The month of May began with a return to NM where I was able to catch up with some friends and reunite with Lisa. I had a great birthday BBQ thrown by our good friends the Cunicos. We were able to relax and reunite and enjoyed watching the Tour of California preview show. I was also able to take a couple trips up to Silver City for some good training and catching up with Luther pals Garrett, Dave and Dene. Robert and Melinda, two of the nicest and most interesting people we have ever met, graciously opened their home to us for training in the mountains. Melinda made homemade bread and a decadent chocolate cake. In fact, the training may have been a wash with all the great food! Finally, Lisa successfully defended her comprehensive exams which have been her main focus in school the past 6 months, and we got to celebrate her accomplishment with our wonderful friends Mike and Holly. It was a fantastic two weeks of building relationships with great training mixed in.
Following the short stint in NM, it was time to ship out to Lake Tahoe for the beginning of Tour of California(ToC). It was a beautiful and picturesque setting for the start of my first ToC. The excitement grew for me over the few days I spent there prior to the start. Unfortunately, after several days of beautiful weather, the skies turned and treated us to mid-May snow showers, which forced the cancellation of stage one and shortening of stage two. Despite the rocky start, stage three through eight created some of the best memories I have of cycling to date. With all the pressure of American sponsors and a defending champion on the team, the team delivered through awesome teamwork. It was a true team effort resulting in the overall victory, as well as second place overall and two stage victories.
For me personally, ToC was a huge confidence boost and affirmation to me that I can ride at this level of cycling. Going into stage four, we had the game plan of going fast up Mt. Hamilton to thin the field and then setting Levi and Chris up for Sierra Road. I was nervous about this plan because it was maybe the first time that I was officially being called on to make it to the finale and do the super domestique duties. I was excited but really anxious because I did not want to let my teammates down. On the first rise of the day, Chris felt he had amazing legs and called for the team to drive the pace and decimate the field as much as possible. Honestly, I was almost dropped in the first part of the stage, but thankfully my legs came around and on the ascent of Mt. Hamilton I felt dynamite. After Ben, Markel and Jason were done with their amazing effort, Haimar, Dimitriy and I had to finish the job and deliver Levi and Chris to Sierra Road. I was the last teammate left for Levi and Chris and was able to take them into Sierra road and up a little more than a kilometer. When I pulled off, Chris and Levi flew away from the field, and Chris completed an amazing day by finishing more than a minute ahead of his nearest competitor to take the yellow jersey.
After a few days of successfully defending the jersey due to Ben, Jason and Markel's work on the front, it was time for the queen stage to Mt. Baldy. With new confidence stemming from my performance on Sierra Road and the votes of confidence from my teammates, I felt inspired to have another good day at work. The team took control from the beginning and kept the race within reason. We allowed the break a small gap, but slowly dragged them back throughout the stage until their gap was inside a minute at the base of Mt. Baldy. After Dimitriy finished a dynamite pull into the base of Mt. Baldy, I took over and began to ride a hard tempo. With Chris and Levi on my wheel shouting encouragement and giving directions, I felt inspired to do the best job I could. I rode as long as I could, digging deep to drop other riders from the group. With one last effort, I was able to reel in the last member of the breakaway at about 2.5km to go and set Levi and Chris on their way to take first and second on the stage. In that moment, I was able to live out my dream of being the super domestique in the mountains. It was the highlight of my career, and it was so fun that my family and many friends were there to share it with me.
With a successful ToC behind me and good vibes flowing, it was time for rest and recovery before the US pro championships. For this, Lisa and I headed to Ben King's house in Virginia. Neither Lisa nor I had ever been to Virginia, but I think we may have fallen in love. Maybe it was the King's amazing family or the great food or the spectacular scenery and riding/running, but there is little doubt we will want to visit there again. I especially need to return to the Batesville Store to try another flavor of their tasty brownies and drink a Wisconsin born Sprecher root beer or cream soda, and I would love to get in some more serious training with Ben. After way less than ample time in Virginia, it was time to head for Greenville, SC for the weekend of races.
Coming off the week of great racing in California and a great few days of recovery in Virginia, I felt excited and confident heading into the weekend. I knew my fitness was good, and the team had a good chance of placing well in both the time trial and road race. Still, I had no idea what a weekend I was about to have! It began on Saturday with the time trial. I had little to no pressure going in, which I think is when I perform best. I rolled out of the start house and began riding fast immediately. I could tell quickly I was having a pretty good day and my legs were responding favorably. After seeing intermediate checkpoints and taking mental notes as I went on, I knew I was on a good ride. I dug in hard on the last lap with a little extra motivation to catch the two competitors who were slowly coming back to me. I chased and caught them both inside 3km to go. I drove hard to the line and came across to nab the third and final podium spot by only .12 seconds! It was a pleasant surprise and a great way to start the weekend.
After celebrating the unexpected podium during of the time trial and enjoying a restful Sunday with the family, Monday's road race arrived along with the heat and humidity! With temps already approaching 90 at the start, it was sure to be a brutal day of racing with 185km to race and four drags up Paris Mountain. From the gun, the action was hot. A lot of guys were trying for the break with the hope they could be the next Ben King long bomb breakaway man. It was not to be though. The race was aggressive and soon became a war of attrition. With the heat and humidity, hydration and eating were vital for survival. Lisa and my Mom feeding us was a huge help for Radioshack. Each lap they handed us life-sustaining water or energy drink and ice socks for cooling the body temp.
After the first ascent of Paris Mountain, a solid break away was established with Jason representing the Shack. It was the ultimate team move. Having Jason in the break meant that Ben and I could conserve energy in the field. The next two times up Paris Mountain were relatively uneventful with the exception of a crazy fan running in the middle of the field and in front of me at the top of Paris Mountain the third time. Thankfully he didn't take me or anyone else down and things carried on normally. The fourth and final time up Paris Mountain is usually when the fireworks happen and the final selection is made. Knowing this, I put myself into good position going into the climb. When we hit the base, Tejay drilled it. Only Hincapie and I were able to follow, and we quickly gained a gap on the exploded peloton and rode across to the remaining breakaway. At that point, we had a great situation because Jason was still there to help me. He did everything he could with his last bits of energy until Tejay attacked again and separated himself, Hincapie, Ted King, and me from the rest of the group as we entered town for the final three in-town circuits.
We all cooperated well taking pulls and driving the pace. With the four of us now securely in front, the anxiousness began to set in. How was I going to make my best bid at winning the race? I had several thoughts of launching a long bomb attack, but I was nervous about expending that energy only to be caught and then not have it left for the finish. Maybe that was a bit wimpy or gutless, but the moments passed and as we entered the final kilometer I found myself in a great position on George's wheel. Knowing he was the odds on favorite in our small group for the sprint win, I had a good position to follow his wheel and try to come around in the finish. I decided with 350 meters to go that I needed to try and make the race happen because I didn't trust my sprint. I launched an attack on the final rise going into the last corner and took it into the long home stretch. George was immediately onto my wheel and soon came past me. I was able to swing onto his wheel and regain some momentum as the finish line approached.
We sprinted down the right side of the road, tight to the barriers. The crowd noise was deafening. I remember seeing the meter signs coming by for 200, 150, 100 and then 50 meters to go. The line was approaching way too fast. I moved left and sprinted with everything I had left. It came down to a bike throw and neither George or I knew who had won. I waited anxiously to hear the results. Time seemed to stand still. I stood in the middle of the road as the cameras and press began to swarm. I watched as others finished. Time passed soooo slowly until finally the radio crackled through with the numbers of the top three racers. Two, thirteen, thirty two... I had won! I had beaten the legendary, three time US pro champion George Hincapie to win my first US national title. Wow!
As I sit here on the plane back to Europe and write this, it still seems surreal. The moments and celebrations seem so fleeting. I was shepherded to the stage for interviews, pictures and the podium presentation. The happiness I was feeling was multiplied exponentially by the fact that Lisa and my parents were there. Then as I fumbled through the immediate post-race interview, I remember looking to the road and seeing Ben lifting his bike above his head and Jason raising his arm in celebration. It was an amazing team effort on the day. That team was riders, staff, family, friends and the crowd. Without all of them, the race would not have been the same. Being called to the podium, slipping that stars and stripes jersey over my head, taking the top step of the podium and popping the cork of the champaign are memories I won't soon forget. I had a moment of sadness when I boarded the plane in Greenville not only because I was leaving my family, but I was also leaving behind some of the best moments of my life. I will never forget them. It seemed like it all went by in a flash.
Winning the stars and stripes is a huge honor for me. I look forward to representing my country every day I ride and race. I hope I can do it the justice and give it the dignity of the past champions. Again, I want to thank everyone for the amazing support from near and far. Without the votes of confidence and comments of encouragement, I wouldn't have been able to do it. Thanks especially to Mom, Dad, Aaron, Mike, Jann, Tim and Lisa for being with me from the beginning. I am so blessed to have you all. Also, a huge thanks to Eric, Shane, Lola, Dave and Tim for making the venture to California. It has been a magical May for me, thanks for being a part of it!