Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Guatemalan bike racing

I've decided it's time to write a story I've been thinking about for a long time.... We're going all the way back to the Tour of Guatemala in May, stage 6 in particular. Aside from my prologue win at the Cascade Classic the day before my season ended, this race was my favorite day on the bike in 2012. I have wanted to tell the story for a long time but wasn't sure of the best way to do it. Lately, though, I have been kept up at night or awoken mid-sleep with snippets of how to do so. Without further ado, este es mi narracion de la sexta etapa en la Vuelta a Guatemala.

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The cacophony of indecipherable noise around me did its best to drown out the agony of exertion racking my body, but it still wasn't enough. I could feel my heart pounding in my ears, mouth agape, struggling for every last bit of oxygen in the thin air as I put my entire body into each pedal stroke. I stared at the ground, watching the bricks go by one at a time while my sweat dripped off my nose onto the stem, unaware of the broken spoke causing my rear wheel to rub the brake on each revolution. There was no point in consulting the masking tape on the stem with points of interest sharpied onto it--I had already passed the final KOM and was only 3 kilometers from the point hastily and unceremoniously designated: 131-FIN.

It seems in the excitement of the race, I had played down in my mind the already under-hyped "final hill into town". There was nothing left to do but give chase. His torn and bloodied bibs popped in and out of view as the barriers narrowed to a single lane, the spectators leaning as far into the road as balance would allow while shaking excited fists and dangling flags in my face only to yank them away as I neared. Others threw handfuls of homemade confetti in the air, a colorful snowfall that easily stuck to my sweaty body, seeping dye onto my skin and jersey while spectators further back lit firecrackers to add to the raucous din.

Yet somewhere still further ahead in the chaos was the lone race leader. I chose to focus on the two ahead of me, rather than the charging peloton some unknown distance in arrears. Either the best road race of my career or another forgettable pack finish lay but a couple of kilometers ahead; just a few more minutes and it would all be settled.

How is it that I came to be in this position? Why was I the one chasing, and not the other way around? The outcome of every race is the result of a long string of decisions, many of which were made before the race passed kilometer zero.

I arrived in Guatemala superficially rested--that is, I had taken an easy week after Joe Martin and Gila, but was still very fatigued from the thousands of accumulated race miles in only a couple of months. We were racing with a small 5-man squad, and we were givin'er all we had. Marsh was our GC rider, proving on stage 2 that he could climb with the Colombians after a pack finish on stage 1. I had confirmed--as suspected--that my top end was continuing to slide.

Sick of being useless to my team because I couldn't hang on the climbs, I began a fervent pursuit of the all-day break. The one thing I could manage was riding tempo all day long, and my best chance of helping Marsh was to have him, along with the other leaders, catch up to the break late in the race.

Stage 6 was the fifth road stage, and would mark my third time in the long break. The stage, 131 kilometers/82 miles in length, was tailor-made for a breakaway to be caught on the only big climb of the day.

The race would open with nearly 50 miles of a dead-flat hotdog circuit in Quetzaltenango--terrain as unforgiving for the featherweight climbers ruling the race as the climbs had been to me. After completing the circuits, we would hit a category-1 climb--reaching nearly 10,000'--before plunging back down to the finish.

Having no aspirations of my own, I was chomping at the bit to punish the little guys on the flats and get far enough ahead in the break that I could help Marsh over the top of the climb when the break was inevitably caught. The circuits at 7000' guaranteed the sea-level racers would be missing a gear, and the cooler weather meant I had no fears of overheating.

As we rolled beneath the start banner, one of the local teams immediately strung the field out for the sprint points the next time around, catching many of us off guard. We hunkered down and hung on as best we could while the field snaked along in single file. Like soldiers pinned down in their bunkers by heavy fire, we waited for the others to run out of ammo. Immediately after the sprint, counter-attacks began with fury and we found that our legs had warmed up.

Kilometers ticked by as the field shuffled and reshuffled, one failed breakaway attempt after another. A break of 6 was trying to sneak away, and a few lone riders were stuck in no-man's land, flailing as they chased the escapees. We had nobody in the move yet, but Sherer and I were ready to pounce on opposing sides of the field. The GC leader's team was beginning to assemble at the front--they were about to set up shop for a long day of tempo, meaning this break was about to go for good.

Of all the attack methods in cycling, the most enjoyable is taking a run from the back. By the time you reach the front, you're in a full sprint, buzzing the tower of the guys at the front. I launched from way back but had to abort when the pack shifted left, pinching me into the curb. Sherer was ready on the other side, following the next attacker trying to bridge. Seeing that attack fizzle after being chased down, I worked my way to the right side and launched again.

This time, I skirted the edges of field like a rocket hugging the hillside, blasting off the front in full-flight at nearly 40mph. Knowing that my matches didn't burn long these days, I knew the bridge had to be as fast as possible. I certainly felt like Maverick in Top Gun, running up behind the guys in no-man's land so fast that I barely had time to weave between them all for that short bit of draft. I had just enough momentum to reach the back of the break, wheezing like I'd been punched in the gut. As soon as my lungs worked again, so did I--we had to just put our heads down for a few minutes to get the move established. Badda bing, badda boom, step one was done.

The move was comprised of 7 riders from a mix of teams, including the KOM leader, a teammate of the race leader and allowed to sit on the back as such. Fulling expecting to be caught on the climb later, I knew we needed a long leash before leaving the circuit. The race commissaire gave us time splits; I was never satisfied. I became a redneck hoarding ammunition in preparation for the coming zombie apocalypse: no amount would satisfy me.

I had to make a decision  Take on the lion's share of work to keep the break rotating and gaining time, or conserve some energy and possibly be caught too early to be much help to Marsh. I chose the former, of course. Every time my fellow escapees started to slack or someone tried to skip a pull, I went to the front and picked up the pace again. The time gaps kept climbing: 3 minutes, 4 minutes, 5 minutes.... By the time we exited the circuit and headed for the hills, our gap was up to 7 minutes. Hopefully that would be enough to get us most of the way up the 2500' climb.

The road ahead climbed slowly as it approached the looming mountains, a small taste of what was to come. As I knew they would, or time gaps started dropping the second the chasing Colombians began to climb. As we reached the town signaling the base of the mountain proper, the commissaire, unable to be heard above the deafening crowds lining the curbs, simply put four fingers in the air as she stood in the sunroof of the officials' car. They're coming.

I led the break through town to give myself good lines through the tight turns on broken streets, and it proved to be the best decision of the day. Seeing motion on my left side, I couldn't conjure the Spanish word in time, choosing instead to point and shout, "DOG!" The curious animal ran just behind me. At the sound of carnage, I whipped my head around in time to see bikes in the air and bodies hit the ground, others swerving into the ditch or across the road.

4 made it through unscathed, and we had no choice but to follow racing etiquette and wait, at least a little while, to see if our companions would return. One made it back, but the other two were done--a dislocated shoulder and broken collarbone, I would later learn.

Then we started the serious climbing. I focused on the wheel in front of me, refusing to think about how far we still had to climb. Sometimes I sat on, but other times, when I felt the pace was becoming a bit too much, I went to the front to turn it down a notch. Up and up we went, and suddenly it became apparent that our chances of getting to the top before the field caught us were increasing. With only a couple of kilometers left to climb, we still had 2 minutes on the field.

If we got to the top first, we would get to the finish first.

The ballgame just shifted.

With newfound motivation, I dug deeper to hang on as the pace accelerated. Our team director, Gus, came up and reminded me that the guys on the Guatemalan teams ought to know the descent. I kept that in mind, but also thought that knowing the descent and being able to rail it in a race are not the same thing.

Although I wanted nothing to do with the KOM sprint, I had to chase nonetheless, as a 5-second gap across the top becomes a football field at descending speeds.

As I passed under the KOM banner in fifth, I offered up a quick prayer. It's about to get crazy up in here...God, please give my guardian angel his fast wings today.

It's not reckless if you're merely using every ounce of talent, skill, and training you possess. The road plunged, my speed climbed, and the first corner approached. The soft, open bend could be taken full-gas. I blasted around the outside of the two who feathered their brakes, and wouldn't be seeing them again. I was in hot pursuit of the final two.

The next corner was a hard, open right-hander. I stayed off the brakes as I swung left, then dove hard for the apex only to find a TV motorcycle got there first, forcing an adjustment to my line. Feathering the rear brake as hard as I dared, I ended up just inches from the grass. Dusting it off, I sprinted out of the turn. Descending requires complete focus; you have no time to dwell on any mistakes.

The extra weight I hauled up the mountain was paying dividends on the way back down. Chin nearly touching my stem, I swept from apex to apex through the turns, keying off the lines of those I was chasing as I nearly touched 60mph on a few of the straight sections. Halfway down the descent was a small town with a category-4 climb. Closing in on the town, I sprinted down the last of the hill for that extra bit of momentum, finally catching the others before the short climb was to start.

My tank was nearly empty by this point, though, and I couldn't hang with the others for even just a few minutes of climbing. By the time I reached the top, I had a 15-second gap to close down. As it turns out, the second half of the descent was even more challenging.

The adrenaline rush that results from racing down a mountain also results in a hyper-awareness of sorts. As the wind noise drowned out everything else, I focused on making a perfect run down a foreign descent. All at once, I was reading the terrain and all of the road within view to plot a mental map of upcoming turns while getting feedback through the bike about the road surface, which I was also scanning for imperfections or other threats. Brake late but before the turn, dive in late on blind corners, accelerate away from the apex, stay low; a routine I've practiced enough to become automatic.

Then the descent threw a curveball. A large sweeping u-turn was fast approaching; I judged it to be doable at about 40mph. Waiting until the last second to brake, I realized too late that the road surface was broken up and covered in gravel, and I couldn't slow down in time before the turn. Shifting the braking load from front to rear, I began to fight the bike into the turn as it bucked beneath me on the rough surface. I heard a pop as I missed the apex wide and got a brief spell of point-fixation while looking at the ditch coming up quickly. Remembering to look where I wanted to go, I corrected my line but was now fighting gravel for traction while still trying to brake and stay on the pavement.

I was finally in the clear and off to the next turn as I quickly checked my bike for the cause of the unsettling noise. Unable to determine the source, I pressed on, only to find dozens of locals waving me down at what turned out to be a very deceptive, very steep set of switchbacks. Hints like that are best not to ignore. Rounding the final switchback, I came up on the Guatemalan rider who was now a bit worse for wear after a close-up look at the roadside vegetation.

The descent flattened out as the kilometers ticked by and we traded hard pulls, hoping to reel in the Colombian that remained out of sight. We finally rounded a bend and I saw the wall we were to ride up. I had barely reached the bottom when my bloodied friend began to ride away from me and disappeared into the flags dancing around his head.

Reaching the crest of the hill about 5 seconds behind him, I accelerated down the bricked hill into town and bounced around the turn at the bottom in desperate chase of the little guy in orange. My exhausted pedaling was exacerbated by the cobbled streets tossing me about as I craned my neck to see the next turn through the flags and confetti. I saw the u-turn, but discovered too late that it was dirt. Slamming on the brakes, I slid the rear wheel through the turn and sprinted off after him as I passed the 1K banner. I figured that first place was out of reach now, but I could at least take 2nd. Sprinting down a hill, I hoped to slingshot back to him on the next rise.  It very nearly worked, but I ran out of gas just as I reached him and he pulled away in the final 300m to take 2nd.

We were over a minute behind the winner, and the field sprinted across the line just a minute behind us. I would've loved to win the race, but in hindsight I did much of the work that allowed the break to succeed in the first place and prevented me from winning...but that's racing, and a day on the bike I'll always remember.
The confetti as the leaders passed through was actually much thicker.






Thursday, October 25, 2012

Everyone has their reasons. Here are mine.

I'm a cyclist with a blog, so I suppose it's time for me to tackle the topic everyone's talking about...except I don't really want to.

Regarding the recent happenings within the sport, I think Zirbel expresses our shared sentiments quite well, and his experiences make his a more qualified viewpoint: http://tomzirbel.blogspot.com/2012/10/weighing-in.html

Instead, I want to explain my own situation and why I am--and will always be--competing clean.  It's a different situation for everyone, and it's much more complicated than simple morals. Everyone who has confessed recently said they knew it was wrong, but other factors pushed them towards making the wrong choice.

So here's where I stand.

I have options.

Many racers we're reading about now got themselves backed into a corner. The choice was to dope and succeed, or stay clean and have no way to pay the bills. Thankfully the mentality is shifting and racers can succeed clean now. They could be superstars by doping (if they managed not to get caught), but can at least be successful clean, making the choice easier.

As much as I love my job, it's not the end-all-be-all for me. I have a degree in Mechanical Engineering from Texas A&M (WHOOP!). I would be heartbroken to give up racing professionally, but if it came down to paying the bills, I'd be just fine without it.

I don't have friends to spare.

I have never had a great number of friends. Growing up I had a few very close friends, and by the end of high school we had all grown apart. College was a chance to reset. I became super-involved in the A&M cycling team and made many lasting, close friendships. We became friends while I was a cat. 4 on the road. They played a large part in my development as a racer, and have cheered me on as I climbed the ladder.

Aside from my Aggie friends, every other friend I have is somehow involved in cycling. Every. Single. One.

Doping would burn all these friendships, the ones that matter.

When I was a cat 2, I had a good rival. We were evenly matched in every race that year. One race in particular, we called the race a week in advance. "It's going to be just the two of us at the end, head to head." That's exactly what happened.

Later that year, I got on velonews and learned he had been tested out of competition and was popped for a long list of serious PEDs. I was so offended and hurt that I still have not spoken to him since.

I couldn't get away with it.

I've said it before: I'm my mama's boy. She's a worrier, and so am I. If I started taking PEDs, I would be a nervous wreck all the time. I'd give myself away immediately. The fact of the matter: I'm terrible at getting away with things.

I once TP'ed a house with my friends. Not 2 hours later, the cops were at the door.

In middle school, I was a tech-aide. We would help with the computers around the school, keeping everything running. I and the other aides had a key to the elevator, and one day decided to take the elevator just because we could. It broke down. We were stuck in there for close to an hour. Firefighters had to break the thing open with airbags.

Those are just two examples, although there aren't many more. I'm not fit for a life of crime.

I like a challenge.

I remember a quiz I cheated on in 5th grade. It was about naming the states. We had just been passed back our homework, and when I got stuck in the quiz I remembered that the homework was just sitting under my desk, out in the open. I got all the questions right as a result, but didn't feel very good about it.

I remember a quiz I cheated on when I was 10 years old. You think I could ever come to terms with cheating in the sport I love?

As years went by in school, I developed a sick pleasure in wrecking curves without cheating. Especially in math classes. Especially in Calculus. I didn't much feel the need to rat people out...I got more satisfaction out of beating them fair and square, and ruining the curve while I was at it.

In college, I wasn't wrecking curves anymore, but I began to take full responsibility for my grades. I knew that I was capable of making whatever grades I wanted if I was willing to put in the work. In almost every case, I chose bike races over studying. If I wasn't prepared for class, that was my own fault.

I had one class...I don't remember the name of it. It was MEEN 357, I know that much. Sounds tough, doesn't it? Well, the final exam was a take-home, open book, open notes project. The only stipulation was no working with other students. The project had something to do with writing a differential equation solver to animate a pendulum. The problem was that all the students went to the same lab to work...and a lot of the submissions ended up looking quite similar. I stuck it out, took longer, and wrote a more complicated and longer program than necessary, but I got it done by myself and took satisfaction in that.

When it comes to cycling, I want the satisfaction of knowing that my success is 100% legitimate, regardless of what my competitors are doing.

The #1 reason I will not use PEDs.

I've told this story before, but here's the gist of it: I'm a bike racer because my dad was diagnosed with lung cancer.

He had never done anything to give cause for lung cancer, and yet he had it.

I wanted to race pro before the cancer, but it convinced our whole family not to pass up opportunities. You can't take anything for granted, so I jumped at the chance to make a living doing what I love. Doping would ruin that.

PEDs have legitimate uses in the medical world. My dad is on/has taken many of them. Because he needs them.

I can't even wrap my head around taking those drugs so I can pedal a bike faster. What a ridiculous reason to poison your body.


Thursday, October 11, 2012

Vuelta Ciclista del Uruguay: Stages 9 and 10

Sorry for taking so long to finish this race off--things, as you may know, have kind of gone nuts in the cycling world. I've been reading the depressing confessions and commentaries as fast as they've been coming out.

I also spent the weekend helping at (and enjoying) Zirbel's wedding. Tom and Rebecca are my Colorado parents...here we are after finishing the Pikes Peak Hill Climb back in July:


Okay, time to finish Uruguay! Caught up already? No? Well, do so:

Arrival
Stage 1
Stage 2
Stage 3
Stage 4
Stage 5
Stage 6
Stage 7
Stage 8

We convinced Tom to start the stage. He was already there, already dressed, so why not give racing a shot? He could pull out at any point if he wanted.

We were optimistic, but knew that the next two days were going to hurt. With Tom so sick (and the rest of us not so hot, either), we were quite relieved that the responsibility of defending yellow fell on the Brazilians.

This 115-mile stage started in Montevideo, the same as stage 1 had. We even had a spare bike now that Reid had dropped out--just strap it to the roof of the Geely and let's do this!


Our plan for the day was for Zirbel and Zwiz to survive without losing time. Hanson would help both of them where he could, while also working with Soladay to make sure we didn't miss a big move--we still couldn't afford to get caught out, especially if one of the yellow jersey's teammates was in the move. I was to wear myself out taking care of Zirbel.

Racing started fast, as usual, and before long Soladay was in the long move of the day that quickly built up a sizeable gap. It was a bit perplexing, as this was the first time that an all-day break got away and the first time any break was allowed to get away with an Optum rider in it. I guess the Brazilians just wanted to do a conventional defense and ride the front all day.

Zirbel and I were hanging out towards the back where it was less chaotic, because the field had calmed down. It was a bit windy, though, and suddenly they accelerated on the front and put us all in the gutter. They surged hard enough to split the field, and Tom and I ended up in separate groups without my knowledge (things get a bit chaotic in the gutter and you don't have a lot of time to look around). Once we slowed down to a more reasonable speed, Ken told me to go get Zirbel, and I was panicked to look back and see him on the front of the chase group, 20 seconds behind us.

I immediately sat up and waited for them to catch me so I could get Zirbel off the front. Of course the slackers on his wheel had been unwilling to help. Once he reached me, I slowly ramped up the pace and brought him back up to the field.

Once back up there, Ken scolded me on dropping the ball. It stung at the time, but mostly because he was right. I had hugely underestimated the level of shepherding that Tom needed, and I had to do better. Ken said he could do the hard efforts, but riding tempo all day to keep Tom out of the wind was not his strong suit. It was mine, though. In fact, riding tempo was about all I could do anymore.

So began my day of  being Tom's guide. Positioning in a pack is a mental as well as physical exercise, and he did not have the ability to handle the mental aspect of it. He was powerless to move within the pack except for backwards, but he could focus on the wheel in front of his--mine--and follow it around. So that's what we did. I stayed on the upwind side of the pack and focused on keeping him toward the front, checking regularly between my legs for the unmistakable HED wheels and his bright yellow shoes.

Riders would come up and move him off the wheel, and we'd start over again. I dropped back and waited for him to pop out at the edge of the pack again, and I took him back up.

I was trying to eat and drink, but it wasn't working. Both gave me stomach cramps, so once in a while I would take a small sip of water and chew a small bit of a ClifBar.

As the race dragged on, one kilometer after another (we were counting down in kilometers because they go by faster), Tom continued fighting his internal battle to stay in the race. He had started with the goal of reaching kilometer 50. Then kilometer 100. Then 110. Then 120. And so on.

Once in a while, the winds would shift and the Brazilians would surge to keep us from getting too comfortable. The field would string out, and I moved further into the wind to shelter Tom and Ken, getting them as close to the front before I died in the event of the field splitting.

Moving Ken and Tom up as far as I can
It became a pattern. I would get them most of the way to the front when the field strung out, I'd hit the wall hard and swing off, and Ken would shelter Tom from there. Every time I got dropped, I thought that was it. I was quickly running out of energy, but somehow I kept getting back to the field and resuming my duty until the next time I got dropped. My max heart rate had fallen 20bpm to a pitiful 166, the highest I reached during the stage. Yeah, I was worn out.

From what I can remember, I got dropped at least 3 times. The last two times, I was at the mercy of my chase group as to whether I got back or not. I can't believe I made it back at all the final time--I was 30 seconds off the back of the field, and Wohlberg even gave me a couple bottles to finish the race with. Then I got caught by a small group that pulled me back up there with the help of a resting field.

I tried to avoid looking at my Garmin as much as possible, as the kilometers were passing by at a painfully slow rate.

Finally I got dropped hard enough that I never made it back. I had managed to protect Zirbel for 80 miles, and as the race dragged on, I had to hope that it was enough. Eventually we caught Soladay, whose break had been caught, and he had been dropped from the field. The grupetto was just as frustrating as before, but I was so cracked that all I could do was focus on the wheel ahead and try to finish.

After an eternity, we reached the finish. Only those who have experienced an incredible bonk know the state I was in at that point. I had just finished a 5-hr race, burning somewhere in the neighborhood of 4000 calories after my meager breakfast. During the race, I had taken in a grand total of about 5-600 calories because of my unsettled stomach, and I was a bit dehydrated after drinking only 3 bottles. I found my team and collapsed on the ground, too exhausted to be bothered by the throng of spectators standing just inches from my fingertips. After I lost contact, Ken was able to protect Tom for the rest of the race, and Zwiz had managed to protect his position as well.

The next hour passed very slowly. Zirbel and I were both zombies, and we just lay on the hotel floor waiting to feel like humans again. With concerted effort, Tom managed his first words of the day to me.

"Thanks, buddy."

My shower lasted half an hour, as I just curled up in the corner under the water and waited for my heart rate to come down.

Big Tom skipped dinner, opting instead for a trip to the corner store. He stuffed himself with ice cream and went to bed early, hoping for the best.

The remaining 4 began the very slow walk to dinner, but Soladay turned around when he began to feel strange--he had bonked hard as well, and was still trying to recover from it.

So Zwiz, Hanson, and I had a good dinner at a restaurant that we'd been told was doing the race dinner. There were some other teams there as well. When finished, we walked out and confusion ensued--turns out we were supposed to pay! The Movistar director helped with translations, and eventually the three of us apologetically scraped together enough money to pay them.

That night, I wandered to the corner store and brought back large quantities of ice cream, yogurt, candy, and chocolate milk. I had a room to myself at the hotel and found Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny (in English!) on TV, and settled in for an evening of stuffing myself and filling the room with vile fumes. The door to the bathroom remained closed, as the toilet was broken and wouldn't flush...a fact I learned after doing untypeable things to it.

The following morning, we were up early for our final bus transfer. I nearly gagged looking at the ham and cheese at breakfast. The yogurt was the only thing I could stomach anymore (although I still got stomach cramps), so I knocked back 5 glasses of it before leaving one last gift in the broken toilet and boarding the bus.

Stage 10 was 124 miles. Blessedly, Zirbel felt human again, although still a bit sick. Much better than the day before, though, which was good as I had nothing left to give.

Just one more stage. We can do this! Immediately, a long break went and again Soladay was in it. The rest of us got Big Tom established as the man who rides directly behind the yellow jersey..."es el segundo!" and left him to enjoy the rest of the day at the back of the Brazilian train. Hanson stayed nearby, watching over him and greatly enjoying asserting himself on anyone who tried to push Zirbel off the wheel.

Tom ended up flatting out of the break, then played a little prank on the field. Wohlberg was called up to give him a wheel, then shielded him with the car at the edge of the road as the field passed by. He then jumped back in and hung out at the back, leaving the Brazilians to think he was still in the break.

The miles slowly passed by, and the surging occurrences were rarer than the day before. I tailgunned most of the day, as it required less energy than fighting for position.

Soladay pulling me back to the field after I gave him a nature-break push
With just 40 miles left to go, I hit a rock and flatted the front wheel. Bob gave me a really quick wheel change, but I barely got back to the field. The caravan was super spread out and I could barely use it to get back, not to mention my legs had no more left to give.

As the closing kilometers passed by and the last remnants of the break were caught, I tried to get to the front to help Hanson, but I didn't make it. In the end, he freelanced his sprint again in the twisty final kilometer and removed any doubt that he was the fastest man in the race.


Zirbel held on to 2nd in GC, and Zwiz dropped down to 4th. Hello, UCI points! I was just so relieved to have finished, and enjoyed finally giving water bottles away!

That night we partied with more chivitos, pizza, and cervezas.

We said hello to Zirbel's little friend, which we had to leave behind for want of luggage space.


And we learned from the Colombians that Soladay had been allowed to get away in the long breakaways because they thought he wasn't a true member of our team, as evidenced by the different bike he was on (major points for finishing a 1000 mile stage race on a borrowed bike, by the way!).

The next morning, we were up at 4 for the trip to the airport.

At the check-in counter, Bob asked about our still-missing luggage. We were about to leave the country, so where the heck is it?!

"Oh, the bikes? They've been sitting in the office for a week, why haven't you come to pick them up?"

Blank looks all-around.

"Are you serious?"

In a long and drawn-out argument, we would learn that some unknown person's number had been put on the  contact info for the luggage. When called about the bikes, this person told the airline that we didn't need them after all and to just hang on to them. We have a few conspiracy theories but I'll save them.

Well, at least we had them back.  The kicker was that there wasn't room on our return flight for them, and they would only return them to LA, when we wanted them to go to Denver. And they wouldn't fly the bags for free after all the hassle. Needless to say, not a positive experience.

Our first transfer in Lima was very rushed, as we had to get through security again and find our next gate for the flight to Miami in 30 minutes. It was only me and Zirbel on that mostly empty flight, as we were the only ones returning to Denver. I even got the whole row to myself! Around 9am I had a crazy case of restless legs--it seems they didn't know what to do without a race....

We landed in Miami and I was so happy to be back in the land of English speakers. The first words I heard after walking through the gate? "Beinvenidos a Miami, en los Estados Unidos."

Then the travel marathon resumed, and I finally got home at 1:30am. I crawled into bed, then woke up at 7am, ready to race. Thank you, body clock. At 8am USADA showed up. Welcome back! Now pee in this cup. Have you taken any medications recently? "Yes, lots of immodium and pepto."

I had three more days of intestinal malfunction and then was back to normal. Reid visited the doctor and got tested--he had Giardia and Campylobacter, the latter of which was likely my culprit. Giardia is particularly nasty, and it took Reid, Tom, and Zwiz quite a while (and a lot of very strong parasite-killing meds) to fully recover.

To top it all off, we may never see the prize money from that race. They've developed the habit of paying you when you come back (just before we went over, they finally paid for the team's last visit in 2010), and we may not be going back.

So there you have it. The Vuelta Ciclista del Uruguay: crazy then and in retrospect, but still full of stories and memories and experiences, and an irreplaceable team-bonding and life experience.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Vuelta Ciclista del Uruguay: Stage 8

Arrival
Stage 1
Stage 2
Stage 3
Stage 4
Stage 5
Stage 6
Stage 7

We arrived at the good ol' Kolping Hotel Escuela later that evening and were off to the race dinner for the first time in days. After such a long day of racing and 2 long bus transfers, we just wanted to eat and go to bed. The time trial was late the following morning, and we'd actually be able to sleep in! No early wakeup to get our luggage on the truck.

As disappointed as I was in my lack of performance, I had gotten my head straightened out as the country rolled passed the window on the bus. A huge weight had been taken off my shoulders. Before, I was doing my best to help the team, but holding out hope for my own performance later. Now, I didn't have much left to give, but I was going to die a thousand deaths to make sure the team got the best result we could.

Once we got to the hotel, a quick search revealed no missing luggage. Eric and Bob started making phonecalls, but made no progress. It looked like we were going to have to finish this thing with what we had.

Remember, my TT bike had slipped through back in LA, and was the only one that made it to Uruguay with us. Reid had flown separately and brought his own, so we had 2 TT bikes. The decision was made to put Zirbel on Reid's bike and Zwiz on mine, since those two are great time trialists and were still high on GC. Bob begged and borrowed, and scraped together several sets of clip-on bars for the rest of us. We still had several sets of HED wheels, as well as 3 discs and a couple TT helmets.

The following morning was very relaxed, especially for me and Soladay. The Z-men would give the TT a full go on full-TT setups, Reid would do the best he could Merckx-style since he was still high on GC, and Hanson would do his best to honor the yellow jersey. Soladay and I did some arithmetic.... 19-mile TT, 20% time cut, estimate 51kph average for the winner, and give yourself a 2-minute buffer for your target time. Back-calculate the average speed that you need to hold, and voila, a TT-for-time-cut.

Preparing to head for the TT course along the beach...my mustache was coming in nicely?
I'm just going to throw this out there: I'm terrible at doing a TT just to make time cut. First of all, I'd never done it before. The very idea is appalling to me. But I certainly liked the idea of an easy day, since the final two were going to be tough if the Z-men had the rides we expected in the TT.

I ended up with a low-end aluminum front wheel and HED disc because of the timing of my start--after finishing, I would find Hanson and give him the disc before his start. Zero warmup whatsoever. I got to the start house very early, waited for them to do the completely unnecessary bike-check in the TT-jig (come on people, it's a road bike), and sat down to be entertained by watching the locals have their TT-setups assessed for legality. The bike jig was a new thing for them down there, and almost none of their bikes met the guidelines (and that's with the generous eyeball-and-clipboard measurements being taken off the wooden frame of the jig).

And I was off!

 It was a very bizarre experience. I was watching my speed, knowing what I needed to average. But I was racing a TT...? What I'm trying to say is that I held back as much as I could and narrowly missed the top-half on the results page...I could have gone 6 minutes slower and been safe from time cut.

Reid had had a poor performance, and he wasn't looking too great. He had that sullen, far-off look of someone who is much sicker than they're letting on. We rode easy back to the hotel and kept dropping Reid. Upon reaching the hotel, he climbed straight into bed.

Zirbel and Zwiz had gotten 3rd and 4th, respectively, and were now in 2nd and 3rd on GC. We would come to be very thankful that they hadn't ridden into yellow...but I'm getting ahead of myself.

Dinner that night was at the hotel, made by the hotel staff. They plopped a massive plate of shepherd's pie in front of us around the same time we saw our usual overrated chef hosting a food segment on the local news. I dug into the food and immediately wanted to scream at the staff. "YOU CAN COOK FOOD LIKE THIS, AND YOU NEVER TOLD US?!?!?!?!?!?! I OUGHTA STRANGLE YOU!!!!!!!!!!!!!" They also served us some delicious bread and a cup of delightful canned peaches. Dessert was cake. I was so happy, and so angry.

Not all was well, though. Zirbel hardly touched his food because he felt that putting food in his stomach would just be poking the dragon. Reid missed dinner altogether, unable to get out of bed.

Our team meeting that night was quick: we were going to just finish this thing off, and do our best to keep Tom and Zwiz where they were on GC. Reid nodded along from his bed, where he was wrapped in blankets with a knit cap on his head, very feverish.

That night was unpleasant. I felt very bloated, was putting out some serious fumes, and had a disconcerting visit to the bathroom before bed. I woke up several times throughout the night, alternating between freezing cold and drenched in a pool of my own sweat. Not good. I would later find out that Zwiz had the same night as I did in the room below ours.

I awoke to find out that my night was a cakewalk compared to Zirbel and Reid, who had spent half the night making trips to the bathroom.

We were dropping like flies.

Only Soladay and Hanson escaped unscathed. I think the culprit was our chivitos that the 4 of us had a few nights earlier.

After a meager breakfast (food unsettled my stomach) and another uncomfortable encounter with the porcelain throne, I started getting ready for the race. Wohlberg solemnly delivered the news that we were down a soldier: Reid was far too sick to race.

Looking at Zirbel, I thought that there was no way he was going to be able to race. He could barely eat and was obviously out of it. I watched him sit in front of his race bag for minutes, just staring at it, trying to remember what he was trying to do. We convinced him to give it his best shot. Just roll to the start and make the call.

Stage 9 was 115 miles, and we were all going to figure out just what we were made of.

Stay tuned for the dramatic double-stage finale in a couple of days!


Friday, October 5, 2012

Vuelta Ciclista del Uruguay: Stage 7

Arrival
Stage 1
Stage 2
Stage 3
Stage 4
Stage 5
Stage 6

While Ken was again being burdened with gifts and reclaiming the yellow jersey (gotta love those bonus seconds), the rest of us got settled in our new, more spacious rooms. Even after fitting 3 beds--one of which was a queen-size that we gave to Ken--the room had enough space for a big cushy chair and ottoman. It looked like a palace after that last hotel.

We hustled down to the race lunch to see if it was any good...it wasn't. So we snagged some ice cream and went about burning through another afternoon. Ken and Tom went to check out the shops around town, but I opted for some TV and reading time and a short nap. The channel with English sitcoms was the only one that was fuzzy with distorted sound, but at this point Spanish was really wearing on me. I was completely comfortable with any Spanish relating to meal times and race details, but that was it.

For dinner, we headed out to a place we'd seen earlier. Half of the exposed kitchen area was a barbeque pit. Mmmmm, meat. I got a chivito as a warmup dish, and our table split a giant grill sampler that had some very delicious and kind of bizarre meats.  By the time we'd wrapped up our meal, the restaurant was filled with racers...I'm not sure much of the race food was eaten that night.

After dinner and massages, it was time to give the baby grand that Zirbel had spotted a whirl--seriously, how does he see them before I do?! I had to explain to the desk clerk multiple times that I wanted to play the piano. It was in a room that they had closed up for the night, but for some reason it took them a while to understand that I wanted to play the piano. I sat down to play and it became quickly apparent that it had only been used for decoration for many, many years.

Every key was out of tune, but some were a whole note off. Others stuck after playing them, and a couple stuck to other keys as you pushed them (2 for the price of 1). Even more bizarre: this piano only had 85 keys! It stopped on the high end on A instead of C. We had the room to ourselves, and Amanda stretched out on the couch to enjoy a half hour of really bad music. It sounded pretty terrible, but it's relaxing to play and know that nobody can tell if you hit a wrong note.... Amanda snagged some video from the end of one piece. I promise, I wasn't hitting a single wrong note. It was a great stress-reliever, though.

video

The next morning featured one of our longest transfers yet on a less than stellar bus. I was anxious for the stage, which was due to be 103 miles of increasingly hilly terrain--word was, some of the hills might even require the little ring. I was really hoping that today would mark the day that my legs came around again, which wasn't a completely unfounded expectation. It happens as racers get accustomed to the fatigue. Post-race massages are usually slightly painful, or at least uncomfortable, as your sore muscles get worked out. Well, the previous day, my massage wasn't uncomfortable at all. My legs had stopped hurting. Walking up stairs wasn't an ordeal anymore. I was still just 45 seconds back on GC, so my race was far from over.

The day started out damp, but extremely fast. It was a bit windy, coming from the West...and we were headed South for 4 hours. Everyone knew that today might be the day to finally shatter the field. After barely starting, Ken flatted. Soladay and I dropped back to the rear of the field to see if he would need help getting back, but he didn't. The yellow jersey had flatted--how did the field respond? They attacked with renewed fervor. Thankfully nothing got away during his absence.

Then the race went berserk and strung out in the left gutter. It was very clear that the painlessness in my legs was because they were so far gone, not because they had come back. So there we were, single file, flitting in and out of the cars stopped in the shoulder. The race had completely broken up. Zwiz, Zirbel, and Reid had made the first echelon that was about 100m up the road. Hanson, Soladay, and I were in the second group that had started an echelon but was still getting whittled down to proper size. I was at the back, hanging on.

That's when the perfect storm came together. The rider in front of me lost contact as we were going up a small riser really fast. Rather than move over, he forced me to pass on the upwind side, using energy I couldn't spare. I finally managed to get onto the group again as we crested the hill. Just as I made contact, we were reaching a huge truck in the shoulder. Another rider was now on my upwind side and wasn't going to move further into the wind to give me room. My options were to run into the truck, or back out of the draft for half a second and hope that I could hang on. I slowed slightly to get by the truck, our group accelerated over the top, and I was off the back.

There I was, flailing 2m off the back of the group and headed backwards. Soladay looked back and saw me, and valiantly dropped off to try and bring me back up. I was completely gassed, though, and he didn't have the energy to do it by himself.

The moment that I unraveled
The race was hitting the fan in every sense of the word, and Tom and I were dangling just 5 seconds off the back of the group and losing steam. Wohlberg in the Geely, first car in the caravan, was just behind us, motivating our chase efforts even further. At one point they slowed and we almost got there, but it wasn't to be.

As we lit every last match in no-man's-land, we saw the two groups unite ahead of us and ride away. We picked up one more rider that had been dropped and gave chase a while longer, but eventually sat up to wait for the gruppetto to catch us.

Still fighting
It was at that moment that I started to have an emotional breakdown. Up until that point, I was still in the race. The time trial was the next day, and maybe I could put something together and be among the GC contenders. That group riding away was literally The Race. The mounting stress of no communication with my family because of the worthless internet was tough to deal with on my first international trip, in a country in which I wasn't eating well and was tired of the cultural shock. I felt like I had let my team down. I had caused Tom to drop out of the lead group, where he could have helped our other riders. I had let myself down, fallen far short of my own expectations. I had never ridden in a gruppetto before--I'd always been strong enough to make any selection. My legs were so dead that I couldn't imagine how I was going to finish the stage, let alone 3 more. I started to lose it. I started hyperventilating and was gasping for breath. I was tearing up. I did not want to be in the race anymore.

As much as I wanted to quit, though, I couldn't allow myself to do it because that would truly let the team down. So I pressed onward, one pull at a time.

We were eventually caught by the gruppetto, which was about half the field. In any functional gruppetto, guys rotate through to keep a decent pace and finish within the time cut. These guys just couldn't fight their instincts for very long. We'd be doing fine and then they would surge up the gutter, even attack at points. It was so infuriating! They didn't understand that the leaders were minutes away by that point and we would never catch them, and they couldn't stand the thought of working together.

Tom and I did our best to keep the rotation going--we had a very long way to go. The race had blown up just 30k in, and we weren't caught by the gruppetto until kilometer 50. We had 80 more kilometers before the finish, and we didn't have much water or food.

It felt like forever and a day, but we finally finished. We were almost 20 minutes down from the leaders, and guys were attacking our group at the finish. I chased them down just to spite them, I was so furious. Ken had finished well enough to hold on to yellow, but was not on the podium. The race had broken up further as it went on, and our guys had climbed the GC ladder a bit more.

That was all good news, but I had my own issues to work out. I jammed my headphones in my ears as I climbed aboard the ratty old bus for 2 more hours of drive time. I had to get my head on straight. We were headed back to Montevideo--the place it had all started--and the freaking bikes had better be there waiting for us.

Tomorrow (or whenever I get a chance):
-Of course the bikes will be there, right?! I mean, it's been a week and a half!
-There's an intestinal storm a'brewing...who gets hit?!
-There are still 240 miles left to race?!

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Pictures to hold you over

Sorry, no stage 7 today. I used the time in which I would have written the post to instead watch last night's presidential debate. How dare I, right?!

I hope to bring you stage 7 tomorrow, but these next few days will be busy for me--I'll post when I can! In the meantime, maybe you'd like to reread one (all) of the others?

Arrival
Stage 1
Stage 2
Stage 3
Stage 4
Stage 5
Stage 6

I also have some bonus pictures for you!

Our bus to the start of stage 6 was a double-decker charter bus. Of course the cool kids were on the top level at the back....



Every day, 120 racers visited the rolling johns--complete with a maintenance crew that interrupted the line to clean them every 5 minutes. And then the cans passed us during the race to meet us at the finish.



No, the race caravan definitely did not meet any of the normal standards.


And finally, the norteamericanos were a little bigger than the rest of the field. Sometimes you just gotta get low!


Be patient and check back soon--stage 7 is when the real adventure begins! <dramatic pounding of drums to signal impending excitement>

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Vuelta Ciclista del Uruguay: Stage 6

Arrival
Stage 1
Stage 2
Stage 3
Stage 4
Stage 5

While Ken was still being laden with bags of victory gifts, the rest of us walked the blessedly short distance to the hotel. We had adjoining rooms with a shared bathroom, and to say they were small would be an understatement. There were 3 twin beds in each room, and they were so close together that we had to get creative with luggage placement just so we could walk through. In my room, we had the option of getting to the door or the balcony, but not both at once because Tom's bed was in the way. Yes, the distance between the door and the balcony door was the length of a twin bed plus one foot.

In the other room, you could open both doors but only part way:

You couldn't get us down about the rooms or lack of internet, though, we were just too happy with another win.

We went out for some celebratory cervezas and chivitos at the diner on the corner. As we were walking along the front of the hotel, Zirbel stopped abruptly, looking through the glass into the hotel lobby. After getting my attention and pointing to the lonely piano sitting in the corner, he asked, "Concert after dinner? Pretty please?"

I was only too happy to acquiesce to his request. And after another delightful round of chivitos while watching Ken win on the sports highlights reel on TV, we hustled back to the hotel. Amanda made me promise to wait until she was done with massages before I played--I couldn't deprive her of the opportunity!

By the time everyone was ready, though, it was pretty late. The lobby was also completely full of the UCI officials going over results and logistics for the following day, as well as a dozen people on laptops hogging all the bandwidth. Just one piece and then I'd let them get back to work. Tom was already eagerly sitting on the couch--he didn't want to miss anything.

I walked over, pulled the bench out, sat down, and lifted the lid off the keys. The would-be audience collectively held their breath as they waited to see if I could actually play or was just another person that felt like disrupting the silence for a disappointing rendition of chopsticks.

I was in South America. If I could only play one piece, there was only one choice: Malaguena. I don't want to brag, but I rocked it. The piano was pretty well out of tune, but it still sounded good. I closed the piano up and turned around to find the couches full and the stairway behind me full. A smile, a small bow, and I was off to bed.

We were up early again for another transfer before the race, and we spent the drive looking out the window at the storm we were heading towards.

Today marked the beginning of real problems with the missing luggage. We had run out of drink mix altogether and were quickly running out of race food, so we had to improvise. We tried substituting Tang for the drink mix (side note, don't race with Tang in your gut). Amanda was making us tiny sandwiches to take along as substitutes for Clif Bars. We would be back in Montevideo tomorrow night and were sure that our bags would be there waiting for us.

Stage 6 was 91 miles, and the first third was on smaller country roads. For the first time in whole race, you could hold your position at the front because the road was narrow. It took a while to get up there, though, as I had started at the back after a last-second visit to the john. The racing was top-notch as you could repeatedly batter the riders at the front until fresh guys managed to get to the front for reinforcements. Teams were legitimately missing the moves and then scrambling to the front to chase it back. Attacks were going--and hard--as riders tried to get clear before we reached the storm. I ended up in a move that was off for 10 minutes or so before we got reshuffled into the mix.

Finally the storm hit just as the road became a chipped-up and potholed mess. It started to get windy and chaos broke out. The attacks went full-gas and slammed the field in the gutter with the mounting crosswinds. Guys were desperately clinging to the wheel in front of them, single file, while dodging potholes and trying not to fall off into the ditch. The road was scattering water bottles at will while we made the decision to keep the nasty water being flung off tires out of our eyes by keeping our glasses on...or choosing instead to see and taking our glasses off.

I felt fine at the start of the race, but when it hit the fan I was very quickly aware that I had not started with a full tank. For the rest of the race I would get spit out the back when it went really hard, then chase back on after dealing with more frustrating dissention in the chase groups. When I got back to the field, I would shelter Zirbel, Zwiz, or Hanson until things broke up again.

I'm not impressed with the cohesion of our chase group
In the final hour of racing, I was back in the caravan at least 3 times, just trying to maintain contact. I truly was spent from 6 days of racing. My max heartrate had fallen over 10bpm by this point, signaling that my aerobic system was pretty well worn out.

I finally managed to get back in the group as we reached town, where I would be completely useless in a leadout attempt. The other guys got Ken up at the front and left him to freelance today. The run-in was sketchy as the rain continued to fall and we weren't sure about the number or direction of turns. No problem for SuperKen, though, who notched up another one!


Tomorrow:
-Racing past the expiration date on my legs
-Another piano?!
-Will we ever eat the free food again?
-Fingers crossed for the missing bikes!

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Vuelta Ciclista del Uruguay: Stage 5

Arrival
Stage 1
Stage 2
Stage 3
Stage 4

Another stage done, another hotel to find. This one was a couple miles away--a really big hotel in the heart of downtown Santo. More crowded elevators, and I had barely started my laundry when the water to our room cut off altogether. No worries, nobody would be able to smell me over the few guys in the race that obviously hadn't been washing their stuff....<shudder>

Lunch was another car-ride away, and we cruised through the downtown in style, riding looooowwwww. Tailgate up, Zirbel hanging out the back, waving to the public walking along next to us as we carefully crawled over the speed humps, stereo blasting.

Me with my rockstar glasses and middle-school mustache. We were all growing dirty mustaches in an attempt at camoflauge.
As we crawled through the bustling downtown, two police on motorcycles came up behind us. They could do nothing but wave and laugh at Big Tom, one of the biggest men I know, sitting in the trunk of a tiny car with his knees in his chest and smiling like there was nothing he'd rather be doing.

Lunch was another poke-but-don't-eat ordeal, and then the ice cream came out. I'll take 7, please and thank you. But really I only had 4. I was amused to learn that the reaction to a dropped plate in a cafeteria is the same all over our hemisphere: silence, then resounding applause accompanied by hooting and hollering. So we returned to the hotel with a plate of food for Bob, who happened to be shirtless and enjoying the sun while cleaning bikes. A man in his element, for sure.

When I turned on the tv, I was just looking for anything in English. The Spanish was wearing on me. When I found reruns of Friends, in English, I was overjoyed.

Again choosing nutrition over money, Reid, Zwiz, Tom, and I headed out for some chivitos on the town while Soladay and Hanson stayed in and enjoyed the fruits of their grocery run earlier. The 4 of us had to talk ourselves out of the 2400watt stereo system we saw while window shopping...there just wasn't room in the Geely for it.

Looking forward to people-watching, we chose to sit outside on the restaurant's patio, and immediately regretted it. It was so noisy, as the only rule for owning a vehicle in Uruguay--scooters included--seemed to be that mufflers must be removed. Also, the fumes were pretty rough. The waiter took our orders--chivitos all around, and then chased off the stray dogs that were limping around looking for scraps.

Chivitos can come al pan or al plato--with or without a bun. Without the bun, the plate is covered in french fries. Then you have a large, thin filet of pounded steak with mayo slathered on it. Covering that is a thick layer of ham (bacon sometimes), atop which is some form of egg--fried or hardboiled. Then there's the tomato and lettuce, and sometimes olives.

Here's where it gets dicey: the tomato and lettuce. It all depends on how they were washed. Reid and Zwiz took the gamble, having had enough chivitos from their previous trips to Uruguay. Tom and I removed them and dug in. Those that have seen me eat when hungry know that I didn't say a word until my plate was clean (which took about 4 minutes), and then I remained silent as I enjoyed my fullness.

I've got to say that it was pretty good. There are a lot of different flavors going on. Then there's the bed of fries. We asked the waiter for ketchup, and he brought us each one packet. I'm telling you, they are not big on condiments down there.

The next morning was another early transfer, and it was a long one. At the advice of the more experienced guys on the team, we walked right on by the first couple buses that would have been convenient...they were the older, cramped buses and stuffed full of riders. No, we walked all the way to the back of the line and climbed aboard the completely empty charter bus with reclining seats and footrests. An entire bus for 7 very comfortable Americans.

2 hours of ipod time, and we were incredulous at the terrain going by the windows--the roads weren't in terrific shape, but they were twisting through the rolling and windy countryside. Uh, can we please have a stage here?!

Stage 5 was the second shortest, at 88 miles. It was an out-and back stage, which meant that we would have a rare chance to check out the finish beforehand. Together, we rode the last 3 kilometers, making mental and verbal notes, describing how it was going to play out and getting an extra-long look at the last turn, 500m from the finish.

The race organization was playing this finish right into our hands. They deemed the final 3 kilometers as dangerous, and were going to take GC time at the entrance to town, and just leave finish bonuses and placing for the finish. You know what that meant? All we had to do was get to town with the field and our GC time was taken care of, and then all of us could commit 100% to the leadout without having to worry about finishing with the group.

There was no uncertainty. There was no 'maybe', or 'we can do this', or 'if everything goes right'. We were all completely resolute: this stage was going to Optum.

Another blistering fast stage, in some hilly terrain. Still not climbs by any stretch of the imagination, but rollers big enough to really hurt as you sprinted over every single one. This was also the most scenic of all the stages, blasting straight through forest with giant trees.


Remember, this was day 5. My longest race before Uruguay was 5 days, but came nowhere near Uruguay in stage distance--we were going to hit the 500-mile mark today. What I'm trying to say is that I was rapidly approaching my known physical limits of endurance.

It was after the second hour of averaging 30mph with aggressive racing all day long that I really started to feel the fatigue of the race. A large group was on the verge of getting clear, just 200m ahead. We had nobody in it, so I slingshot myself at the bottom of a roller to launch across. I only got halfway before I started to completely unravel. Back in the field, I knew that I had exactly one match remaining, and it was really going to hurt.

I just hung on to the field over the final rollers coming back into town, hoping that it would all come back together in time.

Sure enough, the field reformed perfectly with a kilometer before the GC line. Attacks were still going as riders tried to launch off and gain a couple seconds, but nobody would let them go.

What followed was one of the most amazing 4 minutes of bicycle racing I've ever experienced.

With the GC line rapidly approaching, Optum assembled at the front like the Transformers morphing together. There was no thinking, no over-thinking. It was time to get the job done. We all just slotted into place and prepared for the GC line. I was at the head of our line, snaking my way from wheel to wheel as riders launched. We were going so fast on the false flat into town, though, that it took enormous effort to sprint off the front but no effort to slide onto the wheel.

Maintaining momentum, we crossed the GC line with me in second wheel behind a rider that had just wasted his energy. He peeled off, and I set to work. Soladay was behind me, cautioning me to keep it fast but reminding me we were not burning riders yet.

I pulled for a few hundred meters before swinging outside on the turn into town. The field was keying up behind us, preparing for the sprint. I counted off the riders as I fell back, wordlessly slotting in right ahead of Ken. I believe Zwiz was on sweeper duty--riding Ken's wheel to keep the other sprinters off.

Soladay finished his pull and fell back to slot in ahead of me as Zirbel took to the front with a bit less than 2K to go.

Dangerous finish, they said? We had scouted this road just hours before. We knew it was rough, with cracks and holes everywhere. We knew about the traintracks going through the roundabout with 1.5K to go, and the best line through there. We knew the cleanest line down the whole road was dead center.

So when Zirbel got all 12 cylinders firing and began to ratchet up the speed, we knew what was coming. We were going so fast, it was incredible. The road smoothed out as the speed increased. The Brazilians were trying to assemble their train, or at least get a few riders into ours. They started up next to Reid, who wouldn't let them in. They fell back to Soladay, who held firm. They tried to nudge me out of line, but I wasn't giving. They knew better than to try and move Ken.

Meanwhile, Zirbel is continuing to crank up the speed. We blasted through the roundabout, which crested over the railroad tracks, at well over 30mph, pinching off the Brazilian train on the inside. I had expected Zirbel to pull off long ago and get behind me, but it had become obvious that I was now the final man in the train. I was Cav's Renshaw. That wasn't the original plan, but there was no time to think. Zirbel just kept going, it was incredible. My Garmin file says we were doing 37mph on the run to the final corner, and he had been pulling for a kilometer.

Having given everything he had, Big Tom swung off and let Reid take us the 200m to the final corner. We were coming in fast, and I was sky-high on adrenaline. I set up for the corner a bit wider than Reid and Soladay, and dove in a little bit later and faster. I also got a smooth, fast jump out of the corner. As a result, I was going 5mph faster coming out of the corner and passed them on the inside. Uh oh. I knew Ken was on my wheel and rule #1 in a leadout is never ever slow down in the closing meters. I had just committed myself to finishing this thing off as I began to wind up my sprint.

The finish line was in sight, but still a long way off on a false-flat drag to the line. My mind comprehended '500m' spraypainted on the ground as I checked between my legs, seeing Ken's white shoes spinning smoothly behind me. Just get to 250, Chad. 250.

400 passed by.  Come on, 250. This is really starting to hurt. 300 was coming up. Come on, 300! Refusing to lose speed, I continued to use everything I had. It was almost over.

300 passed beneath me and I was done after 25 seconds of all-out effort. At that exact instant, a Movistar rider had launched his sprint around Ken, who simply transferred wheels. My last sight was of Ken's face nearly on his stem, tucked behind Movistar and waiting for the perfect moment to explode.

I dropped anchor and coasted down as I tried not to fall off my bike, while watching for Ken to post up.

I saw a blue jersey post up across the line. Movistar is blue. I was devastated. I had screwed up the leadout and cost us another stage.

I found my teammates and began apologizing.

Reid looked at me and said, "Dude, Ken won...."

It seems I had forgotten Ken was in the blue sprinter's jersey. It wasn't even close.

You can see me on the very left, way back in the distance.
We were so pumped. Optum was back!

Tomorrow:
-How will racing in the rain go for us?
-I venture into unknown realms of fatigue
-A piano? Where?!
-Comically small hotel rooms!

Monday, October 1, 2012

Vuelta Ciclista del Uruguay: Stage 4

Arrival
Stage 1
Stage 2
Stage 3

After our customary chocolate milk and Coke post-race bevvies, we slow-rolled the mile or so to our new hotel. We were starting to get our daily rhythm down with the luggage. I had reorganized my big bag so that I only ever removed a couple of things that I needed most often, and it could be ready to go again in less than 30 seconds when it was time to wheel it out again at 6 in the morning.

We got cleaned up and piled into the Geely for the drive over to lunch. This time we tried something new. 2 in front, 3 in back, and Zirbel in the trunk with the tailgate up, hanging his legs out over the bumper. That got us a few laughs.

At lunch, I ate a bit, but mostly poked around at the flavorless rice and canned vegetables, the slimy sauceless pasta, and the flavorless chicken leg. The bread was good, then they put a pile of ice cream cups on the table. I ate one, and seeing that there were extra, another. Then I took the last two on the way out the door. Our new hotel was more of a B&B, and had a mini fridge in the room. Snack for later? Yes, please.

Later, for dinner, we voted on a morale- and calorie-boost and opted to pass on the free race dinner in favor of food that we would actually eat. So we meandered into the bustling downtown and found a nice sit-down restaurant. I wanted to try the chivito, one of Uruguay's national dishes, but then I saw pizza on the menu and got tunnel vision.

I got a pretty big pepperoni pizza, and it was fantastic. Always thinking ahead, I had ordered more than I could eat--and I ate a lot--so that I could have leftovers. Talk about a morale boost! I would've paid double what that pizza was worth.

Our hotel, because it was so little, only had to feed 2 dozen racers the next morning. Needing less food, they offered a wider spread and It. Was. Awesome. Aside from the standard yogurt, they had bananas and apples and oranges. They had jelly-filled pastries. They had dulce-de-leche-filled pastries. They had toast with jams. There was cereal, too.

After having some of everything, I went back to the room and took care of the previous night's pizza. Full stomach, happy Chad.

All that food, and Stage 4 was the shortest road stage at only 73 miles. We may have had a tailwind helping us, but the short stage with the rapid-fire sprints and KOMs kept us going fast all day. We averaged 30mph and were done in under 2.5 hours. A short day at the office.

It's about time I tell you about a 'feature' of the racing down there. We had a rolling enclosure, remember? And remember how we're on their highways exclusively? Well, the police ahead of us stopped oncoming traffic in the shoulder (which was always a blast  sketchy as all git-out when we were single-file in the gutter, flicking in and out of the cars). The police were unhappy with traffic building up behind the race, though. They would randomly decide when enough cars had queued up behind the race caravan to let them by.

But we never stopped racing.

So let's imagine together how this goes: 120 riders, racing their hearts out. Attacks are flying. The field stretches out single file during a series of attempts to break things up. Then the front riders sit up and the swarm happens--one of the most dangerous moments in racing as the riders at the back are looking to maintain momentum and launch off the front, threading their way around and through the slowing riders at the front. The field swells to fill the road.

The police, with their extensive knowledge of racing, understand exactly what's going on  oblivious to the ebb and flow of the race, without fail,  chose the swarm as the time to let traffic by.

So the police come up next to us, sirens blaring, and scream over the speaker something that I could never make out, but sounded like, "WABOWABOWABOWABOWABO!!!!" Basically, they wanted us to leave a lane open. At the same time, they're screaming at the traffic to get a move on and get by us.

Knowing how dangerous a situation this was Seeing an opportunity, racers chose to use the extra space as a lane to attack, and the drivers, who were very experienced in driving around races who had no idea what they were doing, would slow to take pictures.

Racing is dangerous, no doubt. But ya'll, this was nuts.

"WABOWABOWABOWABOWABO!!!!"

I don't see how this could go wrong at all/Mother, don't look at this picture
Okay, the sprint: We hit the front where we wanted to, but a couple of other leadout trains came up on either side. As we neared the town, there were a couple more turns around roundabouts that we weren't expecting (we were going off incomplete Spanish descriptions of the closing kilometers in the race Bible). We got disorganized, and Ken was left with only Zirbel to take a monster pull into the uphill sprint. It was a drag race, and Hanson came up just a bit shy with 2nd place.

The thing about podiums...they just leave you wanting more. We were getting our momentum back, and we were tired of 'almosts'. Stage 5 had 'Optum' written all over it.

Tomorrow:
-Can we build on our momentum and bring home another oversized trophy?
-Should we call the home office and have them write off the missing bikes?
-Seriously, what's a chivito?
-Police see Zirbel hanging out the back of the Geely