Our team plan was to attack all day every day, aiming for either ridiculous odds in a break or at least a good hard workout. While we didn't score a stage win, it was indeed an attack-fest. Here's the general scoop from inside the winning team:
My Asheville doc Jim McMillan called me Wednesday with the news that my extended bout of fatigue was due to malabsorption from a GI system infection. It's nice to know why I've felt so bad - why I bonked on at least three consecutive stages in the TdGA, and that there is a reliable cure. The Giardia antibiotics, Metronidizol, are very powerful and debilitating and my legs felt like jelly throughout the 113 mile opening stage. I somehow recognized a perfect opportunity to bridge to the break on the day's major climb, giving us three in a break of ten. Based on our pre race strategy, even that wasn't enough. Hindsight would prove us wrong, but at the moment we decided that with nearly every major competitor also in the break we should try to reshuffle the deck. No biggie, we have our eye firmly fixed on the bigger goals to come. Australian Ben Brooks (Jelly Belly) turned in a super uphill sprint to win stage 1 and take the overall lead. After winning this race overall in similar fashion last year, team Jelly Belly elected to go for bonuses, turn in a strong TT, and wrap up their first NRC win of the season. The only thing standing in their way was a new criterium and the power of one Scott Moninger.
Emile Abraham (Monex) won a crazy downhill field sprint in the second road race, after we'd exhausted our entire leadout train with nonstop attacking in the previous four hours. With aggressive tactics and a focus on Philadelphia we knew winning wasn't necessarily on the cards, but it is hard to show up to any race with ten top riders and lose. One issue that is being talked about is what happens when Team A rider takes Team B sprinter off the Team B leadout train. Do you think that Petacchi (Fassa) would sit idly by if Haselbacher tried to take the Italian speedster off the Fassa leadout man? One guy had the audacity to say "I was just riding by, minding my own business, when the sprinter suddenly and angrily swerved over on me". Try to take any team's sprinter off his leadout man and the response is never pretty. That is bike racing, and it's also why I'm not a sprinter.
I'd left everything on the road this morning. Warming up in the Devil's Den (what a name!) State Park I couldn't even think of big ringing the forested climb, but a storming Danny Pate (Jelly Belly) blew by me in a huge gear...it was obvious to me that he'd win. Our evergreen Scott Moninger was only a couple seconds off the pace, which meant we have a weapon for the final stage criterium.
I went on the attack with Redlands champ Chris Wherry in the first third of the gruelling, hilly circuit race. Expending plenty of energy, we built a lead of about thirty seconds, which was still about half of what I needed to become virtual overall leader on the road. With first and second placed riders on their team, Jelly Belly seemed to hit the panic buttons and kept us unnecessarily close. In the closing laps our super nice guy Cuban Missile Ivan Dominguez and wily Scott Moninger slipped away with two Advantage Benefits/Endeavour riders; eventual stage winner Garrett Peltonen and Australian revelation Karl "Ten" Menzies. With something to gain for all in the break, it was full on. Jelly Belly was down to just Brooks and Pate. They kept it under ten seconds, but couldn't close the final gap...perhaps they were hoping that if it were, say, eight seconds at one lap to go, someone in the decimated group of 22 riders left would shut it down for the sprint. Our pack was lapping group after group, all of whom did their best to pull out of the way, until we stumbled upon my friend Radisa Cubric (Aerospace). Radisa brought me to the Vuelta Mendoza Argentina in 1997 and I've always respected this tough, hardworking family man; an immigrant from the former Yugoslavia. Unfortunately Radisa either forgot or ignored the rule about lapped riders not being allowed to join or help the group that is passing, and he set about pulling the group at a speed sufficient to close the tenuous gap to our only hope, Scott Moninger. Sayers and Fraser tried waving him off but it's pretty hard to communicate at 70 km/h...fortunately for us Brooks and Pate didn't take major advantage and all worked out about the same. The end result of this highly competitive, selective and exciting battle of a criterium was that our tough competitors from Jelly Belly just came up short, the break stayed away, team Advantage Benefits/Endeavour won the stage, and Moninger took the overall for team Health Net pb Maxxis.
After the race I rolled over to talk to my adversaries (and friends) on Jelly Belly. I wanted to say something sportsmanlike but their disappointment was palpable, and unlike in hockey we don't get a chance to formally shake one another's hands after the game. I believe this lack of a defusing ritual can lead to grudges continuing between riders, but in the absence of a fixed arena and the limits of just two opposing teams it isn't feasible to have such an exchange. You win some and lose some. Last year Jelly Belly successfully held off a fierce succession of attacks by Health Net pb Maxxis in this very same race, and emerged victorious, while this year we pulled off an eleventh hour upset win.
The big team versus the up and coming challengers
Believe me, I know what it's like to be on the small team and groan when Mercury rolls up with a complete squad. I know how it feels to face off against Horner/Danielson/O'Neill. What would McCartney do? Never say die. There was some grumbling from our amateur (hey, it's not a dirty word, and neither is "liberal") competitors about our team size. One of these same whiners complained about how boring stage 2 was. My simple reply to him was "why not attack, then?" (or join us in an attack, more like it). On today's 185 kilometre Fayetteville to Russellville training ride over National Forest roads called the "Pig Trail", Sayers and I had a long pull together where we discussed what got us both here on America's #1 domestic team. We found similarity in that both of us were unafraid of riding in breaks with the big pros of our early years. In the elevator the other day, a woman racer plied a Health Net rider with questions before remarking "I have to get up early every day, because I have a REAL job". One thing that marks a successful pro like Mike Sayers or the supremely talented Kiwi (and former world champion) Greg Henderson is work ethic. They take being a cyclist very seriously and you better believe they are out the door every morning promptly just like every other working stiff.
This brings me nicely to the impressive Team Advantage Benefits/Endeavour, henceforth known as Team AB/E (hey, it's my diary, so I can do that). They are the 2005 version of Y2K team Shaklee. Preseason prognosticators predicted (go ahead, say that ten times fast...) the teams would be Mercury, Saturn, Navigators, and then Shaklee fourth or fifth. We were the only team consistently able to take an occasional win from Mercury that year, and ended up a (distant) second overall.
Back to 2005 - Team AB/E has worked hard and they aren't afraid of the big teams. They can put five guys in the final selection, so it's not just team "Ten" Menzies. The USA amateur team in Europe should be taking a hard look at each American on this team.
Being a professional athlete
People we meet in the elevator, in airports, or wherever often ask what being a pro athlete is like or comment that it must be a great job (although many people incredulously ask "you can earn a LIVING doing that?") I always reply that indeed the sport offers a great lifestyle. I was thinking recently that another difference between cycling and the office job is the lack of a private place to conduct business. Sure, the hotel room often serves as our boardroom, but the actual performance of the job is a highly public, visible activity. In my very first year cycling, 1986, I was stunned to see a fellow amateur throw a tantrum post race and heave his bicycle across a parking lot. Nearly 20 years later I rarely see this kind of stuff, but the heat of competition still produces the occasional controversy. This weekend I had to proffer my outstretched palm and say "talk to the hand, buddy" post race to an acquaintance who wanted to argue a point while our heart rates were still in the 160s. Keeping our speech rated PG is a real challenge in the midst of all-out battle, but absolutely necessary since you never know whose children are within earshot.
Being a professional cyclist is much more than training, travelling, racing, and celebrating. Regardless of whether you board the elevator exhausted after a race or traipse to the lobby café thinking "just gimme my coffee before anyone approaches me" we are constantly under the public eye. It's like the process of buying a new car; the cycling fan meets us once for just sixty seconds and expects the experience to live up to the ideal, much like a new car buyer walks into the showroom excitedly, with apprehension, but great expectations for service. The athlete must speak to thousands of people a year much like the salesman deals with ten car buyers a day, and in both cases the professional chose this career and must endeavour to execute the job with a smile at all times.
This year I have thanked innumerable volunteers for their efforts at their local event or taken time out of pre race preparation to try and charm a shy child. It's not that I'm a particularly nice guy, rather it's incumbent upon us who earn a living from this in a country where cycling is not a 100-year continuous tradition to thank those (the organisers, fans and sponsors) who make it all happen. I've spoken in front of first and fifth grade classrooms about bicycling, offered free coaching advice to just about anyone who asks, and generally advocated for cycling to anyone I meet. I cannot answer coaching questions online simply due to the volume of mail such a task would entail. Besides, my good friend and former teammate Brice Jones is a far more organised and complete coach than I!
Many thanks to the promoter, Bruce Dunn, his staff, and the volunteer policemen who escorted us all over some of the most beautiful roads in Arkansas. Next up, the Tri Peaks stage race. It includes a mountaintop finish on Sunday's queen stage. Personally I'm just hoping the Metronidizol successfully eliminated the bad stuff and that I'll start feeling normal again soon. It has been many weeks since the wrecking ball form I had at Pomona...maybe I can be back to world class just in time for our next meeting with some of Europe's top pros just under three weeks from now.
Thanks for reading,
Email John at firstname.lastname@example.org