Suffering, speed and sore legs.
Game on. The fans were fervent, the racing intense, and the media abundant. From Australia to Qatar to California the races were closely followed and cycling seems to be more popular than ever.
For a month Mark Cavendish and I have traveled together: from hotel to hotel, from plane to plane, and from the Middle Eastern arid wind to the California rain. Our suitcases quickly became our homes on the road. We finished stages not knowing where we were ? the town was just another name and the finish line crossed another stage completed.
In California we suffered. The cold rain beat down on the peloton during the first stages. Not wanting to freeze for five hours, riders complained to one another on the start line, but inevitably began pedaling and persisted. With a finish line ahead of us, our competitive side overwhelmed any mental weakness. With a race to win the peloton rarely relents.
At the finish, we shivered, our clothes weighted with cold rainwater and our thighs cut open from chaffing caused by the wet road grit in our chamois. As soon as the finish line was crossed the day was behind us. We looked to the next stage. In the camper we warmed ourselves with hot tea and a warm shower before the driver inched us out of the chaotic parking lot towards the next hotel.
Our team, Columbia Highroad, rode in California with two objectives: to place our sprinter, Mark, in position for a stage victory, and to place Michael Rogers, Thomas Lövkvist, or George Hincapie on the final podium for the general classification. To accomplish both the team needed to be strong and seamless. When sprints are won by centimeters and classifications determined by seconds, small mistakes determine the differences.
After making a few errors in the first two stages we found our groove on the third. To ensure a field sprint for Mark we controlled the race and launched his sprint in the last kilometers. To accomplish the goal, we rode as a team for a hundred kilometers to launch a sprint that will be won by a bike length.
To bring the peloton together for a sprint the team takes control of the race from the start. The goal is to let a small breakaway of one to five non-threatening classification riders attain a manageable time gap on the peloton before we increase our speed to absorb their breakaway just before the finish line. The breakaway tames the peloton, allowing the team to control the race.
Each rider on the team has a defined role and task for the each stage. My job was to stay with Mark on the climbs and to ride on the front of the peloton to reel in the breakaway. A sprinter, Mark is unable to stay with the climbers in the mountains. To keep him in contention, we rode at a steady speed behind the lead group, and chased like madmen on the descents and plains to regain contact with the leaders. When not climbing I rode on the front for hours at a calculated steadily escalating tempo with my teammate, Adam Hansen. Our work is finished when we reach the last ten kilometers. From there, our teammates surge to the front of the group to increase the speed so that Mark can stay in their draft at the front of the peloton.
Using his experience and power, George Hincapie spearheads the charge in the last kilometer. Tucked on his wheel, tight in his draft are Mark Renshaw and Cavendish. Timing is crucial. If George accelerates a moment too soon, Cavendish will be left in the wind sprinting from too far out. If he leaves it too late there is the chance another sprinter will get an early jump which Mark won’t be able to overcome. Ideally, George drops Renshaw and Cavendish off 500 meters from the finish line. From there, Renshaw, boosts the speed again and finally, with 200 meters to go, Cavendish accelerates towards the line. His final punch is potent and unrivaled. Hunched over his bike he moves at over 65 km/h ending his effort at the line, depleted. The lead-out formula is simple yet the execution is complex.
With two stage wins, Mark’s sprint is proving to be unbeatable when he has a clear run at the line. Quickly, his speed is dethroning the top sprinters of the last decade. With experience gained during the season, his performance and the team’s will improve. Mark is young and is only discovering his capacities. His climbing is improving which will only lead to more victories.
Michael Rogers, who finished 3rd overall, has achieved a level of fitness this spring he hasn’t touched in a two years due to illness and injury. Back on form, he has left a mark in the first races of the season. As he regains his confidence and his fitness improves he will again be a contender in the Tour de France and Giro.
Riding in the bad weather, suffering on the front for hours as a team to control the race, and finally winning a few stages, brought us closer. The effort is bonding. In the camper after the race, we talk about the day, the near misses and the heroic efforts. The ambiance is jovial and juvenile. The tensions of the day are stripped and our insular world behind the camper door is comforting. Away from the media, the spectators, the fans and our rivals our personalities blossom like young boys away from the watchful eye of teachers and parents.
The Tour of California left the peloton tired. Daily, the racing was intense and crashes became more frequent as riders grew weary. The rate of attrition was high despite the top-level peloton. Riders crashed, some fell sick, while others were simply not well prepared. Many said it was a race that depleted the body like a Grand Tour.
The spectators were unlike anything I have experienced in North America rivaling the masses at the major European events: the Giro, the Tour and the Classics. The Tour of California was a tremendous success on every level. The riders were content and the spectators thrilled. Lance Armstrong lured the crowds but he didn’t overwhelm the show. The media properly covered the comebacks, the emerging talent and the thrill of the race.
The day after the race we traveled to LA as a team for lunch. For two hours we sat around a restaurant table, relaxed knowing there wasn’t another finish line, and enjoyed the moment before rushing off to the airport for another airplane. With sore legs, we flew home confident and jubilant. The ache I feel is one that I know will make us stronger with a few days of rest.