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!