Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Me and My Knee

After I crashed at the Tour de Suisse, the team ordered me to take a week off the bike. Although I knew I needed the rest, for some reason when you’re forced to do it, it feels like work. Maybe because I worried about the knee—which I’d smacked hard—constantly.

When I decided to start racing again back in the fall of 2006, even as an amateur, one of the things I worried most about was keeping my knees healthy. With the workload that I knew I was going to need to get back to anything resembling race fitness, I wondered not if but when would I start having knee problems. For some reason, the problems never came. (I’m convinced that one of the reasons is because pedal technology has come a long way since I was last doing big miles, in the ’90s, and because I started using Speedplay pedals for the first time. They just work for me, and it’s the one brand of equipment I’d really have a hard time changing.)

Now, here I was not riding—and filling all that free time by thinking about my knees. For me, the pain was a continual reminder not only that somethat was wrong with my body, but that I didn’t know if I’d ever get it back to the way it was before the wreck. For the first five nights I kept getting woken up by the pain everytime I turned at all. During the days, if I’d sit or lay down for some relief, the pain was repay me by becoming almost unbearable when I got up. Finally I decided to just get on my bike and at least ride down to the bar in Lecchi, a solid 4 km from my house. My knee felt better on the bike than it did at any other time, so I took that as a sign that I was doing the right thing.

I decided to start training. Actually, it was more like I just started riding again: I was looking forward to a week of pedaling along without having to worry about doing intervals, without staring at a power meter. I live in one of the most beautiful areas in the world. You know those postcards of Tuscany? That’s my view. But for some reason, I pretty much stick to different variations of about 3 rides. And each of those rides starts with a stop at Paolo’s bar in Lecchi for an espresso, and a climb up to the Badia a Coltibuono, where my wife and I were married six years ago. It makes me feel closer to her when we’re an ocean apart. (The climb, not the coffee.)

I planned to use my free week to ride some new roads and explore the area a little more. But it didn’t work out that way. The first ride back was not very much fun. My legs were stiff, and whatever little power they had wasn’t much. My heart rate was also about 20 beats higher than normal, and I realized that even in a week you can lose a lot of fitness. Actually, I think it was less the knees than the combination of the little breaks I’ve been taking since the beginning of May that were finally catching up to me. Or at least that’s what I was telling myself as I slowly made my way up the climb to the Badia, praying that no other riders came by me. I guess I just felt more comfortable staying on roads I knew. After about five days, things started coming back to normal. My power wasn’t great, but it was good enough that I was even starting to think I might recuperate in time for the national championship in Portugal. But four hours of serious riding set me straight: I was toast. The knee was improving each day, but I was nowhere near ready to race.

I’m finally ready to start structured training again. My first test will be some SFRs (low-RPM, high-resistance training on a hill), which will show me how the knee really feels. I go to Basel for a power test after that, then off to Livigno in the northern part of Italy for 3 weeks at altitude before the Tour of Poland and the second half of my season.

Monday, June 21, 2010

An Unforgettable day

I had just gotten back from a four-hour ride where I had felt pretty good when I got the call that told me I was racing the Tour of Switzerland.

I was excited. Thor was going to be there and we hadn’t raced together yet. That was good. Andreas Klier was on the roster, too; the last time I raced with him was in 1992 at a junior race in Holland. I got a top ten. He won. Like Inigo Cuesta, Andreas is one of those pros who has been around so long that he can tell you what’s going to happen in a race before it actually happens. In the Classics he is irreplaceable. (Have a look at these episodes of Cervelo’s Beyond the Peloton to see what I mean.)

It was also the last race before the Tour de France, and everybody on this team except me would be going to the Tour, so it was important. That was good, too.

But the Tour of Switzerland is mountainous, and that was bad. I haven’t exactly been climbing well. I decided to consider this a test of character.

The Prologue wasn’t an easy one. It was just over 7k and it had a 2.5 km climb and a 2.5 km technical descent. I’m no prologue specialist, but I can hack 7k no problem. Prologues are usually decided by seconds, and if you are really going for it then the warmup and review of the course is critical. It’s about saving half a second here and half a second there. You often see guys out on the course riding and re-riding particular turns looking for the best line through it, the one where they can carry the most speed—and that usually means how fast can you get through the corner without crashing. You think of the gearing, and where to stand up and where to sit, where can you catch your breath for a few seconds, and where you have to give it 100% to pick up time. For me it wasn’t like that. I did the course a few times to warm up and did one dangerous turn on the downhill just to make sure I didn’t overcook it. I was going to ride the prologue all-out, but I wasn’t going to be taking any chances on the dangerous descent. (And just on that descent I probably lost 10-20 seconds. My time was about 1:35 second slower than the winner, Fabian Cancellara, and good enough for 145th place. I joked that I’d cracked the top 150.)

Stage 1 from Ascona to Sierre was 167k, with one Category 1 climb over the Simplon pass at 2005 meters, and a Category 3 climb just before the finish. Just before the start, I found a shady spot under a tree and sat down. Thor was talking to Tom Boonen and fellow Norgewian and super nice guy Kurt-Asle Aversen. All around there were small groups of racers catching up with each other. Out of nowhere, a spectator walked up to me and asked me to sign a cap. “I’ve been looking for you all morning,” he said.

“Are you sure you have the right guy?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said. “You’re Portugese, and I am Portugese.”

Ah. Switzerland is full of Portuguese people. If you walk into a hotel, there is a good chance that the hotel is full of Portuguese people doing the service jobs. I even ask for things in Portuguese since the likelihood of the person being Portuguese is fairly high.

A break got away and stuck quickly, so the pace was brisk but not chaotic, and I was feeling good. It rained, and I made my way back to the car to grab my new Castelli Gore-Tex rain jersey (one of those articles of clothing that just makes you go “wow), and got on the radio to see if anyone else wanted anything. I ended up carrying a cap, another jacket and some bottles back up to the pack. I was next to one of my Spanish teammates, Xavier Florencio, when the road starting going up. The Cat 1 climb, I knew was 20k long. I found a rhythm and stayed next to Xavier and we rode up and up and up.

I knew we’d gone at least 10k, and was feeling good about reaching the top with the group when the radio told us that the climb was about to start—20k to the top, I heard.

“What was that we just did?” I thought.

It was getting colder and colder as we went up. About halfway up, I started to go a little backwards and as I passed Thor he looked at me and said, “If you lose my wheel I will smash you.” I took his wheel and found an extra gear.

With about 5k to go Andreas, came up to Thor and said, “Let’s move up.” On a small false flat section when everybody kept the same rhythm, Andreas moved us up to the very front in a way that only a guy with that experience can do. He just knew the right spot to go past 50 guys without really making much of an effort. We’d been climbing for an hour. About 3k from the top, I lost contact with the front group and found myself in a group with about 10 riders. I wasn’t worried. I’d heard that Cavendish had been dropped earlier, so I knew his guys would wait for him and, if worse came to worst, I could hitch a ride back on his train.

We crested the top of the climb about 15 seconds behind the main group and went hard on the descent. (Later, I would look at my computer and see a top speed of 120k per hour.) It was cold and the roads were wet. I was gaining slowly on the front group, and as long as I was there by the bottom I’d be fine. Just as I was catching them at the bottom, my back wheel started going out on a slippery roundabout, and as I put my left foot down I kept going into a complete 180 and rear-ended the crowd. Nobody was hurt, and I just remounted and gave chase. The pace was fast. The pack was stretched out, and I made my way up through the cars. As I passed ours, I took off the rain jacket and threw it to the mechanic in the back seat, then went to the drivers window and loaded up with bottles. I rode into the group and passed the bottles to my teammates, working my way up until I found Philip Deignan. We were moving around 65k per hour and I was feeling good.

Then all of a sudden I got a cramp on the inside of my quads. I couldn’t pedal. I had to swing right to let the rider behind me by. In about 60 seconds I went from being in a good position, flying in the peloton, to back in the cars. There was about 40k of racing left, and I stayed in the cars until the base of the last climb, with 20k to go. All I could do was ride my own tempo. About 1k from the top I could see that the gruppetto had formed and they were about a minute ahead.

One more time, I found myself chasing hard on the downhill.

Coming around a right-hand bend, I saw a Rabobank car and an ambulance stopped in front of me. (Apparently one of the Rabobank riders had gone down hard.) I locked up the brakes, hit the Rabobank car then careened straight into the back of the ambulance in a sideways slide. A stretcher was sticking halfway out of the ambulance, and I hit it dead on, just below my knee. As soon as I hit, I thought I’d broken something for sure. I remember being on the ground, moaning and saying, “Give me my bike. Give me my bike.” I wanted to make the time cut. The first person to get to me was my old doctor Dion Van Bommell who is now a doctor for Rabobank. It was odd to look up and see his face after nearly 20 years.

When Jean Paul, my team director, got there he told me to take it easy. “You have plenty of time,” he said. I could stand up so I knew my leg wasn’t broken, but I was barely able to get on my bike and had an even harder time clipping in. I started riding toward the finish, and I started to weep. Every time I tried to push the pedals hard, a pain shot from the side of my leg to my quad.

About 5k from the line, Jean-Paul pulled alongside me and said, “You want to hear some good news?” My first thought was, “What could possibly be good news now?”

“Heino won,” Jean-Paul said. Heinrich Haussler, my teammate, had won the stage, and I did, after all, smile. Somehow that made the pain bearable.

As I was finally about to finish, a guy crossed the street in front of me. “How about a little respect,” I thought. I could see him looking at me. I looked at him. It was my godson’s father. Another Portugese living in Switzerland. That was good for a few pedal strokes, too.

Our team doctor, Lorenz, drove me to the local hospital. There were a few crashes that day, and in the lobby there was another rider bloodied waiting for care. As I was waiting for my turn, an ambulance driver asked my doctor if I was number 72. I was.

“He scratched back of my ambulance on impact,” the driver said. “Does he have insurance to pay for it?”

That pretty much summed up my Tour of Switzerland. I couldn’t start the next day, and also lost my chance to compete in the Portugese National Championships, which were just two weeks ago. But I left with all of these crazy, funny, unforgettable memories that somehow make it all worthwhile. I think.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Decisions of the heart

After leaving the Tour of California early, I was pretty fried. I don’t think anybody likes to quit, regardless of the reasons, but it was extra hard for me because one of my goals for the year had been to finish every race I entered.

Obviously, I’m working on some new goals now.

I’m also trying to fix whatever it was that was broken in California. I called my nutritionist and asked what else we could be doing: Okay, I said, let’s try this whole gluten-free thing and see where it goes. I feel confident that my training is pretty dialed in, but when Philippe told me to rest, I said, “I’ve been resting. Let’s try working even harder.” Philippe mentioned that he’d rather not kill me, but I told him not to worry about it. To offset the higher workloads, I resolved to start sleeping more, and making sure I took a nap every afternoon.

And I topped off my new start by staying home for a week before going back to Europe; taking my son to school in the morning was the kind of simple joy that lays a foundation strong enough to withstand anything.

I followed my heart in another important way, too: I moved my European training home to Italy.

I’ve been living in the south of France. It’s a great place for cyclists since the weather is great and there are plenty of riders around, good roads and lots of mountains. But my heart has always been in Tuscany. I’ve been coming to the area around Siena since I was in college back in 1998, and I love it so much I got married there. Earlier this year, when my wife asked where we should go on vacation I said, “What about Chianti?” She replied that we go there every year, and suggested Turkey. “How about Chianti?” I said. She mentioned Japan. “Fine,” I said, “Let’s compromise: We’ll go to the Tuscan coast instead.” It’s that kind of love. So I decided to move here, to a little town called Galenda.

I packed the car and drove to a house I rented. I was sad to leave friends like Thor and Richie Porte, but they understood why I was leaving. Thor even said he knew I needed to be around my olive trees—I bring a bottle of olive oil from Castello di Ama to every race I do and those guys devour it. Last time I also brought Tuscan honey from Montalcino and Parmigianno Regiano. (And the mechanics and soigneurs have at some point gotten either a bottle of Chianti or a bottle of Oline Oil.)

The riding is fantastic if you like going up and down. There are not really many flat roads in Chianti. My new schedule is up at 8:30, a little core work, some oatmeal preparation (which is now truly gluten-free Bob’s Red Mill). At 10 or 11 I get on the bike and head down the hill to Paolo’s in Lecchi for a cup of coffee, hen I’m off on my ride. I like to start with the climb up to the Badia a Coltibuono, where Tiiu and I were married, then from there it’s various combinations of loops. Some of the towns that I’ll hit include Radda in Chianti, Lucareli, Panzano, Castellina in Chianti, San Donato, Siena, Castelnuovo Beradenga and Gaiole in Chianti.

I felt like I was living the dream again. My plan was to refocus and re-energize by riding like this for awhile, without any racing. I was doing some pretty good rides, starting to feel good again. Then one day after getting back from a long ride I had a message from my sports director, Jean Paul Van Poppel—look him up he’s won 20 Grand Tour stages.

His message was short: Do you like Switzerland?

I knew what that meant: I was living the dream, but I also still had a job to do, and the team needed me at the Tour of Switzerland. It was time to find out how far my heart could carry me. As it turns out, a crash would keep from the finding the answer—but that’s a story for the next time.