Thursday, April 15, 2010

A Tough Week at Work

I’m a little self-conscious about complaining too much, since I’m living the dream of many cyclists, so I realize that saying I’m tired can easily come across as seeming whiny. But I am.

I have more than 20 days of racing already this year, and although my body has been recuperating better than I expected, my mind might be starting to crack. I was able to finish my first stage race, the Etoile de Besseges, this past February in France because my will was unshakable. My body was okay for that race, but it was my head that got me through. In contrast, at my last race, the GP Pino Cerami in Belgium, my body was as good as it’s been since I’ve arrived in Europe. But my head wasn’t.

Transitioning from stage races in southern Europe to the one-day races of Northern Europe is never easy under any circumstance. The style of racing is completely different and the roads are usually tiny. In Spain, for example, the biggest obstacle is usually the mountains; in the one-day races of northern Europe, the tough spots are most often the small roads, steep climbs, crosswinds and crashes. Add to that my current mental state, and it’s no surprise that my week of one-day races in Holland, Germany and Belgium started off poorly.

I’m not doing the big races that are household names, like the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix or Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Instead, I had the Hel Van Het Mergelland, Rund Um Koln and GP Pino Cerami. There are usually a few big teams at these races, but mostly it is small continental pro teams. But what some of the small teams lack in depth, they make up for in aggressiveness and hunger. It’s as close to hand-to-hand combat as I’ve seen in races so far this year.

My first one-day race of the week was Holland’s Hel Van Het Mergelland, a hilly, 200-kilometer circuit race. It’s the mini Amstel Gold Race, and was important to me because I spent a few years racing in Holland during my first stab at cycling, and I still have many friends there. We started in drizzle, and the pack was fast and nervous. It was going to be an up-and-down, crosswindy day, so getting to the front was important. But from the beginning, I was having a hard time moving up. I felt like my legs had cement in them. When I wasn’t able to move up on the flat section, I figured I’d do it on the first climb. But as soon as we hit the climb I felt terrible — worse than I had all year, and not only could I not go advance, but I was going backwards really fast. Soon I was dropped—in the first 15k. As our team car passed me, Alex, our sports director, asked what was wrong. I shrugged because, to be honest, I was as confused as anybody. All I knew for sure was that I was in a world of pain, going as hard as I could but my race was ending no matter what I did. I hit the next climb on my way back toward the start/finish in the little ring, and I started to do that thing all riders do when they’re feeling bad, imagining that I was getting a flat, that my brakes were rubbing, that my cranks were coming off. I looked down at my rear wheel, and it was rubbing.

Somehow, I hadn’t even noticed. All those times I’d been fatigued in races and blamed the bike, and this time I was blaming myself and it was the bike. Far from making me feel better, this made me feel worse. I’d done nearly one complete lap without bothering to look down. It was a stupid mistake. I failed to finish for the first time because of a mental breakdown.

After a recovery day, I went to Germany for the Rund um Kohln in Cologne. This is the oldest race in Germany, and has live national television from the beginning to the end. Although the course has a few hills, it was most likely come down to a sprint. So our strategy was to cover early moves if there were more than 5 riders, then work for our sprinter, Davide Appolonio, in the finishing circuits. Determined to make up for my last race, from the start I stayed at the front ready to cover moves. The break of the day got away within the first 10k, with one of my teammates, Oscar Pujol, in it. (He’d go on to win the Mountains Classification for the day.) With Oscar in the break, the rest of us basically had the day off and could wait until the finishing circuits to work hard. I felt good.

I’m one of those riders who, before a race, says a little prayer. I don’t ask for a victory, since it seems to me not only a little trivial, but as if I imagine God for some reason likes me more than the other competitors and wants me to win. Usually I just say, “Please let me finish this race safely and not crash.” My prayer wasn’t answered.

As we were going through the feed zone after 120k, I grabbed my feed-bag like I’ve done all year and threw it over my shoulder. Feed zones are usually fairly hectic and dangerous. Guys are diving to get their bags, then once they get them are trying to get out of the way. Sometimes the pace is slow, but other times it’s 50-kilometer-plus, or times when you grab the bag, throw it over your back then ride with it for another 20k before you can eat anything because the speed is so high. At Koln, the speed was so high the pack was stretched out. I was in the first 50 riders—normally out of harm’s way. I grabbed the bag, threw it over my back and with my right hand on the drop I took a bottle out with my left. I put the bottle in the cage and started digging in the bag for food when the rider in front of me swerved to avoid a bottle someone had dropped. I rode over the bottle and in the next instant was on the ground. Most of the time when you hit a bottle, they open and it’s no big deal. This one didn’t, and, I’m telling you, it was as I’d ridden into a brick head-on.

As soon as I hit the ground, I got up and was knocked back down by somebody’s hand banging off my helmet. I must have been getting up in somebody’s way (there were about 130 guys behind me) and one of the riders put a fist out to keep me away, and it felt like I’d been punched in the head. The blow spun me around and sent me back down, where I stayed for about 20 seconds. As soon as most of the pack had passed me, I got up, grabbed my bike and turned it around to get back to the race. My chain was off. I was a little disoriented and couldn’t manage to get it back on. By now, Sander, our mechanic, was there and he put the chain on. As he was handing me the bike, I told him to check my wheels, check my wheels. “We’ll do it in the car,” he said.

I was confused by that, too, but I got on the bike like you’re supposed to and headed off again. I could see a few groups up ahead and started to chase them. Just as I was getting up to full speed, I saw Sander on my left, half-hanging out of the car saying, “Let me check your wheels.” He grabbed onto my seat post and Jens, our sports director, hit the gas. I don’t know how fast we were going but it was fast.

Once the wheels were “checked,” I was on my own. The caravan had broken apart, so I couldn’t draft any vehicles, but the adrenaline from the crash was working in my favor and I passed a few small groups and rejoined the back of the peloton at the bottom of the next climb — just as the leaders splintered the group. I couldn’t make it over the top with the front, and the group I was in chased hard for the next 20k hard to no avail. After 100 miles I was toast. When I got back to the finishing circuits, my day was done. Second race that I didn’t finish.

After Cologne, I went back to the team’s Classics base in Melle. I was supposed to do the Schlederprijs in Belgium, but I was taken off the roster. The next race, the next day, was the GP Pino Cerami in Belgium. I was a little sore from the crash but something besides that had me feeling off. It was cold and threatening to rain, and I was lining up for yet another semi-flat race, and maybe I was feeling like I didn’t want to crash again. The race started, and I tried to cover some early moves, but there wasn’t going to be an early move. Everything was getting shut down. My legs were good—I was pedaling effortlessly and didn’t feel any stress until the first cobbled climb, after 90k or so. That one just beat the crap out of me. I’m sure there are ways to ride the cobbles, and the next time I’m riding with Thor or Roger Hammond I promise to try and pick up some tips, but in meantime, man, I was sucking wind.

The race broke into a few groups and I ended up in the second one. We got back on, then we hit crosswinds and I was out of position — in the gutter slugging it out. Gaps were opening and I was managing to come around and stay in there. The chaos stopped, and I knew I had to eat something. I remember it was a waffle with Nutella in it, and I remember it so well because I had the waffle halfway in my mouth when crosswind started and it stayed there a few kilometers, then was stuck in my throat for another 5k. The field was thinning and few times I got dropped then found a second wind to come back, but eventually I paid for all the efforts, and entering the final circuit I was gone for good. Third race that I didn’t finish.

I know I’m still living a dream, and that even in a dream there are going to be days, even bad weeks. I know I am lucky and I am thankful. I have the Vuelta Castilla y Leon up next, and I’m going into it trying to think the best. I mean, it wasn’t a totally horrible week: A few days before my bad stretch started, I’d somehow lost one of my gloves — the right one. Then, when I crashed in Cologne, guess which glove got ruined as I slid across the asphalt: My left. So I was able to combine the two surviving gloves into a proper pair.

It all works out in the end.