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.