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.