From the very first kilometer, cold rain dulled the excitement and fanfare of the 2009 Tour of California, making for a crash-heavy, generally miserable week, which would have been hard enough in perfect conditions. Near the end of the first stage, a hard climb forced a selection with all the GC riders. I’d started near the back but shot through the field when the road kicked up. As they put the pressure on near the summit, Fränk Schleck—who had worn the yellow jersey at the Tour de France the year before and was considered one of the best climbers in the world—opened a gap in front of me, and we both came off over the top, just by a few seconds. We chased with two other riders for a few kilometers, but only lost time to the leaders, and were eventually absorbed into the field. The selection stayed away, and the GC was between a group of 18.
At the meeting that night, Danny looked at the results. I thought he’d be angry that we’d missed the crucial selection, but he listed the names of the guys in the front group, and said, “Yeah, this group is all of the biggest names in the world. It’s okay we missed that.” Phew.
The rest of the stage race was a constant humbling at the hands (or legs) of the ProTour riders. Once we were out of the GC, we went for stage results, but that proved impossible every time we hit the “10 km to go” sign, as the Euro teams would ramp it up to a speed that we could barely hold onto. In stage 4 I’d worked my way up to the middle of the group with 15 km remaining. As we climbed a short hill into a crosswind, I looked over my left shoulder to see Tom Boonen—Belgium’s dominant rider in all the big one-day races—sprinting up the side, his whole QuickStep team behind him. By the time we reached the top, they’d shredded the field into five groups of 20 riders, and Tom was driving the front group. I finished well behind the leaders.
By the midpoint of the Tour, I’d already gone twice the distance of any race I’d ever done, and I’d picked up a nasty cold that was spreading throughout the peloton thanks to weak immune systems and mediocre dinner buffets. The team gave up on GC the first day, and now it threw in the towel on stage results, so the goal became to make the early break and get Jelly Belly on TV. My goal was to finish.
The race radio crackled in my ear: “krrrk. Three riders at 10 seconds. It’s Tyler Hamilton, Mancebo, and Jens Voigt. Need somebody up there. krrrk.” There wasn’t anything I could do about that right now. Besides, at this speed, I knew the break would come right back. They were stronger than me, sure, but the guys attacking had the same gears I did, and it was physically impossible to maintain that pace in a 53 x 11. I put my head down and gave it all I could, just to stay in the group. The race radio crackled again. “krrrk. Three riders, now at 30 seconds. krrrk. Need somebody up there now. That’s going to be the break and we’re—.” I took my earpiece out before I heard the second krrrk. It wasn’t helping.
With the break gone, the smart move would have been to recognize that the plan had failed and sit in the group until I felt better, or at least take an easy day without digging myself into a hole, but I lacked the experience for that, and I still thought I needed to prove myself. The field slowed as we approached the first climb of the day, and the break still was only 45 seconds up the road, so I attacked. Astana was riding tempo, and that was the first time I actually saw Lance in person that week. Lance always rides at the front, and I hadn’t made it up there a whole lot.
I managed a 10-second lead before I came back. A failed attempt, but I was doing my job. That is, I was trying to do my job, but I was physically unable. Either way, Astana was offended and indignant at the perceived disrespect of attacking after the break was established. I was on the far right side of the road, and as each rider passed me (Lance and Levi included), he’d flick his rear wheel just enough to force me into the dirt, a gesture that says, “Fuck you for attacking without our permission.”
The snow-covered ground at the top of the climb was crowded with spectators, including one wearing a bee suit (for the Livestrong colors), wielding a bazooka-sized needle, with “EPO” written on the side, like “NASA” on a space shuttle. As he ran next to the field hollering at Lance, I watched the seven-time Tour de France winner shove him, sending the poor bee stumbling into the snow, antennae-first. I was mostly impressed at Lance’s bike-handling.
The group stopped to pee in the next valley, allowing the gap to go out to the three leaders. I stopped beside Floyd Landis on the edge of the road. Shivering in our black Gore-Tex jackets, which we hadn’t taken off all week, we urinated into a cold puddle. He laughed. “This is the best part of the whole day. You’ve gotta enjoy the little things.” I replied with a locker-room reference to little things. He had walked right into it.
I sat in the group for the rest of the day and finally had my revenge on Astana for riding me into the dirt. They had four guys riding at the front, and we were nowhere near the finish, so the pace was relaxed. One of my teammates rode up to me and said he wanted to show me something. We slotted in at the front of the group, where he took a full water bottle and threw it as hard he could at a metal speed limit sign. “doooonnnggg,” the sign rang out, vibrating from the impact. The Kazakh riders flinched from the sound and looked around to see if there was a crash. My first bottle missed, but the second one nailed a stop sign. The leaders jumped again, but they’d seen the bottle this time, and fired back at us with Bond Villain-esque Eastern European scowls, which weren’t quite intimidating enough for us to stop. Other teams soon got into it, and Boonen sent one of his teammates back for more ammo (I mean bottles). Floyd was right about the little things.
Republished from Pro Cycling on $10 a Day: From Fat Kid to Euro Pro by Phil Gaimon with permission of VeloPress.