Friday, February 12, 2010

First Race Etoile de Besseges in the bag

I was so relaxed before the start of my first race as a pro for the Cervelo Test Team that I was actually worried that I wasn’t nervous enough. I wondered if I wasn’t taking my new career — and the whole upending of my life — serious enough. Lucky for me, once I got on the team bus to head to Etoile de Besseges, the five-day French stage race that more or less kicks off the European season, I got so jittery I couldn’t stop going to the bathroom and at one point thought I was going to throw up.

Things just have a way of working out.

Once the race started, though, all the jitters were quickly gone. In the first 10-kilometer loop, the racing was hectic and fast. One thing I noticed right away is that everybody rides really, really close together. In the United States, guys seem to give each other a lot of space, and you generally get the feeling that if you bump into somebody there’s going to be a crash. Over here, it’s all packed in tightly, and when you bump into somebody you just get a quick “Salut.”

Once we got out of the small lap that started the race, the pack got settled fairly quickly — especially once the break got away. I was actually at the front and saw the two guys rolling away, and thought, “There goes the break.” But my orders for the race were to lay low and not waste any energy. As a pro, you can’t really do what you want at a race. With the break established, the speed slowed so much that at times I thought I’d had faster days at the Gimbel’s Ride, a weekend training throwdown back home in New York City. But I also knew that, here, the pace could go ballistic at any point.

It did — when the pack started setting up for the sprint finish. At first, I tried to get up there to help the team a little bit, but in the last few kilometers I pulled off into the back to avoid any crashes. (One of my teammates, Daniel Lloyd, wasn’t as lucky and ended up crashing inside the K-to-go sign. Even though he head-butted a tree, he was able to finish the stage and keep doing the race.)

Stage 2 was a road race that finished with seven laps of a circuit, and I ended up finishing in the pack again — but it was a whole different experience. We averaged nearly 30 mph for the first hour, until the break got away and the race settled in. Stage 3 looked fairly flat in the race bible, but it was up and down for most of the day. The speed was high again from the beginning, so I was happy to pass the first KOM — King of the Mountain sign — in the first group. Then, after all that hard work and smart riding, I lost them on the descent.

The downhill wasn’t even technical, but going really fast into a righthand corner I touched my brakes, lost four bike lengths, then just couldn’t reconnect. Luckily, there were 30 riders behind me and once we all came together, the peloton regrouped about 20k later. Over here, even on the flats, if the speed is high when you go into a corner and you’re at the back, you have to do an all-out sprint just to stay on the wheel of the guy in front of you. I mean, all-out. It was from one of these that my legs gave in with 50k to go in stage three. I rolled in with a group of five riders, and we ended up losing about 15 minutes to the stage winner. It’s not as bad as it sounds: Once you’re off, the smart thing is not trying to catch a group or reduce the time gap by a lot, but to just finish inside the time limit (so you don’t get kicked out of the race) while using as little energy as possible.

The queen stage was Stage Four. It had two Category 1 climbs and a few uncategorized climbs that seemed harder than any of the Cat 2 ascents we had earlier in the week. I stayed near the front until the Cat 1, which came only 45k of racing into a 140k stage. I was feeling fairly comfortable until Pierrick Federigo (who rides for Bbox Bouygues Telecom) attacked. The field stretched out. I wasn’t the first to come off, but it felt just as lonely after all the team cars passed me and I was riding in no-man’s land. I caught up to the second peloton — the big group trailing the lead pack — near the top of the second Cat 1, and my reward was getting to roll in with a group that included 2006 Tour de France winner Oscar Pereiro.

The last stage again started with a climb, this time a Cat 3. I knew it was going to hurt. But I made it over that climb with the group, then the next one, and all the rest. I should have been more worn out, but I had more snap than the previous days. In the final seven laps of the closing circuit, the crazy speeds and singled-out lines didn’t bother me as much as before. So the last surprise of this first race was a good one: Sometimes if you hang in there, something happens to your legs and you feel better. This is a strange way to make a living.