I exhaled a heavy sigh of relief. Glancing down at my power meter, I watched the numbers quickly plummet. It’s not that I wanted to get dropped, but I couldn’t will myself to fight any longer. I felt numb and dizzy. Salt and sweat caked the inside of my glasses to the point that I could hardly see the wheel in front of me. A steady crosswind and a surprisingly early acceleration from Orica – BikeExchange tore the field to shreds with 45 kilometers left in stage 20. When a gap opened up, 10 riders ahead, I had no more reserves left to close it. I knew I’d finish this Vuelta, my first ever, but I was not celebrating. We still had two mountain passes, over 30km of climbing left. I was safely inside the grupetto (at 110 riders, maybe it’s the peloton) but still had another two hours of suffering before the final mountaintop finish.
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I did not spend the entire Vuelta in grupetto, and I am proud of the role I played to help the team secure the green points jersey in Madrid. But, there were certainly many days when I questioned why racing in a grand tour had been my dream for so many years.
This year’s Vuelta was the first and only grand tour I have raced — I don’t know if it was exceptionally difficult or if this is the standard I should come to expect. I do know that some stages were astonishingly hard. The riders’ willingness to battle day in and day out will continue to haunt my dreams.
Professional cyclists are not machines. Yes, we are capable of superhuman efforts, and our masochistic tendencies allow us to suffer at levels that would break even the toughest drill sergeant. Nevertheless, our humanity makes the sport fascinating. Looking around at the faces on that final climb, it was clear to me that most of the peloton was void of energy. Still, we trudged on through the mist. I was in survival mode. “Just keep swimming.” I told myself over and over again in an attempt to drown out the negative thoughts. After passing through the fog and crossing the line some 27 minutes after stage 20’s winner, I wrapped myself in a towel and arduously remounted my bike to ride down the mountain to our team bus.
One more day … It had not been a restful night of sleep, and the 300km, 7 a.m. train ride left me feeling worse than I had on Saturday’s climb. As relaxed as we may have appeared, cruising through Madrid those first 50km, I assure you that nobody at Trek – Segafredo felt that way. We had a job to do: protect the green sprint jersey at all costs. A tall order considering the slim seven-point margin Fabio Felline held over Alejandro Valverde.
The circuit around Madrid’s city center was deceivingly difficult, with three full U-turns and a false flat drag to the finish line. Three times a lap, the fight for position would cause the entire peloton to come to a near-halt as we rounded each U-turn. Riders rounding the curve first would sprint back up to breakneck speeds, stretching the peloton before we ground to a halt again at the next U-turn. We were whiplashed around the course like this for 10 laps. Fighting constantly to keep Fabio at the front and protected. I did my final turn with just over a kilometer remaining. The rest was up to him, and he didn’t disappoint.
I soft-pedaled the final minutes to the line, ears trained to my radio for any information about what had happened. Moments after crossing the finish line and completing my first grand tour, I looked up to see the smile across Fabio’s face. That said it all. I rested my head on my handlebars and closed my eyes as a feeling of contentment washed over me.
A huge amount of work goes into seeing the riders through the three weeks of a grand tour. Staff often works into the wee hours of the night and rise before the sun. Dealing with tired and grumpy riders who know their survival depends on doing so many small things. The list of individuals who helped me through is too long to write here, but you know who you are. Thank you for keeping me pedaling on the dark days and laughing on the brighter ones. I think it will take some time to absorb the entire experience and reflect on whether or not it was what I imagined it would be.