The days have been long but fruitful. We have ridden more kilometers in the last week than most cyclists ride in a month, yet the hours in the saddle still seem to be passing quickly.
The stages raced are slowly becoming a blur as our travel is incessant and every movement begins to blend together. What highlights the stages and separates them in my memory are our triumphs.
It seems that all we have been doing the last week is eating, riding, sitting in the bus and sleeping. And, somehow, it seems we are eating and riding more than we are sitting or sleeping.
The wear of the race is starting to show in the peloton. Riders who looked smooth on their bikes days ago now seem uncomfortable. Their pedal strokes become labored and they re-adjusted their positions repeatedly in the hopes that a change might ease the pain. Like a horse that has been running for too long and too fast there is an awkwardness that appears when muscles begin to fail. The wear is noticeable in the peloton as well as gaps open quickly when the wind blows at our side or there is a brusque acceleration. Some tempers flare as tired riders can no longer handle the normal stress of the race.
But, even on their worst days the positions of the numerous Russians who began their careers on the track never change. Coming from a schooled disciplined sports’ system their bodies were built on their bikes. Their stems are low, their saddles high, their backs flat and their pedal stroke as fluid as a motor’s pistons. On all terrain, at every speed they look the same and never sway or bob as they tire.
They look abnormally perfect. To watch them in flight is beautiful as their bikes become a part of their bodies as they pierce through the air, their legs turning the pedals while the rest of the body remains motionless. To watch them suffer is odd as they lack the emotion that makes cycling human. When they come to pieces, they don’t labor but simply go slower. Their positions are deceiving as it becomes hard to tell what they have left in their bodies.
Francesco Moser, the Italian champion who won on the cobbles and in the mountains, looked born on his bike. As a child I studied photos of him, and watched him in old videos, his body absorbing the cobbles like a mattress a jumping boy. He made it all look easy. The cobbles were smooth beneath his bike and body. Everything seemed to fit together.
In the last few stages, while riding on the front, I have seen the open road; the Italian countryside and riders grow tired from the effort. For hours, I have ridden in a steady paceline with two to ten other riders. It is quickly evident when they only have a few more turns on the front left in their legs. Like a candle wick that is slowly flickering before it is absorbed by the wax it has melted their pulls slowly become shorter, slower and their effort fades with their desire.
Their legs, which look solid as tree trunks at the start of the day, begin to look as weak as twigs. The rider eventually becomes frail from the persistent wind before he is absorbed by the peloton and then spit out the back.
Our week has been good. With the same mutual respect and work ethic that carried us to the victory in the team time trial we have persisted through the first week. Together we are finding a level of performance we knew was possible. And we will continue to persist to achieve the goals we came here to accomplish.
The seventh stage became Edvald’s day. In a chaotic finish that had us tearing down a mountain in the pouring rain he managed to jump away in the final ten kilometers with a group of four others. Our plan was to lead out Mark Cavendish in the sprint but the chaos of the final descent provided an opportunity for Edvald. The team reacted to the changing situation and created another opportunity.
After a near miss yesterday, with fantastically strong legs, he dominated the sprint from the group to win his first grand tour stage. Edvald, although young, is a complete rider with ability to win on almost any terrain. Edvald’s body is built on his bike, like Moser and so many champions of the past. He is a rider we will see often on the podium at the biggest races.
As a team, we celebrate our victories together at the dinner table with a glass of wine. As we sip and eat we tell dozens of stories from the race, past races, and everything else inane that makes us a team of boys.
Barry has also co-authored Fitness Cycling in conjunction with his wife and Dr. Shannon Sovndal.