This past Tuesday, I was riding a long the Portuguese coast, with the sun on my back, and the wind on my tail, and despite everything in the world going my way, I couldn’t help but feel like crap. I guess, this is what happens when you manage to deplete every last vestige of serotonin in your body.
It is difficult to ask for a better start to my 2015 season. Since, I began racing here in Portugal I basically achieved everything I set out to do. After breaking my foot and working jobs that I hated, I have come to learn, that in life, there are few moments when you work your ass off, in pursuit of a dream, and that dream is achieved, but, in those rare moments, the experience is ethereal… and, I have also come to learn ephemeral.
On Sunday, with Ryan Anderson and Phil Gaimon in quarantine–likely from the bad head cold I got a week earlier–the six remaining guys on the team (Tom Zirbel, Jesse Anthony, Guillaume Boivin, Will Routley, Eric Young and myself), lined up for the one day, 156km Classica de Loulé. Racing against a number of continental teams from Portugal and Europe, along with several U-23 and amateur teams, we (Optum) went from being one of the smallest teams in the peloton at Volta ao Algarve, to one of the heavy hitters at this race. After, justifiably, getting such little respect from other teams the week before, it was nice, to not have to fight as hard to be at the front, and to be seen as one of the threats for victory.
Throughout the race, the team justified this sentiment, and we were present in every move that went up the road. With Guillaume pegged as our man for a sprint finish, it was the rest of the team’s job to make sure that we covered moves, and only worked to drive the speed of these moves if Guillaume was present. Guillaume, being able to get over the lumpy and technical course, was our Ace in the hole, as if it came down to a group sprint, he has proven to be a guy who can consistently win at this level.
Having a guy like Guillaume at races such as these, is a huge advantage to the team, as it gives guys like me the ability to get into moves up the road without the responsibility of driving the pace. So if one of us gets in a move, we get a free ride as we have a sprinter that can win in the field behind, and if it survives to the line we have the freshest legs in the bunch. Conversely, by having a guy on our team up the road, it forces teams that have missed the break, to drive the pace, while Guillaume gets to rest his legs for the finish. So, when I saw a group go up the road, with Tom and Jesse in it, and Guillaume charging across the gap at about 90km into the race, I was happy to see that our team was in a solid position for a win, but a bit saddened to realize that the race for me was likely over.
With Guillaume, and two strong guys, up the road, trying to bridge this gap would likely mean bringing others with me, and diminishing our odds at victory; something that is a big no no. For the next 20km, I ate Clif chomp blocks and amazing pastries made by our Portuguese soigneur José, followed uninspired attacks from other riders trying to bridge across the widening gap, and thought “well I had a great race last week, and this will be a solid training day.” However, with about 45km remaining in the race, our team director Eric Wohlberg, drove up to me, before driving across the gap to support our three lead riders, and said “Woodsy, if you are feeling good, you can try to bridge across, just don’t bring anybody with you.” I asked him what the gap was, and he said “2 minutes.” I thought for a second, and replied; “it’s too big, I’m just going to stay here and follow moves.” Eric, seemed fine with this, offered me a bottle, and then drove up the road. I had accepted my fate, but when we hit the next climb, I looked up the road and saw the cars of the caravan not that far off, following the lead group. It didn’t look like a 2 minute gap, and as I looked around at the suffering faces of the other riders in my group, I realized that a solid attack would get me away clean from the group. After climbing for a few minutes, I launched an attack, looked back, and nobody was on my wheel. I then put my head down, and prayed that the gap wasn’t actually 2 minutes. I climbed pretty damn fast, crested the hill, and descended the following descent even faster. Soon enough I could see the caravan on the following switchbacks, and by the next climb I was in the draft of the lead group. It wasn’t a two minute gap, but, it wasn’t much less.
Getting into the lead group, after that effort, was success enough for me on the day and the boys in the front greeted me like a I was a guest star on a sitcom. If there was a studio audience, my arrival would have ignited some big cheers. Jesse yelled at me, “Wooooooodsy,” Zirbel gave me a big smile, and G just said, “what took you so long?” [Insert laugh track here].
For the next 20km, team Efapel, with six men in the lead group, was content on driving the move, and so we simply coasted along the smooth pavement of the region in preparation for the final climb of the day. Desperate to return the favour for all of the help I received the previous week from Guillaume and the rest of the team, I rode up to G with about 20km remaining in the race, and asked “what do you want me to do?” G said “remember that red house at the top of the climb, with 10km to go? I want you to go all out there.” At first glance, it is hard to see how this move would benefit G, but by attacking at the top of the climb, with 10km to go, I would force all of the other teams to chase me, while he got a draft, and prepared for the sprint. If I managed to stay away, I would win solo, and if I got caught, G would be fresh in a field that was tired from the chase.
Having faith in G was what enabled me to go all out when we hit the red house, 500m from the top of the final climb of the day. When I reached the top after my attack, I looked back, and all I could see was open road. Knowing that this would force all the remaining teams to chase, I again, put my head down, and suffered as I watched the kilometres on my garmin count towards 156. With 4 km remaining in the race I got my last time check from the follow car, and I had 25 seconds on the group. It would be tight, but, if there was any disoganization in the chase I could hold it off. Fortune was smiling on me on the day though, as with 3km to go, the Efapel train took a wrong turn, and a possible victory became a certainty.
After spending the better part of five months working towards these past few weeks, often alone, fantasizing that these hard efforts would materialize into results and victories, the profound high that I experienced in actualizing these goals, was overwhelming. It may not have been the biggest stage in cycling, but standing on top of a podium in the Algarve region, while photographers snapped pictures, people cheered, and two podium girls gave me a kiss, it was hard not to feel extreme elation.
So, while going for an easy spin on Tuesday, this is why I felt so down. If you could package how I felt on Sunday afternoon, the cartels would be selling it for $100 a gram, the FBI would be busting down doors in pursuit of it, and safe injection sites for it would be setting up shop in East Hastings; damn it felt good. Winning a bike race is a hell of a drug, and for the next couple of years, at least, I’m chasing that dragon.