Thursday, April 17, 2014

Circuit de la Sarthe

With Volta Limburg behind us, most of our crew got to hang out in Holland for another day. Thierry was in the same boat as me, needing to get his legs going again, so we were up early the next morning to ride. We managed to get a small breakfast and were rolling by 8:15 with no small amount of self-satisfaction. It was a beautiful Sunday morning and hardly anybody was out. We had a great 2.5 hr ride that included the final 20km of the Amstel Gold Race--one that I'm not doing, but Thierry wanted to do a bit of recon.

We finished our ride and passed off the bikes to the mechanics so they could drive to France, where we would meet them a day later. The rest of the afternoon was spent watching the last few hours of De Ronde, one of the most exciting races I've seen in a long time.

The next day we were joined by Tobias. We had a versatile squad for the Circuit de la Sarthe, a 5-stages-in-4-days race that ran from Tuesday to Friday. Teams were limited to 6 riders each, which could lead to less-controlled and more exciting racing, especially with a field that didn't even reach 100 riders.

The first stage was over 200km including the neutral section. We expected the first hour to be aggressive racing as many teams would want to be in the break. The flag dropped and I tagged the first move. Then 3 riders from smaller teams went in the second move and the front of the field spread across the road and plugged it up. Within a minute of racing, the break was gone. Sometimes that's how it goes.

FDJ and Europcar wanted a field sprint and rode the front all day. It was one of those annoying days where the wind is weak and always slightly from the side. So the field just stretches out to single- or double-file and the whole day is spent by teams riding together and passive-aggressively fighting over position. Even though we all know nothing is going to happen until we reach the finish circuits, there's always the slight possibility. It's just very annoying and makes for a long day.

The course featured several KOMs, but the profile greatly exaggerated them. The bottom of the climbs were marked by '500m to KOM' signs, and they weren't steep. So we had a relatively calm day until the finish circuits.

We had underestimated the importance of position at the entry to the circuits. We still had 50km of racing to go, but as it turned out, there wasn't much moving up to be done. Thankfully Tobias and Jonas were already near the front, because Lawson and I were stuck towards the back. The teams that had control of the front were very smart about the pace they set. Where the road was wide, they went full gas and kept the field strung out. Then we turned onto a small road and they just sat up and clogged the road. So if you were outside the top 20 or 30, you really couldn't get to the front. My legs weren't helping--I didn't feel bad but I was definitely lacking.

Jonas managed 10th place, leaving us all a bit dissatisfied. I was angry at myself for failing to contribute and was determined to make up for it the following day.

Stage 2 was only 88km because we would have a time trial in the afternoon. Again we were prepared for a big fight for the break. No kidding, 3 guys slowly attacked at KM0 and the field sat up. An hour later we were nearing the circuits, and the fight for position began. We waited until late, moving up at the last moment. Success is reached one step at a time, and the first step was getting the team into the circuits at the front of the field. I was the second rider onto the circuits with the other guys behind me.

It was a good thing that we were at the front for the first lap--not because moving up was impossible again, but because the circuit was fairly dangerous and we were able to get through the first lap as the field figured it out. The circuit had several high-speed chicanes that were sharply narrowed by big plastic traffic barriers, leaving nowhere to go if things went wrong.

We did a good job of staying close as a team and keeping Tobias and Jonas at the front. I would get pushed back at times, but I always fought to stay near the others. On the final lap, the various leadouts started forming but the circuit made it very difficult for them all to stay together. With about 3k to go, Tobias and Jonas were near the front going into a wide headwind section. At the end of this stretch it wasn't as easy to move up so it was key that they reach the next turn in position. I was a bit further back, with Thierry in between. I knew from previous laps that the inside line always had some extra room for the turn onto the wider road, so I made a run into the corner and took it hot, exiting with extra speed. I yelled out to Thierry as I was coming by, so he jumped on and we rode up to join Tobias and Jonas. That uphill headwind drag was painful and used up all I had left, but the other 3 were together at the front for the next turn, so job completed.

In the final 2k, Tobias and Thierry kept Jonas in good position and he unleashed a very fast sprint and brought home his first (and the team's 16th) win of the year. We were all smiles as we headed to the hotel for a quick meal and shower between stages.

The time trial was short, at just under 7km. It used much of the finishing circuit from the morning stage. I made sure to get a couple practice laps on the course, which was good as the new corners were tricky. Then it was race time--I was super excited, as I always am for short time trials. They never feel good, but I can at least tell when I'm going fast. I left everything I had out there, but never felt like I was going fast. I ended up in 55th place, not even top half of the field. I was incredibly frustrated and confused.

We had permission to go in the break on stage 4, so I made sure to be on the commissaire's bumper when we reached KM0 in case it was the first attack that rolled away again. 20km of attacks later, it was clear that certain teams were not allowed to be in the break, and again a small break of 3 was allowed to roll away.

The stage was another 200km day, but finished on circuits that featured a tough 8-minute climb. Tobias and Jonas pulled out in the feedzone--Tobias was suffering from ankle pain from a crash at his last race and Jonas had stomach problems.

The first lap on the circuit, I was too far back on the climb after a fast downhill fight for the turn. I was really comfortable, but then the next lap we went full gas and the field exploded. I felt terrible and ended up in the grupetto. I had no problem with the endurance aspect of the long stage, nearly reaching 5000kJ, but my top end was just not there. To make me even more miserable, there were bugs all over the place on the climb. My jersey had been unzipped the first lap and now I had bugs crawling around in my jersey and biting me.

Our hotel that night was located on the famous Circuit de la Sarthe motorsport track. I have never closely followed the 24hrs of Le Mans race, but back when I was a gamer, I drove countless laps of the circuit on my Playstation. On our way to the race start the following morning, we were driving on the Mulsanne straight. Just another cool place that cycling has taken me.

The last stage started with a flurry of attacks again, once more showing that certain teams were not allowed in the break. When a group of 3 got away Garmin took to the front after taking yellow the previous day. They were riding easy to let the break get some leash, but the break knew this and were taking it easy as well. Back in the field, we were bored out of our minds. Sometimes racing at this level is unbelievably hard, and sometimes you average 180w for almost 2 hours.

The last 80km of the race were on the finishing circuit--8 laps with a tough 500m climb. Once we reached the top, there were a few minutes of speedwork as the field stayed single file through a series of turns. I didn't feel great, but I was surviving just fine. With nothing to lose, I was going to try attacking on one of the later laps when other guys had the same idea. Turns out I didn't feel have enough to go with them and decided just to stay with the front group and finish the race. I didn't want a third consecutive DNF. Just finishing the race without a result would be good for my head, so I became a passenger and made it to the finish with the main field, just behind the break that had eluded me a few laps earlier.

Once finished, I got cleaned up and packed up and settled in for a 6 hour drive to Brussels. The following morning, Lawson and I wrangled our herd of luggage to the airport, bound for America! I'm now back in Colorado, enjoying an easy week as I get acclimated to the altitude, then it's back to work for a couple of weeks. Next up: Tour of California!

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Sometimes you just have a bad day.

Today's race in the Volta Limburg Classic did not go well for me. But I'll get to that in a minute.

Yesterday did not start off so well for me, either. I won't be returning to Lucca until June, so I spent a good deal of time the night before I left packing very carefully. I went to bed 98% packed--all that remained was my computer and toiletries. I even had my clothes for the following day laid out. It would be a fairly early morning and I didn't want to feel rushed.

I set 2 alarms for 6am and 6:05 with plans to be out the door at 6:45, having showered and eaten.

I haven't slept through an alarm since college. And to top it off, I'm a morning person. My body clock always--always--tries to beat the alarm, waking up every 20 minutes for the hours preceding an early wakeup. Even without an alarm, I'm an early riser.

The barking dog upstairs was weird because they never let him out on the balcony so early. And it was awfully light in my room for 6am.... It was 7:18.

Full panic mode.

The train to Pisa that I wanted to be on left 10 minutes earlier, and my last-chance train departed in 22 minutes. The train station is a brisk 15 minute walk, and I still had to buy a ticket.

Somehow I got out the door in 7 minutes dressed, with a little food in my bag, and even remembered to take out the trash. I haven't gone running once this year, but I definitely did some jogging yesterday. Stepped onto the platform just as the train pulled up, eventually arriving at my flight's gate with 10 minutes before boarding. Sometimes life is more exciting than you intended!

On arrival in Holland, Lawson and I got in an hour-long spin. I did a short effort to test the legs and open up a bit but didn't really push myself. As smoked as I was at the end of Catalunya, I wanted to give my body one more day of rest.

Any cyclist worth his salt is capable of weaving a tapestry of excuses as to why he failed to perform to his or others' expectations. Any good cyclist is at least honest with himself, but can always muster up some excuse to present to others. What follows is my explanation of a very disappointing race for me.

In the 5 days since Catalunya, I've totaled a bit over 4 hours on the bike, all easy. I definitely needed the rest. But for the race today, I definitely needed some openers. You can't just go from hard racing, total rest, and then race again and expect the body to jump right back. It usually takes a day of pushing to get up and running again. To perform well today, I needed to have done a few hours with some intervals yesterday.

I don't know why, but I started the race feeling quite bloated. I had a standard breakfast this morning, of both the quantity and quality I've had all year, and it was finished 3 hours before the race.

Our squad at the race contained no single favorite, so our tactic was to be active in breakaways on a tough, rolling course. I was definitely excited to get in on the action.  Then the race started. I wasn't as far up as I wanted to be. The whole day would be narrow roads and hundreds of little hills. Without decent openers the day before, I would be fine on sustained climbs but not with 30 second sprint intervals on every hill.

We hit the first hill and started sprinting. My heartrate hit the roof and I felt like I might throw up. So I gave up any thought of moving up until I felt better. For 70km I kept waiting to feel better. I would try to get to the front, but the effort would send my heart wild. I couldn't stomach any food or drink, yet was constantly burping. To make things even better, I was a snotty mess. The spring is blooming so wildly that my nose is constantly running.

I knew that nearly 2 hours of really hard racing without eating and drinking only half a bottle would cost me at some point, and right around that time the race exploded and I was at the back. My race was over.

I planned to just ride to the feed zone and pull out. It was about 28km ahead, so I waved off the broomwagon and was joined by another racer and some locals. It's good that I had company, as it could have been very interesting for me alone. The race arrows for the turns were small red signs, which are all but invisible to me against the green countryside. So I was fortunate to have company who knew the roads and could see the signs.

We were misdirected by a course marshall at some point, doing a bonus 5k or so, but eventually arrived at the feedzone. It was such a nice day, though, and the camper was at the finish, so I and my new buddy (who actually used to be a teammate of Tom Domoulin's years ago) kept going. I ended up riding 130km today, just under 4 hours. Actually a really nice day! The race went about the same for the rest of the team--only Lawson and Thomas finished, and Thomas was rewarded by being crashed by others.

Just a few days from now, I race Circuit de la Sarthe, a race that I can do well at (and it has a time trial!). The good news is that I'm well rested after Catalunya, and after today, I've done my openers.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Volta a Catalunya was hard

I'd been looking forward to the Volta a Catalunya for quite a while--it would be my official debut in a WorldTour Race, the highest level of cycling. And I almost didn't get to race it.

My troubles started a couple of days before the race. I headed out on a relaxed ride with Ben and another local guy. It had rained overnight and was still a bit damp out. Just 30 minutes into the ride, we headed down a short descent. Knowing that the road was slick, we took it easy. So I was quite unhappy to find myself sliding across the pavement on the day before I left for my biggest race ever. Thankfully the most substantial injury was just some minor road rash and a bruised hip, so I was still able to race.

I'll spare you the full story of my travel day, but here's the short version: I left Lucca at 9am. My flight at 1 was canceled when weather prevented the incoming plane from landing. My luggage was one of the last to come out, so I was at the tail end of the line at the ticket counter. Just one person trying to re-book an entire flight.... I waited for 5 hours and never got to the front of the line. Finally, with time running out, the team just had to bite the bullet and buy me a new ticket for a late flight to Barcelona. I got to the race hotel a bit before 11pm.

With a crash two days before the race and no riding on the travel day, my legs were unhappy before stage 1. I rode the trainer for 30 minutes before breakfast just to loosen up a bit.

I was very flustered before the start because my usual race preparation was thrown off with the addition of a race radio. Through some trial and error and help from Johannes, I eventually got it set up.

The race started fast, but relaxed as the breakaway tried to get established. In contrast to the bonkers Belgian races I'd been doing, this just seemed downright tranquil. As was the case for most of the stages, it wasn't a break trying to ride away from the field, it was the field looking for the right break to let go.

With a small break gone, the teams with sprinters sent a couple of riders to the front to set the pace for the day. There was a lot of climbing on the course profile, but with the finish after a descent, a sprint was still likely.

Our two goals for the week were Luka in the sprints and Warren for the GC, so we would be looking after them each day. Since my legs were still waking up, I took on Luka as my responsibility. When we reached the big Cat1 climb, we were near the front and I made sure to stay on Luka’s hip as we drifted backwards a bit. The pace was high but under control, averaging about 410W for 10 minutes. There was a little bit of wind, so I stayed on Luka’s upwind side to make sure he never felt it. I was there to close any gaps that opened and to leave the door open for him when the group bunched up so that he wouldn’t have to slow down and then reaccelerate.

We got over the top somewhere around mid-field and spent the whole descent working him back up to the front to be ready for the final Cat3 climb. That climb was really hard with attacks, but was only 5 minutes. 

We had already ridden the second half of the descent earlier in the stage, so I was familiar with it as I pushed my way to the front. With the finish rapidly approaching, the break was still up the road a bit and I could see Johannes and Thomas pulling at the front. I joined in and we pulled back the break with about 4k to go. A couple of attacks went so we just kept the pace high until the various leadout trains took over. From there I drifted back and hung on to the finish. Warren and Georg got Luka to the front, where his freelancing paid off big with a win and the first yellow jersey. No better way to start a WorldTour race!

Stage 2 started out almost the same, but this time Tom and Cheng were given less help from other teams at the front—the more successful you are, the less likely you are to receive help. The weather started out pleasant, but about halfway through the rain started. Everybody pulled out their rain jackets and settled in for a very soggy day. The last half of the stage was almost completely flat on a wide highway, so things were very easy back in the bunch. With such a wide road, things started to get very crowded at the front as we entered the last 20k. All the sprinters and GC hopefuls wanted to be at the front to stay out of trouble, but there just wasn’t enough room for all of them and their teams.

If you weren’t in the top 15 when we exited the highway at 3k to go, you had no chance of seeing the front again. I was separated from the team in the fight for that turn and never made it back up to them. That turn strung the field out single file, and the last 3k was filled with soaking wet roundabouts that kept it that way. 

Luka once again showed that he’s the fastest man in the race, going 2 for 2. Taking the first two stage wins in a race like Catalunya relieves the team of pressure for the rest of the week—anything else we accomplished was a bonus.

Stage 3 was definitely not a race for Luka to win, with the first of a few mountain finishes. We’d spend the whole day climbing (over 3000m of elevation gain) and finish at a ski resort. The weather showed chances of snow and rain, but we were hopeful! The first major climb topped out over 2000m, and our incredible soigneur Kevin was ready at the top with our individual musettes containing our personal jackets for the long descent. How he managed to get each of us the correct bag so quickly, I’ll never understand.

Once the descent bottomed out, my work began. There was about 30k of rolling terrain with a bit of crosswind, so I was at the ready to step out into the wind to keep Warren fresh. The work really began in the last 15k before the climb. The group was going fast but not really hard, and the fighting for position was starting to get stressful. To make things easier, we got the climbing crew of Warren, Georg, Thomas, and Johannes together and I just pulled them up to the front and sat out in the wind for 10k to keep them out of the mess. I was completely done by the time we made the turn onto the climb, but they were all fresh and ready to go for it. The climb was a bit to fast for Warren to show his climbing prowess, but he stayed close on time and would be ready for the later stages. I chugged up the climb in the grupetto, ready to fight another day.

Stage 4 also started in very pleasant weather. Our team was given the green light to join any large breakaway that formed, even though it was a suicide mission on the queen stage. As soon as I’m given permission for a breakaway, it’s all I can think about. So when I found myself at the front at km0 and a large group of 10 quickly formed, I couldn’t resist jumping across—it looked like Katusha was going to let it go. 

They didn’t, though, quickly bringing it back and more attacks started going. This is where my trouble started…. I had done 515w for the first 2.5minutes of the race and now I couldn’t recover. We weren’t at high altitude, but high enough for recovery to be slowed down. We’d just started a 20k climb and I was already redlined.

I was in the cars just 6k into the race, not good. I stayed redlined for half of the climb and finally made it up to a chase group. We kept pushing over the top and the whole descent, finally catching the field when they stopped for a pee break. Being in the red for so long was really going to cost me later.

I was of no use to the team the rest of the day, struggling on every climb we hit. When the rain started with 60k to go, I was coming off the back of the group on the 3rd-from-last climb with 60k to go. I got dropped from my chase group on the descent, which was very slick. It wasn’t pouring rain, just wet enough to really make the tires slip—just like when I had crashed less than a week earlier.

I was really struggling mentally on the descent. I couldn’t think about anything but how scared I was of crashing again. I was taking terrible lines in every turn. At one point I got a corner so wrong that I chose to ride into the ditch—the ditch was just grass and I was fairly certain that I would crash if I tried to finish the turn. So I rode into the ditch, unclipped, and stepped back onto the road when I came to a stop. With my training crash so fresh in my memory, I couldn’t override my emotions. I know that my race tires have much more grip than my training tires, and I know I have the skills to descend well, but emotion won that day and screwed me up.

The rain continued to fall on the next climb. I just got in the zone and pushed until I reached the grupetto near the top. The next descent was only about 5minutes, but was very fast on an open highway. We had been warm on the climb and I only needed my short finger gloves, but I had to pull of the short gloves and pull on my long ones quickly on the descent before I lost all feeling in my hands. As we neared the base of the final climb, we were all going numb very fast. Finally the road pitched up and I started to warm up. Climbing at 10kph on a 9% grade will definitely get the blood flowing again. We kept going up and up, watching the kilometers tick by one at a time. We climbed into the fog and snow, barely able to see 100m ahead in the last 2k. At last we were across the line and immediately headed for the bus. I was wearing almost everything I brought to the race, so undressing took a while, but I managed to get it all off and jump into the shower before the cold set in. Warren had had an awesome day, finishing 8th on the stage after going on the attack twice on the final climb. We now had a top-10 on GC to protect!

Stage 5 was the long race I’ve ever done, at 218km (135mi). We wanted to be in the break today so that we wouldn’t have to control the race on such a long day. Better to sacrifice one rider in the break than a few on the front. We weren’t sure if the other teams would let us, though…. With the green light, of course I was in the first move of the day. We got about 10 seconds, then were pulled back. I immediately jumped onto the countermove,  and we pulled away fast. I couldn’t quite understand everything coming over my radio, but I could hear our director spurring me on. For 15 minutes we pushed it until we were chased back. It seems we had our answer: Giant-Shimano was not allowed to be in the break today. I had just done 388w for 20 minutes in the break. I wasn’t completely gassed, but the effort had taken a toll. I just needed to recover a bit. That’s when we hit a 15k unclassified big-ring climb. I was hanging on alright until the last few k when the field started to come apart. I was starting to breathe through my eyeballs. The attacks continued at the front for that whole climb, and Georg had been joining them, causing to the whole field to suffer. At long last, the field was obligated to let Georg go in the break. We were only 60k into the race and simply had to slow down at some point. Georg’s strong legs and persistence paid off, and he and a few others were given a bit of leash.

It finally all came back together hours later just before the Cat2 climb that came a 203km into the race. I was caught out of position in the crosswind at the bottom. I had the legs to hang on but not to move up, and could only jump across the gaps that were opening a few times before I came unhitched. Luka had managed to get over the top at the tail end of the lead group. I wish I could have been there to help, but with Warren’s leadout Luka brought home win number 3! With the next stage an almost guaranteed sprint, we had very high hopes of making it 4.

Like I said earlier, each win makes the next one even more difficult. We would have no help in bringing the race to a sprint on stage 6. The race was very windy, but we only had a hard crosswind a few times. A large break of 9 riders got away early and all the teams looked to us to do the work if we wanted a sprint. Half the race was in a really tough headwind, and Tom and Cheng managed to hold the gap to just a few minutes. Finally Cheng cracked on a wall of a climb, and we had already lost Georg earlier in the stage to knee pain after a rock hit him a couple of days before. Finally other teams started to contribute to the chase, but by then it was too late. We had a ripping tailwind and there simply wasn’t enough time left in the race to pull back the break. I was stuck at the back just trying to hang on. I was completely smoked and couldn’t go hard anymore. In the end, the break stayed away by a bit over a minute. It’s okay by us, though—we already had 3 victories!

Just one stage remained, a short 120km in rainy conditions once again. The stage was shortened by 8km by trimming the finishing circuits, which were very dangerous in the rain. The first half was very relaxed. I just focused on staying in the group and taking care of Warren in any way I could. All I did the whole day was pull Warren back to the group after a nature break and work to keep him out of the wind and at the front before entering the finish circuits. From there, I could do nothing more. With my legs quickly failing me, I dropped off the back of the group, rode 2 of the laps, and headed for the bus. I would have like to finish, but I would have just been lapped and gotten in the way of the leaders—better to get out of the cold and watch the race on the bus TV!

After a week of rest to soak up the racing, I’ll be that much stronger going forward. Just by the numbers, Catalunya was much harder than Tour of California (my previous hardest race). I had 3 days in a row of nearly 5000kJ, and 2 of those I started in the hardest way possible. The week finished with 1160km (717mi) in 32 hours of saddle time, for a total over 27000kJ burned on the bike. I was glad to be able to help the team in a very successful week, though! 3 wins and Warren finished up in 8th place on GC—quite a showing for a young squad!