“Yo man … How are you doing?”
“To be honest? Pretty f—ed.”
That is how the morning dialogue goes between myself and most of my colleagues on a daily basis as we enter the third week here at La Vuelta. While the professional peloton uses an overabundance of expletives, the F word I am referring to does not have four letters. It is much longer, and its effects are much more profound. I’m talking about fatigue.
If by the end of the first week of a grand tour we start to tire, by the end of the second, we are on the verge of death … OK, so not quite death, but I would say that the peloton resembles a pack of rolling zombies more than a group of professional cyclists. At the dinner table, I look around at my teammates’ eyes and have to laugh — all of them (including my own) are half closed from the efforts of the previous weeks. The good thing is we are still laughing!
My personal tell for when I am starting to fatigue is that I always seem to drop things. Yesterday, I dropped our hotel key while trying to put it in the door. The day before, I dropped my fork while lifting it toward my mouth at dinner. The day before that, I opened an energy bar during the stage, took one bite, and simply dropped it for no reason, looking down in disbelief. At least all of these are slightly better than when my teammate Sylvain Chavanel went to lift his phone to his ear the other day, losing grip halfway, launching it to the other side of the bus.
With these extreme levels of fatigue comes a fair bit of irritability. The smallest things can set us off: bumps in the road, a squeak in the chain, or even the bones in our fish. Touch the wrong guy in the peloton, even if by accident, and you are sure to get an earful. It’s just the fatigue.
While fatigue is most easily noticeable off the bike, it doesn’t seem to have much effect on the speeds at which we race. The race is still full-on and full-gas, our bodies somehow coping with the insane levels of stress. I’m starting to believe my body takes all of the energy from everything else I do during the day, and puts it all toward the bike. While we are racing hard, that fatigue can strike at any moment during the stage.
Unfortunately for me, it came at quite a bad moment during Monday’s stage 16. After making the day’s early breakaway, I felt great riding at the front of the race. The peloton sat up behind, we were given an enormous leash, and it seemed we would be racing for the stage win. There are not many days where you have a chance like that, so I wanted to make the most of it. I tried to be smart and only expend my energy where it counted, eat correctly, look at who was the strongest in the group, and see how they moved. My legs were good, I felt at ease, and I was ready to fight when the time came.
On the penultimate climb, Frank Schleck started to up the pace. One guy was dropped. Then another and another. Soon there were five of us left, the pace extremely high. “He can’t sustain this,” I told myself, urging my body to push the pedals just that little bit longer, my wheel holding like a vise grip to the rider in front of me, unwilling to let go.
He could, in fact, sustain that pace. And I could not.
It crushed me along with most of my breakaway companions. I went so far over my limit that fatigue brought down its heavy hammer, sapping me of all of my energy. Remember when your friends used to dead leg you — where they would knee you in the side of the leg so hard, you temporarily couldn’t walk? (great friends, I know…) Well, imagine trying to pedal with two legs like that. I was dead. There was actually a moment on the climb where I contemplated whether or not I would even be able to make it up the rumored 30 percent walls of the final climb. I was in the hurt box, and I was in it deep.
I lowered my pace to try to recover and was passed by one rider. I lowered it again, and was passed by another two. By this point I was creeping, just trying to turn the pedals. I asked my director Mario for a coke, just something to give me a bit of joy in the midst of my darkness. I took one sip. It seemed to bring me a little closer back to life. I took another. Each ounce gave me more power. I finished the mini can and asked for another. Mario laughed, but obliged. I guzzled it down and seemingly gained 20 more watts. An Etixx-Quick-Step soigneur was on the side of the road a few meters later holding out even more coke, in case I wanted it. “Why the hell not?” I thought, and knocked my third one back in the space of 200m.
All of a sudden I was flying. A bit too late, unfortunately, as the guys in front of me had a gap too large to close, but I had a great final climb and held the peloton off for eighth place on the day. It wasn’t what I was hoping for at the start, but after a few of the moments I went through on that second-to-last climb, it wasn’t too bad at all.
Fatigue got me once, but I’m hoping to get him back. With five more stages left, there are only a few chances to do so. I’ll be battling zombies all the way to Madrid.