Sunday, May 23, 2010


Stage 4 of the Tour of California taught me something important about the difference between the other racers in the pack and me: I have to be absolutely on my A game to be part of the action; they can fake it—find a way to hang in there when they’re feeling bad.

This shouldn’t have been a surprise, because it makes sense. I’m not exactly coming off the couch—I was at a level that let me race domestically in the United States last year and in the Portugese national time trial championships—but I don’t have the continuous years and years of racing in my legs that these guys do. Some of them have a 10-year base to rely on when things get tough. Some of them have more. I’m basically relying on the racing I’ve done this year in Europe, which is enough when I’m physically sharp and mentally focused.

But it’s not enough on days like today. Unlike when I had to abandon the race at the Tour of Romandie, I didn’t run out of power today or completely fall apart. I just didn’t have what I needed to stay in contact with the group when I ran low. I’m lighter than I was last year at this time, and I have much more power, and more miles in my legs and, thanks to the staff and my teammates on Cervelo TestTeam, a level of support I couldn’t even dream of before I joined the squad. But even so, I still don’t have that reserve the other pros can find.

In a way, it’s good that I’m struggling, because now I understand what I need to do to keep the dream alive: Recalibrate my way of thinking, so that I forget about all the gains I’ve made and start over as if I’m at square one. I need to build from where I am now, not from where I was. That means altitude training, probably in Boulder, a harder look at my diet, and more focus on my core. (Now that I’m doing so much racing I can feel the wear and tear on my hips and lower back; sometimes it feels like I’m locked down.)

Someone asked me if I was thinking of quitting, if I’m discouraged, if i ever think of just going home. But this isn’t a time of retreat. It’s more like a rebirth. For the first time since I started this lifestyle, I can see truly clearly where I need to be—and where I am. Quit?

No way, man. That doesn’t make any sense: I just got a re-start.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Goals and Gruppetos

When a teammate wins a stage or a jersey—or does both, like Brett Lancaster did for Cervelo TestTeam Monday during Stage 2 of the Tour of California—there’s always a bonus to go along with the feelings of accomplishment and satisfaction the whole team experiences: We know that the next day we’ll be riding with a definite and important purpose.

Maybe it’s just my status as a new member of the peloton, but I always find the racing better when I have a goal for the day. On Monday, for instance, my job was to stay with our top sprinter, Theo Bos, the whole day. Wherever he went, I was with him. On the climbs, I stayed with him, and when we came off on a climb I stayed with him and worked until we got back on the descents. That’s how the day went for us: Off on the climbs, back on the descents. Finally, when we got to the climbs of Oakville Grade and Trinity, the pack split apart for good and we were in the gruppetto—the group that bands together just to make sure we all get to the end within the time cut.

It was a big gruppetto, maybe 40 guys, and we ended up coming in around 17 minutes behind Brett. Technically, I think we were even past the time cut—the official gap you’re allowed before getting kicked out of the race. It’s calculated as a set percentage of the winner’s time. At the Tour of the California, the cuts seem small to me, like 7 percent instead of the 10-15 percent you usually get. But the cut can be adjusted if the group is simply too big. And with that many guys, and riders such as Tom Boonen and Mark Cavendish in the gruppetto, we knew we were probably safe.

I was looking around the gruppetto today and thinking: I’m always there. At most races, my job is to cover the early breaks or do the early work, or do something like stay with Theo, so late in the race I end up in the gruppetto. Everyone else seems to rotate in and out. I’m like the only permanent resident in a vacation town. I don’t think I’ve ever been in the gruppetto with Boonen before—and it was only because he went down really hard yesterday—but it was . . . it was sort of awesome.

Tomorrow will be interesting because—I’m guessing—I’ll spend most of my time at the front covering breaks until one that’s acceptable gets away, then I’ll be setting tempo to try to help the team defend Brett’s jersey. I mean, I love my gruppetto, but I love having something that makes it all worthwhile even more.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Crowds and Crashes

During Stage 1 of the Tour of California, the first thing that struck all of us on the Cervelo Test Team was the crowds. There were an unbelievable amount of people on the course, thousands and thousands all along the road—not just the start and finish, which were packed, but basically the whole way there were fans. I’d say there were probably more people lining the roads today than any other race I’ve done in Europe outside of Germany. It was impressive to see the turnout, and it’s fun to race in front of huge crowds.

We expected a field sprint, so the team’s plan was to work for Theo Bos, our sprinter, the whole day. My job again was to cover the early moves, along with Oscar Pujol. Basically, he and I had to cover every move, especially if one of the teams with a dangerous sprinter got a teammate in it. I jumped with some, Oscar did the same, but nothing stuck. Finally, a good break got away that Cervelo and the other sprinters’ teams were happy to let go. Columbia-HTC controlled the field from then on with a steady tempo. I went to the front and did some work, and Oscar helped, and by the end the pack had shut the break down and we were all ready to work for our sprinters.

Unfortunately, the finish was marred by some crashes, and Theo got caught behind one. Columbia had their good leadout going and launched Cavendish to the win. They’ve done this a lot, and they had the finish under control, but after all our hard work, Oscar and I would have loved to do what we could to give Theo a shot at the line.

It was a shame to see the finish get so dangerous, especially since the course wasn’t at fault. The crash that happened in front of Theo occurred on a straightaway. The problem was that in a race like this that mixes some of the biggest and best teams with some smaller ones, everyone on the smaller teams is desperate to win. There was one team in particular—not a domestic American team, by the way—that was taking unnecessary chances and taking a lot of risks that aren’t professional. Among the European teams, everybody respects everybody else’s work in terms of what we all need to do; we all understand that the other guys are just trying to get their sprinter into the line—but you don’t try to break into somebody else’s leadout, you don’t take risks that are going to cause a crash. We’re respectful of the fact that the other guy is just trying to do his job, the same way we are. We all do our jobs and the fastest, smartest guy wins, most often.

Some of the big riders, the big names, are unhappy with the behavior of that team, and my understanding is that tomorrow the team is going to get a talking-to from some of the more senior guys in the peloton. Hopefully, they’ll understand we all just want to do our best to get back to work tomorrow and every day after. We all want to get to Los Angeles.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Waking Up

You leave stage races fairly exhausted, and you begin preparing for another one right afterward, so the riding you do in between is fairly easy. But it didn’t feel that way to me after Castilla y Leon.

The normal schedule after a stage race is that after traveling home, on Monday I do a coffee-shop ride. That’s an hour and a half, and the whole time I wonder how it was possible that I rode so fast just the day before. Normally on every little climb my legs ache and I’ll look at my riding buddy (usually Richie Porte from Saxo Bank or Tim Gudsell from La Francaise de Jeux) and say something like, “Man this is really bad today.” They’re usually in the same situation, so we go out 45 minutes then stop for coffee (for about an hour), then ride back, another 45 minutes. We are constantly getting passed by other riders. Tuesday is off, preferably with a massage. Wednesday depends on how I feel; if I’m recuperated, I’ll go out for two to three hours with some light intervals, and if I’m not then it’s another easy spin. Thursday is a long ride of four to five hours with an hour of motorpacing at the end. Two days before a race, it’s two hours easy, and the day before it’s two hours with some openers.

After Castilla y Leon, I might have gone a little too hard on the long ride, because the day after I had serious bonking issues on my easy two-hour spin. I got to a point where I was so empty that I had to go into a coffee shop for a Coke and an espresso and some chocolate. It got me home.

When I got to Switzerland for the Tour of Romandie I noticed I was a little more tired from traveling than normal, but I shrugged it off. Romandie is a Pro Tour race, so the competition is high. Some of the best riders in the world were there and some were using it to fine-tune their legs for the upcoming Giro d’Italia. The course is mountainous—I think the flat day had 7,000 feet of climbing or something ridiculous. The first day was a short, flat Prologue, and I thought I’d ride it all-out to open up my legs for the race. Once I looked at my power numbers from the ride, I noticed that I had only done about 400 watts for a little over five minutes. That’s not terrible for a rider my weight, but it isn’t what I’d expect from an all-out effort.

The following day included two Category 1 climbs and a Category 3 climb, for about 11,000 feet or so. Normally when the gun goes off, there is a flurry of attacks until a breakaway sticks. This time, we rolled out for a few miles at 15 mph and everybody had a chance to catch up. A few of the Spanish riders from Euskaltel and Caise d’ Epargne come up to me and said they saw an interview I’d done in a Spanish magazine and thought my story was cool. That was nice. After about 10 miles three guys jumped away and that was the break of the day. Once the break had seven minutes Columbia went to the front and set tempo for the rest of the stage and I passed the day in fairly good spirits—except the 63-mph downhills.

Stage 2 was semi-flat—the one with 7,000 feet of climbing. Along with Oscar Pujol, I was told to try to cover early moves. The stage started fast, but nothing abnormal, and though I tried as best as I could to get to the front I just didn’t have the power to get up there. A break got away and the race settled into a nice tempo, and I remember thinking to myself I should eat. It was a hot day and I was trying to drink a lot as well. After about 80k, I just fell apart.

The pace wasn’t very high as we started on some slight ups and downs—not even really climbs—and suddenly I couldn’t follow even the slow rhythm of the pack. In situations like that you try to find everything that will help you to keep going. You tell yourself a lot of things. A few that crossed my mind were "Don’t feel sorry for yourself and push harder, it will pass," which was good for perhaps 5k, and "Do it for your teammates, you need to be there for Apolonio on the cobbled climb—pre-stage strategy—after that you can let go," and that one gave me strength to move forward and take Marcel with me.

One that threw me into a panic, and wasn’t very helpful, was, “Christ, what will all the people that follow you think?" I also tried, "Don’t let go or you’ll be in the cars seeing people you know, doing the walk of shame". I looked at the words on my shorts, especially “Sacrifice,” but nothing was helping anymore.

I started coming off. I remember the moment exactly because Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d’ Epagne) was talking to Sergio Paulinho (RadioShack) and fans were yelling Philippe Gilbert’s (Lotto) name, which made Gert Stegemans (RadioShack) start to make fun of him. I heard all that and I thought, "We’re not even going hard," as I was rolling off the back. I fought back on a few descents, but finally on a climb I came off for good.

I faded through the cars with my head hung low. Marcelo, our sports director, offered me a gel but we both knew a gel wasn’t going to help. A few directors offered encouragement as they passed, which almost made me feel worse since at this pace nobody gets dropped. Jose Azevedo, a former racer who is now a director at RadioShack , slowed when he came by and spoke to me a bit, telling me it happens to the best of them and to everybody.

I kept thinking about not being there when I needed to be there for my teammates, about having to walk into the room that night as the guy who dropped out, about not being able to look the mechanics in the eye.

As I rolled off the back of the caravan, Phillipe, our second director, stayed with me until I entered the circuit, where I would pass the finish with 50k still left to go out and do. I was already 10 minutes back and knew I wouldn’t make the time cut, so I just quit.

That night, I kept my spirits high in front of the guys since nobody wants to be around a teammate who’s feeling sorry for himself. I had a good talk with Marcelo and Philippe. Their support and words that night were irreplaceable. They knew what was happening, that it really does happen to everybody, and that there was no way I could simply push through it. After nearly 30 days of racing, my body was just too tired. Philippe ordered me to take five days completely off the bike to rest, and to not be hard on myself.

I took the five days off, and I tried not to be hard on myself. I got to surprise my wife and son by coming home to New York three days early (before the Tour of California). I was able to be the parent who gets my son out the door in the morning and off to school. Now at the Tour of California I’ll find out if Philippe and Marcelo were right. And I’ll find out if the dream is still alive.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Champagne and Suffering

After the northern races that gave me such a hard time, I was glad to be getting back to Spain for the stage race Vuelta Castilla y Leon. Our team was built around sprinter Theo Bos, who already has three wins this season. We were hoping to get him some more stage victories.

The race starts on a Wednesday and finishes on a Sunday, with four road stages and a time trial. For me, that would mean four days of racing and in the TT a medium effort that would cut back on the exertion while being just enough to ensure I’d make the time cut. (That’s the slowest time you can ride without getting kicked out of the race; it’s set at a percentage of the winner’s time.)
The first two stages were fairly flat. The first day had a Category 2 climb, but the real danger was in the wind since it could split the peloton at any moment. For us, it was a matter of bringing Theo to the line in the best possible position to dispute the sprint. As usual, a break got away early, and the pack was content to let them escape for now. Once we got over the Category 1 climb, Cervelo stayed close to the front whenever it looked like the crosswind could play a role; a few times the group split, only to regroup later, and we were doing our job. About 50k from the finish, Cervelo had to go to the front and start working to bring the breakaway back—or else Theo would never get a chance to do his job. The task was granted to me, Ignatas Konovolovas and Joquin Novoa. My legs weren’t super. After a bit of work on the front, we hit a small hill and I started to go backwards. From then on the race didn’t really stop, and when a crosswind split the group with about 20k to go I was in a small group off the back: My day was done. Theo ended up winning the sprint, and because this was the first stage he also donned the leader’s jersey. It was nice to sip some champagne that night.

The second stage was the longest of the race at 210k. It was another flat stage, with just a 3rd category climb, so the likelihood of a field sprint was high so we would have been one of the active teams anyway. But with the leaders jersey in our hands, the responsibility of controlling the race was ours. The beginning of stages are generally very fast until the break gets established. This one was, like usual, nonstop attacks with the field stretched out for miles on end. The fact that it was raining and cold didn’t help, but knowing that we were working the front for a teammate in the leader’s jersey made everything easier. A break finally stuck after 25k of racing, and at 45k it had a 7-minute gap so the three of us hit the front again and brought the gap down to 5 minutes then just kept it there. At this point we were taking roughly five-minute pulls, and after a bit Oscar Pujol came up to rotate with us as Ignatas was told to rest. The weather became better and better, and the day felt as if it were passing surprisingly quickly. It’s amazing what a difference it makes to have a teammate in the mix. After about 100k, Astana put one rider in the front to help us (they were there to help Contador win the overall). After about 160k I was cooked. From there on, I was just sitting at the back and thinking about getting to the end saving as much energy as possible. But with about 15k to go, I was out the back in the crosswinds. Teddy King and Stefan Denifl shouldered the last of the heavy lifting for Theo, and he made a clean dash for the line after a perfect lead-out by Stefan to win the second stage. More champagne.
Stage 3 was the big mountain day. I was tired. With two Category 1 climbs and a Cat 3 it was going to be challenging. The last climb was the Category 1 up to Alto del Morredero, which is a 20k-climb that finished above 1,700 meters. The team had two goals: get to the bottom of the first climb with Theo in the group, and make sure Stefan, one of our climbers, didn’t spend too much energy until the last ascent. Teddy and Inigo Cuesta took care of Stefan, and the rest of us were assigned to Theo. The stage started out fast: in the first 90 minutes we averaged 54 kph. Four of us crested the first Category 1 climb with Theo and another 10 riders, and came back to the main group just before the Category 3 climb, where we again came off the back together and chased until about with 25k to go to the final climb, we rejoined. It’s a living, man.

As soon as we hit the Cat 1 climb, the gruppeto formed—the pack of those just trying to survive, like me—and in 20k we lost close to 35 minutes to the winner. We managed to finish inside the time cut. (Though, with the big group we had, of about 40 riders, there’s a chance the organizers will extend the cut to avoid losing so much of the field). The climb was made even harder by freezing rain, and because we could see most of the climb from miles out. But it was a good day for the team. We all got to the end. Theo lost the leader’s jersey, but retained the points jersey. Stefan did an amazing climb and finished in the top 10. I’d say a top 10 in a Grand Tour is in this young mans near future.

Stage four was the time trial, and for a rider like me it can also be like a day off or a recovery day. You can get up late because the stage start is well into the afternoon. And I knew that all I had to do was make the time cut — I wouldn’t have to chase breaks or control the front. I could peg my heart rate at 160-165 and put it on autopilot. The surprising thing is, in a stage race that still feels hard no matter how easy you try to go. I got caught by my minute man—the racer who’d started 60 seconds behind me—but it didn’t matter: I did my job. I was rested enough that when the last stage came the next day, a long and brutally hard one at 171k, I was able to ride it out to the end. I’d finished another stage race, helped Theo to two stage wins and the points jersey, and Stefan into the top 10 on the GC. Along with Inigo Cuesta, I’ve been part of five of the six wins the team had to that point on the year. Not bad for two old guys, and a lot of solace for seeing your name so far down in the GC every time.
After the race, it turned out that while we’d been immersed in our suffering there had a volcano eruption somewhere in Iceland. None of us could get flights home. It’s always amazing to me how little of the real world penetrates a stage race while it’s going. Life doesn’t really exist for us outside of sleep, eat, race, recover. (I also happened to miss the whole Tiger Woods thing by about a week.) I heard that Geert Steegmans from RadioShack had a car and was going my way, so I tried to bum a ride, but my sell wasn’t very compelling: “Hey Gert you don’t know me but any chance I can get a ride with you back to Monaco?” He said he’d get back to me. As it turns out his car was full with other riders trying to get home as well.

Still, it was a great race.