I hope that these race reports provide an entertaining inside perspective. I enjoy sharing and recording my experiences but they also give me an honest opportunity to reflect post race. These debriefs allow me to zoom in on specifics while keeping the big picture in focus over the course of a season. After a disappointing Tirreno-Adriatico, I looked forward to another test. It’s impossible to fake it through the Vuelta Pais Vasco, arguably the hardest race of the season. The best pure climbers in the world in peak condition, still fresh but tuned from the early season races bring their best to the steep climbs. The silver lining is that there aren’t sprinters bullying for position and after Pais Vasco everything else feels easy. Legs do the talking. A hail storm greeted us in the Basque Country foreshadowing the week ahead.
Tour of the Basque Country: 6 Stages
Stage 1: 11 km TT
Most riders opted to switch from their time trial bike to their road bike after 6 km to confront the crazy steep climb and technical descent to the finish. I powered my aerodynamic TT bike over the flat, then jumped off while the mechanic pulled my road bike from the roof of the follow car. I fumbled to get clipped into my pedal forfeiting some of the time I’d gained through aerodynamics then pounded my way up the climb. The hurt was good, a positive sign. My result on a course that didn’t suit me mattered less than my power and feelings. It felt like a positive change from Tirreno. "Ok, let’s do this!" I thought. Our young Eritrean, Amanuel, placed 20th.
Stage 2: 150 km
Disappointment overwhelmed me. I’d felt so motivated, and optimistic before the start. During the race I’d done everything right, guiding our leaders to perfect position before the rain soaked roundabouts that strung out the peloton before the first gravel sector with 50 km remaining. Once the race sped up it was difficult for others to move forward, and I had a sweet spot. But, as soon as the road and intensity turned up, I slipped backward, unable to coax any more power out of my legs. I know that power is in me and will come, but riding to the finish in a big group off the back feeling like junk tested my patience. Fortunately my friend and ex-teammate, Alex Howes, was there, one of the few people who my grumpy self could talk to. On the bright side, I’m doing the right things and when the power comes I’ll be in the mix.
Stage 3: 192 km
During the twenty km neutral section with the threat of rain riders deliberated on their clothing selection. With instructions to make the breakaway, Danilo, Nic, Jaques and I took turns jumping. It was a chance to bounce back from stage 2. We missed a move of 11 riders so I jumped across. Another attack brought the peloton to us on a short hill. We were approaching the first long climb of the day and I sensed this was the moment the break would go. I felt like I had one more effort left to give and this was the time to do it. I followed the next attack and we went clear. Four more riders bridged across and we formed an eight man alliance off the front. Meanwhile, Steve Cummings crashed and broke his collarbone, although we didn’t find out until after the race.
The peloton kept us close throughout the long stage. After three hours feeling pretty good the “bad hurt” returned. It’s a feeling that your fitness is not the limiter but some other factor that prevents you from digging into the pedals. Examples of bad hurt can be a sore back, pain in your foot, restricted breathing, dehydration, or calorie deficit, but I couldn’t put my finger on what was holding me back. I just couldn’t tap into the good clean hurt when muscles are firing and burning, lungs are stretching, heart is pounding, and sweat is blinding, the kind of hurt that you can push up against with enough will power until you collapse. Strategically I became very aware of how much energy I was spending and tried to conserve. With 30 km to go the peloton had reduced our advantage to one minute, but our breakaway was motivated. If this turned out to be nothing more than a “TV attack” (a chance to soak up some air time for the sponsors) then after 160 km out front we might as well try to survive until viewers tuned in. With 20 km to go we still had a minute and turned up the gas. Our group of eight shrank as the pace eliminated riders one by one. With eight km to go we were down to four riders when a huge crash split the peloton. With three km to go, Toms Skujins attacked our break. I was able to follow, but with two km to go the peloton swept us up. Amanuel placed 14th in the uphill sprint.
Based on how I was feeling I am proud of my performance and fighting attitude. I am far from satisfied but it’s a step in the right direction.
Stage 4: 164 km
I began to shiver in the neutral section as rain beat down on us in the forty-five degree temperatures. When the race kicked off, however, we heated up quickly. Although I wasn’t feeling great, I helped Danilo cover early attacks. It took an hour, and when the break went we both missed it. I grabbed another jacket from the team car, and prepared for phase two of the race. On the hardest climb of the course the pace lifted and I went backwards. I found myself struggling to stay with the last group. Eventually we collected more riders, but I was left confused and frustrated once again.
Stage 5: 150 km
In a desperate move, to relieve some discomfort, I lowered my saddle slightly. When the directors laid out our plan to make the breakaway they said, “Ben, maybe after yesterday you take it a little easier.”
I responded, “I will help the guys. If I can’t do anything then why am I even here?”
Following the first attacks I found myself off the front with three other riders. I felt strong! The peloton wasn’t letting us go, but we tried to force it. “I hope this works,” I told my compatriot, Peter Stetina. On the first climb we dropped two of the riders. I crested just as the peloton caught us. We spent a lot of energy in our half hour out front. I felt like a completely different bike rider from the days before and continued attacking fearlessly, embracing and relishing the good pain. Tom, Danilo, and I had every move covered. After 70 km without a breakaway we began a series of categorised climbs. Having attacked before the climb I found myself in the cars at the top. I chased for a very long time, but the leaders never slowed down. Eventually I caught a big group of dropped riders, but there was never breakaway. In the end, after a much better day with big power, I finished 39th, but 20 minutes behind the first group. What a level!
Stage 6: 118 km
Buoyed by improved sensations in stage 5, we rallied for another chaotic day of climbing. The real racing kicked immediately and never lulled. I found myself in a group off the back with 75 km to go. We formed an allegiance to make it to the finish within the time cut. The Basque fans, although this is my first mention of them in this year’s edition, were incredibly animated and encouraging. We made it to the finish.
In three places in the race book it says the time cut for stage 6 was 20% of the winners time which was 2:59:30. That gave us 36 minutes so we did not stress on the final climb opting to support each other all the way. We finished 24 minutes behind the leaders. But, when the results were posted they listed us as out of the time limit. Evidently the judges calculated an 11% time cut like the other stages and overlooked their own rules. Cycling doesn’t award “finishers,” so it might seem petty to complain. But, while many riders abandoned before the final circuit, we carried on suffering just to finish out of respect for the race, and I felt disrespected to be “officially” eliminated from the results on the final stage even though we finished with 12 minutes to spare.
Overall, it’s difficult to shine in this race, but I’ve also never felt quite so useless on so many occasions. I’m glad I feel disappointed. It tells me I still care a lot. I’m also glad to have felt glimmers of really good form a few times. I’m proud of my attitude, that my disappointments didn’t keep me from smiling or hold me back from taking some risks and racing, and that I influenced the race in subtle ways. Stage 5 showed me that whatever has been holding me back can change from one day to the next, so when it clicks, I know I’ll be ready to make the most of it. Thanks for reading and for your support!
End note: Our flight to Pisa got hit by lightening. How crazy is that?
PC: Getty Images