Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Winding down

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

An American in Europe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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