Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Tour of California

Way back at the start of the season, the Tour of California was highlighted as a target race for me. I had a great race there last year, finishing 10th on GC, and knew that I could do even better this year. But first, I had to recover from a tough block of spring races. Catalunya had put me into a bit of a hole with fatigue and I wasn’t quite out of it yet.

After Circuit de la Sarthe, I immediately flew back to the US. I would have 3 weeks to get sharp for California, and I would spend them in Colorado Springs. I spent two weeks doing endurance rides to keep my legs going—it seems counterintuitive to call 22-hour weeks ‘rest’, but I was adapting to the altitude while allowing my body to rest when it came to high-intensity efforts.

The last week before the race was a bit unnerving for me, as I was not performing to my expectations after re-introducing intensity to my training. The most crucial question of training is always whether you need more rest or more intensity. I was in frequent contact with my coach, Mattias, and we sorted it out. Sure enough, the harder I pushed, the better my body responded. I was on the way up again, which gave me the mental boost I needed in the days before the race.

My attitude was further improved when my parents came up for a week to see me and my brother. As it would be my last chance to see them until the end of the season, it was a great mental recharging for me.
The team amassed in Sacramento a few days before the race started so the Euro riders would have enough time to adjust to the west-coast clock. We spent a lot of time cruising on the bike path, and I found a bit of time each day to give my legs a small dose of pain. The weather was awesome before the race, but a bit warmer each day—a heat wave was on the way, just in time for the race.

We had a really well-rounded team for the race. I, Lawson, and Daan were GC hopefuls, aided by Thomas who could also go for stage wins in the mountains. The sprint crew was led by John with leadout men Koen and Reinardt, captained by Roy.

The plan for stage 1 was straightforward: for the GC riders to finish on same time before the stage 2 time trial, and for John to win the expected field sprint. The only complication was the strong winds making the flags stick straight out at the start. Every team knew which sections of the race loop would be crosswind—the most significant of which were the last 40km to the finishing circuits.

The race started out a bit nervous, but it was too early to try and break the race up, so the field settled down quickly once the break got away. We put Thomas in the rotation at the front so that our team had the right to the primo spots up front. This kept us in good position in the event of surprise crosswinds. Nothing significant happened until after the last KOM, when my rear tire went soft. I put my hand up and kept riding at the back until Aike arrived in the team car, so that I could get my wheel changed without dropping too far back in the caravan. With the crosswinds looming, Reinardt waited for me and paced me back up to the group, getting to the front just a minute before we were slammed with a tough crosswind.

The road had some small rolling hills. On this terrain, the field naturally stretches out over the top of the hill (and compresses at the bottom). The OP-QS timed their acceleration perfectly so that it matched up with this natural stretching, and the elastic snapped immediately in the crosswind. In just seconds a group of 15 had a gap on the field and was riding away. Koen was our only representative.

It was not a good situation, but we were not panicking. We knew that it would be a cross-tailwind for 10km, then then last 30km were dead-straight with more of a cross-headwind. So as long as we kept the group from getting too far ahead, the field could easily pull them back after the turn, and that’s exactly what happened.

To make a bad situation worse, Lawson flatted during all this chaos when the field ran over a large piece of steel rebar that had somehow eluded the race caravan. It destroyed multiple wheels and tires as it was flipped around through the pack. A pretty terrifying sound, actually! After a lot of work and a bit of motorpacing, Lawson returned to the group after things settled down.

The rebar that caused so much damage
Once the field regrouped, we just had to make sure that no dangerous breaks got away before we entered the circuit. From that point, it was a matter of assembling and positioning the leadout train for John. Lawson pulled the train into position with a lap to go, and Daan and I were floating nearby, just behind the mass of sprinters fighting for position. In the closest finish in the race’s history, John took second on the opening stage to Cavendish and all 3 of our GC riders in the top-25.

The stage 2 time trial was not the most scenic, but it was a very good course: rolling hills the whole way with multiple turns to give both headwind and tailwind going out and back. Such a combination made pacing crucial. I had ridden the course twice before and knew what it felt like to go hard on the hills, but did one lap the day of the race to know what the wind was doing and how the fencing in the turns was set up. After my recon, I knew that I could take every turn except the u-turn and the last turn in the aero bars.

It was a hot day, but the team brought along ice-vests for the warmup, which helped me a lot. I could get a good warmup in without fear of overheating. I started with an ice sock on my belly (so it wouldn’t interfere with my helmet on my back), which keeps my core cool and has the added bonus of melting onto my legs for extra cooling.

For me, the key to the race would be to slow myself down for the first few minutes—I could really lose a lot of time before the turnaround if I went out too hard.  For 3k I focused on staying aero into the headwind and taking the shortest lines through the turns, while convincing myself to be patient. From that point on, I wanted to use most of my remaining energy to get to the turnaround.

After making the turn, I did my best to recover a bit before the last hill. Once over the top, it was downhill and tailwind for the last 5k, and I just had to keep suffering until I crossed the line. I had finished in 10th with Lawson a scant 8 seconds behind, taking the best young rider jersey. Daan didn’t have the ride he wanted but had not lost too much time.

Stage 3 would finish atop Mount Diablo, and it would be a hot day. I awoke at 5:30 in urgent need of a toilet, realizing that my ‘nervous stomach’ the day before was actually something more significant. I took some medicine at breakfast to calm things down, but we’d have to wait and see. I had to really stay on top of hydration, especially with the heat. We had to say goodbye to Reinardt before the stage started, as he had to rush home for a family emergency. We’d definitely miss him, but it’s just a bike race.

The race was uncomfortable for me. My legs felt really good but my day was spent by eating and drinking, then waiting for my stomach to settle down before eating and drinking more. And when the temperature is near 100F, you really need to do a lot of drinking. Even with the discomfort, I was going through a lot of bottles so I figured that I would be alright.

Even though Diablo is a long climb with a large group surviving most of the way up, it’s still a big fight to make the turn at the bottom in the front. The field stretches out during the turns at the beginning, and starting at the front is one more match that can be saved for later. The roles were switched in the leadout for the climb, with the sprint train at the front and the climbers at the back. I have a hard time fighting for position before a sprint, but somehow I’m able to flip the switch when the fight is for a climb. John delivered us through the turn in the top 20 riders and then it was up to us.

I was feeling really comfortable for the first part of the climb, but about 15 minutes in I started to crumble in the heat. The power data shows nothing special, so I think my stomach discomfort caused me to drink a little less than needed, and even a little dehydration has a large effect on performance. I came off the back of the group and chased for another 10 minutes, and then my stomach started to cramp. At that point, I threw in the towel and just finished the climb, finishing 8 minutes back. Lawson had climbed to 4th on GC with a 3rd place finish.

I was not in a great mood that afternoon. My GC race was over, my stomach was cramping for hours after the race, making it difficult to eat and drink all that I needed to, and we didn’t get to ride down the mountain after all that hard work. I was happy for Lawson, but I would need a day to mourn the loss of my own race.
Overnight, I was able to switch gears mentally and prepare myself to be the best domestique the race has seen. I managed to eat a normal breakfast, so that was encouraging.

Stage 4 was to be the most scenic stage most have ever experienced, staying on the Pacific Coast Highway the entire day. I wasn’t sure how I was going to perform, but I felt great from KM 0. For the first 25 minutes, I was up front policing the breakaway attempts along with Omega, Sky, and Cannondale. It took a long time before we found a good combination to let go. Then I settled in for a day on the front. It was a hot day but I was able to eat and drink normally.
We got to ride across the famous Bixby Canyon Bridge

Working on the front
We gave the break a maximum gap of nearly 4 minutes and slowly reeled them back. By the bottom of the last KOM, they had a gap of 2:30. We went up it fairly quickly, then descended the other side. The moto was coming with the time board. Expecting to see 2:00, we were shocked to see 3:30 with only 30km left to race. We were already going really fast by this point, as we now had a decent tailwind. Omega immediately sent up 2 more riders and we started to chase hard. It’s just not possible to make up a lot of time on a strong breakaway in a tailwind, even when going nearly 60kph on flat ground. The kilometers were going by far too quickly for us to take back much time, and with only 15km left to race they still had over 2 minutes. The breakaway would win, which was disappointing after working on the front all day. I was pleased to see my old team take the win, though. For us, we would have to try again the next day.

Stage 5 was definitely the hottest of the race. By this point our routine was well-established, getting fresh bottles and ice socks every 15-20 minutes. The stage had some smaller climbs, but nothing important would happen until late in the race, when we would go over a category 1 climb before descending into the finish. Our team was split in two—Lawson, Daan, and Thomas would stay with the lead group while the rest of us were to get John over the climb as quickly as possible and pace him back to the leaders if necessary.

As the climb neared, I knew things were about to get crazy, making feeds more difficult. While we were all still in one place, I dropped back to get bottles and ice, hurriedly distributing them on the leadup to the climb. Then I found John to get him to the front so that he could sag the climb.

Cannondale took the front and drilled it from the bottom, putting many riders in difficulty immediately. I stayed on John’s upwind side, letting him climb at his pace but making sure that he never touched the wind. We got over the top about a minute behind the lead group. Unfortunately, the caravan was already gone and the descent was not technical. Koen and I, along with multiple Belkin riders, went down as fast as we could, but the field ahead was in full pursuit of Phinney and we would not catch them. Lawson and Thomas would both finish in the top 10 of the stage. The only proper way to conclude a stage like that is with a dip in the ocean, and that’s precisely what we did.

Stage 6 was the second (and last) mountain-top finish of the race, finishing at over 7000’ at Mountain High. In fact, nearly the whole stage was uphill. Things were interesting from the start, as Garmin put their whole team on the attack in an effort to isolate Wiggins. It was unsuccessful in that regard, but they did manage to really hurt the field with a half-hour of all-out racing. Finally a break got away because everyone was out of water and we needed to get bottles.

The day was spent with Koen, John, and Roy keeping the climbers out of the wind in the mild crosswinds. We reached the base of the last climb with 30k to go and they wished us luck. Then it was time to go to work. As the kilometers quickly ticked by on the low-grade climb, more and more riders slipped off the back. I was tasked with keeping Lawson out the wind. Once inside the last 10km, I was starting to hurt.

Unsure when things would break up, I took the opportunity on a rolling section to get bottles and ice one last time, then hung on as long as I could. At 3k to go, the group was down to 25 riders and I drifted off the back. From that point I had to climb at my own pace, and Daan took over as domestique, pacing Lawson in the last kilometers. Once again Lawson had a great climb, even moving  up to 3rd in GC! All 4 of us had finished in the top 25, a solid ride for the team.

For stage 7, we wanted to be represented in the breakaway so that we would not have to ride on the front for the expected field sprint. On paper, it was a good stage for the break, with a long descent into the finish.
The fight at the start of the stage had many riders on the ropes. Just when it seemed things were calming down, Cannondale sent their whole team at the front to pull a large, dangerous break back. They were the only sprinter team not represented and had to shut it down quickly. I positioned myself near the front for the counter-attack. When the break was just 10 seconds ahead, they started attacking each other. 2 riders had gotten away, with Ben King and a UHC rider half-way across the gap. I punched across to them, then rode by on my way up to the leaders. They joined us shortly after, along with a couple of others.

Cannondale never gave us much time, but we were working well together as we got over the big climbs in the middle of the stage. The plan was for me to attack near the top of the final climb and go over alone or with one other, but King beat me to it. The group was reduced to just 4 of us. I knew that there was another climb after a bit of descending, and I would try to attack there. It was very disappointing to find that the descent was a low-grade highway with sweeping turns and a headwind. The breakaway needs a technical, fast descent to have the advantage over the field, so I knew that going alone was no longer an option.

On the short uphill section, the Belkin rider we had dropped early came blasting by us. We couldn’t figure out how he had caught us until we saw his team car just behind. We hadn’t been getting any time splits on the descent until just before we entered the finishing circuits when they told us we had 20 seconds. We had lost nearly 2 minutes on the descent!

I was starting to fade, so I dropped back to the field, hoping to recover enough before the finish to contribute to the leadout. The field was down to just 60 riders at this point. The circuits were very fast, and I never could get up to the team to help, and John finished 5th after a technical last kilometer. We had hoped for better, but my legs were good and I’d enjoyed a day in the break, so I was happy.

I'm not sure I ever zipped my jersey up the whole week, it was so hot
The final stage consisted of 3 laps of a loop with a tough 10 minute climb in it. Our plan was the same as stage 7, so I wanted to be in the break again. I followed the first several moves, but nothing was getting away. I expected whichever break went just before the climb would be the one to stick, so I recovered just a bit. I saw a good group go and jumped across, and the field let us go. There were 7 of us there—2 riders from Omega. Jens Voigt had finally been allowed to get into the break, so he was driving it. Even after a hard first 20 minutes of racing, I felt really comfortable on the climb and tried to save energy so that I could attack the last time up.

The descent was really technical, so I was glad to do it in the break and not the field. We reached the bottom and saw that our gap had gone up by a minute to nearly 4 minutes—there had been crashes in the field. With such a gap in a short stage, making it to the finish became a real possibility.

Halfway up the climb the second time, Niki Terpstra took the front and pushed the pace hard, dropping the Optum rider, Cando, from the break. After reaching the second part of the climb after the KOM, he attacked, taking the Belkin rider with him. The rest of us chased them into the third lap, when we were caught at the base of the climb. After 2 hard hours of racing, I was unable to hang with the field when it went full gas the last time up the climb, ending up in the grupetto. On the upside, I was able to enjoy the ride through the party on Rock Store, where I had friends from college to cheer me on in their ridiculous costumes.
Our grupetto was not allowed to enter the finish circuits, so we were given a pro-rated time and my Tour of California was over. I made my way to the finish, where I watched as John finished 2nd to Cavendish by the smallest of margins yet again and Lawson cemented his 3rd overall and best young rider.

We didn’t get the stage win we were after, but multiple stage podiums, a GC podium, taking the young rider jersey, and finishing 2nd on team GC made for a successful week! Personally, I have a lot to be encouraged about. I had a bad day on Diablo, but showed that I could have once again finished in the top-10 of GC, and I was able to race hard all 8 days. In fact, my max power curve for the year from 8-150 minutes is almost entirely from the last 2 stages! I’m definitely looking forward to this next block of racing….