Sunday, September 14, 2014

THE Vuelta Stage 21: Done. And. Dusted!

Just a short report today, for a short stage.

We got a lap of the course in this morning. Once again, the course profile was incredibly misleading. If they tried to present that profile to an engineering professor, they’d be very disappointed in their grade. Scale, scale, scale!

What looked like a fairly flat course was actually either up or down with very little flat in between. What was obvious, though, is that the possibility of rain would seriously affect the outcome on the technical course.

Warming up for TT’s is the most bizarre part of bike racing for me. The best part of riding bikes is actually moving, so I naturally hate trainers. But there I am, pedaling and going nowhere. While I’m coming to terms with the necessity of this misery, there are complete strangers just arm’s length away looking at me and taking pictures like I’m a zoo animal, and all I can do is just pretend that they aren’t there.

After 3 weeks of racing, I don’t have much left in me, so I certainly didn’t want to leave my best effort on the trainer. I opted for a longer, easier warmup instead.

All was good until I got to the start house and it started to rain. I immediately reached over and lowered my tire pressure. On that course, it was impossible for a wet time to come close to the top of the leaderboard, but I gave it my best try anyways.

I didn’t take crazy risks, but I definitely pushed the tires at times. I wanted to have a more steady effort, but with the rain, I was just sprinting from corner to corner. By the time I was through the corner, I was recovered and ready to sprint again.

In the end, I finished 1’04” down on the winning time. I actually had a really good ride with good power numbers, and I’m pleased with my ride technically. Among everybody who raced in the rain, I finished quite near the top, so I can’t be too disappointed.  I did everything under my control perfectly, but there’s nothing I could do about the weather. Oh well!

But then Wawa had the ride he needed to hold on to 8th on GC, and John won the points competition! 4 wins, a top-10 on GC, and the Green Jersey?! I’m scared that the bar has been set unreasonably high for all future Grand Tours!

And just like that, it’s over. It’s going to feel really weird for the next few days, I think, as I adjust to life outside of this bike race again. Nothing important has happened while I’ve been away, right?

Saturday, September 13, 2014

THE Vuelta Stage 20:Dark places

Our mood before the start was very good. It was the last road stage, the weather was nice, John had a good lead in the points competition, and Warren was 8th on GC.

The problem with mind trickery, such as convincing yourself that you’ve made it to the end, is that eventually you are faced with 185km of racing before it becomes true.

The stage started with 20km of descending, with some short little kickers thrown in. The descents were narrow and technical, and bumpy. I was mid-pack when I threw my chain coming out of the corner. I had a 32t cassette today, which requires a long-cage derailleur, which can be quite bouncy in the smaller cogs. All that is to say that, when I was in the 11t through the corner and hit a bump just right, off it went. I tried for a while to gently get the chain back on, but it just wouldn’t go, so I had to stop and put it on by hand.

I chased back through the caravan (but didn’t have the presence of mind to turn the camera on) on the tricky descent. When I got back, I saw that the field had split into multiple groups, and Warren was in the last one with me. So I worked my way up to the front and started chasing with Tobias and Nikias. 

We got Warren back to the main field just in time for it to split again. This time, at least, he was ahead of it. I wasn’t so lucky, though, and my group didn’t regain the main field until the bottom of an uncategorized climb of 10km at 5%. I had spent the whole race chasing, and the attacks were still going.

When I ended up in the cars just 35km in the race on such a hard stage, I started to freak out. I was panicking that I would end up by myself all day and miss time cut. I thought about the consolation that everyone would give me about all the success that the team has had and the part I played in it, and that just sent me further into the dark places of my mind. I thought about how I wanted to finish the Vuelta for my dad and everybody who’s helped me get this far, and the fear of failing sent me further into the spiral. I knew that the break would go eventually and the field would take it easy and I could make it back, but rationality in such a situation on stage 20 is hard to come by. Thankfully my directors were there to calm me down. It also helped that there were 20 other guys in the cars suffering just as badly.

Sure enough, that’s exactly what happened, and I enjoyed the hour of relaxed pace to recover and eat. I learned that I didn’t have it so bad, as Warren was really suffering from mounting knee pain—a lingering side effect of his crashes. My mood was really boosted when Larry Warbasse said that my legs, in his opinion, show the most improvement in muscle definition out of the whole Vuelta peloton. That meant that I have any muscle definition at all, which sent me over the moon.

Thankfully the pace over the next two climbs was hard, but manageable. My legs were tired but I was feeling better, and every kilometer spent with the main field meant that the risk of missing time cut was further reduced.

My mental trick today was as follows: 80km to go, that’s just 50 miles! Look at that, 30 fewer already just by converting the units! With my SRM display showing the kilometers ticking by, but thinking of remaining distance in miles, my end-of-the-grand-tour mind had a firm grasp on any straws it could reach. Just get me to the finish!

I managed to reach the bottom of the penultimate climb with the field and happily sang ‘grupetto’ as the fast dudes took off. Time-cut estimates were about 40-45 minutes, so when we reached the top of the climb just 10 minutes behind, things were looking good.

The last climb was brutal for about 5 kilometers in the middle, but we reached the top with 10 minutes to spare. I spent half of the final climb swatting off spectators who forgot the number one rule of spectating: don’t touch the bike racers. Guys are welcome to ask for a push if they want (although they could be penalized for it), but I want to reach the finish line under my own power. So keep your hands off!

Warren not only battled his demons, he beat them into submission to finish 6th on the stage. I’m so impressed with his Vuelta so far!

Now, it doesn’t require any mind tricks: there is only one stage left. It’s a short and technical TT, and it’s what I’ve had my sights set on for 3 weeks now . The chance of rain should keep it interesting.

20 down, ONETOGOONETOGOONETOGO! (You’re supposed to read that in Dave Towle’s fanatical end-of-crit voice.)

Also, seeing as the time trial isn’t until tomorrow evening and will be immediately followed by post-race festivities and travel, it may be a day or so before I post again. Just be forewarned!

Friday, September 12, 2014

THE Vuelta Stage 19: Mind games

Racing for such a long time does weird things to your body. My legs are still good, but I just feel kind of exhausted in general. I’ve been sleeping really hard the last few nights. So hard that when my bladder wakes me up in the middle of the night, I walk into walls because I’m so out of it. Part of that is due to the countless times we’ve changed hotels. If only hotels would adopt a universal floor plan…but then I guess that may be too much like prison.

The fatigue has carried over into my willingness to sign autographs. If somebody comes up to me when I’m not moving, sure, I’ll sign, but you have zero chance of getting me to stop once I’m rolling to/from sign-in. Every time we’re ambushed for autographs at the hotel elevators, or the walk to/from the bus, or at breakfast, I die a little inside. All I want is to not think about bike racing, and here’s some stranger that thinks I’m important because I can pedal a bike well. This daily blog is the only race-related activity that I actually like to do each day (aside from the race) because the positive responses it gets are good for my state of mind. Thus concludes my antisocial paragraph.

Sitting on the start line each day is the toughest point of the day mentally. Once the race has started, you just focus on the task at hand. But sitting there, just waiting for the suffering to come, that’s miserable. Today’s mental battle on the start line was tougher than normal because it’s not the last road stage, but the next to last. We’re almost almost there. So I did some fuzzy math to trick myself (insert Aggie joke here). Basically, the last stage is a TT, which barely counts. Tomorrow will be tough, but today? Well, it’s already today. You can’t include today’s stage in the count (nevermind that it hasn’t started yet), so really there’s just one stage left. I can do one more stage!

Today’s stage was a perfect one for the breakaway, but it was also another perfect opportunity to get another win for John—and equally importantly, more green jersey points over Valverde. The course profile was tough, with two cat 2 climbs, the second topping out just 15km from the finish. For us to have our way, it would require another full-team effort from start to finish.

Even though there are only 7 of us now, we rode like there were a dozen Giant-Shimano riders in the field. We had to break the spirit of the attackers. Even though it was hard, our constant presence at the front showed that we were willing to keep the fight going as long as necessary until the reshuffling dealt us a hand that we liked. Soon they weren’t even attacking at 100% because they didn’t want to waste energy. Slowly, fewer and fewer riders were attacking, until finally 3 riders slipped away and we shut the field down for good.
Then the Ramon show started. I helped him a bit today, but he took on 80% of the workload, nearly shutting down the break single-handedly.

You now things are going pretty well when your biggest complaint is the complete failure of your usually-trustworthy weather site. Even after it failed me yesterday (I looked like a hobo, wearing my rain socks as my tanlines were being sharpened, the forecast rain nowhere to be seen), I trusted its forecast for sunny skies today. I was dressed in blazing white, my socks brand new and my kit with only one rest day ride under its belt. So when it started to rain, I was quite upset. Oh well….

The fuzzy math continued well into the stage: 180k total, and we’ve done 60…I’m working to chase the break until the base of the final climb at 160…the descent of the first climb is 15k…so really there’s only 85km left! See what I did there?

With 40km remaining before the final climb, Orica sent two riders to help me and Ramon. We were chasing hard, but it was obvious that the break was lacking motivation, legs, or both, as the gap started to tumble quickly. With 5km to the base, our job was done as the GC teams took over to begin the fight for position for the narrow climb. The break was caught before the climb.

John suffered up the climb—even earning himself a ‘chapeau’ from Contador—and came down the other side with a few teammates to finish the chase. Then, the only wrinkle in the day’s plan: a 500m wall through a little town with 5k to go that we had no idea about (it didn’t show up on the course profile). It shed Nikias, who had just finished a pull, and allowed an opportunity for Adam Hansen to jump away. Once he had the gap, the course favored a committed solo rider—twisting, mostly downhill, and tailwind.

In the end, John won the field sprint for 2nd, just 5 seconds behind Hansen. As much as we wanted the win, the green jersey points were arguably more important.  Now, Valverde has to podium both of the last two stages just to match John’s total.

Now there’s just one stage left between me and the time trial. So basically I’m already there.
19 down, 2 to go!

Thursday, September 11, 2014

THE Vuelta Stage 18: Another one down

At the start line today, there were a lot of spectators (as always). I was particularly impressed/annoyed by the two guys screaming chants about Movistar for 10 minutes. They were really passionate, but for some reason the Movistar riders seemed to pay them no attention. I would come to learn later that they were chanting hateful things and death threats. Pretty ballsy with all those police officers there….

The general consensus is that today’s start was the hardest fight for the break so far. Even if you had no interest in the break, you were still in for 80 minutes of suffering on the same twisting and rolling terrain from yesterday. I was focused on floating around in the bubble, just behind the attacking riders, to save as much energy as possible. My legs weren’t destroyed from yesterday—they actually felt alright—but I didn’t want to waste them needlessly.

At long last, a trio of riders got away after a 10 minute uncategorized climb that knocked the field down to 50 riders. We caught our breath for just a few minutes before Movistar strung the field out again. They never let the break get very far, and it wasn’t long before we were on the finishing climb for the first time.

The profile showed the climb as a steady 7% grade, when in fact it was very pitchy the whole way up. I hate that (‘that’ being both pitchy climbs and profiles with a deceptive smoothing factor). I was dangling just behind the lead group of 40 riders for most of the climb, hoping that it would flatten out and I could help Warren leading into the final climb. But nope, I just ended up in a group of riders that had been dropped halfway up the climb, riding easily to the finish.

Warren is up to 8th on GC now, but John’s lead in the points competition took a big hit when Valverde finished 3rd on the stage. It’s not over yet, though! Unfortunately, Koen had to abandon today—his body is too busy fighting an infected saddle sore to send any power to his legs.

You can really tell now that the whole peloton is tired. We’re going just as fast, but our faces show much more agony. The peloton that started at 198 riders is now down to just 164. We’re as tired mentally as physically, but the good news is:

18 down, 3 to go!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

THE Vuelta Stage 17: going all-in for number 4

At first glance, this stage looked to be a straightforward sprint stage. But look a little closer and you’d realize that it would be tough for us. We have the most dominant sprinter in the race, while other key sprinters have dropped out. If we wanted a sprint, it would be up to us to control it. Of the remaining stages, there are limited opportunities for breakaways (depending on how the GC riders play the uphill finish stages), so they'd probably be gunning hard for this one. The course for the stage also presented a challenge: it was along the coast the whole day. Winds can shift constantly, and the roads are always rolling and twisting. It could make for a very hard day. The last time I chased a breakaway on coastal roads (California), the break managed to stay away….

But we did want a sprint, and that meant that our work started from kilometer 0. There was likely to be a big fight for the break, but we had to shut it down, probably alone. We had to assert ourselves and make sure that the break was manageable, and let me tell you, we asserted ourselves all over the place.

The fight went on for 20km, and we had all hands on deck to shut the moves down when they got too big. In that time, I could tell that I had again responded very well to the rest day. My legs felt awesome, and I was excited to put them to use.

As we went through a town, a small group was off the front. We all rushed to the front and clogged up the works immediately while we still had narrow roads. It worked, and the break of 5 was established.

A short aside: I’ve always thought the team’s superstition about how the salt should be passed at meals was silly, but I respect it to be a good sport. Well, last night Warren was reckless with the salt at dinner. After he stopped to pee today, he crashed into a car in the caravan. He’s alright, but I think he’ll be a bit more careful at the table in the future….

We started riding tempo immediately so the gap wouldn’t go too far, allowing it to slowly grow to 3 minutes. For over 70km Tobias and I took 10k pulls at a good tempo, keeping the gap at 3 minutes. Orica and Omega had promised to contribute to the chase after 100km.

It’s a funny game, the give-and-take between the break and the chasers. They ride hard enough to increase the time gap, testing to see how far we’ll let them go. We adjust our pace behind when the gap reaches our desired maximum, then both of us ease up a bit while still holding the same gap. We want them going hard enough to at least get a little tired, but not hard enough to wear ourselves out. Then later on, we start ramping up the pace to bring them back. So they ramp up their pace to hold us off. So we keep going harder until the gap starts to fall. Or in today’s case, we add more riders to the chase when we can’t go harder.

The break today was really strong, I’ll give them that much. After the feed zone, we started trying to pull them back. It was me, Tobias, Johannes, and a rider each from Orica and OPQS. We were going hard for 40k, but all we managed to do was match the pace of the break. OPQS added more riders along with Orica, and finally the gap started to fall.

I had to take a break after 150km. I was starting to crack, already over 4000kJ. After a short recovery, I was back at the front for another 10k before I could contribute no more. The gap was slowly falling now that there were a dozen riders chasing all-in, and up ahead the break was starting to splinter.

We checked out the last 7km of the stage yesterday, and it served us well today. We had wanted to save the other guys for a proper leadout, but in the end we needed to use everybody just to bring it to a sprint, and hoped that John could finish it off. And boy howdy, John sure knows how thank us for our hard work, bringing home his 4th win at this Vuelta!

Our team had a goal today, and it required a complete team effort from start to finish. We did exactly what we wanted and needed to do, and the goal was accomplished. I’m so happy, it almost makes my legs not hurt!

Today was another 5000kJ day for me, setting new power records (for the second time in a week!) of 3.5-4.5 hours. That makes my legs hurt.

17 down, 4 to go!

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

THE Vuelta Rest Day 2: Entering the home stretch

You know a race is long if it has the ability to reconfigure your body clock. I’m now going to bed around 11:30 each night and waking up between 8 and 8:30. I’d say that maybe I’m not such an old man after all, but I’m writing this fresh off a much-needed nap, so that argument doesn’t hold much water.

Speaking of water, our hotel for today and tomorrow has a beach-view, which is nice. And a beach smell, which can be nice if the wind is blowing in the right direction.

This rest day was desperately needed. It’s nice to break the routine and just have a day of laying around, but our minds are so deep into the stage race vortex that it’ll take more than one day to heal the thousand-yard stare we’ve developed. It seems like every stage was, at the same time, yesterday and a year ago. Our legs can make great use of a day “off” (only 40km ridden today!), though. The last 4 stages comprised the hardest 4-day block I’ve ever undertaken, nevermind how far into the race they were! The rest day is also greeted happily by our sit-bones and digestive systems.

Just 5 stages remain, and every day is a new adventure. I’m so far into the unknown right now that all I can do is take it one day at a time, just as I have been. I just have to remember that everybody is tired and suffering.

Yesterday also saw a pair of unusual events. The fistfight was silly, but it’s hard to have a fight and look respectable when you’re riding a bike and trying not to fall off it. There are a few hotheads in the bunch, and nerves can fray after a couple weeks of racing against the same guys who do the same stuff time and time again. It is usually only puffery, though, and serves only as material to keep us laughing when we reenact the drama at dinner.

On a saddening note, one of the Guardia Civil motorcycle officers that keeps us safe died in a crash yesterday. I don’t know the circumstances of the crash, but it’s sobering to think that someone died while we were playing bike racers. I’ve been impressed with the fleet of officers that close the roads down and give us the confidence to fly around blind turns at ridiculous speeds. They’re a crucial part of the sport, and my thoughts and prayers go out to his friends and family.

THE Vuelta Stage 16: By the skin of our teeth

Yesterday, I was expecting to spend the whole of today’s stage in the rain, so I was pleasantly surprised to see sunny blue skies at the start. The updated forecast showed that we’d at least get through the first climb dry, but rain was likely later. In the event that the race became a triathlon on the later climbs and I didn’t have access to the team car, I started with my rain vest in my pocket. Just to be safe.

The worst case scenario was realized on the first climb when the break still wasn’t established at the base. The race exploded just 10km into the stage on the first of 4 cat-1 climbs. Everyone stayed calm and just rode as hard as they could over the top, finding a group. Today was all about strength in numbers for the climbing-challenged.

The break finally got away on the other side, and the race regrouped completely. 1 climb down, just 4 to go! The pace over the cat 2 climb was quick, but manageable, and the field stayed together for that one, too.

At the base of the next climb, there were a couple of rolling kilometers before the real climb began. Our director said this would be a good time to get bottles, and I was already near the back, so I decided to go for it. We had a soigneur on top of the climb with bottles, but I was completely out and figured that my teammates could also use a fresh bottle. I loaded up with bottles and took off just as the road got steep. It didn’t take long for panic to set in, and I barely managed to get to the front to deliver the bottles (I would later learn that most of the guys didn’t need one at that point. I’ll take a poll in the future before going back on a climb for bottles!). The effort blew me up, though, and by the time I was recovered, I was in the grupetto. Our numbers swelled the further we got up the climb, and by the time we reached the next climb, we had about 50 riders.

Still no rain by this point, so that was nice! With two climbs to go, we were already 11 minutes behind the leaders. Rough time-cut estimates were about 36 minutes, so we should be okay. As long as we didn’t go too slow, that is.

Then we went really easy on the penultimate climb. I always find myself at the front of the grupetto on climbs, as I usually don’t belong there and am comfortable climbing a bit faster. Even still, I spent the whole climb thinking that we needed to go just a bit faster. You can’t ramp the pace up without being bombarded with complaints, though, so we chugged along. We got over the top 20 minutes behind the leaders, and things suddenly looked a little dangerous for us.

When Contador won the stage, we still had 11km to climb and only 35 minutes to do it. We actually had to climb quickly, but many riders were really protesting the effort. They were using some more liberal time-cut calculations (which I really don’t understand…it’s elementary math, after all) and said we had plenty of time. “They’re not going to time-cut 50 guys!” Yeah, well it’s best not to dare the officials.

We reached the top just 30 seconds before the time cut. Whew! I wish I had been in a chase group that was a bit safer, but in the end it was good that I was in the group with John, Koen, and Ramon, as I was able to do a lot of work on the flatter portions to keep us rolling. There were lots of guys that didn’t contribute at all on the flats and then did nothing but complain on the climbs, so it was good that I could help in that way.

We ended up reaching the finish just as the first drops of rain started to fall. After putting on a lot of clothes and a rain jacket, we descended back down to the bus in pouring rain. Not much could dampen my spirit, though, as I’ve reached the second rest day!

To top it off, Warren climbed up another rung on the GC ladder today. Yeah, things aren’t too bad in the Giant-Shimano camp right now!

16 down, 5 to go!