Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Here we go. One week and its on

In a little over a week I am going to put on my Cervelo Test Team kit and start my first professional race in Europe, Etoile de Besseges. Just weeks ago I was a businessman running a sales meeting in New York City.

Weird? It’s beyond that. When you achieve your life’s dream, your life feels like a dream. You keep waiting to wake up.

When I started my job as Bicycling’s associate publisher in 2004, I had already spent years selling Italian fashion accounts for Esquire, and with my enthusiastic embrace of the wining-and-dining lifestyle I’d ballooned to 205 pounds. As a kid, I had qualified for the junior world championships, and I had raced in Europe into my twenties. Now, I was getting dropped on the lunch ride in Emmaus. In my Bicycling-branded spandex, I looked like somebody’s idea of a prank. In 2006, I decided I’d had enough. I set myself the audacious goal of competing in the time-trial national championship of my native country, Portugal, without being embarrassed. I’d already been riding more on my own and had dropped to about 185 pounds, but I began working with the respected cycling physiologist Dr. Massimo Testa, and also enlisted a nutritionist. I finished twelfth in the TT in 2007. I kept riding — though now I thought of it as training — and the next year I was offered a chance to join the domestic American race team Bissell Pro Cycling. Late last year, the founder of the Cervelo team, Gerard Vroomen, asked me if I wanted to ride for him.

So 14 years after I stopped racing, and 60 pounds lighter than my peak weight, I find myself on the same team as 2008 Tour de France winner Carlos Sastre, two-time TdF green-jersey winner Thor Hushovd and TdF, Vuelta Espana and Paris-Nice stage winner Heinrich Haussler. I can’t adequately explain how odd it is to up-end your life the way I have, or how it feels to take the risk of leaving the solid career I’d built for the uncertain life of being a neo-pro at an age when many around me are considering retirement.

Most days, I meet my new teammates Hushovd and Gabriel Rasch at 9:30 (usually 9:40 since I still haven’t mastered the art of being prepared, and always run late) at the Planet café in Monaco and we ride for three to six hours. Monaco is an interesting place, since a little more than 20 riders live there and probably another 20 live within 20 miles. In addition to Thor and Gaba, any morning might see the Planet Café hosting Philippe Gilbert, Filipo Pozzato, Stuart O’Grady. I even had a Vinokourov spotting. He was riding the opposite way and I waved at him. He waved back, and I thought, “Look at that–Vino is waving.” One of the things that always bothered me about riding in New York City was that hardly anyone waved.

Before the chaos of the season begins–which is going to require me to be away from home for about 260 days out of the year–I got away for two weeks to spend time with my wife, Tiiu, and my two children, Liam and Anna, in Italy’s Chianti hills, where Tiiu and I were married. But even there I had to train. My longest ride was six hours, and it felt like three to me. It’s amazing how different training feels when all you do is ride and rest, instead of cramming workouts around office hours.

I just finished the team’s two-week training camp in the South of Portugal. I showed up sick, but I was the new guy and didn’t want to seem soft so I went out and rode like everybody else. On a five-hour ride I made until about 20k to go to the hotel. I got dropped on a small rise and told the team I was just going to take my time getting back. That was a long hour into headwinds and rain. It’s hard to be believe how much of your life you can second-guess in an hour. But after a few days of easy rides I was keeping up with the team and felt myself getting stronger. After each day I’d get a massage from Tex, one of our Spanish masseuses, and he’d always say “You’re getting better, I can feel it in your muscles. You’re recovering really well.”

Last year I tried hard to schedule time so that I could watch races such as the Dauphine Libere on TV. This year, I’m on the roster to ride it. Maybe sometime between now and then I’ll be able to make a little more sense when I talk about what’s happened–but for now I’m just going to enjoy the crazy ride.