After a jam packed off-season, transfer to a new team, and some tough pre-season training in the USA, it’s back to Europe to kick off the racing season with Team Dimension Data for Qhubeka. More on the pre-season later. My program began at the Vuelta a Valencia, which provided quite a shocking reintroduction to racing.
Tour of Valencia: 5 Stages
Stage 1: 38 km TTT
Hardly a team of team time trial specialists, we gathered two days early to practice this event which requires a combination of technique, communication, strategy, aerodynamics, and horse power. Our performance on race day matched expectations and exposed areas for improvement. Personally, the intensity of the effort felt better than I had hoped after a winter of training in the cold. We placed 12th out of 25 teams.
Stage 2: 180 km
A breakaway with our Johan van Zyl escaped after an hour of racing inland toward the mountains. As they stretched their advantage a dark cloud settled over the peloton. When we turned onto small twisty roads, we accelerated and the rain fell hard and cold. It was too technical and fast to get my rain jacket on so I stuffed it in the front of my jersey to provide some protection. I started to shiver. Putting on the jacket would cost me my position toward the front of the 200 rider pack. The elastic effect of the technical downhill eventually split 40 riders off the back. My lips turned blue, and my arms and neck stiffened fighting to steer despite violent trembling.
On the coast it was a few degrees warmer. A fast climb caught the breakaway and reheated the body, and I prepared for the final ascent and descent to the finish. On the ten minute climb, eight riders attacked. I held on to the next group of thirty. We never caught the eight leaders, but Kristian Sbaragli placed 10th on the stage and I was 17th. Johan took the KOM jersey.
Stage 3: 165 km
Powerful winds soured what should have been an easier day. Their constant buffeting caused a nervous environment. With 70 km to go, a team attacked in the feed zone. I sought shelter as close to the edge of the road as possible. For twenty minutes we charged along at 60+ kph, legs pumping like the needles of a sewing machine spinning the biggest gears we had. Sixty riders made the selection, but to my chagrin we slowed down in the next headwind section and the group reformed for a fast sprint finish.
Stage 4: 180 km
The queen stage lived up to expectations. We tried to get Johan in the break to defend his KOM jersey but after an hour flat out it was Igor who escaped in a group of five. The highlight of the whole race for me was seeing my little brother and his fiance on the second climb. I hadn’t seen them for months. Jake had painted his chest and back and cheered like a maniac. They were literally the only people on that stretch of road and everyone laughed. “Ben, your brother is crazy!” It runs in the family.
The longest climb of the day brought us above the snow line. The organisers had plowed a sketchy path through the snow on a rough road with pot holes and patches of gravel. After a few minutes of dodging potholes at 60 kph, we lined out on a wide open plateau between mountains. The wind funnelled between the mountains. I had tucked myself in at the front near Daniel and Merhawi and hunkered against the wind. With 60 km to go crosswinds cut us down to a group of fifty and Team Sky and BMC put the hammer down over the next climb and 15 kilometre downhill to insure that the selection stuck.
Daniel and I looked out for Merhawi heading into the final climb, which I remember from the 2016 Vuelta Espana. We careened into the bottom and the first 23% pitch hardly slowed Quintana and Merhawi. They duked it out over the final 4 km and Merhawi placed second to the grand tour winner.
Stage 5: ???
As our bus pulled into the starting area, we looked out the window at the sideways rain. The metal course barriers couldn’t resist the wind and crashed into the road. The organisers decided to shorten the stage so that we would only race the final 6 laps totalling fifty km in downtown Valencia. We rode the front for a while to stay out of trouble and finished within an hour. Kristian placed 10th. Merhawi finished 9th overall and by default I landed in 23rd, a solid start to the new season.
Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more action! Next stop: Tour of Algarve in Portugal.