Monday, November 15, 2010

As Hard as I Could

I wasn’t a great rider. I never made an actual break, even though I covered many. Over the course of the year I went back to the car for countless numbers of bottles, rode at the front for more miles than I can remember. What I can recall: almost every time I got dropped and rode through the cars—I used to joke that sooner or later the organizers were going to have to assign me a caravan number, and I can still remember the license plate of Michel Cornelisse Vacansoleil Blue Volvo, since he saved my ass so many times over the year.

I don’t offer this summary for pity. I say it because it’s the truth. Before I left my job as the Associate Publisher of Bicycling last year, I was the man. Everybody knew me, and when important, high-level stuff needed to get done I was the guy who got it done. One of the things that appealed to me about becoming a bike racer for the Cervelo TestTeam was the anonymity. I wanted a chance to be the guy who did whatever job he was asked to do then disappeared from everyone’s thoughts once the really good guys took over. There were people who didn’t understand what I was doing—who seemed to act as if what I’d achieved was an insult. And my story—working stiff gets second shot at his dream of racing pro—got enough attention in the cycling and mainstream media that I wasn’t quite anonymous. But I was close enough, especially in among the other riders, and the moments I enjoyed the most were when my legs were empty and I was rolling backwards after working hard for the team and came in with the last group. I have so many great memories from the season that posting any sort of comprehensive recap is impossible. I went through so much. In the first stage of my first race, I remember looking at the two guys who jumped away just 10k into that stage and thinking, “That’s the break.” Little did I know that was going to be the best chance I’d ever have to get into an actual move. I was right there, but I was under strict orders not to cover anything, to just make it through the race. Nobody knew if I could even finish one. I did. I dropped out of a lot, too. And I crashed—once into an ambulance. One of the toughest days for me was in the Tour of Poland, when I got dropped in Stage 6, just one from the end. My daughter had come to see me race, and the day she got there I didn’t finish.

People often ask what it’s like to get dropped. For me, for most of the year, it was just like your body shut down. It was usually in sections where things weren’t going hard. The race would be steady, but your body just couldn’t go deep enough anymore. It was like that in Poland that day. The race wasn’t on at that moment. But the legs stopped producing power. If you’re going up-hill at that moment, you’re gone.

I look back and think about my teammates a lot. Throughout the year I brought bottles up, and throughout the year I had bottles brought to me. Guys like Heinrich Haussler woul go back and bring bottles for the team. You didn’t see that many places. That camaraderie is what I miss the most. I did a lot of races with Inigo Cuesta, Joaquin Novoa, Oscar Pujol, Ted King, Marcel Wyss, Theo Bos, Stefan Denifl and Davide Appolonio. Joaquin, Oscar and I spent a lot of time at the front working for Theo. And Theo won. I also rode in races with Carlos Sastre, Xavier Tondo, Thor Hurshovd, Andreas Klier, Brett Lancaster, Jeremy Hunt and Roger Hammond—the stars of the team, and they were all studs on the bike and great guys off it. I know people want to hear the bad stuff, but I’ve got none. I wonder about the staff, about Tex who rubbed my legs so much in the early season I’d fall asleep in the massage table, about Christian and Marc who did the same throughout the year, Yvonne and Sander who would bring me Hagel Slagt from Holland so I wouldn’t steal it from the Rabobank food box anymore, Marc our French mechanic who put up with all my jokes about him being French. These were people who rose early and went to bed late and in the middle managed to smile most of the time.

This sounds dark, but the moments that will stick with me until I die are the countless little moments of pure, simple happiness on the road -- the times when I was pedaling and pedaling and pedaling just like in the dream we all have, the start of my day’s at Paolo’s coffee shop in Lecchi in Chianti and the countless hours of solitary riding in those beautiful roads. I don’t feel like I can announce my retirement, because I don’t think I really had a career. I had a great experience, and was part of a great team. When it got hard I did it for my team. But I also got my inspiration from the people who were following me. I was the guy in the office who one day found himself in Europe. I was living your dream, and I was afraid of letting you down. So I rode as hard as I could and as long as I could. You deserved that.