Sunday
Jun132010

Teamwork Seals the Deal!

Simply put, Team RadioShack rode a fantastic Dauphine, fighting through huge obstacles to bring home the overall win.  After the crash in first stage, we were already down one rider when Haimar broke his wrist and had to leave the race, not to mention that Markel, G4, and Ben were hurt in the crash and spent the rest of the week racing below their best fitness as a result of those injuries.  When half the team was already either down or out after stage one, it really showed what the team was made of and how much we all really like each other in the constant sacrifice and work that was given through each difficult stage.

All week long, I saw the team suffering to keep Jani in yellow.  With each climb we would lose anywhere from 2 to 4 riders by the summit, only to have them fight back to peloton to immediately take another pull on the front time and again.  It hurt me to see Tomas, who didn't make the time cut yesterday, feeling bad this morning.  He spent more time on the front then anyone in the race, working day after to day to keep the rest of the team that much fresher for the later part of each stage, and yet still felt bad about being unable to help today.   

At the start of today's stage, it was once again all out when a group of 8 escaped.  Three teams chased the break with everything they had, going through the valley before the first and only big climb of the day, which began 30 miles into the stage.  As we hit the climb, the break was only 45 seconds in front of us, and every team was trying to send riders across to it.

For Team RadioShack Paulinho was putting on a show.  We had lost everyone on the team except Paulinho, myself, and Jani, who of course needed to stay protected and save energy for the general classification fight.  Paulinho drove the pace steadily up the entire climb, while I would follow any attacks that might put the team in danger of losing the jersey.  After each attack was neutralized, Paulinho would just continue riding his tempo past everyone that had attacked us, while I would return, tucking back onto his wheel until the next attack came.  Finally, we got the break we wanted established, allowing us to ease off the pace and recover just a little.

Markel, G4, and Ben fought to return to front once again to take over the work from Paulino and I.  When the break gained too much time, the other teams began pulling on the front to protect their own leaders’ places on general classification, or perhaps, thinking about the one last shot at winning a stage in this year’s race.  The Dauphine was nearing its end, but not before they threw one last obstacle at us.

We entered the 7 mile circuit that we would do 5 times, with everyone on the limit from the pace of the teams chasing.  The weather was unpredictable – with rain on the descent and dry on the climb, making the day even more difficult.  And the circuit itself was not going to be an easy one.  It had a mile and a half long climb that averaged 9%, but the second half had to be closer to 11 or 12% - in other words, HARD.

As we hit the climb each lap, the pace would increase, decreasing the size of the field at the same time.  The descent wasn't any easier, with each wet turn causing the field to split apart even further.  And, at the bottom, it was a full sprint out of the last corner to hold the wheel in front of me as we crossed the finish line each lap. I can’t image how hard it must have been for the non-climbers to close the gaps to the field after each descent, since it was hard enough in the group – all I could think was “Thank God I can climb!”

As we hit the climb for the last time, riders started attacking immediately right from the bottom.  Astana took over the front and set a blistering pace that allowed no one to get very far.  Just as we neared the summit, one final hard attack came, and what was left of the field blew apart.  I had to pass 4 riders to stay in contact with the front group.  As we flew down the descent, an AG2R rider was taking every risk possible to catch the break that was only seconds ahead of us at that point.  After a few turns, I hard a big crash just behind me, while Tejay van Gardener came flying by me to close the gap that was just front us.  From there on out my job was done for Jani, and I could ease up just a bit and take it safe to finish line.

It was a fantastic race, and I can't be happier to see Jani win.  He has been my teammate and roommate now for three years, and I can assure you no one works harder or deserves it more!  So congratulations Jani and Team RadioShack - overall winners of the 2010 Criterium du Dauphine! 

Saturday
Jun122010

Alpe d'Huez Continues it's Legend!

Wow!  The stage to Alpe d'Huez did not disappoint!  From the gun, the race seemed like it had been transformed from the Dauphine into the Tour de France.  The speeds were incredible, as every rider was dreaming of winning on Alpe d'Huez.

We had one category 3 climb six miles into the race that blew the field apart, and before you knew it, a large group had escaped.  Team Footon had missed the break and was driving the pace so hard to bring it back that the field was stretched to the limit for the next 10 miles.

When we hit the cat 2 climb that was almost 12 miles long and only 20 miles into the race, riders were everywhere.  Some tried attacking, coming right back one after another to the field as teams that missed the break each time chased hard, only to reshuffle the deck time and time again.  Finally no one had any energy left to chase, and three groups escaped on the climb.  They were chasing each other until they finally became one large breakaway of around 20 or so riders.

Right away, Astana and RadioShack got together and started driving the pace, since there was no time for chess games if we were to have any chance of keeping the break close.  On the twisty descent, the pace was incredible, and when we hit the flat section before the HC (hors categorie – or top category) climb of the Glandon, the field was still single file.

The pace eased for only a bit at the start of the Glandon, as the guys driving the pace on the front needed a little time to recover.  But, at 12 miles and 7.2% grade, they weren't going to get much of a rest.  With 5 or 6 miles to go to the top, Alberto put his climbers to work.  I was doing almost 400 watts and at my limit, while trying to give Jani any extra draft I could by riding just a little to the side of Alberto.  With the wind changing direction with each switch back, I had to change my position behind Alberto with each turn to give Jani the best draft possible.

Over the top of the climb, Astana continued setting a crazy pace on the descent.  As we flew into one corner at 50 mph that was followed directly by a left hairpin turn, I hit the brakes hard.  The wheels locked up on me as I hit a bunch of bumps on the road.  Meanwhile, Jani was right in front me and slowing down three times faster.  I went flying past him, yelling something to the effect that this might be it for me!  But, somehow, I got the bike under control just in time to not go flying off the edge – not to mention saving the race organizers some money on a memorial plaque in my honor, with something like “Kids, Daddy loves you” on it! 

At the bottom of the climb, Paulino returned to the front, and was once again riding all out with the Astana boys.  We had only 12 miles of flat roads before we hit the legendary Alpe d'Huez.  In that time, I went to the car twice for drinks, gels, snickers, and of course Cokes for Jani, Paulino, and myself.  As we neared Alpe d'Huez, there was a little fighting in the bunch for positioning before we hit climb, but in all honesty, the Glandon had destroyed most of the legs so the fighting was pretty half-hearted.  I did one big jump on the left side of the field, and was back on Jani's wheel for the start of the climb.

Alpe d'Huez hits hard right from the bottom and gets steeper in every turn.  The heat at the bottom from the sun wasn't doing anything to make me feel any better as Astana was driving on the front with every rider they had left, trying to destroy the field and set Alberto up for the win. With only a few riders left in the group I was just about to blow up and drop off the pace.  I went up to Jani and gave him my last water bottle and told him to keep it - it would be last thing I could for him until tomorrow.

After leaving the front group in the wrong direction, I latched onto AG2R's rider, Christophe Riblon, with a QuickStep rider who didn't stick around too long.  I was on the limit to stay with Christophe, when the wind finally started blowing a little harder, allowing me to recover in his draft.  Sanchez and few others caught us from behind, and the pace went up again.

Somewhere on the climb, in one of the switchbacks, I could see Jani up the road in front of us, holding onto Contador’s wheel as he was attacking him to try to gain some time and the win, but Jani was hanging tough.  Meanwhile, Sanchez was riding on the front of our group, as close to the side of the road as possible.  We were passing within inches of every RV and spectator that was on the road – his tactic for trying to drop us all.  At times I had spectators jumping off the road as we came straight at them.

With just about 2 miles to go, we caught up to the young American, Tejay van Garderen, who is having an incredible Dauphine.  Keep your eye on this kid for future!  He had been in Contador’s group for most the climb and was just now coming off the back.  He is fighting for a podium place in the Dauphine, so I opened up a space in line for him to get out of wind.  From there to the finish, the road stair-stepped up to the summit.  Personally, I was happy to see the last corner arrive - with Jani at the finish, and yes, still in yellow!  

Tejay and Chris after the finish. Photo courtesy of Graham Watson (http://grahamwatson.com)

 

Jani and Chris at the finish. Photo courtesy of Graham Watson (http://grahamwatson.com)

Friday
Jun112010

One Day Closer...

Everyone was on their bikes early today, warming up for the start of the fifth stage of the Dauphine.  When we passed mile 0 (after a neutral section) and the race started, we went no farther then 100 meters before we passed the first KOM (top of the summit) marker, which read 10 miles to go.  It was going to be a hard start to the day!  Attacks started right away, as everyone knew that a rider in the breakaway had a good chance of winning the stage.  Half way up the climb, a huge group of almost 30 riders escaped.  Team RadioShack only had Ben on the front to chase, since the rest of the team was stuck in random places throughout the peloton, trying to recover from the big efforts they had already made covering other attacks.

I was on Ben's wheel, but the plan was for me not to work this early in the stage, unless it was really needed.  My job was supposed to start on the second climb of the day, going from there to finish.  Ben was drilling it on the front to keep the large break close, and the field was feeling the effects of the high pace, as riders began dropping out of field one by one, unable to stay in the group.  The gap to the large break hovered at around 35 seconds.  They too were having problems with the high pace on the climb and began to split apart.  I could see a group of 4 or 5 riders riding away from the rest of the break, and at the same time 4 or 5 riders were going in the opposite direction, soon to be back with us.

Just then Ben started to fade, and I thought that Team RadioShack might be trouble, as the gap to the lead four or five had increased just a little.  Just in time, Paulino arrived to the front to take over from Ben and save the day.  He was riding a steady pace that was bringing the group back little by little, but, with only half a mile to go to the summit, we were running out of time to bring them back.  If they went over the climb before we got them, we were going to be in trouble, since chasing 25 or 30 riders working together on a descent and through the valley would have destroyed the team. 

I hit it as hard as I could on the front to close the gap before the top - going numb in the process but reducing the gap to about 10 or 15 seconds as we reached the top.  It hurt, but would save a lot of energy in the long run!  A few moments later, G4 arrived at front, taking over for me. By bombing down the descent at 60 mph and hammering through the turns, he brought the group back together again, and Team RadioShack was looking great, with only 4 or 5 riders away in the break.  More importantly, the team was together at the front once again.

After a long descent through the valley, the next big climb of 12 miles arrived.  We hit the climb, holding a steady tempo, with G4 taking over the pace.  The climb was another monster at 12 miles long and gradient of 7.5%.  The first attacks had no real effect on us, as each attack would go up the road a short distance and then come back just as fast.  G4 rode the first 4 miles until Paulino, who was having a great day, took over. 

Just then, Danny Navarro from Astana attacked with an impressive burst of speed.  It was so strong that no one tried to go with him, and we didn't have to either, since he was a ways down on the general classification and not a threat to Jani’s lead.  Paulino continued riding the front for next 7 miles, leaving me as Jani's insurance card to play if trouble hit.

With no real threat up the road as we went over the top of the climb, I went to work with Paulino on the front of the group as we descended to the finish.  We rode a steady pace, since we had no need or intention of catching the group of riders up the road. 

Danny Navarro had caught and passed all of the original breakaway riders and soloed in for a great win.  Behind him, Team RadioShack had done a great job of protecting Jani all day, bringing him to the finish with his lead still intact.  Tomorrow's stage finishes on the legendary climb of Alpe D'Heuz, where I’m sure the real action of the race will come!!

Thursday
Jun102010

Summer is Here!

For me, summer begins when the heat comes, and today's stage brought the heat from all direction.  The temperature was 98 degrees throughout the valley with lots of sun, while the attacks at the beginning and the end of the day brought heat in another form altogether.

At the beginning of the stage, we were on narrow roads with strong crosswinds.  With 130 miles to cover on the stage, and the first big mountain summit finish coming at the end of the day, it was going to be a hard day on the job for Team RadioShack.  The first 40 minutes of the stage were intense, with hard battling for position at the front of the field.  We had the entire RadioShack team on the front from the start of the race to control the field.  We wanted a break to go with no more then 10 riders, and if possible less then 5.

The crosswinds split the field into pieces within the first few miles of the race.  The team did a great job at front, staying together for the first 10 miles.  After that we kept one or two riders on the front at all times, while letting the others recover in the field from the big efforts they putting in chasing the attacks down.

It was amazing to see how well the team rode together, even when they were on the limit.  No one wanted to let Jani down, and each did more than their fair share of work to get the job done.  At times we had only one of us on the front sprinting all out to chase 20 guys who had escaped from the field, laying everything on the line to keep the race under control. 

After about 25 miles of intense racing, we got what we wanted when a break of two riders escaped from the field, including Danny Pate.  For the next 90 miles there wasn't a lot going on, but once again, we had some great scenery to check out along the way.  We kept two RadioShack riders on the front all day to control the breakaway, holding them at no more then 10 minutes lead throughout the stage.  We then tried to keep the rest of team as rested as possible for the finishing climb.        

On the approach to the final mountain, the action returned in full force.  We hit the climb hard, right from the bottom, with riders attacking from all sides.  Liquigas riders were super motivated to win the stage, and they were the first to light things up.  As soon as the climb got steep, I went to work on the front to control the pace and keep the attacks to a minimum.  My job was a simple one on paper - keep Jani from being isolated.  The original two riders from the break were still up the road, and there were another 4 or 5 riders chasing each other just in front of us.  I got some great help from my teammate Ben Hermans, who took over the front for a few crucial kilometers, giving me a chance to recover.

Photo courtesy of Graham WatsonI got my second wind and a little recovery just as next group of attacks came.  I took over from Ben and started setting into a rhythm on the climb.  On the headwind portions, the front group remained uncharacteristically large, as the riders behind were using a lot less energy while sitting in my draft.  While pulling in the headwind sections, I would ease off just a little to give myself a chance to recover, and then after the hairpin turn when the wind would change to a tailwind I would increase the pace.  

That tactic would help to string out the group behind me, which in turn meant that when we hit the headwind section, if anyone wanted to attack, they would have to use a lot more energy just to get to front again before they could even try to get away.  At that point, the team car was far behind, caught in the traffic of dropped riders, meaning that I had to stay just below my max.  If anything happened to Jani I was his last line of help, so I was doing everything I could to save energy and make the job a little easier.

With each attack, Gallo was quick to tell us who they were and how far behind Jani they were on the general classification.  I let each attack go and stayed in rhythm, gradually bringing back rider after rider.  When we hit about 2 miles to go, the big attack came.  Alberto had all of his guys hit it hard, shattering what was left of the group into pieces.  I had to let the groups go by me as I was hitting my max and needed to recover from my effort on the front before I could go again.  

At that point, even with Jani up the road, I couldn't relax because I knew that if he had a flat or some kind of problem I would have to be there to help.  I jumped from one group to the next, recovered then jumped again to the next, leap-frogging my way back to the front.  With each effort my lungs were burning and the legs were on fire, but when I hit the 500 meters to go sign, I could final ease up and call it a day.

Jani did a great job of following attack after attack from Alberto all the way to the line, and even increasing his lead on the second place rider in the general classification. It was a hard day, but with several more big stages to come, it’s going to be a great Dauphine!

Wednesday
Jun092010

Jani's In Yellow!

Today's time trial stage was to be in all day affair, with an early wake up to view the course in the morning and the race in the afternoon.  My roommate Jani and I woke at 7:30 am, ate breakfast, and then prepared to leave to see the course one time before the race began.  With the time trial course just under an hour away from the hotel, we hopped in the car at 8:45 am and headed to the start.

The TT course was about 31 miles long, so we didn't ride the entire course in order to save some energy for later.  Instead, we drove the first third of the course and rode the rest of it, starting with the climb.  The profile showed the climb as being just under a mile long, but from bottom to top it was probably closer to three and half or four miles long, with a big headwind.

When we got to the finish line, we jumped back into the car and drove to the start again, where the team bus was waiting for us.  As Jani and I were getting on the bus, the rest of team was heading out.  They all had earlier start times as a result of the crash on the first stage, so they were getting ready to go already.  Jani and I had at least three hours to kill before our start would come.  The team had lunch out and ready for us to eat when we got to the bus.  It was nothing fancy - just the usual rice and chicken, and a Coke on the side for me.  Jani's lunch was even a step further down as he had just a big bowl of rice.

With the entire rest of the team already gone, the bus was like a library inside.  Jani was playing with his computer, while I watched two episodes of Entourage.  After an hour and half of waiting, it was finally time to get back to work again.  After getting kitted up for the second time that day, I warmed on the trainer for a half hour to get the legs rolling just before it was time for me to head to the start.

Second times a charm, right?  That's what I was thinking as I got on the start ramp again.  This time, I was completely prepared to leave one minute after the rider in front of me, only to find out that the race was using two minute intervals between riders this time.  Now I was running a minute early as opposed to the minute late in the prologue.  I still just couldn’t get it right!

My plan was to ride the start hard and then just play it by ear from there.  The first part of the course was slightly uphill with a strong headwind, but it felt a lot like Paris-Roubaix, because the road was in need of serious repair.  When I hit the climb, I could already tell that the legs weren't great, and it was time for Plan B - to save a little and hope that Jani would have the legs to ride as team leader for the week.

Photo courtesy of Graham Watson

After the climb, the wind was so strong on the descent that I was all over the road fighting to stay upright.  I over shot one turn, going off the road and into the gravel, barely keeping the bike from going down the hillside.  And I was playing it safe!  I began to wonder how many crashes there would be today, since I knew many riders would be going all out and taking huge risks to stay in the hunt.

After the descent, the drama wasn't over with 15 miles of riding still to go.  That section was fast - crazy fast - and I was doing 35 to 45 miles an hour.  As I hit each open section between the trees or buildings along the road, a huge cross wind would hit that would have my front wheel going sideways.  When we weren't fighting the wind, we had to stay completely focused to avoid crashing on the speed bumps and roundabouts that we were taking at 40 mph.

When I crossed the line, I thought I had nothing to be happy about, since I knew my time was nothing special.  BUT, not long after, Jani came flying in with a time that was looking like YELLOW!  After two more riders finished, it was official.  Jani had taken the stage win and the race leader’s yellow jersey.  And he did it all even after having to change bikes on the climb when one of the aero bar extensions came loose.

Great job Jani!  The rest of the week should hold some interesting stories, as Team RadioShack fights to keep Jani in yellow!