It’s a lot of pressure here, I live here but it isn’t my country. I like going back home, I feel very comfortable there and it gives me positive energy and makes me feel refreshed,” she said.

“Here I don’t really do much because it feels like a place that is not mine, an environment that is not mine so, when I am not training or racing, I do nothing but wait until I can next go back to Cuba. Now I’m okay because it’s not long until I can go there.” 

After Andalucia she will head back to Cuba to prepare for the Panamerican games in Argentina. From there, she is still undecided as to whether she will race the Giro d’Italia Donne or the Tour de France Femmes.

Sierra manages two or three trips home a year, she says, but also acknowledges the toll that travelling between Europe and Cuba takes on her training. 

“I like going home a lot but I also understand that every time I go back I lose a bit of the top-end race speed and the rhythm of racing,” she said.”Here I train a bit better and I can train on climbs, because where I live in Cuba we don’t really have big climbs, and most of the races here have climbs in them.” 

“So I need to start getting used to the idea of spending more time in Europe so I can maintain a bit more of the form I am in right now.” 

If she does maintain that form, the rest of the season is looking very promising for Arlenis Sierra.

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