Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Guatemalan bike racing

I've decided it's time to write a story I've been thinking about for a long time.... We're going all the way back to the Tour of Guatemala in May, stage 6 in particular. Aside from my prologue win at the Cascade Classic the day before my season ended, this race was my favorite day on the bike in 2012. I have wanted to tell the story for a long time but wasn't sure of the best way to do it. Lately, though, I have been kept up at night or awoken mid-sleep with snippets of how to do so. Without further ado, este es mi narracion de la sexta etapa en la Vuelta a Guatemala.


The cacophony of indecipherable noise around me did its best to drown out the agony of exertion racking my body, but it still wasn't enough. I could feel my heart pounding in my ears, mouth agape, struggling for every last bit of oxygen in the thin air as I put my entire body into each pedal stroke. I stared at the ground, watching the bricks go by one at a time while my sweat dripped off my nose onto the stem, unaware of the broken spoke causing my rear wheel to rub the brake on each revolution. There was no point in consulting the masking tape on the stem with points of interest sharpied onto it--I had already passed the final KOM and was only 3 kilometers from the point hastily and unceremoniously designated: 131-FIN.

It seems in the excitement of the race, I had played down in my mind the already under-hyped "final hill into town". There was nothing left to do but give chase. His torn and bloodied bibs popped in and out of view as the barriers narrowed to a single lane, the spectators leaning as far into the road as balance would allow while shaking excited fists and dangling flags in my face only to yank them away as I neared. Others threw handfuls of homemade confetti in the air, a colorful snowfall that easily stuck to my sweaty body, seeping dye onto my skin and jersey while spectators further back lit firecrackers to add to the raucous din.

Yet somewhere still further ahead in the chaos was the lone race leader. I chose to focus on the two ahead of me, rather than the charging peloton some unknown distance in arrears. Either the best road race of my career or another forgettable pack finish lay but a couple of kilometers ahead; just a few more minutes and it would all be settled.

How is it that I came to be in this position? Why was I the one chasing, and not the other way around? The outcome of every race is the result of a long string of decisions, many of which were made before the race passed kilometer zero.

I arrived in Guatemala superficially rested--that is, I had taken an easy week after Joe Martin and Gila, but was still very fatigued from the thousands of accumulated race miles in only a couple of months. We were racing with a small 5-man squad, and we were givin'er all we had. Marsh was our GC rider, proving on stage 2 that he could climb with the Colombians after a pack finish on stage 1. I had confirmed--as suspected--that my top end was continuing to slide.

Sick of being useless to my team because I couldn't hang on the climbs, I began a fervent pursuit of the all-day break. The one thing I could manage was riding tempo all day long, and my best chance of helping Marsh was to have him, along with the other leaders, catch up to the break late in the race.

Stage 6 was the fifth road stage, and would mark my third time in the long break. The stage, 131 kilometers/82 miles in length, was tailor-made for a breakaway to be caught on the only big climb of the day.

The race would open with nearly 50 miles of a dead-flat hotdog circuit in Quetzaltenango--terrain as unforgiving for the featherweight climbers ruling the race as the climbs had been to me. After completing the circuits, we would hit a category-1 climb--reaching nearly 10,000'--before plunging back down to the finish.

Having no aspirations of my own, I was chomping at the bit to punish the little guys on the flats and get far enough ahead in the break that I could help Marsh over the top of the climb when the break was inevitably caught. The circuits at 7000' guaranteed the sea-level racers would be missing a gear, and the cooler weather meant I had no fears of overheating.

As we rolled beneath the start banner, one of the local teams immediately strung the field out for the sprint points the next time around, catching many of us off guard. We hunkered down and hung on as best we could while the field snaked along in single file. Like soldiers pinned down in their bunkers by heavy fire, we waited for the others to run out of ammo. Immediately after the sprint, counter-attacks began with fury and we found that our legs had warmed up.

Kilometers ticked by as the field shuffled and reshuffled, one failed breakaway attempt after another. A break of 6 was trying to sneak away, and a few lone riders were stuck in no-man's land, flailing as they chased the escapees. We had nobody in the move yet, but Sherer and I were ready to pounce on opposing sides of the field. The GC leader's team was beginning to assemble at the front--they were about to set up shop for a long day of tempo, meaning this break was about to go for good.

Of all the attack methods in cycling, the most enjoyable is taking a run from the back. By the time you reach the front, you're in a full sprint, buzzing the tower of the guys at the front. I launched from way back but had to abort when the pack shifted left, pinching me into the curb. Sherer was ready on the other side, following the next attacker trying to bridge. Seeing that attack fizzle after being chased down, I worked my way to the right side and launched again.

This time, I skirted the edges of field like a rocket hugging the hillside, blasting off the front in full-flight at nearly 40mph. Knowing that my matches didn't burn long these days, I knew the bridge had to be as fast as possible. I certainly felt like Maverick in Top Gun, running up behind the guys in no-man's land so fast that I barely had time to weave between them all for that short bit of draft. I had just enough momentum to reach the back of the break, wheezing like I'd been punched in the gut. As soon as my lungs worked again, so did I--we had to just put our heads down for a few minutes to get the move established. Badda bing, badda boom, step one was done.

The move was comprised of 7 riders from a mix of teams, including the KOM leader, a teammate of the race leader and allowed to sit on the back as such. Fulling expecting to be caught on the climb later, I knew we needed a long leash before leaving the circuit. The race commissaire gave us time splits; I was never satisfied. I became a redneck hoarding ammunition in preparation for the coming zombie apocalypse: no amount would satisfy me.

I had to make a decision  Take on the lion's share of work to keep the break rotating and gaining time, or conserve some energy and possibly be caught too early to be much help to Marsh. I chose the former, of course. Every time my fellow escapees started to slack or someone tried to skip a pull, I went to the front and picked up the pace again. The time gaps kept climbing: 3 minutes, 4 minutes, 5 minutes.... By the time we exited the circuit and headed for the hills, our gap was up to 7 minutes. Hopefully that would be enough to get us most of the way up the 2500' climb.

The road ahead climbed slowly as it approached the looming mountains, a small taste of what was to come. As I knew they would, or time gaps started dropping the second the chasing Colombians began to climb. As we reached the town signaling the base of the mountain proper, the commissaire, unable to be heard above the deafening crowds lining the curbs, simply put four fingers in the air as she stood in the sunroof of the officials' car. They're coming.

I led the break through town to give myself good lines through the tight turns on broken streets, and it proved to be the best decision of the day. Seeing motion on my left side, I couldn't conjure the Spanish word in time, choosing instead to point and shout, "DOG!" The curious animal ran just behind me. At the sound of carnage, I whipped my head around in time to see bikes in the air and bodies hit the ground, others swerving into the ditch or across the road.

4 made it through unscathed, and we had no choice but to follow racing etiquette and wait, at least a little while, to see if our companions would return. One made it back, but the other two were done--a dislocated shoulder and broken collarbone, I would later learn.

Then we started the serious climbing. I focused on the wheel in front of me, refusing to think about how far we still had to climb. Sometimes I sat on, but other times, when I felt the pace was becoming a bit too much, I went to the front to turn it down a notch. Up and up we went, and suddenly it became apparent that our chances of getting to the top before the field caught us were increasing. With only a couple of kilometers left to climb, we still had 2 minutes on the field.

If we got to the top first, we would get to the finish first.

The ballgame just shifted.

With newfound motivation, I dug deeper to hang on as the pace accelerated. Our team director, Gus, came up and reminded me that the guys on the Guatemalan teams ought to know the descent. I kept that in mind, but also thought that knowing the descent and being able to rail it in a race are not the same thing.

Although I wanted nothing to do with the KOM sprint, I had to chase nonetheless, as a 5-second gap across the top becomes a football field at descending speeds.

As I passed under the KOM banner in fifth, I offered up a quick prayer. It's about to get crazy up in here...God, please give my guardian angel his fast wings today.

It's not reckless if you're merely using every ounce of talent, skill, and training you possess. The road plunged, my speed climbed, and the first corner approached. The soft, open bend could be taken full-gas. I blasted around the outside of the two who feathered their brakes, and wouldn't be seeing them again. I was in hot pursuit of the final two.

The next corner was a hard, open right-hander. I stayed off the brakes as I swung left, then dove hard for the apex only to find a TV motorcycle got there first, forcing an adjustment to my line. Feathering the rear brake as hard as I dared, I ended up just inches from the grass. Dusting it off, I sprinted out of the turn. Descending requires complete focus; you have no time to dwell on any mistakes.

The extra weight I hauled up the mountain was paying dividends on the way back down. Chin nearly touching my stem, I swept from apex to apex through the turns, keying off the lines of those I was chasing as I nearly touched 60mph on a few of the straight sections. Halfway down the descent was a small town with a category-4 climb. Closing in on the town, I sprinted down the last of the hill for that extra bit of momentum, finally catching the others before the short climb was to start.

My tank was nearly empty by this point, though, and I couldn't hang with the others for even just a few minutes of climbing. By the time I reached the top, I had a 15-second gap to close down. As it turns out, the second half of the descent was even more challenging.

The adrenaline rush that results from racing down a mountain also results in a hyper-awareness of sorts. As the wind noise drowned out everything else, I focused on making a perfect run down a foreign descent. All at once, I was reading the terrain and all of the road within view to plot a mental map of upcoming turns while getting feedback through the bike about the road surface, which I was also scanning for imperfections or other threats. Brake late but before the turn, dive in late on blind corners, accelerate away from the apex, stay low; a routine I've practiced enough to become automatic.

Then the descent threw a curveball. A large sweeping u-turn was fast approaching; I judged it to be doable at about 40mph. Waiting until the last second to brake, I realized too late that the road surface was broken up and covered in gravel, and I couldn't slow down in time before the turn. Shifting the braking load from front to rear, I began to fight the bike into the turn as it bucked beneath me on the rough surface. I heard a pop as I missed the apex wide and got a brief spell of point-fixation while looking at the ditch coming up quickly. Remembering to look where I wanted to go, I corrected my line but was now fighting gravel for traction while still trying to brake and stay on the pavement.

I was finally in the clear and off to the next turn as I quickly checked my bike for the cause of the unsettling noise. Unable to determine the source, I pressed on, only to find dozens of locals waving me down at what turned out to be a very deceptive, very steep set of switchbacks. Hints like that are best not to ignore. Rounding the final switchback, I came up on the Guatemalan rider who was now a bit worse for wear after a close-up look at the roadside vegetation.

The descent flattened out as the kilometers ticked by and we traded hard pulls, hoping to reel in the Colombian that remained out of sight. We finally rounded a bend and I saw the wall we were to ride up. I had barely reached the bottom when my bloodied friend began to ride away from me and disappeared into the flags dancing around his head.

Reaching the crest of the hill about 5 seconds behind him, I accelerated down the bricked hill into town and bounced around the turn at the bottom in desperate chase of the little guy in orange. My exhausted pedaling was exacerbated by the cobbled streets tossing me about as I craned my neck to see the next turn through the flags and confetti. I saw the u-turn, but discovered too late that it was dirt. Slamming on the brakes, I slid the rear wheel through the turn and sprinted off after him as I passed the 1K banner. I figured that first place was out of reach now, but I could at least take 2nd. Sprinting down a hill, I hoped to slingshot back to him on the next rise.  It very nearly worked, but I ran out of gas just as I reached him and he pulled away in the final 300m to take 2nd.

We were over a minute behind the winner, and the field sprinted across the line just a minute behind us. I would've loved to win the race, but in hindsight I did much of the work that allowed the break to succeed in the first place and prevented me from winning...but that's racing, and a day on the bike I'll always remember.
The confetti as the leaders passed through was actually much thicker.