Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Day 2 in the Desert

After a rather restful night's sleep, I was rather disappointed to open the shades and see the trees blowing violently. It was 8am and the wind was already whipping. That meant it was going to be a hard and "fun" day of racing! The tension was high on the start line as a result of the high winds. Considering the conditions, it took a relatively long time for the action to happen. Finally after about 35km we took a left hand turn into a cross-tailwind section and the gas went on. The field blew up immediately. I'm not sure how many groups there were, but I do know that I was in the last one! It wasn't my finest moment, but I had done my job for the day, which was get our guys safely to the turn and then just finish. It sounds kind of funny, but I'm not here for gc and we have guys who can do a good sprint, so it is important to get them in a position to be able to do that. That means they have to be in the front when the action happens. 

Today's stage was the test event for this year's World Championships. We rode the circuit and its many turns 4 times. Despite the crosswinds and big splits, things actually all came back together by the time we finished the circuits. It was kind of crazy. I never thought we'd see the front group again, but we caught on just as we started the last lap... and Katusha was starting to line things out for the sprint. It was a little demoralizing to see them lining it up, but I dug deep to get back into the group. I wanted to try and help our guys a little bit before the sprint; at least try and contribute a little for the day. I fought to try and get to the front, but it was completely blocked up and basically impossible to move up. I had all but given up and was just following the group to the finish when I suddenly realized I was basically at the front! I was just about to jump to try and help Marco and Carlos when I heard Chris yell to me, "Dude, stay out of there and be safe!" I obliged as I didn't want to get into trouble and likely wasn't going to be any assistance in the last few kilometers of the stage. So instead I relaxed a bit and rolled into the finish having a look at the crash victims about 500 meters from the line. Thankfully no one from us was in there and I don't think anyone was seriously injured. 

Tomorrow is the Merckx style TT, meaning no aero equipment. Basically a TT on road bikes. It is only 11.4km, but it will certainly be plenty painful and windy! Should be fun and at least it shouldn't be stressful. :) 

Monday, February 8, 2016

Qatar Baptism

Wow wow wow, Qatar is a unique race! Despite what I think was a good effort, I was not in any position to battle with the big boys. Then again, I'm bigger than my roommate Chris Jones, and he made the front group! Regardless, it is a special game we're playing here and it requires a unique skill set to be good here. I thought I was giving myself a decent chance at being well placed by starting at the front of the race, but already by the end of the neutral I had been shuffled to the back! It was incredible really. The first 50km of the race were nervous and tense, but didn't have any serious cross winds, so not much happened. After that all chaos broke loose. The splits happen quickly here and before I knew it I was in what I think was the third group. We continued to roll quite hard because things break apart and come back together here regularly. We could see the group in front of us for the next 30km. Finally at the feedzone we had closed the gap and rejoined.

I skipped the feedzone in an effort to try and get into good position for the next echelon. I wanted to feed, but I knew I had enough food and just hoped that I could get a bottle at some point. Luckily one of my teammates grabbed a mussette and gave me a bottle. I also figured that the most useful I could be was trying to be in the front for my teammates as long as possible. Unfortunately the next echelon happened almost immediately and I didn't have the legs. A small group split off the front of and I remained in the third group. At that point I think the energy in our group deflated. The first group was long gone and the race was essentially over with 100km to go! For the rest of the race our group split, regrouped, split, regrouped, etc. as we turned a few times and the winds changed. I just kept my nose out of trouble and was almost exuberant to cross the finish line. Silly, I know, but it felt like a fairly good accomplishment to me because I had raced hard and stayed out of trouble: small victories.

Tomorrow's race is on the Worlds course for 2016, which is being hosted here (obviously). It is forecasted to be a windier, so things will certainly be more interesting tomorrow! With that I bid you good night and wish myself sweet dreams. :)

Sunday, February 7, 2016

From South America to the Middle East

Last time I checked in I was in San Luis, Argentina and in the thralls of an unexpectedly windy and hot race. Well now I'm in Qatar and getting ready for the expected chaos of this typically windswept race. To catch you up quickly, San Luis finished up pretty well. I recovered ok from my stage 2 crash, with the worst problem being a lingering bruise/sore spot on my hip. It didn't seem to affect me while riding too much, but it was obvious during sleep and massage. Stage 6 was the queen stage of the race, finishing on a series of three climbs categorized 3, 1, and 1 respectively. Essentially it was an hors category climb though because they were all connected by a couple short downhills. When we started the final climb(s) I stuck my nose in it and battled all I could. I didn't have the highest confidence after stage 4, but I tried to forget that and deal with the task at hand. I happily found that I felt much better and was able to hang in for a lot longer. I did come undone on a steep pitch midway through the second climb, but I was happy with the better sensations, especially because when I came off I wasn't completely cracked. Now you're wondering, "why did you come off then?" Well, sometimes you just can't go harder than the current speed/pace, so you can't follow and then it's kind of over. I continued to fight, but after coming off there was a ridiculous, New Mexico-esque wind that pounded me from all sides (but the back!) and made it impossible to chase back on. Without the shelter of the group, I had no chance. I soldiered on to the top, fighting every pedal stroke of the way against the swirling, whipping wind. I know several guys got blown off the road and maybe have even crashed. I did not crash and was happy to finish the day. The final stage was fairly ceremonial and I helped out as much I could, but the sprint was no place for me! I was happy to be headed home, mostly intact.

After a marathon travel and a couple quick days at sponsor/training camp, there was no better greeting for me than my family picking me up at the airport. Noah is walking now and he gave me the best greeting I could've ever asked for, basically running and yelling with excitement to see me. It was pretty emotional actually. The knowledge that he truly knows you and apparently is excited to be reunited is both invigorating and saddening. It certainly makes leaving home harder again, but it also makes you value each moment you get with your family that much more. I had a quick week at home with Lisa and Noah between San Luis and Qatar, but it was reenergizing and productive. I had a few good training sessions, some good coffee and dinner dates, and got to reconnect with home nicely. Nothing better than that!

So now I've shipped out to Qatar, arriving yesterday evening, and we start racing tomorrow. I had a real struggle with jeg lag last night, being awake from about 2:15-5:30am, but I'm hoping tonight will be much better. On a positive note, I felt quite ok during training today, so perhaps I can dig out of this hole quickly. I have no clue what tomorrow will hold as I am a rookie here, but I'm kind of expecting the worst and hoping for the best. Everyone knows the stories of the crosswinds here, so that makes me a little anxious, but at least I won't be blind sided by it. All I can do is fight for it and hope I'm in the right place at the right time! That's all from the desert. Good night.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

New Beginnings In Argentina

Wow, I guess it's been a little while since I last wrote! Rather than do a giant recap and catch up though, I'd prefer to just start with the new stuff: 2016 and my first days with UHC. It's a new year and I'm onto new adventures. My move over to UHC will mean some big changes for Lisa and me, but we're welcoming them with open arms. The biggest immediate change is the likelihood that we will not be spending much time in Girona/Europe. Instead, we will primarily be in the USA, which will be nice for many reasons; however, we did not see this change coming so abruptly and we are definitely going to miss friends and life in Girona. That's the way of the cycling world though and we will make the most of and embrace what we're given! Regardless of the changes, I'm excited to be a part of this new team and looking forward to the opportunities I will have.

This season is starting a little differently and earlier than it has in the past for me. The team didn't have a training camp in December or early January, opting instead to send some of us directly to racing here in San Luis before a very short "sponsor" camp, and then immediately continue racing after. I believe this is the earliest I have started racing ever, but I'm happy to get things going and see how this season can progress. The travel to San Luis was quite a marathon from start to finish, but once we finally arrived the accommodations were nice and allowed some good recovery. Our hotel is at a horse racing track and we actually got to see some live racing before the bike racing started. It was pretty cool! We've been here almost a week now, so it's starting to feel like home. I'm rooming with fellow American, Chris Jones, and have been reunited with my old teammate Jani Brajkovic, so coming into this team was not completely uncomfortable. The fact that it is a primarily American and English speaking team makes getting to know everyone a slightly easier process.

So how about the racing? Stage 1 was the dreaded team time trial. It never gets easier and it doesn't matter what time of the season it is, it hurts! We put together a really good effort and surprised many, ourselves included, with the 5th fastest time, spending a good amount of time in the "hot seat" following our effort. As expected, several of the big teams coming after us knocked us off, but we were happy with our result. Going into stage 2 we didn't have huge expectations, mainly to try and stay out of trouble and try to have a good sprint from Marco or Carlos. It has been surprisingly windy here and that played a big factor into the stage. It was basically a giant out and back on a highway, so the wind was quite predictable, although it shifted around a bit throughout the day. At the turn around the pressure went on and chaos ensued. I got caught out and ended up crashing as someone took out my front wheel. I didn't have major damage, but the skin lost and impact on the ground definitely left their mark. Miraculously I made it back to the group and then didn't lose any time, so my hopes for doing ok in the overall were not completely lost.

Having dodged a bullet on stage 2, I went into stage 3 still in a reasonable place to try and maintain some GC position looking ahead to the big stages of 4 and 6. It wasn't possible to overlook the finish of stage 3 though with a short climb topping out just 12km from the finish. The run into the climb was crazy as usual but I managed to avoid mishap and started the climb in reasonable position unlike 4 of my teammates who all crashed. They all finished and will continue to race, but it was unfortunate and is never fun to crash. Once on the climb the field shrunk pretty quickly, but the front group was still large. The pressure on the climb came from different teams, but all control went out the window when some of the big guns decided to fire around 1.5km from the top. The most notable for me was seeing Nibali follow and immediately attack Quintana. I'm pretty sure he was going twice as fast as everyone else. Despite my state of oxygen debt and now completely demoralized mental state, I kept my rhythm and fought to the top. Jani and I were in a chase group not too far off the back. We chased down the descent and into the finish. The team's bad luck continued when Jani punctured 5km from the finish, losing tons of time and any overall hopes for himself. By the finish, my chase group finished somewhere around 30 seconds behind the leaders. I lost time on the stage, but I don't suspect that it will make a huge difference in the overall given the two mountain top finishes of stage 4 and 6 yet to come. Regardless I will fight to do my best!

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Mountains in Hainan

Today was the queen stage of the Tour of Hainan with three good climbs, the final summit only 12km from the finish, all downhill. We held our cards tight and did our best to be players on the final climb. There was a small flurry of attacks as the road turned upwards and I just followed the wheels. The group shrank pretty quickly and a couple guys went clear with a good distance to the top. I continued to follow the wheels, hoping to make a late move toward the top and maybe bridge across as we could still see the guys only 10-15 seconds in front of us. I made a costly miscalculation in my head about the race kilometer the top was at though and was surprised to see the 1km to the top sign when I thought we still had 3km to go. I was still following and had missed a late move just before that, wanting to wait just a little longer. So at the top I made a small dig and dropped a few guys from the group, but it was too late. We raced down the descent and had a fairly big regrouping by the bottom and ended up with a small field sprint for 2nd/3rd place as one/two guys from the moves on the climb stayed away. Our team was super strong with 4 of us in there, but we unfortunately missed the win. I think overall though, we're happy as a team. We didn't have a "big" team here on paper, but we have raced hard and will come away with 2 guys top 10 (3 in top 15; would be 4 if I hadn't gotten the time gap on stage 1), 2nd in the team gc, and Fabio with 4th in the points jersey (I think). That isn't too bad for 5 guys who usually are normally just domestiques!

One day left tomorrow, almost guaranteed another sprint, but there are a few time bonuses and KOMs available, so depending on how fiesty I feel, I may try something. I'm not sure where I stand in the KOM points, but with a few points tomorrow, I might be able to land in the payout, so a little extra dough is always nice. And for the overall, I believe I'm 2 seconds out of top 20, which is how deep they pay, so again if I'm able to snag some bonus seconds, I could add a little more to our prize money payout. We'll see how I feel tomorrow!

Monday, October 26, 2015

Another Few More Stages in Haw... Hainan

It's called the Hawaii of China and I've seen why several times throughout the race. We've had moments of beautiful sea and beaches with the same tropical feel people think of when they think Hawaii. But there's also big disparities between the lush tourist spots and the normal people. The difference is vast and striking to see. Since stage three, we've had 4 more sprints, a couple big crashes, and generally good weather. Fabio has continued his good sprinting with three other top 10 finishes. In today's stage he had some bad luck with the guy in front of him having a mechanical with 300 meters to go, but still managed 7th. He says without that he had a really good chance at winning. Bummed for him because he deserves it, especially after fighting so hard all week in the sprints. Hopefully he can come through in the final stage.

For me personally, I've done my best to avoid any catastrophes and keep my stress levels low. I tried to help Fabio in the sprint of stage 5, pulling from about 4 to 1.5km to go, but we don't have a real leadout train here, so it's really hard to be successful. After my pull I dangled at the back and had just enough time to grab my brakes and avoid the biggest pileup of the race. Counted my blessings. :) Then stage 6 brought the first climbs of the race with three KOMs in the first 50km and first opportunity for the mountains jersey. We decided as a team why not try for it, so we set out trying for the breaks. The group was mostly together on the first climb and I was too far back to try, but I bridged across to a few guys before the second climb and managed to take a few points on that one. Then the break went before the third climb, but there were still a couple points available. I tried for it but was beaten at the line. I'm not the fastest sprinter! We're not winning much here, but we're racing hard as a team, so that's all that can be asked.

Tomorrow is the penultimate and queen stage with the real mountains. There are three category 1 climbs, each 5-6km in length and around 6% gradient. They aren't the hardest on paper, but it will certainly be a difficult and defining stage. The road quality here has been generally good, but in the mountains, they tend to have more concrete roads, so they aren't as smooth, which makes things a little more difficult, at least it feels that way. The climbs will definitely create some selection, but I'm not sure how much of one. I believe a really important thing is actually going to be the position before the last downhill because it is technical and fast. If you lose the wheel in a corner, you might not come back. And with the race being decided by mere seconds or even placings, that will certainly matter. I believe I can climb with the best and might see if I can't sneak away toward the top of the climb with hopes of a stage win, but we'll see what happens tomorrow!

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Tour of Hainan

Hey all, I'd like to give a nice long update, but I'm typing via phone and just don't have that in me! I'm currently in Hainan, China for Tour of Hainan. It is a 9 stage race with more than likely 8 sprints and one mountainous day; although it is not a mountain top finish, instead a descent to the finish. Rumor has it that a small group usually finishes together, but we'll see. The time bonuses and cumulative stage placings seem to be rather important in determining your gc because there is not a real decisive stage or two to shake things up. Regardless, I will be honest and say that I will give it me best through the race, especially in stage 8, but my top priority is finishing this race with my body intact, so I can go home and finally hit the reset button on what has been a tumultuous season.

We're three stages in and the race thus far has been a sprinters delight, aka Matthew's nightmare. I fear the chaos of a "controlled" World Tour sprint, but here is a whole different level of chaos. Guys are fighting for every position and there is no team strong enough to really line it up with speed and keep it safe, so guys are just kamikaze everywhere. We have a kamikaze (sprinter) on our team in Fabio Silvestre and he surprised with 3rd on the first stage and then two top tens; good enough for me! I've narrowly avoided the crashes on stages one and two, and kept my stress levels to a minimum today by surfing the back of the field all the while thinking to myself, "it isn't a matter of IF, but WHEN will the crash happen?" Thankfully for me and anyone who would be involved it didn't happen today.

Tomorrow is the most unnecessarily long stage of the race at 237km, all flat, where we will ride a u-shaped course from the start to the finish and then make a loop back to the finish. All the while we could've just gone point to point, maybe with a loop or two on the end for a nice total of maybe 140-150km of racing and likely the same result, but instead we get to test the comfort of our chamois and ability of the sunscreen to protect our skin for around 6 hours. Fun!

Other than the racing, things are fairly normal. Ok I lied. The WiFi here is very poor. You'd think such a tech obsessed country would have blazing fast internet, but I guess they don't need it because everything is censored/blocked by the government anyway. You can't even search Google! Also we've been doing our own laundry, by hand! Not sure why it seems so impossible to get laundry done at a hotel or even find a laundromat, but I certainly don't speak or read Chinese and I don't think my European counterparts do either, so figuring it out is difficult. And lastly, the food is on par with any race in Europe, so that's to say pretty bland. I'd love to try the chicken curry or beef dish, but I'm not eating the meat because of the fear of contamination with doping controls. So that means I'm eating rice and maybe some veggies. I've been spicing that up with some hot pepper sauce I've discovered here combined with some peanut butter I brought for kind of a spicy peanut rice. It's alright actually. Usually we're lucky enough to get eggs for breakfast, so that at least helps. And they seem to have lots of different pastry options, so you can have that if you want/need. I can certainly say that I'm looking forward to a nice hamburger or steak upon my return to the USA though! Alrighty, well I've written a lot more than I planned and successfully killed enough time that I can now head off to make some spicy peanut rice rice. Bon appetite!