As Jenna and I settled into married life in Virginia over the winter, I put down quality training. Spending that time on my home roads, the roads that made me, justified every cold ride. My rewards at the end of each frigid workout were warm arms, and a venison steak in front of the wood stove. It felt magical, but after months of hard work, I also looked forward to returning to racing action. My first race would be the Volta Algarve. One week after arriving and moving into a new apartment in Lucca, Italy, our Euro base, I flew to Portugal.
Volta Algarve: 5 days
Stage 1: 198 km
The first stage kicked off without a fuss. I enjoyed chatting with my friends in the peloton and feeling the speed and rhythm of racing that lacks in training. When we reeled in the breakaway tension rose. The road went from wide to narrow over bridges and through roundabouts. Because it was a relatively easy stage everybody felt like a world champion sprinter and took risks to defend their positions. My Team Dimension Data boys found a nice position all together, but a crash near the front blocked the road. I screeched to a stop with the whole team. The bunch split and Johann and I did a suicide turn each to shut it down. The effort cost our sprinter Eddy, but at least our GC rider, Louis, didn’t lose time. I narrowly avoided another crash and finished at the back.
Stage 2: 188 km
With multiple categorised climbs on route to the final 15 km ascent, our goal was to protect Louis. Tasked with patrolling the front at the beginning of the stage for any dangerous teams or large groups trying to get in the breakaway, I surfed wheels hoping a small group would escape. I lost position for a moment after fifteen km and hopped on the wheel of another rider moving to the front. We were on a short downhill and he went straight to the front and past it. I didn’t even have to pedal, but when we started up the next small hill, I looked back and we had a gap. I waited for the peloton to sweep us up. Instead, five more riders joined us and the peloton slowed up. I felt kind of naughty for being there but my director told me to roll through and go after the sprints at the top of each climb along the way.
On the first climb I jumped 500 meters from the top to see who else was interested. Lampeart from Quickstep latched straight onto my wheel. When he thought I was fading, he sprinted past me, but I had enough space and power to come back around him. He raced me again for the second climb, but I managed to win. From then on, nobody challenged me and I took maximum points on all four categorised climbs. Our gap shrank fast before the last climb. My goal was to make it far enough up the climb to be useful for Louis. With 15 km to go a Bora rider attacked the break. I crossed the gap and the two of us started up the final climb with a 50 second advantage. With 9 km to go the peloton had us in sight. My teammates were at the front for Louis, so I waited and then took the longest pull I could to the steepest section of the climb.
Louis finished 11th, just 3 seconds behind the winner, Kwiatkowski. Serge was top 30 a couple minutes back.
Stage 3: 21 km TT
I planned a conservative ride to recover from stage 2. But since I hadn’t ridden my time trial bike in a few months and wanted to keep my body in race mode, I started pushing a little harder. After 5 km I decided a 15 km effort wouldn’t kill me. I started hunting my minute man, and finished top 30. Starting calm and “easy” probably helped me pace better.
Stage 4: 200 km
The team gave me the green light to defend my lead in the KOM classification. I led with 15 points. Stage 4 offered only 6 points more, and stage 5 contained 18 points before the final climb. It was possible that I could keep the jersey without doing anything, but if stage 2 winner Kwiatkawski won stage 5’s summit finish he would have 16 points. Because the final stage is always a massive battle for the breakaway, I didn’t want to put all my eggs in that basket. On a sprint day like stage 4, it’s usually easier to pick the right move. If I won all 6 points available on stage 4 then only 3 riders could overtake me on the final day.
A few minutes into the race I slipped into a 6 man breakaway. One of the Portuguese riders had been in the breakaway on stage 1, so he battled me on the climbs. I forced him to lead out the sprints and had the speed to win both of the KOM’s.
After the climbs the peloton pulled us into within one minute with 40 km to go. It was too early to make “the catch” so they let us dangle at a minute for over 20 km. When it looked like they’d finally pull us back with 10 km to go, three riders from the peloton came rocketing up to us. We slotted in behind them. They were hammering for the stage win, and there was still road between us and the peloton. With 4 km to go I started to wonder if I had another sprint in me to contest the stage. But 2.5 km from the finish, the peloton whizzed past and the sprinters duked it out. All our guys were safe in the bunch. After my long day in the wind, I laughed when they said it had been pretty easy in the peloton.
Stage 5: 178 km
As expected a ferocious fight for the breakaway unfolded in the first 15 km uphill start. Johann helped me make sure none of the KOM threats got a gap, and I tried to follow each of their attacks. At the top of the climb things got complicated. Igor and Johann attacked with a large group. It was a good situation for us. Serge followed the next few riders to jump across. Team Sky’s, Geraint Thomas, was in the leader’s jersey and his teammate Michael Kwiatkawski was second overall. We were happy with the situation, but I thought the group was too big for Team Sky’s liking. As they shut the gap down, I relaxed, preparing for the inevitable attacks that would come when they caught the breakaway. As soon as I let my guard down Kwiatkawki blasted to the back of the breakaway. Still, I thought, “no worries. He’s just there as insurance.” Sky continued to close the gap and I could hear Thomas urging on his teammates. Then little by little they slowed down. The gap expanded, and by the time I realised what was happening it was too late. The lead 30 riders gained four minutes.
Although Kwiatkowski would not chase KOM points instead of his chance to trade overall leadership with his teammate, he was, by default, a threat to me in that competition. I spent a few minutes kicking myself for making such a tactical miscalculation. But Serge, Igor, and Johann did their best to scoop up the points ahead of Kwiatkowski. I refocused on sticking with Louis and riding near the front before the final climb. As the race unfolded, it became clear that the stage win would go to the breakaway. Serge rode an amazing race and placed 3rd behind Kwiatkowski. He moved himself into 8th overall. Louis finished top 20 overall, and I held onto the King of the Mountains competition by two points ahead of the overall winner Kwiatkowski. Fellow American, Tejay van Garderen, moved himself up to 3rd overall.
As soon as the podium ceremony finished, a new race ensued to make our flights home. I had an overnight layover in the UK and made it back to Lucca early on Monday. Jenna arrived today, Tuesday. We’ll enjoy settling into our European routine for two weeks until the next race. Thanks for reading, and thank you for all of the encouraging messages throughout the week! You all gave me motivation.