Such is the vortex of racing in a Grand Tour that I have to pause before starting this journal to remember what unfolded since the last one. It's only been a few days, but my brain is a bit rattled from today’s cobbles.
Without Bling in the mix for the stage win in Mur de Bretagne, our efforts were focused fully on Tom. The day had gone great until the closing kilometres, when Tom ripped some spokes from his front wheel during the frantic dash to the climb. I watched it happen to my left but was not in a position in the bunch to stop with him and give him my bike. After a wheel change, we chased as hard as we could, the rest of our team spread along the course to act as relay men for Tom. It was a blow to his GC standing, but he handled it well.
Stages 7 and 8 were not ones to draw in new followers of the sport. As the last real sprint chances until Paris, nobody truly believed that a breakaway had any chance of success with the long slog into a headwind on both days, so nobody tried. The bunch was happy for some recovery after the hard stages in Bretagne and ahead of what was sure to be a battle royale toward Roubaix. We're humans and can't go hard all day every day, and so the stages were mostly relaxed except for the occasional crosswind scare.
Upon arrival at our hotel after stage 8, I finally got to meet my cobbles bike. Until I did a lap of our hotel’s driveway, I had never been on a road bike with 30mm tires at half the pressure of our standard bikes, and the hydraulic disc brakes were also new for me. As a late call-up to the race, my only recon of the stage was of GoPro footage filmed by a teammate and Google street view. I have plenty of experience on washboard gravel roads in Texas thanks to my days with the Texas A&M Cycling team, and I’m not afraid of the cobbles. My fears were focused on hitting the cobbles in the peloton, as my ability to position for each sector would be my weakness.
So, when my directors asked me to try for the breakaway in the hopes that Tom would be in the lead group that caught me, I leapt at the chance. I expected a longer fight, though, and was caught a bit too far back when the group escaped after just a few kilometres. I was still adjusting to the feeling of cushy tires, which I likened to that of a cyclo-cross bike, as well as the craziness in the bunch, which seemed a step above the norm. When I saw the group escaping and the peloton sitting up, I sprinted off in a desperate chase. I was shortly joined by a few others, and we flogged ourselves in no-man's land for 20 minutes, failing to make up any ground on the leaders. Finally, they acknowledged that five more riders would be a big help in the energy-sapping headwind and backed off long enough for us to make contact.
For the next 50 kilometres, I loved life. Our group was rotating well and we would reach the cobbles with a lead of almost four minutes. For the first few sectors, I was cruising happily. The cobbles were consistently spaced, so riding on the crown was easy, just a matter of finding the rhythm and floating across them. Then we had a couple of sectors that were erratic, on which I felt as though I was fighting the bike, dropping into every dip instead of floating across the top.
On the longest sector of the race, it all nearly fell apart for me. Our rotation was such that I led onto the sector, and I started at what I thought was a good pace, but the headwind quickly cracked me. As I was being passed by others, I got an intense side-stitch, breaking my focus and my rhythm. The jostling, hot weather, and stomach full of gels conspired to make me throw up in my mouth for the first of what would be three times, my body fighting back against the brutality of the stage. I was saved by the dirt gutter alongside the cobbles and the length of the sector, which allowed me to claw my way back, the risk of grazing every spectator next to the course one I was willing to take.
After that, I was in full survival mode, saving as much energy as possible for the inevitable catch by the chasing peloton, which came somewhere around 30 kilometres to go. I was quickly fading, my energy given to nearly three hours of fighting a headwind, and could only give Tom a bottle and gels and a short pull into the next sector. I needed only 2 seconds of that sector for confirmation that my time in the breakaway was energy well-spent ahead of the mayhem, my legs sending me towards the back of the group, which offered a great view of my own teammate’s and Uran's crashes.
As I found myself in the chase groups of various GC riders, I was under no expectation to help them chase (not that I was capable of helping anyway). At that point, I lost my grasp on the passage of time. I struggled to hold the wheel on the pavement, and the cobbled sectors seemed interminable. I wrestled the bike around every corner and fought cramps to get back up to speed, sure that we were far behind the leaders, the bulk of the peloton up the road. Then we finished less than two minutes back, and I later learned that there had been fewer than 60 riders ahead.
I slow-rolled my way to the bus, dazed by the effort it had taken to get there but relieved to have made it through alright. I saw John Degenkolb headed back toward the finish, mobbed by media, and my mood brightened further. It’s been a long road for him since we ended up in a ditch together two years ago, but I never stopped believing he would make it back to the top.
As the rest of our team trickled in, the stories started flooding in. Everyone has his own tale to tell after such a stage, and the bus-plane-bus transfer across the country afforded us the opportunity to tell them. Today the stories will certainly continue as we recover from yesterday (and the eight days preceding it). Tomorrow we climb!