Thursday, October 11, 2012

Vuelta Ciclista del Uruguay: Stages 9 and 10

Sorry for taking so long to finish this race off--things, as you may know, have kind of gone nuts in the cycling world. I've been reading the depressing confessions and commentaries as fast as they've been coming out.

I also spent the weekend helping at (and enjoying) Zirbel's wedding. Tom and Rebecca are my Colorado we are after finishing the Pikes Peak Hill Climb back in July:

Okay, time to finish Uruguay! Caught up already? No? Well, do so:

Stage 1
Stage 2
Stage 3
Stage 4
Stage 5
Stage 6
Stage 7
Stage 8

We convinced Tom to start the stage. He was already there, already dressed, so why not give racing a shot? He could pull out at any point if he wanted.

We were optimistic, but knew that the next two days were going to hurt. With Tom so sick (and the rest of us not so hot, either), we were quite relieved that the responsibility of defending yellow fell on the Brazilians.

This 115-mile stage started in Montevideo, the same as stage 1 had. We even had a spare bike now that Reid had dropped out--just strap it to the roof of the Geely and let's do this!

Our plan for the day was for Zirbel and Zwiz to survive without losing time. Hanson would help both of them where he could, while also working with Soladay to make sure we didn't miss a big move--we still couldn't afford to get caught out, especially if one of the yellow jersey's teammates was in the move. I was to wear myself out taking care of Zirbel.

Racing started fast, as usual, and before long Soladay was in the long move of the day that quickly built up a sizeable gap. It was a bit perplexing, as this was the first time that an all-day break got away and the first time any break was allowed to get away with an Optum rider in it. I guess the Brazilians just wanted to do a conventional defense and ride the front all day.

Zirbel and I were hanging out towards the back where it was less chaotic, because the field had calmed down. It was a bit windy, though, and suddenly they accelerated on the front and put us all in the gutter. They surged hard enough to split the field, and Tom and I ended up in separate groups without my knowledge (things get a bit chaotic in the gutter and you don't have a lot of time to look around). Once we slowed down to a more reasonable speed, Ken told me to go get Zirbel, and I was panicked to look back and see him on the front of the chase group, 20 seconds behind us.

I immediately sat up and waited for them to catch me so I could get Zirbel off the front. Of course the slackers on his wheel had been unwilling to help. Once he reached me, I slowly ramped up the pace and brought him back up to the field.

Once back up there, Ken scolded me on dropping the ball. It stung at the time, but mostly because he was right. I had hugely underestimated the level of shepherding that Tom needed, and I had to do better. Ken said he could do the hard efforts, but riding tempo all day to keep Tom out of the wind was not his strong suit. It was mine, though. In fact, riding tempo was about all I could do anymore.

So began my day of  being Tom's guide. Positioning in a pack is a mental as well as physical exercise, and he did not have the ability to handle the mental aspect of it. He was powerless to move within the pack except for backwards, but he could focus on the wheel in front of his--mine--and follow it around. So that's what we did. I stayed on the upwind side of the pack and focused on keeping him toward the front, checking regularly between my legs for the unmistakable HED wheels and his bright yellow shoes.

Riders would come up and move him off the wheel, and we'd start over again. I dropped back and waited for him to pop out at the edge of the pack again, and I took him back up.

I was trying to eat and drink, but it wasn't working. Both gave me stomach cramps, so once in a while I would take a small sip of water and chew a small bit of a ClifBar.

As the race dragged on, one kilometer after another (we were counting down in kilometers because they go by faster), Tom continued fighting his internal battle to stay in the race. He had started with the goal of reaching kilometer 50. Then kilometer 100. Then 110. Then 120. And so on.

Once in a while, the winds would shift and the Brazilians would surge to keep us from getting too comfortable. The field would string out, and I moved further into the wind to shelter Tom and Ken, getting them as close to the front before I died in the event of the field splitting.

Moving Ken and Tom up as far as I can
It became a pattern. I would get them most of the way to the front when the field strung out, I'd hit the wall hard and swing off, and Ken would shelter Tom from there. Every time I got dropped, I thought that was it. I was quickly running out of energy, but somehow I kept getting back to the field and resuming my duty until the next time I got dropped. My max heart rate had fallen 20bpm to a pitiful 166, the highest I reached during the stage. Yeah, I was worn out.

From what I can remember, I got dropped at least 3 times. The last two times, I was at the mercy of my chase group as to whether I got back or not. I can't believe I made it back at all the final time--I was 30 seconds off the back of the field, and Wohlberg even gave me a couple bottles to finish the race with. Then I got caught by a small group that pulled me back up there with the help of a resting field.

I tried to avoid looking at my Garmin as much as possible, as the kilometers were passing by at a painfully slow rate.

Finally I got dropped hard enough that I never made it back. I had managed to protect Zirbel for 80 miles, and as the race dragged on, I had to hope that it was enough. Eventually we caught Soladay, whose break had been caught, and he had been dropped from the field. The grupetto was just as frustrating as before, but I was so cracked that all I could do was focus on the wheel ahead and try to finish.

After an eternity, we reached the finish. Only those who have experienced an incredible bonk know the state I was in at that point. I had just finished a 5-hr race, burning somewhere in the neighborhood of 4000 calories after my meager breakfast. During the race, I had taken in a grand total of about 5-600 calories because of my unsettled stomach, and I was a bit dehydrated after drinking only 3 bottles. I found my team and collapsed on the ground, too exhausted to be bothered by the throng of spectators standing just inches from my fingertips. After I lost contact, Ken was able to protect Tom for the rest of the race, and Zwiz had managed to protect his position as well.

The next hour passed very slowly. Zirbel and I were both zombies, and we just lay on the hotel floor waiting to feel like humans again. With concerted effort, Tom managed his first words of the day to me.

"Thanks, buddy."

My shower lasted half an hour, as I just curled up in the corner under the water and waited for my heart rate to come down.

Big Tom skipped dinner, opting instead for a trip to the corner store. He stuffed himself with ice cream and went to bed early, hoping for the best.

The remaining 4 began the very slow walk to dinner, but Soladay turned around when he began to feel strange--he had bonked hard as well, and was still trying to recover from it.

So Zwiz, Hanson, and I had a good dinner at a restaurant that we'd been told was doing the race dinner. There were some other teams there as well. When finished, we walked out and confusion ensued--turns out we were supposed to pay! The Movistar director helped with translations, and eventually the three of us apologetically scraped together enough money to pay them.

That night, I wandered to the corner store and brought back large quantities of ice cream, yogurt, candy, and chocolate milk. I had a room to myself at the hotel and found Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny (in English!) on TV, and settled in for an evening of stuffing myself and filling the room with vile fumes. The door to the bathroom remained closed, as the toilet was broken and wouldn't flush...a fact I learned after doing untypeable things to it.

The following morning, we were up early for our final bus transfer. I nearly gagged looking at the ham and cheese at breakfast. The yogurt was the only thing I could stomach anymore (although I still got stomach cramps), so I knocked back 5 glasses of it before leaving one last gift in the broken toilet and boarding the bus.

Stage 10 was 124 miles. Blessedly, Zirbel felt human again, although still a bit sick. Much better than the day before, though, which was good as I had nothing left to give.

Just one more stage. We can do this! Immediately, a long break went and again Soladay was in it. The rest of us got Big Tom established as the man who rides directly behind the yellow jersey..."es el segundo!" and left him to enjoy the rest of the day at the back of the Brazilian train. Hanson stayed nearby, watching over him and greatly enjoying asserting himself on anyone who tried to push Zirbel off the wheel.

Tom ended up flatting out of the break, then played a little prank on the field. Wohlberg was called up to give him a wheel, then shielded him with the car at the edge of the road as the field passed by. He then jumped back in and hung out at the back, leaving the Brazilians to think he was still in the break.

The miles slowly passed by, and the surging occurrences were rarer than the day before. I tailgunned most of the day, as it required less energy than fighting for position.

Soladay pulling me back to the field after I gave him a nature-break push
With just 40 miles left to go, I hit a rock and flatted the front wheel. Bob gave me a really quick wheel change, but I barely got back to the field. The caravan was super spread out and I could barely use it to get back, not to mention my legs had no more left to give.

As the closing kilometers passed by and the last remnants of the break were caught, I tried to get to the front to help Hanson, but I didn't make it. In the end, he freelanced his sprint again in the twisty final kilometer and removed any doubt that he was the fastest man in the race.

Zirbel held on to 2nd in GC, and Zwiz dropped down to 4th. Hello, UCI points! I was just so relieved to have finished, and enjoyed finally giving water bottles away!

That night we partied with more chivitos, pizza, and cervezas.

We said hello to Zirbel's little friend, which we had to leave behind for want of luggage space.

And we learned from the Colombians that Soladay had been allowed to get away in the long breakaways because they thought he wasn't a true member of our team, as evidenced by the different bike he was on (major points for finishing a 1000 mile stage race on a borrowed bike, by the way!).

The next morning, we were up at 4 for the trip to the airport.

At the check-in counter, Bob asked about our still-missing luggage. We were about to leave the country, so where the heck is it?!

"Oh, the bikes? They've been sitting in the office for a week, why haven't you come to pick them up?"

Blank looks all-around.

"Are you serious?"

In a long and drawn-out argument, we would learn that some unknown person's number had been put on the  contact info for the luggage. When called about the bikes, this person told the airline that we didn't need them after all and to just hang on to them. We have a few conspiracy theories but I'll save them.

Well, at least we had them back.  The kicker was that there wasn't room on our return flight for them, and they would only return them to LA, when we wanted them to go to Denver. And they wouldn't fly the bags for free after all the hassle. Needless to say, not a positive experience.

Our first transfer in Lima was very rushed, as we had to get through security again and find our next gate for the flight to Miami in 30 minutes. It was only me and Zirbel on that mostly empty flight, as we were the only ones returning to Denver. I even got the whole row to myself! Around 9am I had a crazy case of restless legs--it seems they didn't know what to do without a race....

We landed in Miami and I was so happy to be back in the land of English speakers. The first words I heard after walking through the gate? "Beinvenidos a Miami, en los Estados Unidos."

Then the travel marathon resumed, and I finally got home at 1:30am. I crawled into bed, then woke up at 7am, ready to race. Thank you, body clock. At 8am USADA showed up. Welcome back! Now pee in this cup. Have you taken any medications recently? "Yes, lots of immodium and pepto."

I had three more days of intestinal malfunction and then was back to normal. Reid visited the doctor and got tested--he had Giardia and Campylobacter, the latter of which was likely my culprit. Giardia is particularly nasty, and it took Reid, Tom, and Zwiz quite a while (and a lot of very strong parasite-killing meds) to fully recover.

To top it all off, we may never see the prize money from that race. They've developed the habit of paying you when you come back (just before we went over, they finally paid for the team's last visit in 2010), and we may not be going back.

So there you have it. The Vuelta Ciclista del Uruguay: crazy then and in retrospect, but still full of stories and memories and experiences, and an irreplaceable team-bonding and life experience.