The past 8 stages have totalled nearly 1600 km and 41 hours of racing, but before diving in, take time check out what we're riding for this month: http://africasteam.com/2018/05/01/1000girlsonbikes/
Exploration is the essence of cycling. It provides opportunities to experience new places and cultures, to discover yourself by pushing your body and mind to new limits in unfamiliar environments, to bond and interact over a common pursuit with people of all races, nationalities, and backgrounds. Although I've lived in Italy throughout my professional career, I have never raced the Giro d'Italia. This year it thrilled me when the team marked it as my first major goal of the season. After the Giro I will have raced all three of the three week Grand Tours. Team Dimension Data heads in with the goal of supporting Louis Mentijs for the overall and targeting sprint stages with Ryan Gibbons. Jaco Venter, Jacques van Rensberg, Natnael Berhane, Ben O'Connor, and Igor Anton complete our roster. In the thread of novelty, the first three stages take place in Israel.
We arrived in Jerusalem three days before the Gran Depart. To make it extra special my wife, Jenna, and parents flew in to support me. Im jealous of all the site seeing they were able to do. Training, meetings, massage, medical tests, media, and meals kept us occupied, although I managed to slip into the old city with Ben and Natnael for forty five minutes of speed tourism.
In typical exaggerated Italian fashion the team presentation at the gates of Old City Jerusalem increased the energy, nerves, and excitement for the impending action which would kick off in the same place.
Stage 1: 10 km TT Jerusalem
During my course preview three riders crashed in one of the many rough, off camber corners on the course. In the second lap I saw them loading one of them onto a stretcher. I controlled my nerves by working through my pre race routine beginning an hour out. I haven’t been so jittery to get a race started since I was a junior rider, and like the junior races we operated out of vans and warmed up in a parking lot since the team buses couldn’t make the trip to Israel. The clock ticked off my start and I lunged onto the road. Jenna, my mom, and dad were cheering on the course. I heard them all out of the thousands of yelling spectators. I held myself back up the first hill. On the descent, my contact blew out and folded over in my eye. My eyes teared up. I couldn’t see and lost a few seconds in the first high speed turns. Feeling the need to make it up on the next uphill, I went a bit too far into the red. To my surprise, at the midway time split, I clocked the 4th fastest time, but soon paid for the extra effort. Knowing I was halfway to a great result, I continued to fight, but I couldn’t get my heart rate to fall. I sprinted up the final hill to the finish but had slipped to 31st. Last year’s overall victor, Tom Dumoulin won.
Stage 2: 170 km Haifa - Tel Aviv
Still with no buses every team popped up tents and lawn chairs in the parking lot to get race ready as fans gathered around for pics and autographs.
Flat stages can go two ways. Easy and fast, or full gas crosswinds shredding the peloton. The wind blew hard enough to make everyone nervous but never fractured the peloton. With time bonuses up for grabs at intermediate sprints and small gaps in the overall, the start was fast. Eventually three riders escaped and took the first intermediate sprint. Race leader, Dumoulin, wanted to give the jersey away along with the pressure on his team to control the race. Rohan Dennis obliged. His team drilled it before the second sprint, swept up the breakaway, and Rohan won the sprint taking the overall race lead.
Into the finish Jaco and I looked after Ryan Gibbons. I hit the front with eight km to go. Riders leaned on each other, locked their brakes and fishtailed into corners. At one point I had a rider sliding in front of me, another digging his shoulder into my left armpit as another jammed his handlebars under my right hamstring at 50 kph. Israel must be a holy land, because nobody crashed in that finish. Ryan braved his way through the chaos and sprinted to 7th.
Stage 3: 230 km Be’er Sheva - Eliat
A breakaway popped off without a fuss. I looked after Ben-O most of the day, delivering water, and sheltering from occasional crosswinds. The scenery looked like a Star Wars movie set. The desert, white cliffs, canyons, and sand dunes expanded as far as the eye could see. I spotted a dead Diadem snake on the side of the road which made it feel like National Geographic. At times the speed kicked up. At one such point, I flatted. After fighting back through the caravan we descended at over 90 kph and my front tire flatted again. Downright scary. Five km later, my rear tire flatted. Those efforts hurt. With thirty km to go, we picked up a tailwind. The peloton split momentarily, but I made the front half. We averaged over 70 kph for a great distance. After five hours with hardly a bend in the road, we hit ten roundabouts in the final six kilometres. The fight those to round about was critical and dangerous at high speed. We failed to get in position for Ryan to sprint.
The 6 AM alarm and full day of travel from Israel to Catania, Italy disqualified it as a rest day. We made it to Italy in time for an easy ride.
Stage 4: 202 km Catania - Caltagirone
The stage profile belied the difficulty of the stage. A wild up and down start on narrow, cracked and rough roads strung the peloton out. The fight for the breakaway continued until for half an hour. Constant hills made up for the lack of any long climbs. We accumulated 3500 meters. Midstage some of the favourites stopped to pee, and another team rallied a long technical downhill and blasted up the two km climb at the bottom. The peloton shattered. Riders ahead of us exploded. Ben O’Connor came to my wheel and I did a huge effort to ride us back to the first group. When those who had taken their nature break regained the peloton we settled down again. The group began to shrink on the last climbs in the final 20 km. With six km to go a bottleneck in the road caused a crash. I had to stop behind it. Our other guys just made it through and we able to help Ben make it back to the action.
Stage 5: 165 km Agrigento - Santa Ninfa
With better roads in the first half of the race the start was much more relaxed. However, the action kicked off on the three short climbs nearing the finish. Again the peloton whittled down. A deja-vu situation with a crash at 16 km to go blocked the road. This time I made it through, but Louis did not. I sat up and waited. When he got on my wheel I gave my last effort to bring him to the back of the peloton.
Stage 6: 170 km Caltanisseta - Mt. Etna
Until now we’d been on damage control, avoiding unnecessary time loss. Today was the big test. I quote every director on every team before the stage, “Today start the Giro” (roll the R’s). Another chaotic start saw a few crashes and a huge breakaway escape after an hour of racing flat out. Jaques slipped in there for us. Such a big escape meant a fast stage. I did my best to help Ben and Louis ride in the most efficient parts of the peloton and sheltered them from the wind when it conserved their energy.
Mt. Etna is one of the most active volcanos in the world. It climbs from sea level for nearly 40 km and lava rocks darken the terrain. I felt off my game, and did was I could for the team, but when the climb steepened I found a group and counted down the kilometres. Jenna was fifteen km from the summit and I swing wide for a kiss. I misjudged the speed a bit and we bumped heads but it was still a moment in my career that I won’t forget.
Ben placed 12th just behind the first group of favourites and Louis suffered a bit and finished 32nd a couple minutes down.
The event continued as we transferred to mainland Italy by ferry. We rode down the mountain. Igor went the wrong way down but was welcomed by team AG2R for a shower and commute to the docks. We ate dinner on the bus and made it to the hotel by 11 PM. I’ve heard stories of crazy Giro transfers and between the plane, boat, and long drives so far it has exceeded expectations.
Stage 7: 160 km Pizzo - Praia a Mare
A day for the sprinters saw a small breakaway and a very slow start to the stage. My legs burned and complained about the previous days but when the heat of the finish came they responded. Jaco and I brought Ryan into position for the last climb. The speed neutralised any attacks and we prepared for the wild downhill to the finish. We did not expect pitch black tunnels at over 70 kph. Once in the first of two in the last 7 km, I panic verged on irrationality. We couldn’t judge the distance to riders ahead of us, and my sense of balance disappeared. I was afraid to slow down too much for fear of riders approaching from behind. All I could do was pray. We made it out, but the insanity stretched the peloton. Ryan got squeezed out of position in the final and finished 14th. At the finish line I knew Ben and Louis were behind me, so I sprinted to close a small gap insuring they got group time. Other contenders took unnecessary time losses.
Stage 8: 209 km Praia a Mare - Montevergine di Mercogliano
Once again a drawn out battle for the breakaway ensued along twisty roads above the rocky coastline. I fought to be with any group of at least ten riders. Seven got away but once we hit wider roads a two up attack from Hansen and Wellens on Lotto Belisol restarted the attacking. The two of them got out of site, realised they wouldn’t catch the break and hid in a driveway. Everyone who’d been chasing them was surprised when they appeared in the bunch! I marked moves on the first uphill section, and nearly exploded, but the seven original riders finally went clear and we settled in for the chase.
Rain in the forecast of the last hour and a fifteen km climb with over thirty switchbacks made positioning into the base of the climb absolutely critical. Ben and I jived well and he followed me to the front. When we got separated, I waited for him and we moved forward again on the wet descent into the base of the mountain. We were parallel with the front of the peloton when the road kicked up. I stayed there as long as I could blocking the wind for him, then faded back. I held on to the back in case I could be of any assistance later. Then with 5 km to go Froome crashed in one of the switchbacks and took Ben out. He had to correct a mechanical issue before he could remount. I arrived just in time to give him one big pull. Ben was nervous and shouted at me, “Faster! Hard as you can!” I looked down and was already doing nearly 500 watts. I thought, “geesh, he must feel good,” and sprinted to the next corner. Natnael had dropped back and took over from there. Ben made it to the peloton as it was fracturing and lost thirty seconds to the winner. Louis finished with the first group. The unfortunate mechanical
Stage 9: 225 km Pesco Sannita - Gran Sasso d’Italia
I queued up third row for the narrow technical start expecting an hour of attacks, but because the road was narrow a few teams let their riders go then blocked the road. Natnael used his shoulders to force his way through the front line and joined the escape. Others tried after him but nearly crashed in their attempts to reverse red rover their way through. Their advantage went out to seven minutes. With forty five km of steady climbing to the finish, I helped Ben and Louis save as much energy as possible, delivering water, stopping with them when they needed to relieve themselves, and blocking wind when it came from the side.
Finally after four hours at an interminably uncomfortable pace we approached the climb. When I brought Ben near the front, Astana lifted the pace. They whittled the peloton down to about fifty riders straight away. An hour later, forty. Before each critical point I brought Ben and Louis forward then drifted back on the steeper parts. I brought them a bottle and gel with 20 km to go, then prepared for the final push. At fifteen to go a group split off the back. Louis was behind me so I closed it quickly. With six km to go, I brought Ben right to the very front. The rode kicked up and I tailed off 4 km from the summit. I could finally look around and notice where I was.. When I could see beyond the two story snow banks lining the road, the view stunned me. Ben finished 11th moving up to 14th overall. Louis placed 16th and moved up to 23rd overall.
We all piled into a cable car at the top of the mountain, and soared down to the busses overlooking the heights we’d conquered.
We’re nearly halfway but looking ahead to the most trying days. After a late breakfast we rode an hour and did our best to recover for what’s coming.
Stage 10: 245 km Penne - Gualdo Tadino
On paper stage 10 suited a breakaway victory. With a brutal uphill start and a lot more climbing throughout, teams would not want to control the longest stage for sprinters who might be dropped anyway. So, I made the first breakaway of seventeen riders. By the top our pace had whittled the group down to 12 strong riders. I already began assessing how I might outmanoeuvre them in the finish 200 km later. However, nobody could have predicted that Chaves, 3rd overall, would be dropped when the peloton split over the first climb. The other GC teams wanted to eliminate Chaves from contention by opening up the gap between the two groups so our breakaway advantage hovered around 1.5 minutes for two hours. Finally, we conceded and slipped back into the lead group of 80 or so riders. Ben and Jaco had made the split. The two groups drag raced in the rain for 120 km until finally the Chaves chase group cracked. They lost 26 minutes. I helped Ben conserve as much as possible throughout the day. I fancied my chances to steal a result against this reduced and ragged group and kept my eyes opened for opportunities. After a wet technical descent two riders had opened up a gap. I followed counter moves, and then fought for positioning in the sprint. I underestimated the technical final and placed myself a little too far back with 2 km to go. In the last straightaway Froome lost the wheel ahead of me. I had to sprint from 700 meters out to close the gap and ended up 11th. One point out of the placings that count. The two leaders stayed clear for the victory. The day left me frustrated but full of confidence for the second half of the Giro.
Stage 11: 156 km Assisi - Osimo
Yesterday’s insanity set stage 11 up for another breakaway opportunity. I jumped after a few moves at the start but felt off my normal self. Five strong riders escaped. It seemed not everyone felt as tired as we thought because they chased down the breakaway before the finish. I suffered over the short climbs coming into the finish, eager to support Ben O’connor as late as possible. Somehow, despite how I was feeling, I kept making the selections until the peloton was down to 80. A crash into the penultimate climb, split the group again. Ben made it through and limited his losses. The steep finishing climb proved that everyone is actually tired as the GC contenders dominated the results.
That night a cough and congestion woke me up every hour.
Stage 12: 215 km Osimo - Imola
I woke up feeling even more sick. That “off” feeling proved to be more than race fatigue. On the up side, the long stage was flat until two climbs in the last 20 km. We cruised at a comfortable pace on uncomfortably bumpy roads for most of the day. Then streaks of lightening split the sky and rain dumped on us. After a tricky passage through a town, I went to move Ben up toward the front. I couldn’t see through the dirt and rain on my glasses and was churning up the right side of the peloton when someone yelled, “lookout!” I squinted just in time to see that a median split the road and I was hurdling toward handlebar height caution tape. I ducked as low as I could to avoid being clotheslined and slipped beneath. When I jumped the median and joined the back of the peloton a crosswind split the group. It was a flat out chase to the bottom of the climb. I passed the climb with Ben. We flew down the descent onto the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari. On the next climb I slipped out the back. Ben is currently in 13th overall.
It was almost such a nice race! However, the cold and rain worsened my cough. Following protocol the team isolated me as much as possible from the other guys outside the race to avoid spreading the illness.
Stage 13: 180 km Ferrara - Nervesa della Battaglia
Another sprint day. The skies were full of threats again, but held off for the finish. I appreciated an easier day although the organisers did chuck in a climb before the finish just for good measure. I suffered, but the guys positioned Ryan well and he sprinted to 5th.
Stage 14: 186 km San Vito Al Tagliamento - Monte Zoncolan
Antibiotics seemed to have stabilised my condition although my lungs were full of mucous. The intensity of the coughing caused my abs to cramp. Still, my legs felt strong and my I was in a positive headspace. My task would be to survive, but I told the directors I might be better than they thought. The course climbed 3200 meters before reaching the base of Monte Zoncolan, a 10 km climb averaging 12%. I felt ok in the start, but a found myself suffering up a climb midway through the race. I brushed it off, and refocused on the next climbs. When the road kicked up the first “grupettos” formed and I struggled just to make it into a group of stragglers. Pedalling squares, I limped to the finish in the rain with the cough turning my lungs inside out. The party atmosphere of the fans on Zoncolan improved the experience. “Spingi” means push in Italian, and proved a very useful word! Although the Italians benefited most, the tifosi (fans) were wild, enthusiastic, and generous with their pushes.
Meanwhile, further up the road, our 2011 Zoncolan stage winner, Igor Anton, who has been struggling with health issues throughout the Giro, put in a blistering attack at the base. Igor is one of the most likeable riders with the most positive attitude. This week was the first time I've ever seen him looking so frustrated by his performance. The GC riders surpassed him with 4 km to go, but his defiant attack proves there's always hope. Ben climbed well to defend his GC position.
Stage 15: 176 km Tolmezzo - Sappada
Prior to my illness I had marked this as an opportunity for the breakaway. After my struggle on “The Zonc,” however, the uphill start made me nervous. I rallied to help cover some moves to take the pressure off of Louis and Natnael who made huge efforts to be in the breakaway. We all felt sad to hear that after his valiant effort on the Zoncolan, Igor dropped at the start and retired from the race. We'll miss you Igor.
We tried so hard for two hours that when 25 riders escaped we missed it. Lamenting the fact that we’d missed what I knew to be the first winning breakaway, it confused me when Team EF-Drapac started pulling full gas almost right away. A coughing fit concerned the riders around me, “Are you ok, man?” But, I got some gunk out of my lungs and got back to work. The way EF pulled, we readied ourselves for a climb at the halfway point. Team EF blew up their entire team, and exploded the peloton to set up Mike Woods for an attack. I yo-yoed off the back of the first group of around 25 riders careful to ride my own pace as we reached high altitudes. We caught the 25 rider early break on the climb and Mike attacked. Michelton-Scott, the leader's team, took over the chase. Rain fell and made the technical downhill freezing. I saw the skinniest climbers shivering. I brought a gel and water to Ben and then positioned him for the next climb. Halfway up the attacks came and dispatched me. In my head I wished Ben luck and rode to the finish with Jaques. Ben finished in the 2nd group of favourites and sits 12th overall.
I am a juxtaposition of legs and lungs; positivity and infirmity. Choosing to condense my regular rest day efforts on a short stationary ride afforded me more time in bed to recover. The best part was my wife visiting. For a few brief and rejuvenating hours I retreated from the Giro. Stage 16 is a time trial and another chance for me to take it easier and quash the boogy monster in my lungs.
The team doc and staff are looking after me well and giving me every fighting chance. We're still in the game with opportunity on the horizon.