Monday, February 4, 2013

Season Start

I don' think that since I got my racing license (way back in 1995), have I raced this early in the season. The reason why?, weather!!. You might know me as a warm/hot weather type of rider. Nothing like heat to keep the legs and lungs burning. But when the mercury decides to drop, so does any thought of riding. That was until work had me spend some time in the mid atlantic region (Washington DC) and later on, and just for a nasty winter, up in the frozen tundra of Connecticut. To ride when the temperature outside is 17 degrees took a bit of an adjustment, but it was better than spending weeks upon weeks inside the house, just watching the weather channel and feeling sorry for myself. So now when the temperature is in the mid 40s, and even high 30s, I don't think too much about it, just add that extra layer and out the door I go. But here in Texas we are very lucky that the winters are not as harsh as in other parts of the country and for the most part, we can ride year round without ever having to worry about frostbite. After a solid November and December on the bike, just making sure the mileage was getting done without sucumbing to the tricks of the pack (ride hard all the time), I started to test the legs about three weeks ago and found a good level, thus I deemed myself fit to race early. Looking at the race schedule, I thought Walburg would be my first race, but then the Tour of New Braunfels (at least the Sunday race) was a good possiblity. And I'm glad I chose this race. Without a doubt, one of the best courses I have ever raced (in all the states I have lived). The wide section on the highway, with its hills and the wind took care of setting the pecking order in the Cat4 group. With 62 starters, and the first section on somewhat narrow roads, the pack soon found itself flying along and shedding those who hybernated for too long. For me, it was an eye opener of a race. I spent quality time at the sharp end of the spear, not pulling, but in a good position, something I rather tend to do. I felt a little nervous on the windy flat sections, but again, that's normal for my first race. And I felt like I could easily move around the pack, as long as we were racing in the big, opened road. Once we hit River Road, the story was different. Half way through the first lap, a solo rider put an attack and spent a good bit of time all along, fighting the hills and wind. The pack gave chase, but kept him at a reasonable distance until we hit River Road, where the pace slowed down andtrying to move to the front was almost impossible. Still, towards the end of the first lap, I made my way to the back to grab a bite (Nutella and honey sandwich) and while enjoying my mid race snack, I hear shouts coming from behind. Thinking I was the tail end of the bunch, I looked and to my surprise, six dropped riders were making their way back to the pack. They were high fiving and congratulating each other for their long hard effort to catch back on, only to be greeted by the hill at the finish area. Not soon had they rejoined the pack, that they were waving goodbye to it, for one last time. I don't mean to sound mean, this has happened to each of us at one point or another, but it was quite comical. The pace picked up and we ended up chasing down the lone rider, who made a few more attempts but was quickly coming to the realization that his early efforts were going to cost him dearly. As the pace continued to increase, another rider (dressed as if the temperature was about 30 degrees colder than it actually was) took a flyer and was dangling off the front, about 15 seconds ahead. Again, the pack sensibly kept the pace high and brought him back as we entered River Road for the second and last time. Again, here the pace came down and no rider, or team wanted to set the pace for the last 8 miles. So it came to the last hill, where basically the road opened up and the sprint took place. A slow one at that, but I was nowhere near the front and even with rockets attached to my bike, I don't think I could have made a move. But just for the heck of it, I gave the bike some stick and finished with the front group (22nd) and felt like I had done a decent race. Now I have my eye on the weather. If things continued to look as good as they have (weather wise), my next event will be Walburg. Lots of winds, echelons and gutter.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Modus Operandi and New Signings

Over the years of riding, I have come up with a theory. Since first getting somewhat "serious" about riding back in 1994, and every year from then, each season I put my theory to the test and it has proved correct. During each season, I have 5 and only 5 days, where I feel on top of my form. They are not 5 consecutive days, but instead, these 5 days are peppered through my season, which usually run from November through late August.
I have no way to tell when one of the 5 days will happen. A week (or two) of feeling like crap while riding, usually leads to one day of feeling great. If for some reason I get sick, the second day after I ride is usually another great day. Early May has also one day thrown in there. Maybe that's why I have had a good run at Coldspring (2nd, 3rd and 4th). But the pattern doesn't manifest on a consistent basis from year to year (except the one in May). So I wonder how pro riders peak for grand tours or manage to put together a string of good days on the bike for three weeks. That's why three week tour are appealing to me to follow. Not just the chess game that is played on the roads daily, but how a rider and his team maintain a mental focus for an extended period of time.
And maybe that's the key: a mental focus. One thing that the older I get is getting easier to understand is that I'm stronger mentally, although I still get into this mental fog at times when I race (case in point the fourth stage of the Vuelta Masters this year). With all things cycling, the more you work at it, the better it gets. Oh, and taking a month off the bike is a requisite of mine. It's getting time to find the running shoes and begin to log the miles, but on a different sport. The bike now becomes a cross training tool. Until February.
Pro Team Astana
On the pro side of things, Pro Team Astana is waving the check book left, right and center. Nibali, Fulsang, and Guardini are three strong signatures to have for the next two to three years. I have always like Nibali. Doesn't talk much and rides with what the italians call "grinta", something that is becoming lost in the world of pro cycling these days. It would be great to be on a motorcycle or driving the Vittoria neutral support car and follow the "shark of the strait" on a Dolomite descend. The guy is just art. Fulsang has played second fiddle at Saxo Bank and Leopard for the last few seasons. Although talented, he hasn't had the chance to showcase his true talents (albeit on smaller races) and with the move to the Kazakhastani team(with a large italian influence), he should have the freedom he seeks. Probably the Vuelta next year will have the entire team at his disposal. Tough to see him lead the squad at the Giro (Nibali), and the Tour (eithe Nibali or Brackovijc). Guardini is fast, period. But like me, he seems to have the 5 day theory in his repertoire. IMHO, Pro Team Astana can't afford to build a leadout train for the italian youngster who is taking a step into the big leagues. Sure winning in Langkawi (lots!!) is fun, but now he'll face the tough guys of the sprints.
Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank
Bjarne Riss went through some stressful times early in the year (and that's to put it mildly), but the return to Contador, the signing of Tinkoff Bank as a sponsor and some gutsy rides here and there (see Chris Anker Sorensen at the Tour), the team has kept its name on the headlines, for the right reasons. Riss has signed a few riders for next year but the canny Dane has kept the releasing of the names a close guarded secret. Perhaps a return of Spartacus to his former squad? You shall speculate amongst yourselves.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Reflecting on the Vuelta

Made it back to the US and unpacked the bike to find that the front brake caliper got a nice looking scratch, but other than that the bike (and the rest of the group) arrived safely and most importantly, on time. I can't believe that it went by so fast. We had started to plan the trip almost a year ago, and then at least I, trained for about 4 months with nothing but the Vuelta in mind. A few surprises along the way:
1. I did three trips with my bike in one month and didn't have to pay the bike fee on either American Airlines or Delta. Everytime I was asked "what's in the bag, a bike?", I would follow with a polite smile and "nope, just sporting equipment", although the usual, "camera equipment" routine also paid dividends. The Aerus bag (you can get it a has served me well and thus far, have kept the bike and my wallet in a good state.
2. Climbing. Most of my training was focus on climbing and up to about two weeks before traveling, I knew things were right on track. Even the recce ride we did, although short, felt awesome despite the fact it was raining. But when it was time to tackle the hilly stage and the mountain one, something was not clicking. My energy (power) would slowly drain out of my body, leaving me with nothing but mental strenght to get me through and that was also reaching the low levels of the tank.
3. And if the climbing was a little below par, then the opposite can be said of my time trialing. Not known for pocessing a big engine, I was quite surprised (and so was 99% of the world) when I clocked the third fastest time on the prologue. But the individual one, everything felt just right. My stomach, which I am presuming was the cause of some of my problems, finally got in line and decided to cooperate with the rest of my body. The warm up, something I usually don't do well, was more or less perfect. And as soon as I left the starting tent, finding a rhythm became easy. The thing that caught my attention was the concentration level I kept. Most experts in the art of time trialing say that dealing with the suffering and uncomfortable position are the main keys. Well, I guess with age I can handle it better because never before have I ridden like that against the clock, mostly in part because my attitude was a positive one and despite the pain, all I could think of was to give it everything.
4. My teammates were great. Having them visit Panama was just a fun experience. Dave had gone once before and Glenn wanted to eat anything and everything, which was fine with me and my dad. Kerry was a trooper giving everything a try, at least. I hope they all had as much fun as I had over the trip.
5. Finally, my parents!!!!. I can't say enough about how much they took care of us. Mom not only drove the car and kept us hydrated, but made sure the kits were cleaned every day and that we were getting enough food. Kerry said that I was leading the "eating classification" and he was right, because I couldn't have eaten more, yet, I ended up dropping another 3 lbs. during the ten days we were at my parents' house. Dad ensured the bikes were working in proper order, loaded and unloaded them everyday both at the house and at the race start/finish and also drove the van behind each of us making sure we were properly taken care of. A big thanks!!!! to them and Jilma for helping us out.
As I crossed the finish line at the conclusion of the mountain stage, I told the girls keeping time, "I will never come back, it's just too hard", but 24 hours later my head was spinning with the logistics of next year's race. Despite the pain, suffering, the race is a well organized event, improving every year and it gives me the chance to ride with friends, make new ones and see my family. Why not give it another (several more I hope) go? So, the planning for the 2013 edition is already in the works, but first, there's a break to take from the bike, some running to do and then things will pick up again some time around December.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Fighting 'til the end

Today was the last stage of the Vuelta, and for us, a short one, with only 4 laps of the 6 mile circuit to do. Again, the day in Boquete (our home base) started under cloudy skies, but after the 30 mile drive down to David, although cloudy, the rain was staying north of the city.
First thing was to take care of the award ceremony from yesterday's stage, since it was cancelled due to a thunderstorm. As you, dear reader, already know, FRESH went "uno, dos, tres" on the day and Glenn was wearing pink as the leader of the intermediate sprints competition and I looked superb in the white jersey of stage winner.
Dave was the first to take to the roads, and just like yesterday, he was feeling like a million bucks and although the first break in his category went off without him, he fought his way and joined the lead group to finish 6th on the day.
For the rest of us, the race took a unexpected turn when Glenn hit a pothole half way through the first lap and had dual flats. The chief referee and organizers were not allowing follow vehicles on the course, so it was going to be a war of attrition, and a matter of pure luck just to get through without a flat. Unfortunately for Glenn, his race was over and with that, his second place on GC. As we finished the first circuit, I was patrolling the back of the pack when I noticed that Glenn was MIA. When I told Kerry about Glenn, we decided that he was going to stay with the yellow jersey and I would try for the stage. But the locals and the Bosques Lodge team from Costa Rica were having none of it. The three attacks I tried were shot down. So Kerry saved himself and when came time for the sprint, he flew the colors of the team one last time, crossing the line in first place.
So we are leaving Panama with a yellow jersey, two pinks and five whites, second overall, second on intermediate sprints and third on the KOM. A total of 4 out of 6 stages and at least two of us were on the podium everyday. We had a great time racing and hanging out together and my parents were having a blast giving us a hand and taking care of bikes, food, drinks, laundry, driving the cars, etc. A true team effort.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

FRESH 1-2-3

This morning, while eating breakfast, the mood was a somber one. We were looking pretty tired and the weather outside was not encouraging, with rain. Thankfully the time trial was about 30 miles away and that gave us the hope that at least, the weather would improve.
The time trial course was part of stage 2, so we had an idea of what to expect, and we drove it on the way to the start/finish. A quick check at the start times and we all, slowly, got underway with getting ready for the 10kms time trial.
For the most part, we have raced on really smooth roads, although during stage 2 we were avoiding huge craters!!, and the police presence has kept us safe during each of the stages. So much that today's 10kms course was closed to traffic (more on that later). From the FRESH riders, I was the first to leave, at 9:06 sharp. The two radio stations that have broadcasted each stage of the Vuelta, in its entirity, were introducing each rider as we entered the start tent and the commentators would give the listeners a quick description of each athlete.
10, 9, 8...3..2..1 and off I went, settling into a nice rhythm. Most of you know I'm allergic to time trials, but something today was different. Dave, who's a stronger rider than I, was also on a good day, despite the fact that he didn't use any aero equipment at all. Our stomachs have acted up a bit since we got here, but today, the stars aligned and we were rolling, and fast. Kerry and Glenn started 3 and 4 minutes behind me, and Dave's category had him starting 46 minutes past 9a.
Each kilometer was marked on the road and as the Cervelo reach cruising speed, I spotted my 1 minute man ahead, and not long after that, the Costa Rican KOM was looking at my number (223) dissappear into the distance. At the turn around point, a few people had gathered to see the race. A tight turn, where all the speed was lost, careful around the flagger, out of the saddle and back to full gas. "Breath, relax, it hurts, did I miss the kilometer 6 sign?", the voices in my head started to argue.
Kerry and Glenn were heading towards the turn around point and both looked like were keeping a fast rhythm. When Glenn reached the turn around point, he had the fastest split time and we were told that the last 5kms were "easier".
The voices in my head agreed that it wasn't easier at all, but the pace was kept high and then I rolled over the 1km to go sign, just a little more suffering. I was breathing so hard, people at the finish could hear me coming. Over the line and it was over, no more suffering (at least until tomorrow). Rode by the van and handed my helmet to mom and kept riding to cool down, when I heard the radio announcer, "rider #223, fastest time (so far!)". Made a U turn back to the van and Kerry and Glenn were finishing their efforts. As we were going over each other's ride, it came over the radio: "Executive Bs, FRESH Racing goes 1-2-3" (Manny, Glenn, Kerry). High Fives!!!!!. The podium ceremony was suspended because a storm was approaching as the Masters As were still out on the road.
Dave finished his ride with a time only 3 seconds slower than mine (15:23), but the highlight is that Dave is racing with a Colombian rider who rode the Tour de France three times, the Vuelta a Espana 5 times and the Giro once. You better believe the level is high.
As the event was taking place, a local passenger bus was trying to get through despite the fact that the road was closed. The driver got out and started to argue with the flaggers and that's when a police officer arrived on the scene. He didn't waste anytime asking the driver questions, he just pulled out the handcuffs and made sure the rogue driver knew who was in charge. Justice, Panama style.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Massacre on the Queen Stage

Since we are staying in Boquete, 32kms north of David, where each stage starts and ends (except today's finish and the time trial tomorrow, we have driven half of the route of the "Queen Stage" everyday on our way to and from the race, and everytime we went by the town of Dolega, my dad would say, "once you hit this bridge, make sure you are at the front, because things will get ugly, right here". Was he right. The temperature today was somewhat bareable, and that was good since we are all starting to feel the effects of the race and the heat. Once again the 5 different packs rolled out on a neutral start until we got to the hospital in David where the official start was for each of the categories, spread 5 minutes apart. Executives A & Bs rolled out around 9:30am, and just like yesterday, headed west for a few kilometers on the Panamerican Highway, before making a right turn and the beginning of the climbing. 36 miles with almost 4,000 feet of climbing were on the menu and the pack was pretty controlled, although going a little faster than yesterday's start. The Friends (Mayhem, as we call them) went to the front after a Costa Rican rider set off trying to set the first intermediate sprint for their leader. After that, the pace was consistent but riders were already feeling tired and a group of As rolled off the front. As we approached the bridge that dad had warned us about, we made sure to be towards the front and it paid off, because the at the top, there was the second intermediate sprint and the pack exploded. Glenn took the sprint and we just kept rolling, in a group of ten riders. Since the yellow jersey was left without teammates, we had a chat and decided to help him and in return we would get the stage win. The pace was reasonable for a while but soon enough the three Costa Rican riders (KOM and Sprint leaders) got dropped. This was great for us and the pace went up just a bit to make sure we would not see them again. But, as the KOM (King of the Mountain) sprint was approaching, the Costa Rican rider wearing the polka dot jersey appeared from what seem, thin air. He accelerated and went for the points, with Glenn right behind. By then, Kerry and I were in a spot of bother and had to let the lead group go and kept a steady pace, picking riders dropped from each of the groups ahead of us. Dave was having a much better day today and was riding strongly, going steady all the way up. We went through three different towns and the school kids and their teachers were out screaming their hearts out for each rider that was slowly making his way to the finish. Glenn ended up second place, with Kerry in 4th and I was brining the rear in 6th. Dave finished 7th in the Cs. Once again, we had the support of dad and mom, driving both cars behind us and making sure that we had everything we needed and cheering us even though I think we each wished our bikes had an engine. When we gather back at the van at the finish line, we decided that this was probably one of the toughest days we each have had on the bike. Riders were coming in ones and twos and as we headed back to the house, we saw three guys still coming in, a good hour after we had finish. A complete massacre of a stage. Eating and hydration has taken most of the afternoon. We went out for dinner and there were some cheesburgers consumed. Tomorrow is a short 6 mile individual time trial. Hopefully another good day for us.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Wardrobe and Crashes

This morning was the jersey presentation for stage 2, and since the winner of the stage was wearing yellow (leader), the second place was wearing pink (sprints), Kerry was awarded the white jersey. The team's closet was growing since Glenn got the ball rolling by getting the yellow one yesterday. Kerry had such a good time, that he decided to give stage 3 a try. Under a potent sun and climbing temperatures, the 5 pelotons of the 9th Vuelta Masters a Chiriqui, pointed west, towards the border with Costa Rica to cover a rolling 50 mile course, with two intermediate sprints and a KOM. Our group took it a little easier at the start and we were pretty much noodling for about 10 miles when the pace went from nice to nuts in preparation for the first intermediate sprint. The Friends Team, from this point on referred to as, Mayhem, went to the front to do the leadout for their sprinter who's leading the competition, but their organization was, shall I say, questionable at best, and what followed was one of the nastiest crashes I have had to avoid in all the time I have attempted to race my bike. The yellow jersey went down hard to my right, and while FRESH Racing riders were involved in some evassive maneuvers, two riders went straight to the guardrail, at speed, with one of them catapulting over it after his bike collided with it, while the other went face first. Neither could claim victory against the metal barrier.
Unlike yesterday, the minute the word got around that the yellow jersey was down, the entire pack slowed down and waited for word about the down riders. The leader was making his way back through the caravan with a bloody right elbow, from other than that, he didn't look to have much visible damage, although I bet he was a little shaken after that. The heat was starting to reach alarming levels and making sure that we were taking on water was the job of my mom who today drove one of the two team cars. We would put our hand up in the air and she would pull out of the caravan and ride next to us to hand fresh bottles. We kept talking about the turn around point where things were going to get interesting and it didn't dissapoint. We started the Gariche Climb, which is about 10kms long at a steady 5% and the first attack took care of the weaker riders. The second attack took care of me. Kerry and Glenn latched to the back of the now, distant front group and put the hammer down. Meanwhile, in the Masters C category, Dave was having quite the time with the heat and the hill. I'm guessing the Cadel Evans ghost decided to make a stop at the race today. Riders from all categories were spread on the Panamerican Highway on the way back to David, some in worse shape than others, after the KOM sprint
I was in the hurt locker for about 10 miles, and I think my mom was suffering just as much just driving behind me. Dad had taken the second team car to cover Kerry and Glenn who by now were setting the road on fire. Finally I crossed the line and found the guys, to find out that Kerry had taken the stage and did the Forrest Gump salute made famous by Peter Sagan at the Tour, while Glenn was toping the podium with third place. Kerry picked a second medal and white jersey and both moved to 3rd and 4th overall on the GC.
Tomorrow is the dreaded Queen Stage, which is only 36 miles, but, it will go from sea level to almost 4,000 feet. Pray for us!!!!!