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.