Tour of Utah 2011

Prologue: 2 km

We raced on an access road from the bottom of the Olympic Park ski jumps to the top. I’m still coughing up phlegm from four and a half minutes of lung bleeding effort. I exploded in a steep section with five hundred meters to go, but hung on. Although I placed only 38th, I set a personal peak 4 minute power.

Our defending overall champion, Levi Leipheimer, fresh off the Tour de France, placed 6th positioning himself for a repeat.
Stage 1: 187km

With a team of Columbians in the lead, European ethics took a back seat to aggressive South American racing. Assigned to cover breakaways of more than five or any with Columbians, I jumped to wheel after wheel until four non-threats escaped. We hit a twenty minute climb three times. It insulted us with its steady torturous gradient. The Columbians took control on the climb. On laps one and two I made the selection of thirty riders. After the climb they stopped pulling and attacked. I followed moves or helped shut them down.

Jesse Anthony, of my Alma Mater, Kelly Benefits, attacked. We let him flounder in suicidal desperation. To everyone’s surprise he caught and passed the breakaway. Then four race favorites including two Columbians and my two teammates, Levi and Jani, caught him on the last ascent. He let them do the work and out sprinted them. Jani and Levi gained over two minutes on all but three competitors moving to 3rd and 5th overall.

By the time my race went bad, I had already made my contributions to the team. For my confidence I wanted to make the selection as I had done twice already. I started the climb in poor position, but crested with Vande Velde, Zirbel, and Pate, just behind the lead thirty. Vande Velde crossed the gap in the last two hundred meters of the climb. I thought about following, but assumed safety with Zirbel and Pate, two of the strongest rollers in the peloton.

Wrong. We chased within thirty seconds for fifteen km, and never made the junction.

Shutting down a dangerous breakaway.

Stage 2: 160 km

Again the Columbians refused to control, choosing the offensive instead. I covered their bottle rocket attacks for an hour, before a group finally took off with a Columbian and RadioShack’s Phillip Deignan. Before the feed zone at 80 km, I was enjoying a nice chat with a BMC rider. “Hey, I hate being at the back in the feed zone. I’m gonna move up,” I told him. As riders swiped feed bags from their soigneurs (team care takers), Mancebo, one of the most experienced racers, attacked, ethics abandoned. He pulled the break away back, and earnest attacks resumed.

I followed a Columbian. Six of us escaped. A group of thirty including Jani came up to us. Realizing that Levi and the Columbian race leader had missed the split, a number of teams committed to maintaining the selection. When the rest of the peloton to rejoined, RadioShack sighed relief. We let three riders escape, then helped set tempo to discourage any more attacking.

A number of crashes in the last ten km made the finish dodgy. To avoid trouble I stayed up front with Levi and rolled in 15th. We’re still in striking distance going into tomorrow’s time trial.

Stage 3: 15.5 km TT

Pedaling over 50 kph, head down, we dove through turns on the twisting race track at Miller Motor Sports Park. I leaned too far in one corner and clipped my pedal on the ground. Knowing that Levi or Jani would need every ounce of our strength to defend the next day, I held a manageable but hard pace. Levi stole the yellow jersey and placed 4th on the stage. Jani moved into second overall and placed 7th on the stage. I finished 18th.

Stage 4: 130 km

Eleven times we pulled up and down the mountain, the arid wind like a hair dryer blowing in our faces. 25 riders had escaped. I wanted to shut it down but I stuck to the plan of our leaders: stay together, don’t panic, ride steady. Only four of us chased for six laps. Each 12 km circuit the escapees gained ten seconds. Two of our riders died (figuratively) in the heat and altitude. With only one helper I’d soon follow. We lifted the pace to put a dent in the gap before fatigue rendered us useless. Attacks launched on the next climb and I went out the back with my teammate. We had saved two guys to help Levi and Jani in the finish. It was up to them.

As for my teammate and me we kept riding hard to make the time cut. Riders finishing a certain percentage of time behind the winner are eliminated. Coated in salt from evaporated sweat, we finished 10 minutes behind the winner.

Levi kept the jersey. Jani slipped to third, and the time cut eliminated two of our riders. Smaller breakaways are easier to control. It frustrated me that we allowed such a big group to escape and had to ride such hard tempo. Although we defended, it damaged our team going into the final and hardest stage. I can’t help worrying. Levi, however, earned my confidence this year, and will get whatever I have left.

Stage 5: 175 km

A breakaway never escaped. Attacks flew all day, and our team worked to prevent a repeat of yesterday by jumping in big groups. With Levi, Jani, and Deignan saving energy for the three mountains, three of us took responsibility. For two and a half hours we followed attacks. At one point I followed fifteen riders with four Columbians including Sevilla and Tejay. I looked behind. The peloton with my leaders was falling away. I dropped out of the break and helped chase it down.

I started the first climb up front with Levi on my wheel, but dropped into a group climbing at my limit. Phillip set tempo, then dropped back to us. My group of 15 chased the front group of 20, and caught them after another 6 km climb. With 20 km to go, 11 of them up the side of a mountain, Phillip, Bennet, and I rode straight to the front and emptied our tanks.

When I slotted in ahead of Levi, he swore, “#&$# yeah!” Later, he said it gave him chills. Columbians attacked one by one, and one by one we dragged them back. Bennet took the beginning of the climb, then swung wide. I pulled into 9 km to go until my eyes crossed, and Deignan took over. Then Levi did what he does best.

On the way to the finish, spectators said, “Levi did it!” I pumped my fist. He had dropped all but the strongest Columbian and gifted him the stage victory content with the overall victory. Jani finished just behind them and kept 3rd overall. I finished 20th with Mancebo.

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Tour of Utah 2009

Since the beginning of the season, I’ve been aiming at one goal. I was optimistic about my broken collarbone in Redlands, because it meant a stronger second half of the season when USA Cycling selects six U23 riders for L’Avenir (the most prestigious U23 stage race) and the World Championships. Yesterday they sent out the preselection of eleven. All eleven could and should compete, so it all comes down to Survivor Utah.
Tour of Utah: 6 days

Prologue: 2.8 miles
Geesh, 6 PM race starts make for a slow day. Breakfast, ride, movie, movie, movie… and no internet! So I’ll update as often as possible. As one of the last riders off, I watched rider after rider come across the finish looking like they just got strangled in a sauna. It was going to hurt. “I’m tasting blood” Bjorn said after his ride. The course was out and back, winding up and down a gradual hill. The effort was violent and over before I knew it. I’ve had a nagging cough for the past few hours. It could be the dry air, but I think I’m just allergic to prologues. Of the 160 starters:
1st Bookwalter
2nd Zabriskie
3rd McKissick
8th Sergent
11th Bewley
37th Me
Time for the real racing to begin.

Stage 1: 140 km
There are races with courses that intimidate everyone. When hardened pros who have raced the grand tours go on about the difficulty, you know it’s no joke. Tour of Utah is one of those. Today we faced two steep 10 km climbs. I wanted to avoid preemptive attacks and try to make the selection on the climbs, but before the first climb I found myself off the front with two other riders for 5 or 10 minutes. I thought they would let us go, but for whatever reason it came back. The majority of the field stayed together on the first climb, but on the other side there was a lot of attacking. I got excited and wasted energy attacking and closing gaps. Trying to watch Chris Jones, who notoriously makes the breaks, I often found myself in promising groups, but nothing would stick. Finally, Sam took off with an Ouch rider, and built up a 3:30 gap. BMC rode tempo to the base of the last climb. I battled to ride at the front but everyone was so bunched together that there was no space to move up. Every time someone tapped their brakes, I slipped back. Sevilla and Mancebo (two Rock Racing riders) attacked 5 km from the summit, and the field stretched as riders dropped off the back. As we approached 7500 ft elevation it was too much effort to jump around the groups of dropped riders. When TT specialist, Tom Zirbel, opened a gap in front of us, I had nothing left to close it, and we settled into a chase group. Sam held off the catch until the top of the climb, and wound up in the front group along with Bjorn and Julian. Tomorrow I’ll try to make some better luck for myself. Overall, the team is doing great, but I need to step it up if possible.

Stage 2: 130 km
The last 35 km of today were straight up a mountain climbing to 9000 ft. Since we lost time yesterday, Ryohei, Ryan, Jesse, and I tried to get into a break early on. When we missed the one that finally stuck, it was time to settle in and let Rock Racing ride the front until the climb. Starting the climb at the front was critical, because Rock was riding so hard on the early slopes. I surged up to the top 20 but got swept back 3 or 4 times. When the climb started, I was around 100 riders back, and for 2 km I worked to move up and help Bjorn. Finally in the top 50. In fact, there were already only around 50 riders left by now. All of the sudden, the pace seemed too fast. I was confused, until we went through a switchback and I almost wrecked. My rear tire was completely flat. I had to wait for neutral support, and then ride the grupetto to the finish. The climb was brutal, but the views on the way up were spectacular. I wish I was in a position to describe how Bjorn “manned up” and is now in a position to crack the top ten on GC. The other U23 riders here are proving their potential and the value of the various development programs we’ve been a part of.

Stayj Foor:… I mean Stage 4: 160 km 14000 ft of climbing
Thinking the best shot at a stage result was to get in the break, I went with the first move. It was a good combination of teams, and Rock was happy to let us escape. We settled into a rotation for the long day up to Snowbird Ski Resort. However, Garmin was determined to put someone in the move and brought us back on the first short climb. A new break formed and we waited for the first long climb. 30 riders split off the front. I’ve never felt so uncomfortable on the bike. My seat hurt. My feet and back hurt. I was dehydrated and hunger bonking. Axel’s thermometer read 116.6 degrees on the climb. My group was the largest on the road, but we still never went easy. On some of the descents we hit 65 mph. We tried joking around in the group, and shared a few laughs (anything is a welcome distraction) but on the final ascent I hit a wall, or a heat wave, or a 15 km 10% mountain. “Ooooh… he doesn’t look so good,” observed some of the spectators as I crawled past. I feel like a raisin. Days like this reduce your mental capacity to that of a six year old, but if you’ve just started reading these updates, I promise it isn’t always so wretched. Alex Howes won today (U23 road champ). Keep following and you’ll see the good days to come.

Someone caught these charades on the way up… It wasn’t so funny at the time.

Stage 5: 90 minute criterium
Flat, four corner, classic downtown crit course. 20 minutes into the race I had a mechanical. My rear hub locked up. I went to the pit and hopped on a spare bike, but had no time to adjust the position. I spent the next 45 minutes pedaling on my tiptoes, and then bailed out with a big chunk of riders at 25 minutes to go receiving a prorated time. Hoppin on a redeye tonight. The quicker I get out of Utah and forget about this race, the better. Next year we’ll be back and hopefully snickering at these updates.

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Secret Days and the Extra Mile

It has been as I forecasted in my previous blog, riding myself into oblivion, licking my wounds on the final gravel climb home, and draining muscle milk half naked in the kitchen. I’m getting stronger, covering my old training grounds faster. My reward is an increasingly harder program. The more you get, the more you get. Thanks, Coach Miller. A few people requested another training blog, but cyclists tend to be secretive about their training. I came up with a few reasons why and in the process let you into the strange daily life of a cyclist in the race-less base and building preseason.

1. Who wants to read long boring blogs about long boring rides?

Cursing myself through the last set of intervals after four hours on the bike, I rounded off another block of training. For five days I averaged over one hundred miles, 5.5 hours, and 7000 calories. That’s a dozen big macs or 40 pounds of carrots per day. Chose your medicine. I totaled nearly twelve hundred miles in two weeks. The average high temperature this week was 0.5 degrees C. Ice forms in my water bottles, but threatening forecasts amount to nothing but swirling flurries and freezing mist.
Encased in ice after descending a mountain pass:

2. We’re neurotic freaks.

Sometimes the extra mile makes me question my sanity. All the big routes around here seem to be 97 miles. Despite the drooping fatigue and setting sun, I’ll flick on my Road ID blinky light and spin down one of the “love loops” near home to get that extra three miles or ten minutes. I don’t want anyone to know what kind of compulsive nut I can be about logging arbitrary distances and hours.

3. We’re afraid of exposing such intimate moments.

When nobody is watching, when the action is months away, and when legs are as heavy as the icy chip seal roads, strengths, weaknesses, and character are laid bare. Andy Guptill is one of very few people who has seen me bonked out of my mind. I had ignored my body and burned through every stored blood sugar. We were four hours in and still nearly two hours of pure misery from home and D.O.B., my dirty acronym for our two-mile gravel road. Andy nursed me home in an embarrassing state of breakdown unbecoming of a top pro. The next day I saddled up for another five hours.

Andy and I getting intimate… on the Love Loop:

4. Mark Warner, a masters teammate of my dad, composed this comical script in an email about why pros are weird about their numbers.

“On one hand you have a crowd who is convinced that anyone with a threshold over 5w/kg is doping. On the other hand you have conversations like this:

Middle Aged Watt Geek: Nice job last week.
Pro: Thanks!
MAWG: So how many watts were you pushing?
Pro: Not really sure. It was kind of up and down.
MAWG: Yeah, but what do you think you averaged?
Pro: I don’t really know. I guess around 350 for parts of it.
MAWG: My threshold is 390 watts.
Pro: That’s great.
MAWG: Yeah, well my weight is up about 20 lb right now, but I figure if I just lose
weight and keep my watts up I’ll be really competitive.
Pregnant silence…
Pro: Anyway, good luck with your season. I’ll see you around.

Awkward turtle…
Group ride with Mark Warner:

So now you know that I’m a boring, bashful, neurotic freak, with the threshold of a middle-aged watt geek. The past month since my last blog can be summarized by riding hard, eating hard, and balancing each taxing block with equally dedicated recovery. I’m preparing to sink or swim. Either way I can’t wait to join the team for our camp in Mallorca, Spain soon. And now, whether you see me riding ahead of the peloton or getting dragged behind it on a choke collar, at least you’ll know what it took to get there.

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The Frozen Chosen

Yesterday, whirring on the stationary bike, I watched snow coating the fields, trapping me inside. Chris Butler of BMC had declared a day of rest for the east coast. Today I’m meeting Andy on my mountain bike.

We head toward Jarman’s gap- a twenty-minute gravel climb that will snap the teeth off your granny gear- on main roads. A passing car sloshes a bucket of slush in Andy’s crotch and my face. Soon we’ll be on roads that people fear driving, the Back Country. “Andy, that’s a cool sign, but it says ‘bicycles prohibited.’ Should I tweet this picture?” Andy pulls a homemade brownie from its foil wrapper, “Heck yes! Chicks dig it.” For the record, cyclists walk this section of trail. Usually.

The trail leads us to an untouched road buttered with three inches of powder. Tracks indicate that bear, coyote, deer, and squirrel were the only ones here before us. We float along, sliding inch by inch to the low side of the hidden road. Turn and fishtail. Lean and slide out. Our core muscles constantly engaged, burning backs prepared to counterbalance the smooth, deceptively haphazard surface. Mountain bikes are the smallest over inflated physio balls ever.

We keep building our ride, coming upon a cross-country skier. Before the next hard climb, 3 hours in, I poke clumsy gloved fingers at my energy bar and knock half of it to the ground. After hammering up the climb, Andy is drilling the pace, or so it seems. I struggle to stay even. My thoughts muddle. I am bonking. “Hey, how do you feel about a brownie at the Batesville Store?”

We park our physio balls outside and catch a face full of Christmas spirit. The Batesville Country Store maintains this generous atmosphere year round offering samples of their baked goods, smiling hometown staff, live music, and powerful anti-bonking products. Finally, I settle on a chipotle brownie. It brings life.

An energetic lady on her way in stops us, “Are you the two guys I just passed on Dick Woods Rd.? You know, you guys should really be careful on those bikes. It’s so slippery, your brakes might not work. I’m in a car, and my brakes don’t work.”

I look at Andy. We’re thinking the same thing.

“Your brakes don’t work! What are you doing on the road? Didn’t you notice our sweet disk brakes? That was the most major road we hit all day.”

A mountain biking afterthought:
Earlier in the week we annoyed, world class pro mountain biker Jeremiah Bishop on a six hour adventure. It began when he told me about a great trail that was mostly downhill. I said, “I need to pedal.” Then we stopped on the trail to fix a mechanical. Andy said, “This is what I love about mountain biking!” He was serious, but Jeremiah detected sarcasm. Throughout the ride, Andy and I used MTB slang like, “skids and wheelies, session that rock, huck that trail, freestyle that bench,” to which Jeremiah responded, “it’s not just hopping around on logs all day!”

To me, it felt like hopping around on logs all day. After the ride, my insides grinned for an hour. Then it hit me, “That was a really hard ride. I’m 100% wasted.”

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It’s On

Andy Guptill has a girlfriend so he likes to finish training before her lunch break. That’s why I assumed he had already visited the gym or was already whirring away on his spin bike. Regardless, I called him up, because company would be a Godsend on this mid-forty degree rainy day. It surprised me when he answered. After a brief hesitation, he committed with his characteristic enthusiasm. I could almost feel phone nodding beside his toothy grin. “See you in twenty.” With that we ended our fair weather, carefree off-season and began our regimented, bullheaded ramp into next season.

My 2010 race season ended October 1st at the World Championships in Australia. For the next three weeks I got back on my bike only once for Levi’s Grand Fondo. I rode enough in November to tame my enthusiasm for next season, but not enough to prevent me from spontaneous vacations and staying up past 11 PM. Physical changes highlighted the mentality shift of this week. For example, I noticed my hair and fingernails growing faster. Now my metabolism worked overtime to recover so that I fell asleep sweating and find myself watching TV and breathing hard in lingering oxygen debt. I wake up hungry. I walk slower. Sometimes I’m grumpy like an addict having withdraws, endorphin withdraw. I’ll even start shrinking despite an extra brownie here and there. Now I have an obligatory 11 PM bed time. Andy said, “I tried to take a nap, and thought, wow, this pillow is really hot. Then I realized that I had a hot face.”

We were saturated in two hours. On each roller, yesterday’s five hour loop ached in my legs. I had picked a route with no available shortcuts, laying a clever trap for myself. After three and a half hours and a seven-mile stair step climb to the parkway, I thought I was a goner. I ate a bar and made it home, but could feel the effects while riding alongside Andy. The forecast called for heavier rain tomorrow, Wednesday, so we planned to watch Chasing Legends on DVD and ride trainers. Food dominates the end of most of our rides together. I couldn’t wait to blend a Muscle-Milk shake and drain it in a naked trance in the kitchen. That is living the dream.

On Thursday morning I rolled out my door at 9:26.
“Andy, my computer said, ‘28 degrees’ when I left.”
“Really? Mine said, ‘Pro!’”
At the end of most rides, just before the conversation turns to food, you’ll hear something like, “Dude, we’re going to be so fast next year. This is gonna make us so good.”
We stayed low where it was warmer and avoided serious climbing. As I had done on Monday, Andy entered new territory for this season after three and a half hours. The first long one is the worst. There comes a time before you’re home when your body decides that it should be finished. It confuses your perception of time. Fifteen minutes takes an hour. Then you notice a lump in your throat. Seriously? You are forced to laugh at your pitiful self. Then it becomes hilarious, and you creep home in a deranged state ready to undress in the kitchen and slam Muscle Milk. Living the dream. Andy never entered delirium, but I picked up on little signs- my front wheel always a few inches ahead, him dropping back for cars to pass, greater conversation lulls, and more talk of food. It was a good time to talk about how fast we were going to be.

The days of December and early January will be similar to this week, the eat, sleep, ride program. I’ll sip coffee and read until the frost melts, depart before eleven AM in order to make it home before sunset, have the afternoon free for “inactivities,” and appreciate that, at least for now, I have routine. If 2011 holds as many surprises as 2010, then I have to be ready for anything.

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Having spent hours sitting, the peculiar thumping in my chest so often accompanied by burning legs, evidenced the intensity of the count down. That isolated adrenaline of heart pounding in my helmet, I launched forward over squealing tires, shifted, accelerated, weaved cones, slid right, overcompensated, and spun out in a cloud of smoke, laughing like the maniac driver I was. Racing Nissan’s 370Z Coupes against my new teammates on that challenge course highlighted our day of test driving Nissan’s entire line up at their test track in Scottsdale, AZ.

The Americans on the team gathered in Arizona while the Europeans had camp simultaneously in Calpe, Spain. I had received a unique and glorious welcome into this group at the US Pro Championships in Greenville, and was comforted by the familiar faces of CSE management and sponsors of Team RadioShack who also supported me on Trek-Livestrong. Regardless, these are first impressions as a member of the ProTour team. The short lived tension evaporated on training rides, the dance floor, and a paper football game made from Lance’s menu in a five star restaurant.

Like the U23 rookies anxious to fit in their new company, I absorbed every interaction. I got tips from last year’s neo pros on adjusting to the top level and leadership from the sport’s paragons on everything from training to living in Europe. The pump track and single-track hot laps on road bikes are proof that the rides were relaxed. Before the racing starts and riders become specialized, traveling, riding, competitive wolves, it is healthy to interact with them as normal people, family men preparing for the holidays. As this camp drew to a close, I felt a step closer to calling myself ProTour.

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Senior Rookie

I’m beside Axel Merckx on a plane bound for Phoenix, AZ and Team RadioShack’s first camp. We’re both blogging. Trek-LiveSTRONG U23’s “get to know ya” camp just ended in Austin, TX, where the team bonded over paintball, training rides, and Juan Pelota coffees at Mellow Johnney’s. To be invited as a “senior guest rider” gave me growing pains. I’ll miss this team. During a meeting, I gave a brief talk to the new riders about my past two years on the team. I searched myself for advice and lessons learned here and gathered some bullet points. You have a tremendous opportunity. Axel will deal fairly with you. The more you give, the more you get and so on. It felt strange to speak from a position of experience- this is still my team until January 1st and I’m no older than some of the new riders. As I spoke the words oozed my own nervousness and the pressure I felt moving up to a higher level. I stumbled, took a deep breath, and continued. Now I’m the wide-eyed rookie on route for my first Team RadioShack camp.

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