By Michael Barry, U.S. Postal Service professional cycling team
The last week I have been racing in the Volta Catalunya, a six-day race that starts on the Costa Brava, climbs through the Pyrénées and finishes back along the coast in downtown Barcelona. For me, and several of the other North Americans in the peloton, it is a race that is close to home, as several of us live in the Catalan town of Girona.
This year, Martin Perdiguero dominated the first half of the week’s racing. He won stage 2’s uphill sprint finish, went on to take the mountaintop finish in Andorra with an explosive acceleration in the last meters, and then won the next day’s mountain time trial with the same explosive sprint over the final kilometer.
Going into Catalunya, U.S. Postal didn’t really have a leader like we did in past years, when we had Roberto Heras. Chechu has been coming into form but didn’t know if he had enough fitness to ride with the best on the big mountains. So, we started with the attitude that we would race for stage wins. Max could win in a field sprint, and the rest of us could try to win out of a breakaway.
The race started out with a team time trial along the Mediterranean. It was a short race at 18km with lots of roundabouts and corners. Generally, TTTs, tend to be straightforward on flat to rolling roads with few corners, and they are also usually over 30km. We had a team that could have won the race, as we had several TTT veterans and several young horses. But the first half of the race didn’t go our way, and we never really found our rhythm. In the second half, we held even with the leaders, Illes Balears, but the time we had lost in the first half did too much damage and we ended up with a depressing result.
The next days of racing took us up to Andorra and the high mountains. It was a good trial for some of the Tour riders, as they were able to test their legs on the longer climbs.
When we left the mountains and headed back towards the coast we knew Max would have his chance at a stage victory. The courses were rolling to flat and could finish in field sprints if we rode the race well and kept things under control in the last hour. The first shot we had at a victory was botched by misplaced signs. The countdown to the finish usually begins after the 5km-to-go sign. But we never saw the sign and only realized where we were in the race with 500 meters to go. Too late. The organization had mistakenly placed the signs on another road that we didn’t race on. Oops. So, we all finished a bit frustrated, hoping for a better result the next day.
All went according to plan on the penultimate stage. The team brought back the break and Max dominated the field in the hard uphill sprint finish. I don’t think the other sprinters could even attempt to step off his wheel in the final meters. Impressive.
We rode through some great countryside in the last week. The climbs in Andorra had some incredible views of the snow-capped peaks, and the valleys around the coast were lush and green with life. During the fifth stage the course took us over about 50km of road that we often train on while in Girona. It was kind of cool, knowing where we were going and what the profile of the course was like. It is not an advantage we can enjoy very often while racing in Europe. Christian Vande Velde commented how weird it felt to be racing on one of his training roads – it seemed effortless in the peloton compared to when we were training.
In the last week we (Max not included) tried to cover the breakaways. This gives the team representation in the front, forces other teams to chase, and at the same time puts us in a position to win the stage. And, if it all comes together then the team rides on the front to help Max in the final.
The last day started near the Monastery of Monserrat just outside Barcelona. We completed three laps of a hilly circuit near the monastery and then raced towards the center of the city where we finished on the famous Placa Catalunya.
I managed to get in an early break of five riders that worked well together, gaining up to three minutes, until the last 10km or so, when we all began to attack each other and go for the stage victory. The peloton was fast approaching as we flew towards the finish, and with 500 meters to go we were caught. It was frustrating to spend 125km in a breakaway and then to be caught so close to the line. But that’s bike racing, eh?