Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Vuelta Ciclista del Uruguay: Stage 5

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!

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