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I’m writing from a sofa at 9,000 feet in Snowmass, Colorado, where Garmin-Sharp and a handful of other (less cool) teams, are staying between the Tour of Utah and the USA Pro Challenge in Colorado.
Everything’s a little weird at altitude. I spent most of July at a friend’s house in Big Bear to acclimate with Tom Soladay, who rides for Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies. We knew we’d be spending August racing against guys who were just coming off of the Tour de France. As I understand it, if you can survive the Tour, it’s pretty good training (one might say the best), so our only advantage would be that the altitude would hurt them more than us.
In Big Bear, you feel the lack of oxygen. Your power suffers, and even weather gets weird. Soladay and I were caught in a hailstorm in July in Southern California. One minute it was beautiful out, then we were descending into the blackness of hell, pelted with ice at 40 mph. I rode through a puddle on Big Bear Blvd, found that it was over a foot deep, then noticed that it had some current, and finally found myself crashing. I was fine, but I could have drowned in there. Some days, I’d descend into Redlands to train at sea level, but whatever watts you get back due to more oxygen, you lose from the heat. Below 3,000 feet, the air is like peeking into a hot oven, except it smells nothing like cookies.
The weather was merciful at the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah, where with Tom Danielson, my team, Garmin-Sharp — at the risk of bragging — totally won the whole thing. I hadn’t raced in awhile, so even though I’d put in some great training, I was worried about my form. I felt a little better after riding a couple hours on the front during stage 2, keeping the breakaway close, but I was nervous when we hit the big hills later in the stage race. My job was to ride the front on the crucial climbs, keeping things under control so Danielson would be in good position to drop everyone.
I wondered, “Can I do this?”
Tom would ask how I’m feeling, like a concerned mother. “Well, not awesome,” I said, “but nobody’s awesome. How are you? Don’t say awes—“ “— I’m awesome.” He cut me off. I laughed, and then coughed, because you can’t laugh at altitude. Nothing is funny here. And then I’d start riding up the mountain.
In a few minutes I would look back, and the field was small. Phew. I’m doing it. Then we’d get near the top, and Tom would coach me. “Recover on this section, jump out of this corner, OK now hit it. Harder!” He never said to go easier.
I’ve had a good season, but it was tough to watch the results of domestic events that used to be my bread and butter, now won by the guys I used to race against. Then I’m back at Utah, with my fancy new team, a pretty Cervelo with my name on it, and I get to look back at those dudes on the climb. Hey guys, remember me?
It’s also nice to experience the other end of the race. Before, it was just about hanging on as long as I could. Now, everyone on the team has a job, and there’s only room to care about yellow. We all finish each day spent, we all lose time, and we’re happy about it, because Tom Danielson brought it home like a boss.
Now I’m in Aspen, waiting at 9,000 feet for the next stage race to start. We’re not much higher than before, but with an extra 3,000-4,000 feet, tasks that would seem easy become exhausting, like sitting on the sofa having a conversation with your teammates. If you talk too fast, you’ll find yourself out of breath. Even the animals up here move slower. You feel bad for the squirrels. Imagine trying to jump tree-to-tree but you can’t breathe. We’ll get used to it, though, and I’m excited for the USA Pro Challenge. As long as there’s no hail.