Cycling can be the most beautiful sport in the world, but at the same time, so very frustrating. The constant highs and lows are enough to drive a normal man crazy! I know we have to get used to it though, as it is my chosen way of life. The highs and lows are routine in every season. Unfortunately for me – because I am still new at this and still learning the basics – I never feel ready for the low points.
My season has been great. I couldn’t have hoped for better support from my Trek-Livestrong team and the US National team. I’ve gotten in more race days this season than the past two years combined. And best of all, I’ve been winning. I didn’t expect that the wins would come this quickly. In fact, I thought because it’s my first year in Europe as an Under 23 rider, I would just get destroyed in every race I took part in. The season officially kicked off with my win in the Individual Pursuit at the World Track Championships in March. I knew I had that potential in me and I proved a lot to myself that day.
From Warsaw (where the track worlds were held) I went straight to Belgium where I raced with the National Team and gained some valuable experience. Even more surprising was that I was up there with the best of them, fighting for the top spots. I took this as a very good sign for maybe next year, but could never have predicted what was still to come in my spring campaign.
I returned to the US for a couple weeks in May, and raced the Tour of Gila with Lance and Co. where I suffered a bad crash on the last day. I didn’t let it jar me too much and I was back at it preparing for my European debut with the new Trek-Livestrong team. Our first race was a stage race in Luxembourg called Fleche Du Sud, then after that was the Under 23 Paris-Roubaix—the most important race on my road calendar.
We – the Trek Livestrong Team - started out with a bang. I won the 4 km prologue at Fleche Du Sud and we held the jersey for a couple days. That was great. Not only did we prove to our competitors that we meant business, we also proved a lot to ourselves. Unfortunately I suffered another nasty crash in Fleche Du Sud in the last kilometers of a stage, losing valuable time and the young rider’s jersey. That was my first high to low experience of the 2009 season. You just have to accept that you can’t control everything - c’est la vie.
I bounced back strongly, a lot stronger than expected, and won Paris-Roubaix. While this came as a surprise to me, at the end when it was down to just eleven guys, I knew I was going to win. That killer instinct kicked in, separating me from my competitors. It was personally the most beautiful moment in my short career, and truly one of the most beautiful moments of my life.
When it was all over I just wanted to go home. I wanted to see my family and hang out with my Trek-Livestrong boys who I didn’t see after the race as we parted ways quickly. I went to doping control and they went to Eddy Merckx’s house for dinner. After doping control, I went back to the USA Team house to join the National Team. But the house in Izegem was basically empty and for a couple days I was very let down. Three long weeks of racing lay in front of me and most of it in the mountains, which so far have proven to be my biggest weakness. I was also getting a cold. Again, I went from a great high to another low.
I pushed through it, because I knew I had to. My parents counseled me to take it one day at a time. No rash decisions. I bought a lounge chair for my room in the USA house so I could kick back. I knew that if I just went home, I’d miss out on good racing experience that I desperately needed to improve and mature.
I also had no idea how good my fitness was until the races came. The first race was a weeklong stage race in Germany called Thuringen Rundfahrt. The profiles of the stages looked daunting and I downplayed my chances, but when the time came, my fitness showed and I proved a lot to myself on the climbs. I made it over the top with the best 20 guys of the peloton. A pleasant surprise. I lacked that killer instinct at the end though, which was mainly due to the fact that I didn’t truly believe I could be up there when I was. Belief in yourself is everything, and I’ve since then learned from that. I would’ve finished the race in the top 10, but suffered a mechanical at a very bad time on the second to last stage. Again, c’est la vie.
My next race was a three-day race in the Alps; Tour des Pays de Savoie. We raced up very famous Tour climbs like the Col de la Madeleine and Col de la Croix de Fer. In all honesty, that race and those passes kicked my butt, but I survived to develop more needed self-confidence in the mountains. I helped teammate Tejay Van Garderen to second place overall, which I was very proud of. I also managed to see my family who drove up from Italy to watch me race. All in all, I was finally getting the hang of what it means to be a professional cyclist, and was accepting it.
I made it back to Boulder at the end of June and celebrated my 19th birthday in earnest with long time friends. I didn’t take as much time off as I had planned. I had no racing scheduled for early July and planned to take it very easy but I got sidetracked. I did too much. In the future, now I know that coming off of great form definitely takes it out of your body, but I was oblivious. When I started really training again nothing was working, my power was super low, my blood values were a lot lower than normal (blood test taken as part of the UCI medical monitoring program), and I just felt like crap. I got sick, lost about ten pounds (which in cycling could be looked at as a good thing), and was put out of the game for longer than I would’ve liked to have been.
The low was about to get lower. I hadn’t even seen the bottom yet. I started feeling better in time for the Cascade Cycling Classic in Bend, Oregon. I knew I wasn’t that fit, or mentally prepared to be racing but I thought it would be good training as I geared up for the end of the season. The first three days of the race were basically ok – not great but not horrible.
Then, on the fourth day, I suffered probably the worst crash of my career. I say probably because I can’t remember anything; nothing from the race, or the crash, and nothing from the 2-3 hours that followed. Memories only started forming while I was in the ER getting checked by a Neurologist, who said I had a ‘severe’ concussion (technically a grade 3 due to memory loss). I had to stay the night, with an IV in my arm, trying to recall what happened.
So here I am, almost two weeks later. I cannot ride until I am 100% better and will probably get on the trainer soon to test myself. The end of my season feels like its in jeopardy, and I am really not sure what happens now! So, I am just taking it day by day.
My good friend Allen Lim once told me: “Cycling is 99 per cent suffering and 1 per cent magic.” Fortunately for me, that 99 per cent is all worth it when the 1 cent comes rolling around.