Back to Bike Racing!
This winter, I have been training like a blacksmith making armor for an epic battle looming on the horizon. So I was eager when it was finally time to travel to the first race in mid-February. I was headed for the Andalucía Bike Race in southern Spain.
With so many weeks spent training in winter’s cold, I decided I’d earned a couple of good sightseeing and time-zone-acclimating days in Europe in advance of the race. I made my way to Spain via Nicé, France, where I enjoyed a few days training with World Tour climbing ace and good friend Joe Dombrowski.
Right off my overnight trans-Atlantic flight, Joe took me out for a dream road ride. We nailed a five-hour route with 10,000 feet of elevation gain in 60 miles. It was like a pinball game made for road bikes. Every legendary climb in Cote d’Azur is marked with cycling signage; kilometer-to-go markers and numbered switchbacks line each ascent. When we descended, we were like darts. There were high-speed potentially deadly cliffs with 180-degree turns, spirals and tunnels. Wow! It was like riding down a gravity-fed paved roller coaster of serpentine switchbacks with the azure Mediterranean an incredible backdrop. At one point, the sheer vertical drops made me nauseous; or maybe that was the mere three hours of sleep I was living on.
After a couple days of getting on the time zone, I also had a chance to adjust to the food. Better than amazing, I feasted on mushroom tortellini, nice wine, and octopus ink pasta one night, and loup de mer (sea wolf) the next.
I had to wave farewell to Nicé; the real adventure was next. I joined my Topeak-Ergon team in Spain’s olive country between Cordoba and Jaen for our team orientation and the first race of the year.
There was a lot to learn – and quick!
I had a new Canyon Lux with custom RS1 and prototype tires. Yes! I was like, “Oh, yeah! I got a license to drop some trail!” The bike is sharp, smooth and looks mean! And then there was the fact that I was racing as part of a two-man team. Within the race, Topeak-Ergon divided our squad into two pairs: a lead team and the support team.
I have known our team captain and former World Marathon Champion Alban Lakata for years. He would join Kristian Hynek for our “A” team. In our support roles, my race partner Robert Mennen and I were sizing each other up. Last year, Robert won Cape Epic. Meanwhile, I was competing in the US cross country and endurance race scenes and had a couple US titles under my belt. It was like pairing a Formula 1 and NASCAR driver – in the best ways.
Coming into the Andalucía Bike Race, Robert was recovering from a recent a chest cold; and I was about to see where my fitness was. I’d been working hard in the off-season, but in the absence of racing it’s tough to know for sure. As we took on the ABR, we found that our pairing worked well. Robert liked to rip it on the downhills and flats, and I was stronger on the climbs.
The racecourse was harder than I thought it would be. The climbs were massive and there was slick mud over soupy limestone covered trails! During a couple stages I thought, “Am I out of shape or are we really climbing 10,000 feet on mountain bikes in just 3.5 hours?” (Leadville does this amount of elevation over 6.5 hours)
A large part of the first-race-of-the-year-shock was mostly the wake-up call that comes from facing a globally competitive field so early in the season. My form is there, and now the motor is warmed up. In fact, the race did get easier as it went on. In our support roll, we knew it was more about smooth consistent riding and getting in a solid ride.
In the first days of the stage race, I figured out the hard way that with six hundred riders fighting for the first trail made the racing much more like a cross-country race initially. I was focused on trying to find Robert in the sea of others. This approach had me back in the 50s and stuck in an epic traffic jam. There were a couple of crazy crashes on the fast road roll-outs; bodies flying, people dismounting to run over ditches and shouting back in the melee as riders took shortcuts. We could be shuffled from 17th to 47th in an instant on the double track.
After Stage 2, things became a lot smoother. Our reflexes sharpened, plus our endurance kicked in. Our team-based riding strategy fell into place. We got into the top-4, and then found life was easier.
The “Ah, ha!” moment happened during Stage 3. Instead of looking for my teammate during the hectic first minutes of the race, I decided I’d better just get my ass in position for the fight! Later in the stage, stage we chased down Team Bulls and out-kicked them to the line. Now it was evident we were riding as a team and having a great time. On the back-to-back monster climbs, our combined form was not as high as Kristian and Alban; but with a couple weeks of rest after ABR, I think I will be able to work some good tactics at the Cape Epic. Most importantly for a back up team, we will be there if trouble hits our leaders; lending a wheel or attending to chase-duty on the road sections.
The other thing special about a stage race is the amount of equipment and logistics involved. The next day’s preparations start the second you finish today’s stage. Proper recovery, fuel and rest are critical. Lucky for us, our soigneurs Torsten and Giovanni, mechanic Peter, and team manager Dirk were on point and on time – so well prepared, they seemed to have telepathy for our needs.
The whole goal for Andalucia Bike Race was learning the ropes of how to ride as a team and get settled in the groove with new gear and such. Now we have bonded over great racing and lots of good multi-cultural jokes spoken in three languages. This team rhythm will pay dividends in the most important mountain bike race stage race on earth: The Absa Cape Epic.
One thing is for sure: we have a big adventure coming and I am excited to be in attack mode to help Topeak-Ergon defend the win at the Cape Epic.
Africa, here I come!