Monday, November 17, 2014

Knobby tires, swinging hammers, and trainer time.

Well, I've made it through the first week of training for 2015!

My off-season went by way too fast, but I enjoyed every minute of it. I got to spend a few days with my parents in Texas before returning to Colorado where I had barely parked the car before I was on my mountain bike. My skills re-acquisition could have gone a bit smoother, leaving me with some minor scrapes and bruises, but hey, it's mountain biking. The good news is that my skills were sharp before we hit the road for Moab, one of the most famous mountain biking locations in the world. Our merry crew was filled with collegiate teammates from years past, and we enjoyed the scenery and incredible riding. For those wondering, we made sure to use our 3-days of riding well, hitting Slickrock, Klondike Bluffs, and Porcupine Rim. 29ers all-around, and most of us on hardtails. It was punishing at times, but a ton of fun.

Trying to look tough

Slickrock is nothing but an enormous sandpaper rollercoaster!

Pick a line, any line
 After another few days of trails in Colorado, Shane and I were on a plane bound for California, where we'd board a bus and drive to Mexico for my second house build. Of all the opportunities that cycling has given me, these builds are my favorite. This weekend was on my calendar before last year's build was even finished, and I knew that I had to bring Shane along this time. You can read Shane's take on the incredible trip here. The weekend ended far too soon after many friendships and memories were made, and I can't wait to go back. And there's no substitute for the perspective and thankfulness gained on a trip like that.
Hanging drywall with Tanner Foust
Our build team with the family
Shane and I returned to Colorado as Snowpocalypse 2014 hit and ended up spending the night in a hotel room just 60 miles from home after driving for 2 hours without even reaching the ring-road around Denver. After getting back to Colorado Springs the next morning just as the next snow storm started, I kicked off my 2015 season with a ride on the trainer. Then I spent the next 5 days on the trainer, too. You know it's bad when you actually go through the trouble of putting on the trainer tire. That's accepting that you won't be outside for a while!

As un-enjoyable as all that trainer time was, I got through it with relative ease with this thought: I just helped a family in Tijuana with nothing build a house, and they were so thankful. Can I really complain that I'm being paid to ride my bike inside for a week?

The first week of training is always a big adjustment, though. Mentally, it's getting back in the routine of training. There's also the readjustment of eating like a professional athlete again, moving away from the off-season indulgences. The most difficult adaption is physical, however. After a three-day block of riding, lifting weights, and running, I was moving really slow. I felt weak on the bike, fighting off the fear that I'll never regain the fitness I once had. But I've been here before and know that I just have to push through the first week. Sure enough, by the end of the week I was riding 30w higher and 10bpm lower. Training at this time of year is addictive for me because the gains come so quickly and easily. I'm so excited for next year!

Thanksgiving is coming up, and I have so much to be thankful for. I get paid to do what I love and see the world in the process. I get to meet incredible people and call them friends after a weekend spent building a house for a family in desperate need. I'm thankful for the time I get to spend with friends and family before I leave the country in 7 short weeks. Today, specifically, I'm thankful that my dad gets to celebrate his 55th birthday. He's riding a tumultuous rollercoaster, still fighting his cancer for the third time. The doctors can barely agree on what to do with him, as he's in uncharted territory. He is the cutting edge of treatment, as it is a rare patient that gets to the five-year mark. My dad is a rare one, though, and we Hagas are fighters like you wouldn't believe!

That's all for now, I hope you can all enjoy time with family next week!

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Winding down

My last race of the season was two weeks ago, which is hard to believe. I was considering not even posting anything about it, but changed my mind because I’ve written about every race so far this year and wanted to finish it off.

Milano-Torino was my first road race in Italy, and my first since the Vuelta. At a 1.HC ranking, that meant that there would be several continental teams racing. The race was almost completely flat for 170km, then featured two trips up a nearly 20min climb to finish. The plan was for Daan and I to save it for the finish, while the others were free to go in the break.

The race started (albeit a bit behind schedule because of protesters whose cause I couldn’t quite figure out….it involved a tractor in the road, though) and I realized just what a Grand Tour does for your legs. Attacks were constantly going for over 30km, and I was effortlessly floating in the bubble. I was watching many of the attacking riders burn themselves out after several failed attempts to escape, whereas it felt like I had no chain on my bike. Granted, I wasn’t attacking, but I had grown accustomed to it taking 400w to just hold the wheel for the first hour of a bike race.

After the break finally got away, we were in for a long ride before things got exciting again. The fight going into the climb the first time was a big one, and it highlighted the progress I’ve made this year. What should have been a straightforward positioning battle turned dirty when the Tinkoff team hooked the whole field three times on a straight road. It was a fast run-in and they couldn’t hold the speed required to hold off the waves trying to roll over them. As a wave was coming up the side, they abruptly swung to the other side of the road to shut it down. It’s irresponsible and dangerous, and it caused chaos behind. Out of anger and determination to give myself the best chance for a result in my last race of the year, I did what I needed to do and started the climb with Daan and Thomas in the first 20 riders.

In the end, I was unable to get a result, but I’m happy with my race. How can that be? Well, that climb was the furthest thing from suiting me as it could possibly be. I’m a time trial climber, meaning I like to settle into my rhythm and gradually increase the pace all the way up. That climb was steep and pitchy, meaning there was no rhythm to be had, and we started it with a 2 minute sprint. Even despite all this, I barely missed making the select front group of 30 riders over the top. Part of that was due to not knowing the climb. I had one big effort left to get over the top, but with the climb constantly changing pitch I used it too soon and then got hit with another steep section.

I spent the few rolling kilometers at the top in a chase group, knowing that we were steadily losing time. I couldn’t ride the front the whole time, but we were losing time in every turn. I wasn’t taking risks on the damp-at-times road, but if the next turn looks like a possible u-turn, do yourself a favor and set up on the outside, eh?

Anyways, after a disjointed chase effort and doing the final climb at a manageable pace, we only finished 4 minutes down. If I had only made the front group the first time up….

My feeling about my race only improved when I downloaded the power data from the race. It’s a good thing I had the power on my SRM covered up, as my head would have exploded the first time up. After 170km of racing, I started the climb off with a 2-minute power record. Then I kept going and matched my 5-minute record. Then I kept going and set a new 10-minute record. Then I kept going and almost matched my 15- and 20-minute records. All on a climb that didn’t suit me.

So while I failed to get a result, I’m happy with my last race of the year. I needed to start the climb at the front, and I did. I didn’t make the front group over the climb, but I posted some ridiculous power numbers doing so. The only time I ever set power records late in the year was in 2012, after my season prematurely ended in July with double hand surgery. To be setting records in October after such a heavy race season and go into the off-season without being in desperate need of rest, well, that can only mean good things are on the way in 2015!

After learning that I was definitely not going to Beijing, I decided to go into the off-season with one final crazy ride. I’m going to live in Girona next year, but there were still a couple of destinations around here I hadn’t hit yet. The weather deep in the mountains was no good, so I was headed South to Volterra. Wanting a real challenge, though, I made it a ride to remember: 200 miles (325km). I was on cruise control from sun-up to sun-down, finishing the ride in 10:15, plus 45 minutes of rest from stops for water, pastries, and a bit of sight-seeing in Volterra. It was an awesome ride, my longest by a huge margin. My first 6, 7, and 8000kJ ride, finishing at nearly 9000kJ. And I wasn’t dead at the end!

The best part is that I awoke the next day fresh and ready to go again. Life as a stage racer, I guess. After a couple days of rest, I went for a run. Almost 5k in 20 minutes. I was sore after that! Since then, I’ve gone running a few more times, and have adjusted well. I know I’ll be doing some trail running and playing soccer in the weeks to come, so this transition will help prevent injury.

Today is my last day in Lucca, and I’ll be home in less than a week! Just a handful of days with the team for sponsor meetings and getting set up for next year, and then I get to see my family again!

I’ll conclude with a treat for the data dorks out there: a picture of my CTL for the 2014 season (starting in November). In layman’s terms, this is the level of fatigue I went through from training and racing. You can see the steady build and rest periods in the first third, becoming more saw-toothed as racing starts. Catalunya, my first WorldTour race, appears just before the middle of the graph. After Circuit de la Sarthe, and I had a bit of rest, which is followed by the triple peaks of California, Belgium, and Dauphine. Then begins the long slide of my summer break, which is followed by camp in the French Alps and Vuelta a Burgos. Finally, the real purpose of this graphic: that is what a Grand Tour looks like. It’s no joke!

I wish you all a happy end to 2014! I'll be bouncing around visiting friends and family, playing in the dirt on my mountain bike, and helping build another house in Mexico before getting back to work for 2015.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

An American in Europe

Before moving to Europe this year, the sum total of my time on this continent was 3 weeks. If that was dipping my toe in the water, this year could only be described as jumping into the deep end of Euro-life. In 2014, I have spent only 40 days in the US.

As my time over here this year winds down and I become increasingly homesick, I’ve thought about all that I will and won’t miss from this side of the pond. I made a list of everything that is quintessentially American—seemingly insignificant facets of the country I grew up in, but that I find myself missing now.

It is likely no surprise that the thing I miss most from the homeland is food. Not just American food, but food in America. Want Thai food at 6pm? Got a sudden hankering for pancakes in the afternoon? Can’t decide if you want Italian, Mexican, Chinese, or juicy steak? In America, you just find a strip-mall with all of the above restaurants at whatever time the mood strikes and go for it.

I have dozens of incredible Italian restaurants just a short walk from my apartment. I could eat myself into a pizza-and-pasta coma (but only after 7pm) any day of the week without visiting the same place twice. It doesn’t matter what I’m in the mood for, I’m having Italian for dinner. Variety is the spice of life, but the spice rack over here has just basil and oregano. Thankfully, mercifully, the supermarket has a few racks of imported foods that give me a taste of home. Of course the prices are premium, but BBQ sauce and Thai sweet chili sauce go a long way when it comes to sanity. Side note: Italian grocery stores have pasta AISLES. Plural.

Speaking of, I will never understand Europe’s widespread avoidance of condiments. It only seems logical that your sandwich of awesome bread, great meat, and tasty cheese would be well-complemented by some spicy chipotle sauce, but maybe that’s just my typical American decadence speaking?

Just because the supermarket has imported foods, though, doesn’t mean they’ll be good. I have left the Mexican rack alone--I can’t even see the expiration dates on the salsa because they’re so dust-covered. Maybe I’ll crack in another week, though.

I celebrated the end of my season with a pint of Ben and Jerry’s (they actually have it, and it only costs as much as a pizza!), which is how I learned not to buy American ice cream in Italy. It’s been sitting there so long that it crystallized from so many thaw/freeze cycles of being moved from freezer to freezer while awaiting a particularly homesick bike racer.

Say you’re going out for dinner in Europe. You can sit inside, but it’s a lovely fall evening and the weather is fantastic. Of course you’d like to dine outside, and why shouldn’t you? Oh, right, because your dinner might be ruined by the smoky intermingling of cigarettes and two-stroke scooter exhaust.
I miss America, where cigarette smokers are the rightfully vilified minority (I may be a bit biased on this topic, as their disgusting habit is why I must preempt any judgment on my Dad’s cancer with the oft-repeated “no, he never smoked”), rather than the behind-the-times majority who can’t be bothered to account for the wind’s direction or the sensibilities of other humans. Side note: I hate few things in life as much as somebody having a smoke upwind of me while watching me warm up for a time trial. It happens way too often.

In America, your dinner is accompanied by unlimited free water in a glass that is filled to the brim with ice cubes, even though the AC in the restaurant is cranked to ‘Arctic’. You finish dinner and drive to your hotel in your big SUV that would lose its mirrors driving through any of the small villages around Italy, and lay in your oversized hotel bed while flipping through the myriad TV channels, all of which feature the original audio track rather than the dubbed-over versions that dominate European media. Your phone is charging while you watch How To Train Your Dragon for the third time (because you only caught the second half the first two times), because you don’t have to choose between recharging your phone and watching TV, as the hotel room has 37 outlets to meet your electricity needs from any location. The movie finishes and it only takes 2 seconds to check your email because the internet in America moves faster than a door-busting shopper on Black Friday. Caught up on email, you feel like taking a shower before bed.

You wouldn’t think it would be such a big deal, but I really miss American showers. Showers that make sense. American showers are big enough to bend down and shave my legs without banging my head into the door or bumping into the handle and turning the water to freezing cold. European showers that actually have a door are just small vertical tubes that Americans who find themselves on the right side of the waist-size bell curve would vehemently protest.

Odds are, however, that the shower is one of the open-air bathtubs with the plastic divider as a half-hearted attempt at keeping the water in the tub. If the shower head is actually high enough to stand under without bending over, it’s assuredly one of those adjustable-height numbers that is worn out and constantly slides down while rotating to spray the wall instead. The lukewarm water, in the short time that it sprays you before returning to the wall, fails to combat the cold air attacking you from all sides, as the absence of a door or shower curtain allows any warming water vapor to escape. 

Dissatisfying shower completed, you go to step out, but realize that you forgot the floormat on the other side of the bathroom. Now you nearly bust your head because every European shower is a foot (that’s right, an American measurement) above the floor, so you must awkwardly step down onto a surface covered in water because that little plastic divider works about as well as a mesh umbrella.

And that’s just the AVERAGE European shower. I’ve seen some truly baffling ones this year. At our altitude camp in the French alps, I spent 3 weeks trying to figure out how I was supposed to use the shower. I have an engineering degree and was confounded by a shower. The plastic divider reached no further beyond the slanted back of the tub, with the faucet at the other end, where the mount for the shower head was at waist height. I found that if I took my showers sitting down while holding the shower head with the water barely flowing, I could limit spillage to just what the towel could absorb.

In America, you can go out in public without considering your future restroom needs, as nobody is going to charge you for a visit to the Water Closet. I have never paid to use a toilet out of principle--my American pride would rather suffer a bladder fit to burst than pay for the privilege of using a public toilet!

I hope you enjoyed my tirade. I really do enjoy Europe and its culture, and my litany of trivial gripes will be quickly forgotten after an evening of watching real football while eating a big juicy burger at home. I’m counting down the days!

Friday, September 26, 2014

Post-Vuelta thoughts, Worlds TTT, and more

I realize that the World Championships TTT was the better part of a week ago, but cut me some slack! I think I broke the blogging world record by posting 24 times in as many days. 15,000 words while racing a Grand Tour.

Speaking of, I’ve got some final thoughts about the Vuelta, now that I’ve had some time to digest it. First, I still can barely grasp the significance of what I/we accomplished. My longest bike race ever was 10 days and it was far from the level of the Vuelta, and it destroyed me (with the aid of a nasty South-American bacteria, to be fair). My longest WorldTour race was 8 days. So it was a reasonable expectation that I would be able to contribute for the first half of the Vuelta before shifting into survival mode. I and my coaches anticipated finishing the Vuelta with the ability to do nothing more than curl up in bed until the end-of-season team meeting, which is why I’m only a reserve rider for most of the post-Vuelta races.

But that’s not what happened. Thanks to a lot of hard work on my part and the careful training/racing schedule planned out by my coaches and trainers, my legs did much more than survive their first GT, and I’m pleased as punch about it. We fought as a team for every chance we had and came out with a staggering 4 stage wins, very nearly getting 3 more. I have to say that the last 200m of stage 4 was my happiest moment on a bike ever. There are only a few times in my life I’ve had the thought “we’re going to win this bike race, ain’t nothin’ to it but to do it,” and that was one of them.

There’s also something that those outside of bike racing usually don’t consider, and that’s all the extra bike riding we do. What, isn’t a GT enough? 10km of neutral before every road stage adds up! Plus all the riding to/from sign in, and the ride to the bus after the finish. The race was officially 3232km(1995mi), but over 23 days I accumulated 3677km(2270mi). I covered that distance in 103 hours, 10 hours more than my GC time.

Like I said, we thought I’d be dead after the Vuelta, so I was only a reserve rider for Worlds TTT. But then John had to be hospitalized for an infection and I got the callup. Every TTT I do just makes me love the event that much more. I’m a perfectionist, and the TTT is an event in which perfection pays huge dividends. I also find it to be the most exciting/terrifying event because of the skill required. We were rolling at 60kph for the first 15 minutes of the race. We’re going crazy fast, nowhere near the brakes, and each of us only able to see the wheel in front of us. To recover at all at those speeds, you have to fully commit to the wheel and trust that the guy 5 bikes ahead of you will pick a good line and that the director in your ear will warn you of dangers with enough time to do something about it.

The TTT is also one of the most painful events. Unlike a long TT, where you can just dial up the pain to a sustainable level and hold it there, the TTT is an hour-long over/under interval. In the first 15 minutes, on the flat ground, I was doing nearly 550W on the front for close to 30 seconds (I kept forgetting to look at the timer when I started my pulls and went too long). Then I swung off, soft-pedaled for 5 seconds, then sprinted to get back on. Then I had 2 minutes at 300W before I had to do it again. And that was the easy part of the course. Then we reached the hills.

I was really in the hurt locker for 10 minutes before the top of the climb, but I was pleased to have made it into the final 4. Our efforts were rewarded with the top-10 placing that we were seeking. We’re constantly getting better, which bodes well for the future!

The TTT was my first race with Marcel—I hadn’t even seen him since the first week of January—so it was nice to get to know each other.  I still haven’t done a race with Tom Veelers or Bert de Becker (although I got to know Tom well at camp). That’s how big the team is, there are guys that I haven’t seen all year!

I still have at least one race remaining, so there’s still some training to be done to maintain my form. I mentally can’t do intervals anymore, and even just telling myself that I’m going training cracks me a bit. So yesterday I covered up the power and went for a bike ride. When I’m supposed to go hard, I’ll just chase some Strava KOMs.

Want to know what a GT does to your legs? I can’t go easy anymore! It’s either 150 or 300W all day, I can’t find the in-between. 300W is just cruising speed now, nearly nose-breathing. Also, 21 days of WorldTour racing is a lot of speedwork, and now 90rpm feels like grinding.

So, I’ve got at least one race remaining—Milan-Torino, plus I’m reserve for a few others. I’m hoping to get bumped up, though. I’ve got good legs at the end of the season for the first time ever, and want to use them. Also, I’m not going home until after the team meeting in October, and racing makes time go by much faster!

I said in an interview earlier this year that, as riders, our job is to race our bikes and leave the team management to those in the office. We can’t be stressing about sponsorship issues if we hope to perform well, and our team office rewarded that trust by securing a new major sponsor, Alpecin, for the coming years. Sponsorship stability is such a big deal in this sport! I also love that the sponsor of the team with the rider most synonymous with fantastic hair (and Marcel, too) is a shampoo company.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

THE Vuelta Stage 21: Done. And. Dusted!

Just a short report today, for a short stage.

We got a lap of the course in this morning. Once again, the course profile was incredibly misleading. If they tried to present that profile to an engineering professor, they’d be very disappointed in their grade. Scale, scale, scale!

What looked like a fairly flat course was actually either up or down with very little flat in between. What was obvious, though, is that the possibility of rain would seriously affect the outcome on the technical course.

Warming up for TT’s is the most bizarre part of bike racing for me. The best part of riding bikes is actually moving, so I naturally hate trainers. But there I am, pedaling and going nowhere. While I’m coming to terms with the necessity of this misery, there are complete strangers just arm’s length away looking at me and taking pictures like I’m a zoo animal, and all I can do is just pretend that they aren’t there.

After 3 weeks of racing, I don’t have much left in me, so I certainly didn’t want to leave my best effort on the trainer. I opted for a longer, easier warmup instead.

All was good until I got to the start house and it started to rain. I immediately reached over and lowered my tire pressure. On that course, it was impossible for a wet time to come close to the top of the leaderboard, but I gave it my best try anyways.

I didn’t take crazy risks, but I definitely pushed the tires at times. I wanted to have a more steady effort, but with the rain, I was just sprinting from corner to corner. By the time I was through the corner, I was recovered and ready to sprint again.

In the end, I finished 1’04” down on the winning time. I actually had a really good ride with good power numbers, and I’m pleased with my ride technically. Among everybody who raced in the rain, I finished quite near the top, so I can’t be too disappointed.  I did everything under my control perfectly, but there’s nothing I could do about the weather. Oh well!

But then Wawa had the ride he needed to hold on to 8th on GC, and John won the points competition! 4 wins, a top-10 on GC, and the Green Jersey?! I’m scared that the bar has been set unreasonably high for all future Grand Tours!

And just like that, it’s over. It’s going to feel really weird for the next few days, I think, as I adjust to life outside of this bike race again. Nothing important has happened while I’ve been away, right?

Saturday, September 13, 2014

THE Vuelta Stage 20:Dark places

Our mood before the start was very good. It was the last road stage, the weather was nice, John had a good lead in the points competition, and Warren was 8th on GC.

The problem with mind trickery, such as convincing yourself that you’ve made it to the end, is that eventually you are faced with 185km of racing before it becomes true.

The stage started with 20km of descending, with some short little kickers thrown in. The descents were narrow and technical, and bumpy. I was mid-pack when I threw my chain coming out of the corner. I had a 32t cassette today, which requires a long-cage derailleur, which can be quite bouncy in the smaller cogs. All that is to say that, when I was in the 11t through the corner and hit a bump just right, off it went. I tried for a while to gently get the chain back on, but it just wouldn’t go, so I had to stop and put it on by hand.

I chased back through the caravan (but didn’t have the presence of mind to turn the camera on) on the tricky descent. When I got back, I saw that the field had split into multiple groups, and Warren was in the last one with me. So I worked my way up to the front and started chasing with Tobias and Nikias. 

We got Warren back to the main field just in time for it to split again. This time, at least, he was ahead of it. I wasn’t so lucky, though, and my group didn’t regain the main field until the bottom of an uncategorized climb of 10km at 5%. I had spent the whole race chasing, and the attacks were still going.

When I ended up in the cars just 35km in the race on such a hard stage, I started to freak out. I was panicking that I would end up by myself all day and miss time cut. I thought about the consolation that everyone would give me about all the success that the team has had and the part I played in it, and that just sent me further into the dark places of my mind. I thought about how I wanted to finish the Vuelta for my dad and everybody who’s helped me get this far, and the fear of failing sent me further into the spiral. I knew that the break would go eventually and the field would take it easy and I could make it back, but rationality in such a situation on stage 20 is hard to come by. Thankfully my directors were there to calm me down. It also helped that there were 20 other guys in the cars suffering just as badly.

Sure enough, that’s exactly what happened, and I enjoyed the hour of relaxed pace to recover and eat. I learned that I didn’t have it so bad, as Warren was really suffering from mounting knee pain—a lingering side effect of his crashes. My mood was really boosted when Larry Warbasse said that my legs, in his opinion, show the most improvement in muscle definition out of the whole Vuelta peloton. That meant that I have any muscle definition at all, which sent me over the moon.

Thankfully the pace over the next two climbs was hard, but manageable. My legs were tired but I was feeling better, and every kilometer spent with the main field meant that the risk of missing time cut was further reduced.

My mental trick today was as follows: 80km to go, that’s just 50 miles! Look at that, 30 fewer already just by converting the units! With my SRM display showing the kilometers ticking by, but thinking of remaining distance in miles, my end-of-the-grand-tour mind had a firm grasp on any straws it could reach. Just get me to the finish!

I managed to reach the bottom of the penultimate climb with the field and happily sang ‘grupetto’ as the fast dudes took off. Time-cut estimates were about 40-45 minutes, so when we reached the top of the climb just 10 minutes behind, things were looking good.

The last climb was brutal for about 5 kilometers in the middle, but we reached the top with 10 minutes to spare. I spent half of the final climb swatting off spectators who forgot the number one rule of spectating: don’t touch the bike racers. Guys are welcome to ask for a push if they want (although they could be penalized for it), but I want to reach the finish line under my own power. So keep your hands off!

Warren not only battled his demons, he beat them into submission to finish 6th on the stage. I’m so impressed with his Vuelta so far!

Now, it doesn’t require any mind tricks: there is only one stage left. It’s a short and technical TT, and it’s what I’ve had my sights set on for 3 weeks now . The chance of rain should keep it interesting.

20 down, ONETOGOONETOGOONETOGO! (You’re supposed to read that in Dave Towle’s fanatical end-of-crit voice.)

Also, seeing as the time trial isn’t until tomorrow evening and will be immediately followed by post-race festivities and travel, it may be a day or so before I post again. Just be forewarned!

Friday, September 12, 2014

THE Vuelta Stage 19: Mind games

Racing for such a long time does weird things to your body. My legs are still good, but I just feel kind of exhausted in general. I’ve been sleeping really hard the last few nights. So hard that when my bladder wakes me up in the middle of the night, I walk into walls because I’m so out of it. Part of that is due to the countless times we’ve changed hotels. If only hotels would adopt a universal floor plan…but then I guess that may be too much like prison.

The fatigue has carried over into my willingness to sign autographs. If somebody comes up to me when I’m not moving, sure, I’ll sign, but you have zero chance of getting me to stop once I’m rolling to/from sign-in. Every time we’re ambushed for autographs at the hotel elevators, or the walk to/from the bus, or at breakfast, I die a little inside. All I want is to not think about bike racing, and here’s some stranger that thinks I’m important because I can pedal a bike well. This daily blog is the only race-related activity that I actually like to do each day (aside from the race) because the positive responses it gets are good for my state of mind. Thus concludes my antisocial paragraph.

Sitting on the start line each day is the toughest point of the day mentally. Once the race has started, you just focus on the task at hand. But sitting there, just waiting for the suffering to come, that’s miserable. Today’s mental battle on the start line was tougher than normal because it’s not the last road stage, but the next to last. We’re almost almost there. So I did some fuzzy math to trick myself (insert Aggie joke here). Basically, the last stage is a TT, which barely counts. Tomorrow will be tough, but today? Well, it’s already today. You can’t include today’s stage in the count (nevermind that it hasn’t started yet), so really there’s just one stage left. I can do one more stage!

Today’s stage was a perfect one for the breakaway, but it was also another perfect opportunity to get another win for John—and equally importantly, more green jersey points over Valverde. The course profile was tough, with two cat 2 climbs, the second topping out just 15km from the finish. For us to have our way, it would require another full-team effort from start to finish.

Even though there are only 7 of us now, we rode like there were a dozen Giant-Shimano riders in the field. We had to break the spirit of the attackers. Even though it was hard, our constant presence at the front showed that we were willing to keep the fight going as long as necessary until the reshuffling dealt us a hand that we liked. Soon they weren’t even attacking at 100% because they didn’t want to waste energy. Slowly, fewer and fewer riders were attacking, until finally 3 riders slipped away and we shut the field down for good.
Then the Ramon show started. I helped him a bit today, but he took on 80% of the workload, nearly shutting down the break single-handedly.

You now things are going pretty well when your biggest complaint is the complete failure of your usually-trustworthy weather site. Even after it failed me yesterday (I looked like a hobo, wearing my rain socks as my tanlines were being sharpened, the forecast rain nowhere to be seen), I trusted its forecast for sunny skies today. I was dressed in blazing white, my socks brand new and my kit with only one rest day ride under its belt. So when it started to rain, I was quite upset. Oh well….

The fuzzy math continued well into the stage: 180k total, and we’ve done 60…I’m working to chase the break until the base of the final climb at 160…the descent of the first climb is 15k…so really there’s only 85km left! See what I did there?

With 40km remaining before the final climb, Orica sent two riders to help me and Ramon. We were chasing hard, but it was obvious that the break was lacking motivation, legs, or both, as the gap started to tumble quickly. With 5km to the base, our job was done as the GC teams took over to begin the fight for position for the narrow climb. The break was caught before the climb.

John suffered up the climb—even earning himself a ‘chapeau’ from Contador—and came down the other side with a few teammates to finish the chase. Then, the only wrinkle in the day’s plan: a 500m wall through a little town with 5k to go that we had no idea about (it didn’t show up on the course profile). It shed Nikias, who had just finished a pull, and allowed an opportunity for Adam Hansen to jump away. Once he had the gap, the course favored a committed solo rider—twisting, mostly downhill, and tailwind.

In the end, John won the field sprint for 2nd, just 5 seconds behind Hansen. As much as we wanted the win, the green jersey points were arguably more important.  Now, Valverde has to podium both of the last two stages just to match John’s total.

Now there’s just one stage left between me and the time trial. So basically I’m already there.
19 down, 2 to go!

Thursday, September 11, 2014

THE Vuelta Stage 18: Another one down

At the start line today, there were a lot of spectators (as always). I was particularly impressed/annoyed by the two guys screaming chants about Movistar for 10 minutes. They were really passionate, but for some reason the Movistar riders seemed to pay them no attention. I would come to learn later that they were chanting hateful things and death threats. Pretty ballsy with all those police officers there….

The general consensus is that today’s start was the hardest fight for the break so far. Even if you had no interest in the break, you were still in for 80 minutes of suffering on the same twisting and rolling terrain from yesterday. I was focused on floating around in the bubble, just behind the attacking riders, to save as much energy as possible. My legs weren’t destroyed from yesterday—they actually felt alright—but I didn’t want to waste them needlessly.

At long last, a trio of riders got away after a 10 minute uncategorized climb that knocked the field down to 50 riders. We caught our breath for just a few minutes before Movistar strung the field out again. They never let the break get very far, and it wasn’t long before we were on the finishing climb for the first time.

The profile showed the climb as a steady 7% grade, when in fact it was very pitchy the whole way up. I hate that (‘that’ being both pitchy climbs and profiles with a deceptive smoothing factor). I was dangling just behind the lead group of 40 riders for most of the climb, hoping that it would flatten out and I could help Warren leading into the final climb. But nope, I just ended up in a group of riders that had been dropped halfway up the climb, riding easily to the finish.

Warren is up to 8th on GC now, but John’s lead in the points competition took a big hit when Valverde finished 3rd on the stage. It’s not over yet, though! Unfortunately, Koen had to abandon today—his body is too busy fighting an infected saddle sore to send any power to his legs.

You can really tell now that the whole peloton is tired. We’re going just as fast, but our faces show much more agony. The peloton that started at 198 riders is now down to just 164. We’re as tired mentally as physically, but the good news is:

18 down, 3 to go!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

THE Vuelta Stage 17: going all-in for number 4

At first glance, this stage looked to be a straightforward sprint stage. But look a little closer and you’d realize that it would be tough for us. We have the most dominant sprinter in the race, while other key sprinters have dropped out. If we wanted a sprint, it would be up to us to control it. Of the remaining stages, there are limited opportunities for breakaways (depending on how the GC riders play the uphill finish stages), so they'd probably be gunning hard for this one. The course for the stage also presented a challenge: it was along the coast the whole day. Winds can shift constantly, and the roads are always rolling and twisting. It could make for a very hard day. The last time I chased a breakaway on coastal roads (California), the break managed to stay away….

But we did want a sprint, and that meant that our work started from kilometer 0. There was likely to be a big fight for the break, but we had to shut it down, probably alone. We had to assert ourselves and make sure that the break was manageable, and let me tell you, we asserted ourselves all over the place.

The fight went on for 20km, and we had all hands on deck to shut the moves down when they got too big. In that time, I could tell that I had again responded very well to the rest day. My legs felt awesome, and I was excited to put them to use.

As we went through a town, a small group was off the front. We all rushed to the front and clogged up the works immediately while we still had narrow roads. It worked, and the break of 5 was established.

A short aside: I’ve always thought the team’s superstition about how the salt should be passed at meals was silly, but I respect it to be a good sport. Well, last night Warren was reckless with the salt at dinner. After he stopped to pee today, he crashed into a car in the caravan. He’s alright, but I think he’ll be a bit more careful at the table in the future….

We started riding tempo immediately so the gap wouldn’t go too far, allowing it to slowly grow to 3 minutes. For over 70km Tobias and I took 10k pulls at a good tempo, keeping the gap at 3 minutes. Orica and Omega had promised to contribute to the chase after 100km.

It’s a funny game, the give-and-take between the break and the chasers. They ride hard enough to increase the time gap, testing to see how far we’ll let them go. We adjust our pace behind when the gap reaches our desired maximum, then both of us ease up a bit while still holding the same gap. We want them going hard enough to at least get a little tired, but not hard enough to wear ourselves out. Then later on, we start ramping up the pace to bring them back. So they ramp up their pace to hold us off. So we keep going harder until the gap starts to fall. Or in today’s case, we add more riders to the chase when we can’t go harder.

The break today was really strong, I’ll give them that much. After the feed zone, we started trying to pull them back. It was me, Tobias, Johannes, and a rider each from Orica and OPQS. We were going hard for 40k, but all we managed to do was match the pace of the break. OPQS added more riders along with Orica, and finally the gap started to fall.

I had to take a break after 150km. I was starting to crack, already over 4000kJ. After a short recovery, I was back at the front for another 10k before I could contribute no more. The gap was slowly falling now that there were a dozen riders chasing all-in, and up ahead the break was starting to splinter.

We checked out the last 7km of the stage yesterday, and it served us well today. We had wanted to save the other guys for a proper leadout, but in the end we needed to use everybody just to bring it to a sprint, and hoped that John could finish it off. And boy howdy, John sure knows how thank us for our hard work, bringing home his 4th win at this Vuelta!

Our team had a goal today, and it required a complete team effort from start to finish. We did exactly what we wanted and needed to do, and the goal was accomplished. I’m so happy, it almost makes my legs not hurt!

Today was another 5000kJ day for me, setting new power records (for the second time in a week!) of 3.5-4.5 hours. That makes my legs hurt.

17 down, 4 to go!

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

THE Vuelta Rest Day 2: Entering the home stretch

You know a race is long if it has the ability to reconfigure your body clock. I’m now going to bed around 11:30 each night and waking up between 8 and 8:30. I’d say that maybe I’m not such an old man after all, but I’m writing this fresh off a much-needed nap, so that argument doesn’t hold much water.

Speaking of water, our hotel for today and tomorrow has a beach-view, which is nice. And a beach smell, which can be nice if the wind is blowing in the right direction.

This rest day was desperately needed. It’s nice to break the routine and just have a day of laying around, but our minds are so deep into the stage race vortex that it’ll take more than one day to heal the thousand-yard stare we’ve developed. It seems like every stage was, at the same time, yesterday and a year ago. Our legs can make great use of a day “off” (only 40km ridden today!), though. The last 4 stages comprised the hardest 4-day block I’ve ever undertaken, nevermind how far into the race they were! The rest day is also greeted happily by our sit-bones and digestive systems.

Just 5 stages remain, and every day is a new adventure. I’m so far into the unknown right now that all I can do is take it one day at a time, just as I have been. I just have to remember that everybody is tired and suffering.

Yesterday also saw a pair of unusual events. The fistfight was silly, but it’s hard to have a fight and look respectable when you’re riding a bike and trying not to fall off it. There are a few hotheads in the bunch, and nerves can fray after a couple weeks of racing against the same guys who do the same stuff time and time again. It is usually only puffery, though, and serves only as material to keep us laughing when we reenact the drama at dinner.

On a saddening note, one of the Guardia Civil motorcycle officers that keeps us safe died in a crash yesterday. I don’t know the circumstances of the crash, but it’s sobering to think that someone died while we were playing bike racers. I’ve been impressed with the fleet of officers that close the roads down and give us the confidence to fly around blind turns at ridiculous speeds. They’re a crucial part of the sport, and my thoughts and prayers go out to his friends and family.

THE Vuelta Stage 16: By the skin of our teeth

Yesterday, I was expecting to spend the whole of today’s stage in the rain, so I was pleasantly surprised to see sunny blue skies at the start. The updated forecast showed that we’d at least get through the first climb dry, but rain was likely later. In the event that the race became a triathlon on the later climbs and I didn’t have access to the team car, I started with my rain vest in my pocket. Just to be safe.

The worst case scenario was realized on the first climb when the break still wasn’t established at the base. The race exploded just 10km into the stage on the first of 4 cat-1 climbs. Everyone stayed calm and just rode as hard as they could over the top, finding a group. Today was all about strength in numbers for the climbing-challenged.

The break finally got away on the other side, and the race regrouped completely. 1 climb down, just 4 to go! The pace over the cat 2 climb was quick, but manageable, and the field stayed together for that one, too.

At the base of the next climb, there were a couple of rolling kilometers before the real climb began. Our director said this would be a good time to get bottles, and I was already near the back, so I decided to go for it. We had a soigneur on top of the climb with bottles, but I was completely out and figured that my teammates could also use a fresh bottle. I loaded up with bottles and took off just as the road got steep. It didn’t take long for panic to set in, and I barely managed to get to the front to deliver the bottles (I would later learn that most of the guys didn’t need one at that point. I’ll take a poll in the future before going back on a climb for bottles!). The effort blew me up, though, and by the time I was recovered, I was in the grupetto. Our numbers swelled the further we got up the climb, and by the time we reached the next climb, we had about 50 riders.

Still no rain by this point, so that was nice! With two climbs to go, we were already 11 minutes behind the leaders. Rough time-cut estimates were about 36 minutes, so we should be okay. As long as we didn’t go too slow, that is.

Then we went really easy on the penultimate climb. I always find myself at the front of the grupetto on climbs, as I usually don’t belong there and am comfortable climbing a bit faster. Even still, I spent the whole climb thinking that we needed to go just a bit faster. You can’t ramp the pace up without being bombarded with complaints, though, so we chugged along. We got over the top 20 minutes behind the leaders, and things suddenly looked a little dangerous for us.

When Contador won the stage, we still had 11km to climb and only 35 minutes to do it. We actually had to climb quickly, but many riders were really protesting the effort. They were using some more liberal time-cut calculations (which I really don’t understand…it’s elementary math, after all) and said we had plenty of time. “They’re not going to time-cut 50 guys!” Yeah, well it’s best not to dare the officials.

We reached the top just 30 seconds before the time cut. Whew! I wish I had been in a chase group that was a bit safer, but in the end it was good that I was in the group with John, Koen, and Ramon, as I was able to do a lot of work on the flatter portions to keep us rolling. There were lots of guys that didn’t contribute at all on the flats and then did nothing but complain on the climbs, so it was good that I could help in that way.

We ended up reaching the finish just as the first drops of rain started to fall. After putting on a lot of clothes and a rain jacket, we descended back down to the bus in pouring rain. Not much could dampen my spirit, though, as I’ve reached the second rest day!

To top it off, Warren climbed up another rung on the GC ladder today. Yeah, things aren’t too bad in the Giant-Shimano camp right now!

16 down, 5 to go!

Sunday, September 7, 2014

THE Vuelta Stage 15: chewing on the handlebars

I’ve been fortunate thus far to roll out of bed each morning with fairly fresh legs. They were aware that they’ve been punished repeatedly over the past two weeks, but still started each day with a vigor and eagerness for more. Today, that changed. I got out of bed and immediately thought, “oof.”

Over-analytical me immediately thought this was a bad sign. Then I thought, “Hey goober (I sometimes call myself goober in such situations), you’re two weeks into one of the hardest bike races the world has to offer. It would be weird if your legs DIDN’T hurt, especially after yesterday’s stage. Besides, sore is good. It's dead legs that you need to fear. And yours aren't dead, so quitcher complaining!"

We started under sunny skies, but knew that it would change at some point. With luck, we’d stay dry until the final climb. In either case, I was wearing my rain socks. I’d heard that the descent to the final climb could be treacherous if wet, so I let a bit of air out of my tires on the start line. It also made for a slightly more comfortable ride (my underside is also aware that we’re two weeks into the race, after all).

We again wanted to have a rider in the break if possible, to guarantee that someone was there for Warren before the final climb, which is one of only two HC climbs in the whole race. Feeling sore from yesterday and intimidated by tomorrow, I allowed myself to follow exactly one attack: the first one. It didn’t go, so I settled into the field to save energy for later.

Everything was going fine for about 15km, at which point I was caught up in a crash. I almost saved it, but when I came to a stop I had nowhere to put a foot down and fell over the guy next to me. I’m not sure that even counts as a crash, but there’s no need to pick nits. You know you’re okay if your first thought is, “Aww man, I didn’t have the camera on!” Side note: I’ve had a camera on my bars for the past few stages, hopefully I got some nice footage.

I chased back on without incident, getting back to the field just as another crash happened. I was eager to recover a bit from the chase back, but the next 20km were cross-windy, rolling, and twisty. The field was almost completely single file, and I was suffering. I just kept telling myself, “Everyone’s suffering, just hold the wheel. Just hold the wheel.”

Finally, mercifully, a group of 5 got away with John inside. He was excited to ride in a break for the first time in his pro career, and while he was up there, he took the sprint points to further pad his lead over Valverde. We just might be able to hold on to the green jersey to the end!

Things were easy for a while, and we managed to get our rain vests from the car just as the first drops started falling. Then a lot of drops started falling. We got soaked, and it kept pouring all the way to the bottom of the cat 2 climb. Koen and Johannes got Warren to the bottom in perfect position, while I was a bit further back. I made the front group, though, as the grupetto was forming behind. I felt good for a while, then all at once I was done. I was down on myself for a bit, thinking that I simply wasn’t very good today. Post-race analysis says: nope, I was pretty good again today, we were just going really really hard.

I got over the top in a small group somewhere between the leaders and the grupetto, which is where I wanted to be. I got to do the descent in a small group at my own pace, which was very nice, because that descent was Sketchy with a capital ‘S’. The pavement wasn’t good, and most of it was shaded. Translation: it was mossy and slick. I had spun my wheel twice going UP the climb, so I knew the road was not to be trifled with.

My tires and skills delivered me to the bottom safely, and our group set about getting up the last little hill. Just 12-ish kilometers at 10-ish%, no big deal.

If you watched the race at all, you know that Warren felt good today, attacking the biggest names in the sport several times. He went on to literally climb himself back into the top-10 on GC, and we’re all pumped for him.

Tomorrow is going to hurt. Like, really bad.  And we’re going to get wet again. Everyone is hopeful that maybe, just maybe, the big hitters will wait until the third climb before they start launching bombs. But I’m doubtful.

15 down, 6 to go!

Saturday, September 6, 2014

THE Vuelta Stage 14: a real kick in the pants

Today’s stage profile had a menacing shape. Even with only 3 categorized climbs, we knew that we could be in for a day of suffering, depending on how we raced it.

We anticipated another big fight for the break, and wanted to have somebody in it. If the race exploded on the first cat 1 climb, we’d at least have one guy on the other side to help Warren into the finishing climb.

I made sure to be on the front line at the end of the neutral section—you know, just in case it was the first break that went (a guy can hope, right?). The attacks kept going, and I was doing my best to hold myself back. My legs felt good again, but I had to be smart to not destroy myself and then not make the break, in case the race blew up later. I would only go with one or two attacks at a time before taking a breather in the field. After about 15km, I made one real attempt at the break, nearly matching my 5-min power record. After that, I gave up hope on the breakaway. It was hard enough just sitting in the field.

When 30km had passed by without the break being established, we decided to take control of the front to keep things together for the intermediate sprint in 5km. The field welcomed a brief respite while Tobias and I set a good tempo. Everyone knew that the break would go just on the other side of the sprint, so Johannes was resting up for it. John won the intermediate sprint, padding his lead over Valverde with another handful of points.

Sure enough, a group of 24 got away (with Johannes in it) immediately after the sprint. Tinkoff was still setting a pretty good pace to hold the group around 6 minutes.

After the cat 2 climb, I saw that I was already at 2500kJ burned, and we were still at the bottom of the stage profile! The pace Tinkoff set for the first 10km of the giant climb was manageable. I had started in the center of the field and drifted back as guys worked their way up the sides. The climb was gently rolling upward, so I was looking for a flatter spot to make a move back to the front with the others. Before I could do that, OPQS took the front and proceeded to shred the field. I was able to get to the front group as guys continually peeled off, but the effort to get back to the front was a bit too much for me.

The group I found myself in as we crested the top 4-5 minutes behind the GC group was about 30 riders, including Koen. We had 60km of low-grade descending ahead of us. For about 40km we actually had the whole group rotating through. It wasn’t so hard to pull through because the group had so much momentum. With all of us working, we were steadily making up ground on the GC group. Eventually some guys got too excited and upped the pace when we were just 1:30 back, at which point only a half-dozen riders were still working. Oh well.

Suddenly we found ourselves just 3km from the finish of a really tough day. We could see the 1km to go banner waaaaay up on the mountain, and couldn’t fathom how it there was only 2km of pavement to get there.

Then we reached the proper climb. That son of a gun was steeeeeeep. It took 360w for me to turn a 34x28 at 55rpm. It was the sort of climb that wears your arms out as well as your legs. I watched as a handful of guys from our group got pushed halfway up the mountain by spectators, but I’m proud to say that I got to the finish completely under my own power!

Up the road, the plan had gone perfectly. Tobias got over the top with Warren, and they were joined by Johannes when he sat up out of the break. They delivered him to the steep slopes with the GC favorites and let him go on to another solid finish.

All was not well, though. Lawson has been in the hurt locker for days and found himself in the cars early on. He fought all the way to the top of the cat 1 climb until he was talked off the bike. We’ll definitely miss him in the final week, but he can be proud of all he’s helped us accomplish so far.

As for me, today set personal records in TSS, kJ burned (5800), and power records of 4.5-6 hours. 
Good thing the last week of the Vuelta is the easiest, right?

14 down, 7 to go!

Friday, September 5, 2014

THE Vuelta Stage 13: A doozy of a stage

When I stopped to pee in the neutral section (anticipating a big fight for the break and no chance to pee for a while), I failed to consider that I might not be able to get back to the front before the start. Every other neutral section has been fairly easy to start at the front if you wanted, but lots of guys wanted to be in the break today, and the road wasn’t very wide. It was a complete logjam, and a crash and many close-calls in the neutral evinced the excitement in the field.

Immediately a big group got away, but Movistar was chasing it full gas, as it contained a number of big names. It took me 7km to get to the front on the twisting road, but by the time I got there, I was warmed up. We were on a long uphill drag, so I just kept my momentum going and jumped across to a group that was halfway across the gap. I was halfway across when it struck me just how quickly I was getting there, while lots of other guys were going backwards. I actually thought, “whoa.”

If I’m honest, I was worried that I was too under-trained coming to a race like this. I had heard (and been told) that it’s the best way to arrive at a Grand Tour, but I was still nervous. I didn’t think that I could really race into shape, but doggoneit, that’s exactly what’s happening. My “whoa” feeling corresponded with matching my 3-min power record. Tinkoff chased our group back, and the break built their gap to a minute. I wished I was in it, but I was encouraged by how good my legs felt.

First Europcar chased full-gas, but the gap only went out further. They gave up and half the field stopped to pee, at which point Orica took up the chase.

Orica held the gap at 3 minutes for most of the stage, slowly chipping away on the climbs. On the second and third climbs, we caught some riders that had been dropped from the break. As the race wore on, I didn’t feel quite as good (that’s usually how it works, anyways), but I was never in danger of getting dropped on the climbs, while the field gradually got a bit smaller.

At the bottom of the final descent, we had me, Warren, Nikias, Tobias, and Koen together. The final 2k would be tough, so we worked together to keep Warren fresh and deliver him to the key turn at the front. He had good legs in the finale, but was a bit too timid when the attacks started (his own opinion), finishing with all the other GC riders.

We’re excited that he’s feeling so good, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him off the front on the crazy-steep finish climb tomorrow. The race book says sustained grades of 19%, but guys who’ve ridden it say it’s more. I’ll have a 34-28 gearing, hopefully that’s enough!

According to the power analysis, today was the hardest stage of the race so far (highest TSS). For all I know, my form could be headed toward a blind cliff, but I’ll just keep taking it day-by-day and enjoy the good legs while they last!

Oh, and today's finish was in a zoo. We saw zebras and hippos. It's easy to forget to look around once in a while.

13 down, 8 to go!

Thursday, September 4, 2014

THE Vuelta Stage 12: Adding to the tally

I couldn’t believe it when I learned at breakfast that the conspiracy theorists jumped on Ryder Hesjedal’s crash as evidence of a hidden motor. I’ll leave the physics out of the argument and just say this: if he had a tiny motor hidden in his frame, it would definitely have a very limited battery life. Why, then, would he be using it in a slick downhill corner, when he wasn’t even on the front?

Anyways, we were excited to have our own bus back for today’s stage. You don’t realize how spoiled you are until the toilet and showers are taken away from you!

There was no doubt in anybody’s mind that today would be a sprint stage: 8 laps of a relatively flat circuit. With a tough week of stages looming, everyone wanted a fairly easy ride today, which is why it took 3k before anybody attacked. Even then, only one Cannondale rider was willing to fall on the sword.
With only one rider to chase down 160km later, we were in for a very easy day. For 3 hours, the hardest I worked was getting back to the field after one of my four pee stops.

With Lawson on the front sharing the workload with FDJ, the gap steadily fell over the last 100km. With nothing interesting going on, Tobias asked over the radio if he could swap out with Lawson and do some work. I couldn’t help but laugh when’s Lawson’s reply came over the radio, “Just let me be happy, Toby!”

Over the final two laps, the speed steadily increased. With 10k to go, we were at the front before the short descent. Everything was going to plan, until it wasn’t. Due to some miscommunication, half of us ended up at the front too soon, with the others all fighting on their own to join us. We were still trying to find each other at the moment that we had planned to make the big move to the front, and we never properly linked up. Due to skill, experience, and a bit of luck, however, John and Ramon were together very near the front when the field strung out for good with 4k to go.

Nikias and I were fighting to get up there to help until about 1.5 to go, then pulled the plug after accepting that we wouldn’t make it. When the barriers narrowed at 1k to go, some riders tried to force through a gap that wasn’t there, and the crash spread across the road. I was relieved to see no Giant-Shimano jerseys among the fallen, and continued on to the finish, where I learned that John had taken his 3rd stage win after a superb leadout from Ramon.

Just to give you an idea of how motivated we all are: we got the stage win, but most of us are left a bit unsatisfied, wanting more. The end result was achieved, but not in the way we had wanted, and for that we will work harder next time. 3 stage wins is not enough—we’ll fight every day!

We aren’t sure what we’re in for tomorrow…it could easily be a stage for a big breakaway, or possibly a another field sprint. After a relatively easy day today, it could be really exciting.

12 down, 9 to go!

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

THE Vuelta Stage 11: Getting over the hump

Today, we were reminded that the race does not happen in a vacuum (fun fact for the day: did you know that that expression comes from physics?). Just as in real life, where your car never breaks down when it’s convenient, our team bus had some issues. While it was off in Bilbao being serviced, we were supplied with a normal coach. With a seat-to-person ratio of 6:1, we had plenty of room to spread out. My biggest disappointment was that I only managed to photobomb 3 of my teammates’ photos of the bus.

We expected another big fight for the break today, and we got one. Movistar was instigating most of the moves to put pressure on Tinkoff, and the field was excited and fresh after the rest day and TT. It’s actually my favorite way to start a race, with a long fight that just keeps going. We weren’t trying to be in a break, but if we followed the wheels and ended up in one, so be it. So 4 of us were surfing wheels while the rest kept Warren out of trouble.

Then there was a crash. A move had just been brought back, causing the field to swell at the same moment a moto was trying to squeeze by. We had been going fast, and I wasn’t able to slow down quickly enough. I managed to stay upgright, putting a foot down (hard enough to crack my cleat) to maintain my balance when I slammed into the saddle of another rider with my wrist, which is a bit swollen now. I’ll definitely have a nice bruise later. As it turns out, this was the crash that caused Quintana to abandon, so I came out pretty well.

By the time the field finally agreed to let a small move get away, we had covered 70km. We’d done nearly half the stage in 80 minutes. We had barely had a chance to eat, and we were already at the feed zone.

The stage was uneventful after that. We worked to keep Warren at the front on the category 3 climb, then focused on delivering him to the final climb in the perfect position. I was with the guys in the fight for position, but was separated when we went from the left to the right side of the field, starting the climb a bit too far back. I chased for a while, trying to stay close to the leaders until the team car passed me, but the climb just didn’t suit me well. It was either flat or steep, constantly changing pitch, but that perfectly suits Warren. He had another great climb to finish high on the stage, while the rest of us finished safely in the time limit, covered in salt.

Although the last climb didn’t go so well for me, I’m pleased with how my legs felt today. I was definitely fresh, with my heart rate shooting up quickly after a hard effort, but I felt good, and the power numbers confirm it. Lawson, though, had a rough day today—the rest days affect everyone differently. Hopefully he can bounce back quickly, as tomorrow is another perfect opportunity to get another stage for John.

11 down (we’re officially over the hump!), 10 to go!

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

THE Vuelta Stage 10: Pretending like I'm time trialing

Time trial days are always strange, because everyone is on a different schedule. The logistics for a day like today are surprisingly complicated. The race start was an hour away from the hotel, and the race finish was 1.5 hours from the next hotel. So riders are coming and going in waves along with the staff and team cars. Eventually, we all end up at the same place.

Like I said before, this would be my second time trial ever in which my only goal was to finish safely within the time limit. Time cut today was huge, at 35%, so as long as I actually pedaled I’d be safe. I did plan to go somewhat hard on the climbs to wake my legs up again, though. I was very relaxed while getting ready, and quite ambivalent towards the warmup. Seeing as it was the longest TT I’ve done in nearly a year, however, I knew that I’d appreciate a decent warmup after nearly an hour in my aggressive position.

The start was really bizarre, on some sort of bike path through/around a castle. I just kept wondering where the heck I was going. Finally I popped out onto something resembling a road and settled into a hard tempo that I’d hold all day.

I wasn’t completely blind on course thanks to video that the guys took during their recon yesterday. They said there were a few dangerous corners, so I took a look at those beforehand. I would be taking zero risks during the TT, but it’s always good to be prepared.

As such, there was only one time today that I was a bit scared. Just before the final climb at the top of the course, there’s one really fast downhill with a little whoopty-do at the bottom. I lost all downforce when I hit the whoopty-do at over 90kph, then the really strong winds came underneath me and I could barely get the bike to lean over through the next turn.

I took it easy on the descent that Quintana crashed on later. The next 15km were really fast, moderately technical, and really bumpy. They had freshly resurfaced a bumpy road, so it looked nice but my arms were definitely tired by the end. I had a deep front wheel and was really fighting it in the winds on that bumpy road, and knew that the little GC riders would really struggle there.

I finished in 52 minutes, 5 minutes down from Tony Martin’s winning time. I felt really good all day and was never going hard, so I’m excited about the days to come. I haven’t had a chance to talk to Warren yet, so I don’t know how he feels about his ride, but he dropped to 15th on GC and will certainly be looking to climb back up into the top-10 in the next week. I’ll be doing everything I can to help him.

10 down, 11 to go!

Monday, September 1, 2014

THE Vuelta: Rest Day Miscellanea

It seems the rest day has gone by as quickly as the past 9 stages. I’ve done a whole lot of nothing today and it’s now approaching dinner time. This is my first rest day in a race, and it’s a bizarre feeling. There’s the duality of “we’ve ALREADY done 9 stages/we’ve ONLY done 9 stages,” but I’m also confused by the concept of a day without racing in the middle of a race.

Normally, I’d be doing a short ride with a little bit of intensity to keep my body in the race rhythm before tomorrow’s time trial, but the plan has changed. Since I’m climbing really well right now, and seem to be improving daily, the team has asked me to pass on the opportunity for a personal result tomorrow and take a bonus rest day. It’s directly against my personal philosophy of passing up opportunities, but I have to keep in mind that my primary purpose here is support for Warren and John, and the best way to do that is to be as sharp as possible for the remaining 11 stages (after the TT). So today I took it really easy and will use tomorrow’s TT to wake my legs back up. To soften the blow, the short TT on the final stage suits me better anyways—and there will be no holding me back on that one!

I’m very encouraged to be feeling so good at this point in the race. My longest race this year was 8 days, and we’ve already passed that point. August is over, and the numbers show that it was my biggest month on the bike ever at over 100 hours and 2135 miles (3500km).

There’s not much else to say, it’s just a rest day, after all. So instead, here’s some miscellaneous stuff from the race that I couldn’t quite fit into my other posts.

Something that isn’t focused on much from the outside, but is crucial to our performance, is food. Normally, the race gives our hotels money to feed us, and it frequently goes like this:

“Here’s 30E per racer to feed them during the race.”

“What can we possibly give them for only 30E? Oh I know, how about we give them a meager salad, some pasta with red sauce, and boil some chicken and potatoes? That’s all cyclists need, right?”

The team travels with a big box of condiments to breathe some life and flavor into the meals, but at the core, you have a meal that gets old before it the plate touches the table. In the last week, I’ve averaged 3900kJ per stage. Including the calories I need just to get through the day, I have to eat about 6000 calories daily. To do that for 3 weeks requires flavor and variety—in short, good food. And that’s where Janneke comes in.

Janneke is the team’s chef, she comes to almost all the WorldTour stage races, and she makes life SO MUCH BETTER. Every night we’re graced with a spread of dishes, and I always have to have some of everything. My biggest problem is refraining from eating too much. From quinoa salads to bruschetta with goat cheese, steak and mashed potatoes, we’re never left wanting for food. Her delicious breads never last long at breakfast, even when supplemented with omelets and fruit-filled muesli.

I just wanted to take the opportunity to give credit where it’s due—in this case, a chef whose work is almost entirely behind the scenes. The mechanics keep our bikes running, the soigneurs maintain our legs, and Janneke fuels the engines that are running full steam for 3 weeks straight. Tonight she’s treating us to burgers!

On to another topic, one that’s been puzzling me. With 198 racers frequently all trying to be at the front at once, contact is bound to happen. Of all the bumps and grazes I’ve given/received in the peloton in the last week, I’ve been shocked—literal, electrical shock—4 times. All 4 were from BMC riders. They must be the source of the static buildup, because I’m not shocked every time I’m bumped. I’m just really curious as to the cause…is it due to one of the half-dozen battery-powered devices on the bike (which most teams have), or some sort of clothing interaction, like wool socks on carpet? And why are they the only team?

And finally, a story from Lawson’s crash a few days ago:

It’s no secret that spectators go nuts for souvenirs. I’ve seen a water bottle tossed into the middle of an unsuspecting crowd and been disturbed by the ensuing frenzy. I’ve heard that spectators will sometimes remove the water bottles from a crashed rider’s bike as they generously stand it back up for him. Well, it seems they are willing to go even further for a taste of what we’ve got. Lawson crashed in a roundabout while eating one of our soigneurs’homemade rice cakes. Naturally, he dropped it. Wanna guess where it ended up? That’s right, a spectator’s mouth. Lawson picked himself up off a road so dirty that it was literally shiny, while somebody else picked up his half-eaten sticky rice cake and enjoyed an afternoon snack.

That’s all for now!

Sunday, August 31, 2014

THE Vuelta Stage 9: We weren't hot today

My luck with the piano yesterday ran out quickly. I went down to play before dinner only to find some sort of party going on in the next room with their own music. So I decided to wait until after dinner, at which point other guests were dining next to the piano…which normally wouldn’t have been a problem, but their meal was a giant leg of smoked and dried ham. That ham leg was parked 12 inches (25.4cm for my metric readers) from middle C. I awoke in the morning to find the same dead animal obstructing my out-of-tune relaxation. On to the next hotel, where maybe my luck will turn around.

The stage would be a tough one, at 185km. Rain was forecast from the midpoint on, which had me a bit less than excited. I don’t have a problem getting wet—it’s the roads that worried me. The bartender at our hotel said the last time they saw rain was May. If it was going to rain, it needed to RAIN…anything less than a complete downpour would just turn the descents into warzones.

I need to confess something that I’m not proud of. Everybody does it at some point, but most try not to acknowledge it, instead pretending as if nothing happened. But I admit my mistakes: after the last climbing stage finish, my sock got a solid chainring mark. I was trying to move out of the way to allow room for the motos and other finishing riders, and knew as soon as it happened what I’d done. So I hurried down the mountain before anybody saw it. Unfortunately, it didn’t wash out. What I’m trying to say is that the decision of which socks to wear in the rain today was an easy one.

Our plan for the day was based entirely around protecting Warren as long as possible for the tough climb to the finish. With no interest in the break, we all just floated in the field during the really fast start. We had a mild tailwind, but the first 50km were also false-flat uphill. Attacks were going like crazy, and we covered 48km in the first hour.

A huge group of 30 got away, and Nikias managed to jump on to give us representation. Behind, things became more controlled, but we were still moving fast:  47kph average for the first 2 hours. As we neared the first real climb of the day, the sky started to look a bit more ominous. I think my legs are still coming around anyways, but the cooler temps had me feeling really good on the climb when the pace was clearly high. We reached the top and it became clear that the mountain was holding the storm on the other side. 1k into the downhill, we were completely soaked. We could at least be certain that the roads were clean. It was more than a downpour—the descent was fast, making the rain hit us so hard that it was really painful.

We reached the bottom safely, and then the task became getting Warren to the penultimate climb at the front. Things got a bit chaotic and I lost the guys when they worked their way to the other side of the road. Thankfully Koen was there to get me back to the front just as the climb started. The pace was high, but controlled, and I was still feeling good.

Tobias was making sure that Warren never touched the wind, while I was keeping an eye on them both from a little further back. Tobias was done after the plateau, after which I stayed with Warren in case he had a problem. Everyone sprinted over the top to start the crucial descent at the top, but I lost speed when somebody dropped anchor in the middle of the field, so I started too far back in the group. Warren, at least, was near the front.

In the rain, of course some gaps opened, and my chase group had to use a bit too much energy in the 2k before the climb. We almost got back to the lead group, but not quite. I was Warren’s last support, so I had to go full gas until the team car passed me. Then he was in their hands. So for 9 minutes I dangled just 15 seconds behind them. Around 6km to go, I was able to back off and ride a good tempo up the climb. I wanted to take it easy, but I wanted more to get out of the cold rain.

In the last few kilometers, I chatted with Tony Martin a bit about how anytime I wanted to feel like I didn’t exist, I’d just ride next to him. Seriously, every spectator we passed said his name like they thought he’d forgotten it. He told me that 5 years ago, he felt the same when riding next to Philippe Gilbert. So maybe they’ll shout my name someday!

Half of the break managed to finish ahead of the main field. Nikias was able to protect Warren for a bit after he was caught, before the real attacks began. Warren had another great climb to stay in the top-10 on GC.
The finish was at nearly 2000m altitude(~7000’), but the bus was at the bottom of the climb. We immediately put on a few jackets and headed back down the mountain.

Some fans had painted my name on the road and were very excited when I climbed by, but seemed quite upset when I didn’t stop on the way back down. If you all happen to read this, I want to say that I’m sorry about that! I wanted to stop and take a picture with you, but I really needed to get out of my soaking clothes that were getting colder by the minute. It just wouldn’t do to get sick!

And with that, we have reached the first rest day!

9 down, 12 to go!