With one kilometre to go in my last European race of the season, after bridging back up to a three-man break that included my teammate Juan Torres and two Italians, I attacked to set-up Juan for the finish. We were racing in the GF Michele Bartoli, which started and finished in Montecarlo, Lucca and took in a part of Tuscany that I've come to love and where I trained almost daily. For 10 kilometres we had been on the attack after separating ourselves from a small group that formed less than 50 kilometres from the line, with Juan and I doing the majority of the work. I felt great, very strong, but was suffering from some cramping in my right thigh and told Juan I would ride for him.
The final climb started with three kilometres to go and I set a fast tempo that I knew Juan could handle, but which would be uncomfortable for the Italians. Unfortunately, it proved to be uncomfortable for me, too, as the cramping worsened and I was dropped after a kilometre! Our team car passed me by with Maurizio De Pasquale at the wheel and 'Depa' urged me on up the climb. I was still losing time and while I was confident that Juan would win I still wanted to be there for the finale, not limping home several minutes off the pace.
As we climbed up towards Montecarlo and the ancient archway at the entrance to the city, Juan had slipped to last wheel in the break, forcing the Italians to dictate the speed. The pace ahead dropped slightly, and the Italians' hesitation gave me a chance to fight my way back into contention. I clawed my way to the back of the race caravan, and as I moved through the cars I passed Depa, who cheered me on his heavily-accented but, strangely, barely-audible English, 'Go Joe, go!'
I exploded past the lead car and passed the break at full speed uphill, forcing an early reaction from the Italians. Alessando Merlo was cooked, couldn't respond and was dropped, while Michel Chocol worked hard to catch up to me, with Juan sitting comfortably on his wheel. I was cracking, but the 500-metre long attack had its desired effect. We only had two turns to go before the finish, including the final right through the archway and as Chocol connected with me, Juan attacked. He shot up the road like the skinny climber that he is and headed for a comfortable victory. Chocol tried to respond and follow Juan's jump, and that was when fortune again abandoned me for the umpteenth time this year. Chocol tried to pass me on the left, where there was no room because we were already along the gutter. He must have thought that such a line would offer him a shorter line to Juan's back wheel, even though he had no hope of catching the Venezuelan. Regardless, he stuck his bike alongside me and rode straight into my handlebars, yanking them out from underneath me and sending me down to the tarmac.
Since we were climbing, there was no skid or slide to dissipate energy and I slammed full force onto the hot, rough Tuscan road. I fell heavily onto my left side and, to add insult to injury, my entire right quadriceps cramped with intensity far worse than what I'd suffered going uphill. I would have screamed in frustration and thrown my bike into the nearby olive trees if I still hadn't been tangled up on the road, trying to massage the cramp out of my leg.
The last three weeks were utterly hellish for me in every area, from finances to personal relationships to future plans and I was basically left feeling that everything that could go wrong, did. I had already decided that the Bartoli would be my last race of the season, if not my career, because my wife Yuliet had finally escaped communist Cuba and I need to support us both - something that was not easily done with my bike racing wages. Nonetheless, after a taking a three-week break from racing following the Tour of Turkey, I started a progressive training plan and gradually returned to top-form. In fact, I even sourced an FSA SRM powermeter and was dancing on the pedals these last few weeks.
I won the Pinarello race last weekend after a 120-kilometre breakaway (Juan was seventh). I was fourth in the Giro dell'Alto Verbano near Switzerland and third behind Juan and Juan Pablo Dotti in the GF Valli Parmensi in Parma. I didn't feel the need to prove myself to anyone by winning the Bartoli. Still, I wanted to finish strongly in an event that is held only 15 kilometres from Montecatini Terme.
At least twice a week, I ride through the ancient streets of Montecarlo and then pass through Pescia and its acres and acres of commercial flower fields. These sessions through the exquisite Tuscan countryside are what I will miss most about Italy and for me the Bartoli was to be my last chance to savor a landscape that is far different than Pennsylvania.
After finally hauling myself up off the road and straightening my handlebars, I remounted my bike and made the first tentative pedal strokes towards the finish line with a pain that I felt came from my heart, and not the almost insignificant scrapes and bruises.
Before I finished the chase group of three riders caught and passed me, and I crossed the line in seventh, Juan and I having swapped our order of finish from the previous week. I was happy for my young team-mate, who is on the cusp of a professional career and will have many great results in the years to come. But I couldn't help feeling bitterly disappointed with my own rotten luck.
There is some cliché about how things can always be worse and, in this case, to my utter frustration and impotence, they were. In my last Italian diary for Cyclingnews.com I wanted to write about what it was like to be team-mates for a day with Cipollini's lead-out man, Gian-Matteo Fagnini, about how it felt to bump shoulders at 50kph with Dimitri Konyshev, about having the luxury of drinking fine espresso every day and the ridiculousness of my not having learned passable Italian despite being here for more than four months. I was going to salute my team-mates but lament our flying off to different continents, perhaps never to see each other again, like a band of soldiers breaking up after that last heroic battle. I even wanted to write about the brilliance of the idea to sell espresso from vending machines, like Lavazza does, and how one of the premier distributors of these machines in this region is located on Via Fausto Coppi.
Instead, my head is clouded with negative feelings. I've been stewing in the hospital for almost a week after the 'innocuous' crash last Sunday produced a 125cm³ gluteal haematoma that required surgery to drain. I suffered the ignominy of having a catheter inserted in my penis when I couldn't urinate for six hours after surgery and then succumbed to a urinary tract infection. My team-mates have all flown home, and our planned final celebration was replaced by their passing almost silently through my hospital room in ones and twos to bid me farewell. And now I have lost contact with Yuliet, who naively thought she could escape from Communist Cuba via another country with restrictive civil liberties. Attempts to re-establish contact have been futile.
I love cycling. I think it is one of the most beautiful sports in the world and I was lucky enough to spend ten years as an elite athlete competing across the globe. But right now, I am incredibly frustrated and disheartened. The costs that cycling extracts from the rider - physically, emotionally and materially - are enormous in some cases, and I'm just now realising how skewed my balance sheet is.
Nonetheless, while cycling has created enormous tension in my life it also has given me peace and solace and I'll never be able to leave it behind completely, no matter what I feel right now. I'll keep riding my bike for as long as my body lets me, and I even plan to take on more coaching clients when I get settled back in the States. I've invested too much in this sport to delude myself into thinking that I could ever wash my hands of it. Like Ivan Parra told me in 2003 at the Vuelta a Chile, cycling is like a chronic disease that we can't cure!
But now I must focus on my non-sporting life.