After an exhillerating Strade Bianche, I anticipated seven days of opportunity beginning right around my training grounds in Tuscany and following a circuitous route from the west to east coast of Italy. Staying in a hotel for three days so close to our apartment in Lucca felt funny, but it allowed our seven man team to practice the technical art of the team time trial.
Tirreno-Adriatico: 7 days
Stage 1: 21.5 km TTT
The rain didn’t bother to check the weather forecast. All morning we watched it splattering in puddles outside the hotel. Steam rose from our backs during our synchronised warm up. We were just the second team off. Gaps appeared in the clouds, but rain tapped us as we lifted our bikes to the starting ramp. We blew through the first ten km, taking the wet turns cautiously, a bit to cautiously. Then the rain stopped. Each of us took his turn smashing a 15-20 second pull then sprinted back in line to recover in the draft at 60 kph. Three km from the finish we lost one rider. After a pull I counted my teammates until I could slot back in line, but I drifted too far back looking for the fifth rider who lost the wheel just as I came back. I tried but couldn’t close the three bike lengths to the other guys. As soon as I crossed the line cold gripped me. I shivered for almost an hour despite taking a warm shower and holding a hair dryer up my shirt.
The roads began to dry for each team after us, and we had to settle with 16th out of 23 teams. Notable occurrences included spectators crossing the race course in front of teams without looking. A few were close calls, but the man who stepped out in front of Bora got hit at 60 kph and crashed two riders. Everyone is ok. The organisation needs to access their safety measures, barriers, and marshalls for an event like this.
Stage 2: 195 km uphill finish
My legs ached from the previous day’s maximum effort in an unfamiliar position. Throughout the stage, I sheltered the guys from crosswinds and hoped my legs would loosen up and respond when the race got harder. 25 km from the finish, however, when a descent and wind strung out the peloton, the leadouts for the final climb ramped up and I could not squeeze any power out of my legs. I was one of the few riders spat out the back, left uncomfortable and perplexed. I did not feel like myself, but didn’t know what was “off” with me. Roman stayed with the front group to the top of the climb.
Stage 3: 226 km sprint stage
When five riders broke away we looked after our Italian sprinter, Nizzolo. Again, I felt strange, not empty or sick, but lacking power and explosivity. After the feed zone at the halfway mark our directors agreed to contribute a rider to chase the breakaway with the other sprint teams. I put my hand up, because I wanted to contribute and this was a job I could do. Otherwise, why race? But, just as I took the front, Nizzolo tangled his handlebars with another rider and crashed. He remounted and assessed the damage. With 75 km to go, he said he would still go for it despite a torn jersey and swollen elbow. I went to work on the front. Exceeding my expectations I led the peloton until 5 km to go. Every rider on the team did his part, but Reini in particular set Nizzolo up for the sprint with a brilliant 2 km leadout all the way to 400 meters from the line. Nizzolo got a little bit boxed in but lunged to fourth place. Nizzolo went to the hospital for an x-ray after the stage and was cleared to continue the race.
The way the team united and sold out for a common goal is the only way to victory at this level, and whatever the result, I’m proud to sacrifice for a guy like Nizzolo who will give his best to the line, win or lose.
Stage 4: 221 km mountainous stage with 2 x 9 km finishing circuit
At the start I had to jump across to a twenty rider break we had missed, but it came back and another thirteen riders took off. 100 km from the finish went entered narrow roads with steep climbs. Astana went ballistic and began shelling riders. In the feed zone I’d lost position and paid for it. I barely held on. When I did get dropped a few climbs later my power meter read 430 watts for four minutes. The level is high! On the following descent, I passed fellow American, Ian Boswell, unconscious in a corner. It scared me, but I carried on because he had the support of his team car. I linked up with a few riders and we made our way towards the finish.
As we approached the circuit, however, a whistle blowing commissaire halted us. We knew it was because they did not want us to get mixed up with the 80 riders who were racing the finishing laps, but we were confused as to what they would do with us! It was an inevitable situation based on the course the organisers had designed, but one they had not prepared for. As another fifty riders joined us from behind, we were told that we would not complete the laps but would be given a prorated finishing time. We actually watched Lutsenko crash twice and ride to victory on the cellphone of team Lotto-Visma's director. It didn’t feel right to skip 18 km of the course, but what else could we do? Also, based on the way the organisers prorated times I assumed dead last place in the race, or the “Lantern Rouge,” another first for me!
Stage 5: 180 km 4 x 20 km brutal finishing circuit with steep finish
Given freedom to go for the breakaway I lined up near the front but the neutral was extended for one riders mechanical issue and I got pushed back a few positions behind the car. When the flag dropped I worked my way to the front and followed promising moves up the first climb. Every attack I made, however, was countered by a successful one. I missed the magic touch and a group of 13 formed off the front without me. Katusha also missed the break and chased over the next climb to no avail.
We used the next flat portion of the course to recharge for the hectic final. In the bus that morning I noted that this was the first Italian race I’d done where nobody shouted or whistled in the tunnels. In a long dark tunnel all of my teammates whooped and hollered, putting a big smile on my face. Not sure if my body would finally cooperate, I embraced the chance to spend a little energy to help our guys enter the brutal circuit in front. The first time up the finishing climb I was churned out 430 watts at 50 rpm just to reach the summit. Halfway up the miserable hill, we passed a mind boggling road sign indicating the 30% gradient. On the backside I witnessed a Moviestar rider carry too much speed into a corner. He late braked. His bike fishtailed twice and whipped a full 180 degrees before he dumped it. Ouch. The next time over the top of the finishing climb Astana repeated their punishing long bomb tactics. A desperate rider ahead of me tried overtaking in a switchback and slammed into a barrier. His rear wheel flipped up and flopped on my handlebars. I just managed to catch the tail of the peloton before the descent, but a gap opened ahead of us. We chased and caught the peloton just as it fractured into little groups.
Roman suffered a bad day and slipped to 27th overall and Giacomo abandoned the race, but we had worked well as a team. An encouraging glimmer of my normal strength, at least tells me that “it’s in there somewhere,” and that time and persistence will overcome whatever fatigue has plagued me.
Stage 6: 195 km sprint stage
The lumpy technical course would likely end in a sprint but with rain on the horizon, we planned to send someone in the breakaway just in case. Although I felt weak, I managed to escape with six other strong riders. Fake it to make it. The sprint teams kept us on a short two minute leash. I felt empty, but did my share of the work with pride, because I was representing my team and Qhubeka. On the finishing lap, the peloton closed in on us and our breakaway split up. I faded back into the charging mass of riders. Reinhardt placed 9th in the sprint.
Stage 7: 10 km TT
I went through the motions in preparation, but just three km into my solo effort, I knew I was out of the hunt and backed off.
Despite lacklustre results, I remained ever grateful to be riding my bike, soaking up the countryside and earning that Italian pasta. I’m proud of influencing the race in small ways and contributing to the team despite having bad days, and based on the atmosphere and conversations within the team know we are headed for big things this season. Please pray for Ian Boswell in recovery from his concussion. My next race is Pais Vasco in two weeks, affording time to reset. Thank you for the support!