Friday, October 5, 2012

Vuelta Ciclista del Uruguay: Stage 7

Stage 1
Stage 2
Stage 3
Stage 4
Stage 5
Stage 6

While Ken was again being burdened with gifts and reclaiming the yellow jersey (gotta love those bonus seconds), the rest of us got settled in our new, more spacious rooms. Even after fitting 3 beds--one of which was a queen-size that we gave to Ken--the room had enough space for a big cushy chair and ottoman. It looked like a palace after that last hotel.

We hustled down to the race lunch to see if it was any wasn't. So we snagged some ice cream and went about burning through another afternoon. Ken and Tom went to check out the shops around town, but I opted for some TV and reading time and a short nap. The channel with English sitcoms was the only one that was fuzzy with distorted sound, but at this point Spanish was really wearing on me. I was completely comfortable with any Spanish relating to meal times and race details, but that was it.

For dinner, we headed out to a place we'd seen earlier. Half of the exposed kitchen area was a barbeque pit. Mmmmm, meat. I got a chivito as a warmup dish, and our table split a giant grill sampler that had some very delicious and kind of bizarre meats.  By the time we'd wrapped up our meal, the restaurant was filled with racers...I'm not sure much of the race food was eaten that night.

After dinner and massages, it was time to give the baby grand that Zirbel had spotted a whirl--seriously, how does he see them before I do?! I had to explain to the desk clerk multiple times that I wanted to play the piano. It was in a room that they had closed up for the night, but for some reason it took them a while to understand that I wanted to play the piano. I sat down to play and it became quickly apparent that it had only been used for decoration for many, many years.

Every key was out of tune, but some were a whole note off. Others stuck after playing them, and a couple stuck to other keys as you pushed them (2 for the price of 1). Even more bizarre: this piano only had 85 keys! It stopped on the high end on A instead of C. We had the room to ourselves, and Amanda stretched out on the couch to enjoy a half hour of really bad music. It sounded pretty terrible, but it's relaxing to play and know that nobody can tell if you hit a wrong note.... Amanda snagged some video from the end of one piece. I promise, I wasn't hitting a single wrong note. It was a great stress-reliever, though.

The next morning featured one of our longest transfers yet on a less than stellar bus. I was anxious for the stage, which was due to be 103 miles of increasingly hilly terrain--word was, some of the hills might even require the little ring. I was really hoping that today would mark the day that my legs came around again, which wasn't a completely unfounded expectation. It happens as racers get accustomed to the fatigue. Post-race massages are usually slightly painful, or at least uncomfortable, as your sore muscles get worked out. Well, the previous day, my massage wasn't uncomfortable at all. My legs had stopped hurting. Walking up stairs wasn't an ordeal anymore. I was still just 45 seconds back on GC, so my race was far from over.

The day started out damp, but extremely fast. It was a bit windy, coming from the West...and we were headed South for 4 hours. Everyone knew that today might be the day to finally shatter the field. After barely starting, Ken flatted. Soladay and I dropped back to the rear of the field to see if he would need help getting back, but he didn't. The yellow jersey had flatted--how did the field respond? They attacked with renewed fervor. Thankfully nothing got away during his absence.

Then the race went berserk and strung out in the left gutter. It was very clear that the painlessness in my legs was because they were so far gone, not because they had come back. So there we were, single file, flitting in and out of the cars stopped in the shoulder. The race had completely broken up. Zwiz, Zirbel, and Reid had made the first echelon that was about 100m up the road. Hanson, Soladay, and I were in the second group that had started an echelon but was still getting whittled down to proper size. I was at the back, hanging on.

That's when the perfect storm came together. The rider in front of me lost contact as we were going up a small riser really fast. Rather than move over, he forced me to pass on the upwind side, using energy I couldn't spare. I finally managed to get onto the group again as we crested the hill. Just as I made contact, we were reaching a huge truck in the shoulder. Another rider was now on my upwind side and wasn't going to move further into the wind to give me room. My options were to run into the truck, or back out of the draft for half a second and hope that I could hang on. I slowed slightly to get by the truck, our group accelerated over the top, and I was off the back.

There I was, flailing 2m off the back of the group and headed backwards. Soladay looked back and saw me, and valiantly dropped off to try and bring me back up. I was completely gassed, though, and he didn't have the energy to do it by himself.

The moment that I unraveled
The race was hitting the fan in every sense of the word, and Tom and I were dangling just 5 seconds off the back of the group and losing steam. Wohlberg in the Geely, first car in the caravan, was just behind us, motivating our chase efforts even further. At one point they slowed and we almost got there, but it wasn't to be.

As we lit every last match in no-man's-land, we saw the two groups unite ahead of us and ride away. We picked up one more rider that had been dropped and gave chase a while longer, but eventually sat up to wait for the gruppetto to catch us.

Still fighting
It was at that moment that I started to have an emotional breakdown. Up until that point, I was still in the race. The time trial was the next day, and maybe I could put something together and be among the GC contenders. That group riding away was literally The Race. The mounting stress of no communication with my family because of the worthless internet was tough to deal with on my first international trip, in a country in which I wasn't eating well and was tired of the cultural shock. I felt like I had let my team down. I had caused Tom to drop out of the lead group, where he could have helped our other riders. I had let myself down, fallen far short of my own expectations. I had never ridden in a gruppetto before--I'd always been strong enough to make any selection. My legs were so dead that I couldn't imagine how I was going to finish the stage, let alone 3 more. I started to lose it. I started hyperventilating and was gasping for breath. I was tearing up. I did not want to be in the race anymore.

As much as I wanted to quit, though, I couldn't allow myself to do it because that would truly let the team down. So I pressed onward, one pull at a time.

We were eventually caught by the gruppetto, which was about half the field. In any functional gruppetto, guys rotate through to keep a decent pace and finish within the time cut. These guys just couldn't fight their instincts for very long. We'd be doing fine and then they would surge up the gutter, even attack at points. It was so infuriating! They didn't understand that the leaders were minutes away by that point and we would never catch them, and they couldn't stand the thought of working together.

Tom and I did our best to keep the rotation going--we had a very long way to go. The race had blown up just 30k in, and we weren't caught by the gruppetto until kilometer 50. We had 80 more kilometers before the finish, and we didn't have much water or food.

It felt like forever and a day, but we finally finished. We were almost 20 minutes down from the leaders, and guys were attacking our group at the finish. I chased them down just to spite them, I was so furious. Ken had finished well enough to hold on to yellow, but was not on the podium. The race had broken up further as it went on, and our guys had climbed the GC ladder a bit more.

That was all good news, but I had my own issues to work out. I jammed my headphones in my ears as I climbed aboard the ratty old bus for 2 more hours of drive time. I had to get my head on straight. We were headed back to Montevideo--the place it had all started--and the freaking bikes had better be there waiting for us.

Tomorrow (or whenever I get a chance):
-Of course the bikes will be there, right?! I mean, it's been a week and a half!
-There's an intestinal storm a'brewing...who gets hit?!
-There are still 240 miles left to race?!