Stage 21: 98 km
Like graduation day, we embarked on the traditional march into Madrid where the sprinters who dragged themselves through the mountains would battle and the GC warriors would celebrate their unbroken focus, tenacious leadership, and the thankless sacrifices of their teammates and staff. Every one of us has overcome internal and external tribulations. Conversations ranged from the highs and lows of the race to girls at home and plans for the off-season. Then a small hill would burn the legs. “It’s going to hurt when we start racing on the circuits. I heard Movistar wants to do the intermediate sprint for Valverde. He’s only three points behind Rodriguez.”
“Oh yeah?” they’d say, and then reach for their radio to repeat the information.
Movistar lit it up on the first of ten five km laps in Madrid. Valverde scored the green jersey. I cued up at the front and took attendance. Most riders at the front would work for the sprint, so to get in the break I sprinted after the first attack. Six of us got a small gap. We pulled our hearts out, because there’s no tomorrow. Screaming fans lined the entire circuits. I appreciated a few heavy American accents shouting, “Gooo, Ben!”
Before the peloton swept us up on the penultimate lap I attacked for show, but the sprinters had their day.
Following our team Grand Tour tradition we popcorned around the dinner table sharing highlights of the month together. Memories and inside jokes poured around the table like the wine in our glasses, and it struck me how long a grand tour is. We lost my roommate Matej to illness over two weeks ago which I consider the lowlight since I knew how he yearned to finish his first grand tour. In the third week my new roommate, Alex Howes, and I clung to “Carry on my Wayward Son” for inspiration. Coughs and laughter broke our noxious singing.
The Vuelta challenged us. A grand tour is mentally and spiritually hard enough when the team is winning. It’s physically hard enough with a perfectly healthy body. Physically the Vuelta was one of the hardest grand tours in recent history. For a few days after losing our leader the team’s cohesion lapsed. We raced like headless chickens, trying to save the Vuelta. Our director, Johnny Weltz, has a way with words. The way his native Danish affects his English and his hunger for success, our success, generates the most dazzling and contagious one liners. Breakaways were our way to success. Our second director, Bingen Fernandes, full of wisdom and experience, gave us the detailed course info we needed. We’d leave the bus and hit km 0 with lofty intentions. I’d attack and then my cough would attack me. And we’d miss the break.
The turning point and the moment of the race that I highlighted came on stage sixteen when five riders rolled and the front line blocked the road. You could feel the heat from Johnny on the radio. We had to change our way of working. By the time I shoved to the front the break had two minutes. If I didn’t ruffle feathers and start pulling the break back, we would miss the winning move. Apologising to every insult hurled at me, I chased. Even though he forgot to turn on his radio, Moreno picked up on the plan and blasted across the gap to place third. From then on, we got in every breakaway. Not because one of us was stronger than the rest, not because we followed every attack, but because we raced as a team. If we missed an established move, whoever was first able sold out to shut it down and restart the action. If he blew, someone else would pick up the chase. If he blew, someone would jump across the gap.
Do it yourself or die for the team. Fighting through a grand tour, whether attacking at the front or praying for survival, turns a body inside out and scrapes pretense from it's bones. By the third week we are exposed and vulnerable, calcified and inveterate. We need each other. And by the end of the Vuelta we had one of the most cohesive team I've raced with. Some dreams feel more more like reality than the situations we wake to. In one of my less bizarre dreams I was in an underground metro station fleeing or chasing something. Familiar faces hurried around me. My shirt was full of something heavy. I ran to the descending escalator and climbed with burning legs. Halfway up, I stopped making upward progress. I tried taking the steps two at a time, but fell. As I tumbled down my shirt ripped open and water bottles hit the floor with me. I clenched my jaw and bounded to the top of the escalator bursting into sunlight. That's when I woke up and looked at my bandaged roommate, Alex Howes.
"Dude," I said.
"We're going get in the break today."
"Yeah, man. *Cough* I know. We have to." And we did.
I'm beginning to feel healthy again and am home in VA with double purpose. Home, duh, and the World Championships in Richmond.