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!

Saturday, August 30, 2014

THE Vuelta Stage 8: A whole lot of nothing, then everything at once

Today was the longest stage in the race, but had no categorized climbs. It was still a warm day, but in my opinion it was the most pleasant day we’ve had so far. Almost the entire stage was on a big national road, and we went almost the same direction the whole day.

Everyone expected a field sprint, but before that can happen the right break must be created. We had the whole team on the front row of the field when the neutral section ended. 2 guys were allowed by, and then the road mysteriously became clogged by a field that wanted an easy day.

We had a tailwind for most of the day, so the stage went by really quickly. Lawson spent a lot of time on the front riding tempo, with Johannes subbing in periodically. FDJ finally contributed a rider, but he was constantly whining that we were only putting one rider on the front. He wanted at least a 2:1 ratio as condition for his work. But for all his complaining, we couldn’t get him to slow down when the gap started falling too quickly.

After 150km, the field got really excited. Every team knew that at 175km, we would change directions. The threat of crosswinds meant we spent half an hour in a 60kph washing machine as everyone tried to be at the front on the twisting valley road. In such a nervous bunch at those speeds, I don’t do so well at holding position. I was able to join up with the team several times, but would get separately soon after.

With the turn coming soon, I made my way to the upwind side and prepared for one final, big move to find the guys. And I almost made it. The crosswinds grew, the field strung out, and my legs felt pretty good as I made my way towards the front. Then I saw Ramon taking Warren across the gap that had formed to the front group. I was officially caught behind the split. With most of the team in the front group, including our GC rider and sprinter, my job shifted to staying near the front of the chase group. In the event that our group made contact, I would need to be fresh and quickly rejoin my teammates for the leadout.

But my group never caught the leaders again, so I had a fast but fairly easy ride to the finish. John finished 4th after doing a bit too much work to stay in the front group, and Warren would finish with the front group and preserve his GC place before tomorrow’s climbing stage.

Friday, August 29, 2014

THE Vuelta Stage 7: we've got a bike race!

I slept alright last night, but awoke cold. It seems housekeeping had set the AC in the room to full blast and Ramon and I failed to notice it before bed. I almost didn’t adjust it, just because I wanted to remember what being cold felt like.

We had a real bike race on our hands today. The tough stage profile lent itself well to the success of a breakaway, and after yesterday’s climbing finish, the GC was more spread out. As such, we had permission to go for the breakaway today if we wanted, and I did.

With 30k flat before the first categorized climb, I was active in following moves. But it was a real fight for the break today, and as the climb neared I stopped trying. We’re only a week into the race, and I didn’t want to destroy myself by jumping on every move and then getting spit out the back when we did the climb full gas. Besides, tomorrow we’ll be working for a sprint on the longest stage of the race, followed by a tough climbing stage. Best to be a bit conservative at this point.

Just at the start of the climb, Warren was involved in a crash with Froome. I sat up to help him chase back, but he came by so fast that I ended up just settling back in to the field, unable to contribute. The field exploded on the opening climb as the attacks continued. Finally a small group got away before the top. 

There were some crashes on the descent, one of which took John down—banged up, but he would go on to finish.

The field stopped for a pee break after 60km, then quickly settled into an uncomfortable pace for the rest of the day. We spent a lot of time on smaller roads that twisted and rolled through the countryside, at a pace that stung the legs.

As the kilometers disappeared, the field slowly got a bit smaller, until a real selection was made on a 5-minute climb with 15km remaining. After this climb, it was just me, Tobias, and Johannes to watch over Warren. We got him into a good position at the front with 5km remaining, where the road begins to slowly roll upward. I stayed with the group until 3k to go in case Warren had a problem, then sat up.

In the sprint, Warren’s front wheel was clipped in the chaos and he went down hard. He’ll be sore tomorrow, but his GC position is safe.

Today was definitely the hardest stage from start to finish so far, and I think a lot of that can be credited to the temperature. It was still a warm day, but noticeably cooler than the past days. Hopefully the milder temps will continue tomorrow!

7 down, 14 to go!

Thursday, August 28, 2014

THE Vuelta Stage 6: Wawa can climb!

You know my least favorite thing about racing at this level, especially in Spain? It’s that we don’t start until 1pm on many days. Nevermind that that means the race is in the hottest part of the day, that’s not even what bothers me most. It’s because I’m an old man that likes to eat early and go to bed early, and get up with the sun and have breakfast early. No, I don’t particularly enjoy being awoken by my body clock 2 hours before breakfast and having dinner at 10pm because our race didn’t even end until nearly 7. I got into bed at midnight yesterday and slept 15 minutes at a time from 7am until I finally gave up at 8:30. Like I said, I’m an old man.

Guess what?! Today’s stage was hot! The break got away fairly quickly, but it took a while for the field to finally stop attacking behind. Then it became a massive coast-off, as none of the teams with GC riders wanted to take the front. For the second day, Orica refused to put even one rider up front even though they led the race. And so the gap continued to grow…and grow…and grow. It ballooned to nearly 15 minutes before Garmin took over and set what would be a most uncomfortable pace for the rest of the day.

We had a handful of climbs to contend with before the final cat 1 finish climb. We were never going extremely fast, but everyone was really suffering. All the guys were staying busy shuttling bottles to Warren, Lawson, and me the whole day. The plan was for us to support Warren as long as we could on the final climb.

The 20 minutes before reaching the base of the climb were actually really hard, as everyone wanted to get their climber into the base in the perfect position. I got pinched off from the guys early on, just before we went single file. We stayed single file for a long time, and I didn’t have the legs to get back up to them. I wasn’t so far back, but every time somebody sat up and left a gap, I had to use more energy to close it. The legs I’d been saving were wasted because of bad positioning.

I did nothing the whole day so that I could help Warren at the end, but by the time we got there I couldn’t do anything. So I’m a bit frustrated about that. Thankfully the others got Warren to the base in second wheel, and he had a great climb to jump into the top-10 on GC.

We’re well into the stage-race vortex now, as we frequently forget what stage we’re on (another good reason to rip the completed stages out of the race book). My legs can tell that we’re a week into the race, but our soigneur just told me that my legs are feeling better each day. I’ll take his word for it. The upcoming stages will provide some more opportunities for John to win, so I’m excited to see what we can do.

6 down, 15 to go!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

THE Vuelta Stage 5: First blood, second win

The start of today’s stage was a bit more interesting than planned. First, half the team missed the start…they were staying cool on the bus for as long as possible. But like always, we had a 9km neutral section, so there was no real danger.

We knew that today was another perfect opportunity for John, especially considering his propensity to go on hot streaks. After yesterday’s win, he would be that much more confident. So again we were looking to deliver John to a sprint while keeping Warren’s position on GC.

The first step in the plan is letting the right break go. Immediately Tony Martin attacked, which was fine on a day like today. Even with the sweltering heat, you never want him to have too much help, though, so after a Lotto rider jumped the road mysteriously became clogged with Giant and FDJ riders. As the gap grew, a MTN rider managed to sneak through the road block and go for it. The probability of closing the gap was slim, but he was going to try. As he began to fade on the rolling and twisty road, an uphill switchback appeared. FDJ took the inside, and it was clear they were going to sweep across at the exit of the turn to block him. In desperation, the MTN rider tried to cut inside harder. I knew what was about to happen before it happened and was able to avoid the pile when he washed out, but Koen and Johannes couldn’t. 
Thankfully both suffered only minor road rash in the team’s first crashes of the Vuelta.

We put Tobias on the front immediately, as you can’t let a rider of Martin’s caliber get too far up the road. FDJ was also helping with the chase.

The gap started to immediately fall, and over the next two hours, we would ride slower and slower in an effort to keep from catching them too soon. It seemed the heat was a bit too much for the breakaway and they were begging to be put out of their misery. Finally Martin stopped altogether to rejoin the field. With just one rider out front in the heat and headwind, we were going really easy. Unfortunately, Lawson became the next casualty of the slick roads in a roundabout before the feedzone and became the third rider to hit the deck today. A fair bit of road rash, but he’ll be okay.

Expecting the same relaxed race until the only major climb of the day, we were a bit careless with our positioning as we started a small climb to yet another small town. Alarm bells started going off when Tinkoff-Saxo took over and cranked up the pace. The climb was actually fairly hard, and part of it was on cobbles. 
Then, further up, there was a really hard bottleneck that brought us to a near trackstand. We were single file over the top and suddenly what had been a headwind all day was a cross-tail. On the fast descent with those winds, it didn’t take long for gaps to form.

Tobias, John, and Koen were in the first group, while I was in the second with Warren and Ramon. Ramon and I were working to get Warren back to the first group, getting considerable help from other teams—notably Garmin, who had also missed the split with their GC riders.

Warren would make it back, but Ramon and I couldn’t quite do it, while Tobias would come back to join us after helping John and Koen stay out of the wind until the proper climb began. Our grupetto would just cruise to the finish and save our legs. In a bizarre show of sympathy toward our teammates’ injuries, Ramon and I both got nosebleeds atop the final climb.

It wasn’t a perfect situation, but we at least had John and Warren up front with Koen to provide the leadout. And in the end, that proved enough, as John took his second stage win in as many days! There were definitely some lessons to take from today, but everything came out alright and we can do it better next time.

For now, we’ll just enjoy our champagne at dinner and celebrate John’s second win. Tomorrow Warren gets to come out and play on the first real uphill finish of the race.

5 down, 16 to go!

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

THE Vuelta Stage 4: Do you like apples?

Well, how d’you like THEM APPLES?!

The day started like all the others, only now I’m a year older. Now I’m above the average age of our Vuelta squad, and that’s not even taking into account how old I act! Early to bed and early to rise, let’s face it, I’m already old.

Anyways, the bike race:

The heat has done a good job of suppressing everyone’s will to race until it’s really necessary. The break, again, got away immediately from kilometer 0 and the field took it easy. The first real climb didn’t come until 100k into the stage, which was a short 164km compared to yesterday’s 198. For the first two hours, I averaged 143w.

In that time, we were constantly going back for bottles. 3 pee breaks in those 2 hours—we were all making sure to stay hydrated! I have to say, though, that it still wasn’t as hot as Tour of California this year, much less TOC 2 years ago. I’m well familiarized with how I handle the heat by now, it’s just a matter of doing what I need to do.

The fight leading into the first climb was a big one, as we weren’t sure how fast the climb would be. The fight paid off, though, when Tinkoff-Saxo took the front and set a hard pace that caused a lot of damage to the field. Once we reached the bottom, the field slowly regrouped just in time to pass through the finish the first time. The last 15km was done twice, so it was nice to have a preview of how the finish would play out.

Just as everything came back together, the fight was on for the last climb. It didn’t take long for the field to explode, and 15 minutes later the front group of 40-50 riders crested the climb. There were about 10 undulating kilometers before we really descended, in which time Lawson took the front to keep the pace up. We had our GC rider and our sprinter in the group, so it was a really good situation for us.

I was hurting, as I’d run out of water on the climb. Just in time, we reached our soigneur, who had musettes ready with 2 bottles. I’d finish both in 20 minutes….

The descent was technical and really fast, and once we reached the bottom there were only 8k to go. With Lawson at the front keeping things under control, I rolled up to Warren and John and asked what they wanted me to do.

“Keep us at the front,” they said. So I pulled them up next to the Tinkoff team and held them there. At 2k to go, both were slotted in around 7th wheel.  I slid in behind Orica and Tinkoff, making especially sure that we didn’t get swarmed before the last roundabout. At the exit, Orica started to accelerate, but a couple of riders attacked up the side and Orica was running out of gas from riding the front all day.

I jumped onto BMC as they were coming by, and just when they started to fade at 1.5k to go, I heard John yell, “CHAD, GO!”

I had thought that Warren was behind me, but it was obvious from his volume that he was on my wheel. The number one rule of leadouts is: never slow down. Even if you have to go early, it’s better to go too soon than to get swarmed. So when John yelled, “go,” I went.

At the same time, I was doing the mental math. 1.5k to go, and John is on my wheel. Leadout starting now, ideally ends at 200m to go. Wow, that’s a long way. Can’t slow down, though, I have to go until John comes around. I’m gonna need a bit of draft along way, good thing those guys attacked separately. Let’s play a game of leapfrog! Okay, that’s a good speed, we’re making progress. Come to papa…alright, one down, on to the next. Boom, another one bites the dust. Wow, this hurts, and there’s still a long way to go….

From 600m to go, I knew that I was fading and was just begging somebody to start the sprint too soon so that John could jump on. I saw a move coming up the right at 400m and John again yelled to go, to which I replied—seriously—“I CAN’T!” and swung left as John jumped right. There was a gap perfect for him in 4th (I think) wheel, and from there it was up to him.

I was completely gassed and just waiting to hear in the radio the results. Lawson and I saw at the same time John’s name as the winner on the finish board, so I took my time over the last 200m to celebrate, giving high-fives to the crowd. Then it was hugs all around after the finish.

In summary: John gives the best birthday presents! No matter what else happens during the Vuelta, we’ve won a stage!

4 down, 17 to go!

Monday, August 25, 2014

THE Vuelta Stage 3: I'm on a boat!

Today’s stage started, of all places, on a boat. Not just any boat, though…it was an aircraft carrier. For sign-in, we climbed a few flights of stairs to get onto the lift that gets the planes on the deck and were greeted by a variety of fighter planes and helicopters. Both the racers and the spectators were taking lots of pictures.

After signing in, we saw that they were letting the racers climb into the cockpit of a fighter jet. Unfortunately, standing in line for the jet is all I did, because after 5 minutes of getting punked by more important people (who’s this Quintana guy anyway?), it was time to actually get ready for the bike race and stop being tourists.

The stage started in the cargo bay of the carrier, where we rolled across the ramp back to firmer ground for some actual racing. A trio of choppers and a duo of jets were flitting around the sky during the neutral section, keeping us all entertained as we were paraded through the town.

The race itself was largely uninteresting, and can be summed up with 3 words: it was hot. Not quite like Tour of California, but pretty dang close. I know this because ice socks were helpful, not crucial. And so, the kilometers ticked by just a bit faster than our bottle count.

Orica controlled the front almost the whole day over the undulating climbs, but we would not contribute. We would give it a try with John at the finish, but the 2k finishing climb of 4% is not his forte.

I was really suffering in the middle part of the stage, but on the last climb I was actually feeling comfortable again. Lawson and I would try to escort John up the finishing climb in the hopes that we could accelerate when the road leveled out before the line. With 5k to go, the whole team moved up, but Warren, Lawson, and I were swarmed during Warren’s tussle with the Orica train. We spent the next 3k trying to get back to the others. My legs actually felt good, but I used them trying to get back to John, never quite making it. I pulled the plug at 1k to go, saving my legs for another day.

Although the race didn’t end the way we wanted, I’m encouraged by my form so far as well as my ability to fight for position when it’s important. We got swarmed there at the end, but after that (and in yesterday’s finish) I was managing well. I still have work to do, but progress is always good.

In other news, my hair is finally long enough again that it looks alright without product! So now I can save a few more minutes a day by not fooling with my hair. And I ripped all the completed stages and unnecessary pages out of the race book, so now it’s 30% lighter. It’s all about saving energy, right? We’ve been at the same hotel for the whole race so far, but that changes tomorrow. Over the remaining stages, we’ll change hotels over a dozen times as we make our way around Spain.

I turn 26 tomorrow. I’m not one for big birthday celebrations, but I have to say that racing the Vuelta will be far and away the coolest thing I’ve ever done on my birthday.

3 down, 18 to go!

Sunday, August 24, 2014

THE Vuelta Stage 2: A case of the almosts

There’s nothing special to report today, as we’re entering the time vortex of stage racing. As we settle into the rhythm of the race, we’ll lose track of the days because we’re so focused on the task at hand and the stage that’s in front of us. It’s a good thing there’s nothing too significant going on in the world that we need to stay informed about….

The mostly flat stage, aside from the opening cat 3 climb and another pair of smaller climbs later, was going to be a warm one. The break went away immediately, as the peloton was more interested in repeating the phrase “sweating like a pig” than chasing it down in the oppressive humidity.

Movistar immediately took control, and we agreed that I’d contribute to the chase at the feed zone. It was a windy day, so we spent our time keeping John and Warren out of the wind and trouble. The gap had been holding steady around 4 minutes, but jumped a bit to 5+ minutes after the field’s second pee break. Then I and a FDJ rider joined Movistar at the front and started to chip away at the gap.

Maybe “chip away” isn’t quite the correct term. We were never pulling really hard, but the gap plummeted from 5 to 1 minute by the time we reached 35k to go. At that point, with the threat of crosswinds coming soon, all the teams started pushing toward the front. Then I eased up and tried to recover, my work being done for the time being. Just the action of teams fighting to stay at the front meant that the break was doomed.

I spent the next 20k preparing for the fight to come. Things were really hectic in the closing kilometers, so I used my remaining energy to keep the others out of the wind for the leadout later on. At 5k to go, I swung off, but did my best to stay in the field to help in case something happened with Warren. The leadout didn’t go quite as planned when the wind came from the opposite side we expected in the last 3k, but they adjusted well. Then Ramon was nearly crashed by somebody’s crazy moves in one of the last turns, and his support looks to have been the missing ingredient to get John the win today.

After two 2nd places at the Tour, today’s finish was far from satisfying for John. As was the case earlier this season, I’m sure he’s about to break through again and I’m ready to do my part!

One final remark: this was my first Grand Tour road stage, and I was really impressed with the sheer number of spectators along the whole route, much less their enthusiasm! But it was definitely frightening at times how far out into the road they were standing, and how late they moved back. Not just on climbs, but when we come blasting through small towns at 50kph.

2 down, 19 to go!

Saturday, August 23, 2014

THE Vuelta: Stage 1 TTT

One stage down, 20 to go!

Today was a very relaxed start for us, but unfortunately I didn’t get a good night’s sleep. I was so excited about today’s race that I couldn’t shut my brain off, instead laying there for 2 hours before falling asleep after midnight. But my internal clock didn’t get the message and I awoke at 7:30, right on schedule.

We got 3 laps of practice in on the course during the day: 1 lap easy to learn the course a bit, then an 80% TTT effort, followed by an easier TTT effort just to get one more lap under our belts.

The course was technical, that’s for sure. Some 20+turns/roundabouts in 12.5km are tough anyways, but with 9 guys, technique becomes even more crucial. Just to make things even more complicated, the road surface was polished to a nice shine from years of oil and rubber without rain.

Spectators really love to watch 9 guys ride their trainers all at once, it seems. We got through our prescribed warmup routine, complete with ice vests and the slush drink mix while turning down for what, I don’t know. Then we were off to the start house, where 9 lovely ladies in high heels struggled to hold 9 big bike racers (well, 8, but I don’t want to leave Johannes out) upright. In fact, Koen’s holder nearly fell over and he had to put a foot down just before our start.

I was 2nd in line, behind John and ahead of Warren. I also had the privilege of being the team’s cameraman for the day, with Shimano’s sweet new camera under my butt.

My first pull was over 400m of cobbles, and I was doing my best to go at 80%. I was so excited for the race that I knew I would go too hard, and blowing the whole team up in the first 3 minutes would not be good. So I was holding back, yet every time I looked down I saw 550w. It wouldn’t always feel so nice, but I felt great then!

During our 80% recon effort, I thought, “yeah, we can go 20% faster through the turns,” but for every single turn during the actual race, I thought, “aaagggghhh, we’re going SO MUCH FASTER!” On the whole, we had a very solid run, but there were definitely a handful of small mistakes that cost us some time (and then there was that time that the camera moto ran into Warren)—but that is the case for every team. On that course, it wasn’t the team that had the most horsepower that won, but the team with the best TEAM effort. So kudos to Movistar, but we’re still quite pleased with our 6th-place effort!

Over our 14:30 effort, I averaged 404w with a normalized power of 432. Heart rate: quite high.

Then it was back to the hotel for massages and dinner and typing this up quickly, and it’s already past 11pm. Hopefully I can fall asleep now, but we’ll see…

Friday, August 22, 2014

Vuelta a Espana: Here we go!

As I type this, I find myself at another bike race. Only, it’s not your run-of-the-mill bike race. Between the travel days, preparation days, race days, and rest days, this trip will add up to a whopping 27 days. It would seem the race is aptly called a Grand Tour.

We usually arrive at a race on the day before the start, but there’s ample reason to arrive a bit earlier for a race like this. One day devoted to travel, followed by a day to spin the legs out and relax. Once we’re settled in, the day before the race (today) is to get the legs really opened up with some intensity. Or, as circumstances require, with team time trial practice.  The rest of our schedule is filled with meals, anti-doping tests, fat measurements, team meetings, and relaxation.

Ah, yes, relaxation. That’s a vital key to surviving a 3-week race (or so I’m told). While it may only be one or two flights of stairs, taking the elevator instead multiple times a day adds up to a lot of stairs saved weeks later. Such a “marginal gains” attitude applies to every aspect of life for the next few weeks. I’ve prepared for this and am well-stocked in all areas of relaxation. I’ve got books, podcasts, music, movies, and TV to keep me occupied and off my feet. But put a piano in front of me and all that is forgotten!

Considering my previous two races were also in Spain, my Spanish is about to make a drastic resurgence. After just a few hours of watching Big Bang Theory and How I Met Your Mother re-runs in Spanish (since I remember most of the English lines), I’ve already recovered a large chunk of vocabulary. The main issue is the little bit of Italian I know getting in the way.

As far as the race goes, I have to focus on only one day at a time. I found myself worrying about the potential for bad weather once we get to the late stages in northern Spain. Trying to take on the whole race at once is certainly a bad idea!

I’ve always wondered what the race book must be like for a Grand Tour, and I finally know. It’s big. Like, really big. 330 pages!

I’ll not be accused of lacking ambition, so my goal is to post daily. Not full-length posts, but I hope to take 20 minutes a day for some typing. I know I’ll have the time, but my motivation may drop off drastically somewhere in the teen stages. Time will tell!

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Vuelta a Burgos

After the Classica San Sebastian, I was back in Lucca for most of a week—enough time to get in a handful of good rides with some intensity to continue my build back to race condition. Then I was on my way back to Spain, where I would hopefully be spending most of the next month.

The race was the Vuelta a Burgos, a 5-stage affair that would be a good training race for me. Daan and Thomas were already on good form, so we would be focusing on them for results in the road stages. My focus would be to race as hard as I could as a domestique in the road stages, then go for a result myself in the final time trial.

The race only had a dozen teams—not even 100 racers in total, so a really small field. We expected a fairly relaxed race (until the finale, of course), but that most certainly was not the case.

On Stage 1, the break got away immediately and Movistar took control right away as Quintana was expected to win again and they wanted to keep him safe for the Vuelta. It was a windy day, though, and the threat of crosswind chaos kept everyone a little bit on edge. My personal challenge was to make sure that Daan and Thomas never touched the wind the whole stage, and I think I was pretty successful there.  I spent a lot of the stage sitting out in the wind near the front of the field, keeping the team out of the scrum.

It wasn’t until we neared the finish laps in town that we finally got a good crosswind that stung my legs a bit. Then we hit the finishing climb the first time and I was quickly out the back as I couldn’t sprint up the hill like everyone else just yet. I fought, though, and ended up in a chase group. In my absence, Lawson was their guardian. With 10k to go before the finish, I was hopeful that I could get back to the lead group and help Daan and Thomas one last time. We regained the front group with 4k to go, so I paused a moment to recover. I took the hot route around the outside of a fast right-hander, with 1k to go before the crucial bottleneck at the base of the climb. With momentum at the exit, I started screaming at Thomas as I was coming by, and he and Daan quickly jumped on. I motored right past the train at the front, knowing that I just needed to hold them there until the bottleneck. It worked perfectly, and I slid out of the way just before the turn to give them a clean line, and left them to it. Both had a great ride, finishing 3rd and 7th on the stage. 

Unfortunately we lost Loh to a bizarre crash late in the stage. He fractured his sternum (?!) and still managed to finish the stage.

The theme of the following stages: conflict.

We had 3rd place on GC. From the time that the break was established at km20, we were set up as a team behind Movistar. Rightfully, Katusha could have been there but they showed no interest. We rode there undisturbed for 30km. Then, randomly, 2 lower level teams with no results warranting such behavior, came up to push us off the wheel and promptly freaked out when we pushed back.

For 3 days we endured much finger-wagging, fervent gesturing, and childish temper tantrums as we spent most of the stages in constant conflict with these teams. They really did not like us! I was beginning to call Lawson and Tom Professor Chaos and General Disorder, as they proved quite adept at antagonizing the others. It was unnecessary stress, but also time-killing entertainment:

-Lawson gently winning the fight over a wheel, so the other guy swapped positions with his bigger teammate to fight for him. Are we in the WWF now, tagging in teammates?
-A smaller rider in a super-tuck at the incredible speed of 40kph thinking that he could push Tom off the wheel. He was unsuccessful and quite upset. There was much shouting.
-The argument that “We can share this space! Why won’t you share?” being used against us. We tried it later, and it turns out that this sharing is not bi-directional.
-Lawson attempting to “share the space”…one of the opposing teammates rode up the right side of the field, past Movistar, across to the other side of the road, then dropped back so that he could pinch Lawson off from the other side. It was awesome.
-Lawson finding himself completely surrounded, in the bubble of the other team.
-Lawson’s peace offering of a half-finished Coke to said team being rejected outright.

In the sprints, even with our smaller squad of 6, we did well. Steven and Thomas took 2nd and 3rd on the second stage. We weren’t quite able to get past the IAM train before a crucial turn, but we came close to the win. I managed to coast in for 12th place after finishing my leadout.

On the Queen stage, I again spent a good deal of energy keeping Daan out of the wind and at the front, then let him go when the field exploded. He had a good ride to land in 10th place on GC.

On stage 4, we were in for a real bike race. Lawson and I were both trying hard for the break and burned some matches in the process. I was away for a while in a group, and Lawson countered when we were caught, but it was the next one that got clear. It looked like we were in for another boring ride to the finish, but then Astana took over on the next climb and proceeded to toss a bomb into the field. Boom!

They stayed on the gas over the final climb, too, and by the time we were over the top, the field size was halved. I was suffering to make the front group, but I managed it. It was supposed to hurt anyways, right?
It was looking like a reduced field sprint, so as the kilometers passed by we organized our leadout. A series of turns separated me and Thomas from Daan and Lawson, and with 1.5km to go we were still about 10 riders back. I panicked and burned my match too early to get Thomas to the front, forcing him to fight on his own for the last K. In hindsight, I wish I had waited another 250-300m before making my move. A little patience would have gone a long way in that finish, but as it was, Thomas finished 6th. Live and learn, I guess.

Finally, the TT! The field was not very heavy with TT specialists, so Lawson and I stood a really good chance of taking the stage. I knew it was a perfect opportunity. I managed two practice laps of the course, but wasn’t able to really practice two of the more technical turns because the course wasn’t closed to traffic at the time.

The course was rolling upwards for the first half, and mostly false-flat downhill to the finish, so I pushed the pace on the way out, knowing that that’s where the most time would be made up. Since I wasn’t working with my best legs, I knew that technically I had to have a perfect race. I stayed in the aero bars through all 6 big roundabouts on course, not willing to waste a single second on needless drag.

I had been steadily gaining on my minute-man the whole race, but as we neared the finish I was trying desperately to catch him before the last 2 turns. The last 150m of the course were very narrow and twisty and it would be impossible to make a pass there. I almost made it, too, but not quite. Instead, I rolled up on him 5kph faster and had to scrub speed because we couldn’t take the turns two-wide. By my estimation, I lost between 1 and 2 seconds there. I would miss the stage win by 3 seconds, finishing in a season-best 4th.

For once, my effort was actually televised (there was nobody important on the course at the same time) and I can go back and critique my effort. I got everything out of my legs, but I think I could cut out those 3 seconds with some small changes to my pacing and better technique with my head. I spent the whole race looking up or looking down, never spending any time in my intermediate head position (the one where I can see about 30m ahead). I also could have taken those two technical turns a tiny bit faster, if I’d been able to take them hot in practice.

All that put together, I’d have a stage win. But that’s how it goes…woulda, coulda, shoulda. I’ll just have to win one of the Vuelta TT’s, I guess.

To cap off a solid week, Daan had a really good ride to jump up to 8th in GC. In all, it was a pretty successful week for us!

You can find the videos of the stages here, but here's the video of the TT. I first appear around 3 minutes in, #44.


Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Dichotomy of Emotions

I’m going to race the Vuelta! And my Dad’s cancer has returned. Unsure whether to congratulate or console me? The same thoughts are racing laps in my own head.

Today, the team announced our Vuelta a Espana roster, and I’m on it! Ever since it was mentioned as a distant possibility last fall, I have been hard at work and full of hope. With my directors’ and coach’s carefully constructed racing and training schedule, I’ve been pushed past my limits multiple times this year. Just before the fatigue became too much, I was given rest. As a result, I’ve experienced what I feel to be a huge improvement already this year in my ability to handle longer races at a higher caliber.

Earlier this year, I had my doubts about my ability to handle a 3-week race. I was absolutely ruined by the end of Catalunya, my first WorldTour race, and it was only 8 days. The thought of 2 more weeks was staggering. But then I recovered and got stronger throughout a tough block of California, Belgium, and Dauphine, and my chances started looking better.

And what do you know, I’m going to the Vuelta! The thought of venturing so far into the unknown is daunting, but I’m excited and ready to suffer. I’m so grateful for my team’s willingness to give me so many opportunities for development in just my first year at this level. Just last year I was racing local events around the US, and now I’m going to start a Grand-freaking-Tour! 4 years ago, when I went all-in as a bike racer, I could not have imagined reaching this point so soon. Talk about riding on cloud 9….

Now, then, about the title of this blog post: all is not well in my world. Just a short month after my realization that I was taking my dad’s health for granted, we learned that it’s back.

This news came at the same time I got the nod to race one my sport’s pinnacle events.

That’s not a rollercoaster of emotions, that’s a brain-boggling explosion.

My family has been here before—twice, in fact—and we know the battle that lies ahead. This time around, though, the best course of treatment is uncertain. We are relying heavily on faith, family, and friends to make sense of it all and move forward. The most difficult part for me is the literal ocean between us at the moment, as I would really just love to give him a hug.

I’ve kept the news mostly quiet until now, as I needed time to process it all first. Cancer and Vuelta in the same thought cycle is like asking a simple handheld calculator to solve complex differential equations: it’s just going to sit there and think for a very long time before it can make sense of it all (sorry for the engineer’s metaphor). I’ve finally come out on the other side of it.

One thing I can say: the cancer’s return has reminded me of why I’m here in the first place and motivated me that much more to be the best bike racer I can possibly be. Now I get to take this motivation to the biggest stage. Bring on the Vuelta!

Thursday, August 7, 2014


After nearly 3 weeks of relaxing, it was time to get back to work. I’d taken a total of 10 days completely off the bike, and had 9 days of very easy riding. Then I had a week to ease back into training before I headed off to training camp. That was partly why I stayed in Europe during my break. I wanted to save my airline miles for another trip to Mexico this fall, but staying over here meant that I could go to the training camp and have company. It would be a big block of training either way, but at this point in the season my motivation to do intervals by myself is always lacking. A training camp would be just the boost I needed.

As my rest period had been a week longer than I’ve taken in the past, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I really started riding again. After one 3 hour ride I was starting to reach for the panic button. It had been a hot day and my legs were destroyed that evening, nearly cramping up. Thankfully they started to come around with a few more rides.

By that time, I was headed to the French Alps for three weeks. Our camp was 7 riders and a handful of staff—trainer, soigneur, and mechanic. We’d be staying in an apartment at a ski resort, in charge of our own meals. The apartment was at 2100m (7000’), so we definitely noticed the altitude for the first week there. It was the first altitude camp for some of the guys, but I’ve gone back and forth from altitude so many times over the last few years that it’s mundane for me now.

We eased into training for the first week, and then things really got cranked up. We were near several big climbs of 1200m elevation gain, but sometimes we would do time trial or team time trial work down in the valley. It was my first time to do TTT work with 7 riders…every additional rider makes the technical aspect of the TTT that much more important. The more familiar I get with the event, the more respect I have for it and those who can do it well. To have that many guys riding that close to each other at 55kph, each of them more than a half-second from their brakes…not for the faint of heart.

Once I acclimated to the altitude, my endurance quickly returned. At the end of one block, I did a 6.5hr ride with three big climbs, climbing easy at 280w all day to hit my second 5000kJ day of the year. In the final week, we started getting some intensity again to make the transition back to racing a bit easier. Part of this transition was to try out the team’s new slush puppie (ICEE for my American readers) protocol for hot time trials. In combination with the ice vest, the slush in our stomach can keep us cooler for longer and improve our performance. The test was to see if our stomachs got along with ice during a hard effort—best not to try for the first time in a race!
Snack time!
We suffered through erratic weather just as our teammates racing Le Tour did. Some days were incredibly beautiful, and others were downright gross with rain. We lucked out in that we were only rained on while training a couple of times—most of the time the roads were just wet from overnight rains. We got a lot of practice descending in the wet, and thankfully we were on race tires!

Every ride started off with a 22km descent (and every ride ended with a 22km climb…), so by the end of camp we had it completely memorized and were consistently reaching the bottom in the dry at 23 minutes. Over the three weeks, we did the descent in the wet and dry on both road AND TT bikes. I’m certainly a bit more familiar with descending on my Trinity now!

Off the bikes, we enjoyed ourselves pretty well. The hotel had a sauna and swimming pool that we’d visit on recovery days, as well as a small gym that we’d use for core strengthening. We’d finish our ride every day in time to see the last hour of the tour stage—all of us screaming as Marcel surged past Kristoff on the Champs Elysees.
We visited the glacier atop the mountain on a rest day...
...and the euros seized the opportunity to do some sunbathing

We rotated cooking duties in pairs each night. Cooking for 10-12 was difficult at times, but we managed well and every meal was very good. We enjoyed a great BBQ one night with a fantastic view and ate out a few times, including our Raclette meal on the last night. That meal was a shock—people say Americans have to have cheese on everything….
a BBQ with a view
By the time camp was wrapped up, we’d covered 1800km in nearly 70 hours of riding with 36000m of elevation gain. Basically, we climbing from sea level to the top of Mount Everest 4 times. A lot of climbing!
And just like that, camp was over and we were off to our next races.

For me that would be the Classica San Sebastian, a race that I really knew nothing about beforehand. It would be a tough re-introduction to racing at the very least, as the race was WorldTour, and 220km with 6 climbs. I was there in a support role and to get some racing back in my legs.

The whole day, my legs never felt great. I just felt like I was missing that top 5-10% that comes through racing, and the data confirms it. I was on the survival plan in the hopes that I could contribute to our protected riders on the later climbs, but didn’t last long enough. On the fourth climb of the day I slipped off immediately when the road turned up. I was in the cars for a while but was a couple minutes behind over the top. Deciding to get the most out of the race, I shifted into training mode.

As it turned out, the Caja Rural rider who had been off the front all day collecting KOM points was off the back, and I linked up with 4 of them riding a TTT to get him to the finish inside the time cut. So actually, I did get to ride the whole race hard! Some guys in the grupetto complained, but hey, you can drop off anytime you want. There’s no stage 2, may as well get everything out of it that you can! On the flat sections, I’d sit just a little bit further into the wind. Then we reached the final climb, which couldn’t be taken easily anyways. A kilometer of the climb was at 20%, which really hurts after 210km! Including the neutral section, my day ended at 4950kJ…so close! I’m not very pleased at the state of my top end right now, but I trust that it will bounce back just as my endurance did. No need to panic yet! Even though I wasn’t really able to participate in the race, it was an awesome day on the bike.

Now I have another week of training back in Lucca before the Vuelta a Burgos, with my eyes firmly locked on selection for THE Vuelta. Let’s do this!