Sunday, June 22, 2014

Criterium du Dauphine

With the Belgium Tour completed, I had just one race left in the first half of my season. I had the best form of the whole season so far and was really excited for my second WorldTour race, the Criterium du Dauphine. Used as preparation for many of the Tour de France contenders, it would definitely be a tough race. We were taking a young team to hunt stage wins primarily, but Daan and I would also have the opportunity to give the GC a shot.

I was under no delusions, however, that I would be a true GC contender like Froome or Contador, but I was hopeful that I could perhaps make a top-15 or top-20 result.  It all depended on which legs I brought to the race—whether my good form would continue to build after California and Belgium.

The first stage was a 10km TT that featured a short climb and very technical descent in the middle. The beginning and end were flat with a handful of fast corners. Seeing as my best TT results are in short time trials, I was especially excited for this one. I was able to get 2 laps in before my race and planned my pacing around the climb in the middle. Basically, the top of the climb was nearly a finish line in itself, as the descent would provide at least a minute of recovery. I started off just as planned, averaging 450W for the first 6 minutes to the top of the climb (including 2 minutes on the climb at 500W). I was pretty well gassed at the top but knew that recovery was on the way, and was only 8 seconds behind Nibali at the time check.

I took the descent as fast as I could, but I’m just not very comfortable descending on the TT bike. I never understood, while watching races on TV, when the commentators said that handling these bikes at speed can be awkward. I told myself that when I became a pro, I would show everybody how to rail corners with a TT bike. Now that I’m here…let me say that I can corner very well on flat ground, but when pointed downhill, things become awkward. The forward position on the bike, the very low handlebars, and brakes that behave differently than on my road bike all combine to make for an awkward descent.

All that to say that I was only average on the descent. To go really fast you had to take real risks, so I’m sure I lost a little time to some, but I made it to the bottom safely and ready to put the power down to the finish. But it seems I left my legs at the top of the hill, as I struggled to make it to the finish. I wasn’t helped by the headwind that had been building all day, which was much stronger for the final riders than those who started in the morning. But even without the headwind, I failed to average even 400W for the final 6 minutes. 

It seems that I had not done quite enough in the way of openers before the race and my legs didn’t want to make a second effort. I had taken a pretty easy week after Belgium, and at this point in the season my body thought that meant it was time to go into recovery mode. My effort in the TT was good enough for top-50, 30 seconds behind Froome’s winning time. Had my legs performed as expected, I would have been 15 seconds faster in that last 6 minutes. Oh well, nothing to do but move forward onto the next stage.

Not much of interest happened on stage 2 until the final climb. The breakaway got clear immediately, as the field wanted a relaxed stage until the end, when they knew that Sky would bring it back so the GC riders could have it out. The day was really hot, though. I was going through bottles faster than all of my teammates but still felt like I was playing catch-up with hydration the whole day. I was comfortable on all the climbs throughout the stage, so I was hopeful for a good finish. I was proud of myself for how well I was holding position at the front before the climb, but then it fell apart for me right at the most crucial moment, and I entered the climb mid-pack.

I was immediately in difficulty, and trying to decide how long to hold on. I know that I can’t climb with the big guys all the way up, so it’s always a question of when to drop off the pace. If I fight for too long, I could do more harm than good if I have to back off to recover. But dropping off immediately, if it’s a fast climb, means I’m wasting energy in the wind. I ended up holding on to the leaders’ pace for 9 minutes at 400W, still going a bit too deep and having to slow down and recover in the middle of the climb. Again, my legs were disappointing as I went on to finish nearly 5 minutes down from Froome after averaging just 360W for the 40-minute climb. The heat may have contributed, as Daan also fell apart. Once again, nothing to do but look towards the remaining stages.

Stage 3 looked to be the most likely stage for a sprint finish, so we were all-in for Nikias and Reinardt. Just as the day before, a break of 3 rolled away immediately. It was another hot day, and we would have a headwind all-day. The break was struggling the whole day, so we were going excruciatingly slow behind. By the 3 hour point, we had only covered 90km of the nearly 200km day. Sky was riding the front easily and the gap was barely increasing. Eventually Trek and FDJ contributed riders to the chase, as they wanted a field sprint, but they were going too fast. The gap plummeted to 3 minutes with 90km still left to race. We were asked to contribute a rider to the chase, but there was simply no reason with a gap so small.

We wound our way through a valley with rolling climbs and descents on small roads that were literally melting in the sun. They were freshly chip-sealed and the tar was sticky, causing us to fling gravel everywhere with our tires. With the last climb of the day nearing, we wanted to get the team together so Nikias and Reini could start it at the front. On one fast downhill section, there was a hole in the road on the slick melted tarmac. The rider in front of me panicked to avoid the hole and got into the rider next to him, coming back 
into me. I had to slam on the brakes while I bounced off of them, and was consequently slammed by the rider behind me. I got tossed forward but managed to stay on my bike, but I heard the unmistakable sound a huge pileup behind me. We knew that Reinardt had at least been held up by the crash, but weren’t certain that he’d gone down. We later found out that on the melted road surface, his front wheel washed out as soon as he touched the brakes. Thankfully he only suffered some road rash and was able to chase back after the final climb with the help of Dries and Thierry.

Up ahead, we were doing our only real effort of the day on the last climb. I averaged 380W for 11 minutes, but it was hot enough that it felt like a lot more. After the descent, the last 40km were dead flat and straight, so the field regrouped. The original break was nearly caught, and while teams decided who should control the front, more riders attacked. At one point there were 8 riders getting away, with less than 20km remaining. We put Thomas and Daan in the chase while the rest of us stayed together further back and waited for the right moment.

Since we didn’t have a team for a proper leadout, our plan would be to take control around 3km to go. Ideally, we would stay in control until 1km to go, at which point there were several corners. Then, Nikias and Reini could move onto another team’s leadout. We just had to keep them in front until that point. Once the break had been pulled back, we started moving up on the right side. The road had periodic roundabouts that we had to navigate, but was fairly wide and straight. We stayed patient, and always hard right on the road so that we only had to defend our position from one side. Finally we arrived at the front with 7 riders, taking control at 4k to go. A bit earlier than planned, but not a bad decision it turned out. I knew that I was to get them inside 2k to go, so Dries and I traded pulls for a bit until it was time to start winding it up. Dries had an awesome pull to get to 2k, so I just had to keep the pace high as long as I could manage. We reached a narrow section with road construction that made us glad to be on the front, as there had been no mention of it in the race manual. I finally swung off at 1.5k to go. Thierry and then Johannes kept the guys in position until 1k as planned, where they entered the final turn in 10th position. In the long sprint, it ended up being  Nikias who came out fastest and held on to win by inches with Reinardt rounding out the podium for 3rd. We were all incredibly excited to have taken a stage—we now had a result to hang our hats on for the week! Although it was a long stage and was fast at the end, I averaged only 195W for 5.5 hours.

Stage 4 would finish with the famous descent into Gap—you know, the one where Lance rode across the field after Beloki’s crash. The stage was set up perfectly for a breakaway to survive. Sky would let a break that didn’t pose a GC threat get away, then they could ride at a comfortable pace and not take risks on the descent to the finish. With that in mind, I wanted to be in the break. There’s only one way to win with that finish, and it’s solo. Attack over the top of the climb, rail the descent, post up. That’s what I had in mind…me and 160 other guys.

Even though we expected a big fight for the breakaway, I was still hopeful that it would get away quickly, so I made sure to be at the front following moves from KM0. That’s when I learned that a ‘big fight’ for the breakaway in a WorldTour Race is a very different thing than at other races like Tour of California. It seems that when you remove the Continental Teams and add in a dozen more ProTour teams, the effort required to make the break goes up as well. Who knew?

I averaged 425W for the first 5 minutes, jumping into several moves. Then I did my best to recover for a few minutes before we reached a low-grade, uncategorized climb. Certain that the field would not want to chase full-gas on the climb, I started jumping in moves again… With 2K still to go on the climb, I was just trying to hang on, averaging 417W for 11min. We got over the top and the attacks continued. By the time I was recovered and able to get back to the front 10 minutes later, a large break had finally gotten away without any of us in it. The highest-placed rider in the move was only a couple of minutes down, so Sky started riding immediately to keep the gap small.

Nothing else happened until the final climb, where I decided to see if I could stay with the leaders over the top. The gap was still small and there was a chance that the break would come back, so I wanted to be there. The other guys would save their energy for the coming stages, but agreed to help me start the climb at the front. The fight was on a really fast, wide downhill, a high-speed washing machine. Reinardt and I were doing a good job of staying together at the front, but got screwed by a rider that chose the long way around a key roundabout. We had already slowed down to take the short way through when he suddenly swung left, pushing us out. At that point we were nearly at the climb and the road had narrowed, so I was forced to start the climb pretty far back. As soon as the road pitched up, dozens of guys sat up for the grupetto and I as faced with a 50m gap to the main field. Unsure if I should pull the plug, I decided to calmly give chase and see what happened. I rode a hard pace for a couple of minutes and managed to regain the field. They were climbing at a hard pace, but I was even comfortable at times. It was here that I wished I had some of my matches back from earlier in the stage—Hesjedal and Van Garderen attacked and I didn’t quite have the legs to follow. Most of the breakaway stayed away, and the winner was solo, of course. Even though the leaders didn’t go full gas over the climb, it was good for my head to make the front group.

I wanted to be in the break again on stage 5. But the break had succeeded the day before, so now the fight was even harder now that guys really believed in it. Ever the optimist, I still burned matches following moves in the first 5 minutes, averaging 445W before I had to ease off. After recovering a bit, I was trying to get back to the front when the huge pileup occurred, blocking the road. In my effort to avoid piling on top, I ended up riding off the road along with many other guys. While I was hiking back to the pavement, Reinardt, Johannes, and Thierry were assessing their injuries. Thankfully all were able to continue.

With so many guys down and the break still not gone, the field self-neutralized for a while. Then the attacks started again. I knew I needed to be up there, but my legs were feeling a bit empty after the previous day’s efforts. Nikias and Dries were doing a ton of work to be in the move and couldn’t last forever. I finally was able to cover one big move before Dries was able to escape with several others. At this point we were 50km into the race and were running out of water quickly. The field eased up until Europcar, who had missed the move, put their team on the front and chased full gas up the category 2 climb, causing the field to explode into several groups. We finally eased up once we reached the bottom on the other side. The break was now close to 20 riders, and again Sky had to keep it on a short leash. In the end, Nikias was our top finisher on the day after Dries cracked after a really tough day out front. The rest of us cruised in ready to fight another day.

Stage 6 was another perfect stage for a breakaway. This time I tried to be a bit smarter about which moves I was following. My legs felt better but I didn’t want to waste a bunch of energy needlessly. I still averaged 420W for 8 minutes at one point. We were doing a really good job as a team of making sure to have somebody in every move, and finally Thomas got away with another big group and the field relaxed. The race went by quickly as Sky couldn’t give the break much time. Thomas would go on to finish 13th when the break made it to the finish while the rest of us enjoyed a stress-free ride to the finish.

Not that morale was hurting, but it certainly received a boost when I found a piano waiting for me at our hotel.  I finally had a chance to show my new team what I can do!

Stage 7 was going to be a kick in the pants no matter which way you sliced it. The stage had over 4000m of climbing (14000 feet) on 5 tough climbs. I gambled that, with such a tough stage, the break would go before the first climb. So I was in just about every move before that first climb, averaging 390W (417NP) for the first 20 minutes of the race. Then we reached the climb and the attacks continued—my gamble had backfired.

What I also didn’t anticipate is that my left Achilles was sore from the start. It’s a problem I used to have frequently years ago, but now it usually pops up once a year and I can predict the type of race that will cause it. With massage, stretching, and tape, I’ll be fine, but that’s not possible during the stage. This time, it caught me by surprise. After going so hard at the start, it became really sore on the climb. I was gassed and in pain, and getting dropped. I pushed to average 340W for the 30-minute climb and then had some chasing to do.
I was really struggling mentally at that point. I was intimidated by the thought of all the climbs still to come if I was already in pain, and learned that Thierry had crashed and abandoned the race along with Reini, who had finally pulled the plug after 2 hard crashes earlier in the week. I really wanted to quit, but thanks to Christian for the encouragement and a bit of motorpacing, I was back to the field when they stopped for a pee break. After a visit to the medic’s car for some numbing spray and ibuprofen, I decided to push on and see how the rest of the stage went.

Thankfully the stage was relaxed over the next two climbs and I was able to sit in without too much discomfort. Then on the penultimate HC climb I immediately joined the grupetto and took it as easy as possible to the finish. As my reward for finishing, we got to descend the final climb, which was a lot of fun. As an added bonus, I had finally cracked 5000kJ for the first time all year after coming so close many times.

This time, I did need a morale boost, and I found it in another piano at our last hotel. With the late start of the final stage, I was able to get in nice practice session after dinner and breakfast, which put me in  good mood for sure.

The final stage was a short one at only 130km, but it was not going to be a parade. Thanks to massage, stretching, and some tape, my Achilles felt great. I was excited to finish the race strong, wearing myself out before my summer break.

 We got started with a 10k descent, straight into a cat 2 climb. Johannes managed to slip away with the group that split off on the descent, but I was biding my time. As the descent flattened out, I worked my way to the front. When we reached the base, I was in the top 10 and ready to go. Things went crazy immediately with a lot of big names attacking. I felt good but still did not have the legs to go on the attack there. I just wanted to hang on and save my matches for later, so I slotted in behind the TInkoff team, expecting that they would pull things back together. I averaged 410W for 12 minutes just to stay in the front group as the field exploded, so it was clear that the break was filled with really strong riders.

By the time the road flattened out at the top, there was a big group off the front with the likes of Talansky and Van Garderen, etc.

Then I made the tragic mistake of failing to consider that it was the last stage and that it was a war out there. I didn’t even try to be at the front for the next climb, expecting that Tinkoff would just set a fast pace until the base of the penultimate climb, at which point everybody would go as fast as they could. So I was nowhere near a position to follow when Sky attacked at the base of the climb, taking Contador with them.

I got to the front as quickly as I could. I still felt really good and was climbing comfortably. My only hope was that Contador’s team (most of whom were back in the main field) would be able to chase back the attacking group so that they could help him. They chased for a long time, but it would never come back together and we just cruised to the finish. It was a really exciting race--made even more so when the rain started—and I felt good, but I wasted my opportunity with a moment of inattentiveness.

So while I left the week without a result personally, we did win a stage. And while my legs were never quite what I was hoping for, I felt best on the last day, which is a long way from how Catalunya went for me. On top of that, Dauphine was harder than Catalunya by the numbers. All things considered, I’m very encouraged with the form I was able to carry through California, Belgium, and Dauphine, and I think it bodes well for the rest of my season that I was able to reach my summer break without being physically ruined, something that has never happened before.

Now I get to kick back and relax for a few weeks. I sure hope I can find a way to enjoy Tuscany in the summer....