September 20, 2007
As I mentioned after the first three stages of Ardeche, Etats Unis still had quite a few goals left to accomplish in the remaining three stages. Stage four was the first real test of our climbing legs. We did three short circuits around a power plant with four giant cooling towers before we set out on a fast and flat run in to the first big climb of the day.
Brooke and Chrissy once again escorted me to the line to take the sprint points, effectively wrapping up that purple and pink jersey competition. On the flat run out to the climb, attacks were happening all the time but nothing would stick. Everything was together as we approached the climb, but as soon as we started the ascent, the whole race blew to bits. I would love to tell you what happened at the front of the race. Unfortunately it was about ten minutes ahead of me by the time we reached the summit, 11 km later.
Knowing that all I had to do was get to the finish with my team-mates, I did my best to pace Brooke and me. That was one hell of a cat-1 climb! It was long AND pitchy, and the combination of the two don't bode well for me, especially when the real climbers start racing. While some of us 'piano'ed' in, Katheryn Curi was racing herself from 12th to 4th in the overall GC. We heard about her 4th place finish on the stage when we rolled in twenty minutes later.
Stage 5 had an equally intimidating profile. At 117 kilometres, it was the race's longest stage with two cat-1 climbs and a cat-2. The sprint competition was all but wrapped up, so we basically knew that we just needed to ride and finish that day, using as little energy as possible. What a challenge that was.
We descended down a 1km neutral section and started going up at km 0 until 12km into the race. That is a brutal way to start! I managed to stay with the front group up the first climb, but "threw in the towel" on the second climb that meandered its way up for the next 30km. While it felt a little weird coming off the back of a race less than 20% into the stage, we knew this would provide us with a fighting shot at being able to do something on the following day's final stage. Chrissy, Brooke and I packed sandwiches in preparation for our potentially lonely training ride. While the three of us slowly counted down the km's to the finish, Katheryn Curi was busy upfront maintaining her GC position. Five down and one to go.
The morning before stage 6 we packed up our trailers and loaded up for the post-race drive to Lucca. Packing up... in a way saying finito... before the actual end of a race can make finding the necessary motivation to race quite difficult. My closest competition in the sprint points was time cut after stage five, so I completely had the sprint jersey wrapped up. We felt like it would be difficult to move Katheryn up in GC, so our primary focus was a stage win. A couple of us had the green light to initiate and roll in breaks, but if it was all together at the end, we'd try to set Brooke up for her second stage win.
We were all set to do six laps of the 14.6 km circuit. The course had changed from a couple years ago and we hoped that the new two-part climb was a little 'kinder' than the old version. After a quick start, we were at the base of the climb 3.5 km into the race. The 1.5 km climb was steep... and it hurt... it was definitely not what I was expecting.
I survived and on the ensuing downhill back into town, I thought I would see who else was wanting to race. I moved up to the front and after going through a chicane I looked back and saw I had a gap on the field. I thought the next little bit through town would be a good place to grow my gap, so I stepped on the gas. I was forty-minutes down in GC and was in the sprinter's jersey, and I thought people figured I was going for the Rush points available at the end of the first lap.
No one cared. So I rode.
I made it through town and found myself at the base of the climb again. I went as hard as I could that second time up, sure that the field was right on my heels. I was getting word in the radio that a lone rider was bridging up to me, but when I looked back at the top of the hill, she was more than 20 seconds behind me. I knew I couldn't wait. So I kept riding.
My gap increased each lap, and after the third lap it was apparent that no one else was going to make it to me. If I was going to make it to the line ahead of the field, it would be on my own. The fourth time up the climb they finally let our team car get up to me, so I had Jim in my ear keeping me calm and telling me to ride steady. I wasn't going to make time on the climbs, so I had to stay within myself there and really push the pace on the rest of the course.
The last time up the climb I knew I just needed to get up the hill without blowing up. "Up, up, up... super, super... C'mon Kat... bang, bang, bang," I heard in the radio. I'm pretty sure watching me up that last climb was probably the ugliest thing Jim and our mechanic Chris had seen all week. I made it up and then rode downhill, careful not to do anything stupid that might cost me the win. After a little scare from an unexpected cross-wind gust going into a turn at 1 km to go, I finally let myself relax a little bit and enjoy what was happening. I rolled back to the car and gave a high-five to Jim and got ready to cross the line. What a way to end this Euro racing trip. When it was all said and done, I spent 72 km off the front by myself.
Behind me Katheryn was drilling it on the final climb when she realized third place in the overall had been dropped. She ended up coming in almost a full minute ahead of the rider to make her first Euro top-three GC podium in her career. So we finished the week with two stage wins, the sprinters jersey and a third place in GC. Not too shabby.