September 28, 2005
My bike was lost by the airlines in London, so Fast Freddie lent me one of his two spare Ridleys. Nice bike, and it's different dimensions gave me some ideas about setup for next year's bike. (No, I'm not rethinking retirement, it's just that I'll still be racing for fun, ok?) I had the chance to fine-tune his spare bike in case he needs it, which I found funny after my last entry, worrying about his luck with mechanical problems.
18 hours to go: a bike panic and the U23 race
Clay picks up my bike at the airport. Ken finds cracks in the fork during the build and there is some panic about a replacement. It may have been cracked for weeks, who knows, but Ken will not allow me to race it. ANY bike designed for extreme performance and light weight is going to have the potential for stress fatigue or failure, so don't take this as an indictment of what is a really spectacular bike. All is ok when a women's Team USA Giant spare fork is found. I go out to watch the U23 riders pass by once. They're absolutely shattering throughout the race, so the close finish really belies what happened out there. And we have to do at least another two hours more racing than they! Ooof. My team-mate Tyler Farrar has great legs but is caught in a crash in the final 2km. He is philosophical about it (something that is a bit easier to be when your career horizon seems to stretch out indefinitely!). I'm very impressed by Kiwi Peter Latham, who is in the thick of the action all day. Another Kiwi (and last year's Southland Tour team-mate) Tim Gudsell, is also going well but gets taken down in a spectacular crash right in front of the stands with one 20km lap to go.
So. Saturday night around 1am I awaken to the beep of a key card in my door. Groggy, I jump up (forgetting that I'm only in underwear!) and round the corner to find a businessman and his wife standing in the doorway with their luggage. Needless to say they went back to the front desk! I took an hour to fall back asleep, and when the 7am wake up call came I had just fallen into my regular US time zone deep sleep. Sweet. As I try to wake up, it's definitely apparent that what I thought were allergies is in fact a full blown head-cold. It's a minor inconvenience as a head-cold only affects me the day it starts coming on, and that was Saturday.
The big day
The race is 13 laps and I've worked out that in order to finish I must get through 9 laps and still have reasonable legs. From there I'm confident I can focus on a lap by lap countdown to the line. A lot will depend on how hard and early the "smack" goes down.
Out of the blocks a few guys attack an uninterested field. With the distance and type of course, any early move with less than a dozen guys stands no chance at all. We're going so slow (about 40km/h) and braking so much on the descents that I'm thinking of attacking myself... Vogels tells me that if I want to finish the race, I better not put my nose in the wind. Knowing both US and European racing, he tells me point blank that I'm going to be dead at 200km. That was my limit at the Hamilton world's, and Henk is close, but not quite right...
Fans line the course, drumming on the tensioned cellophane-thin barrier coverings. Where there are holes in the covering, the wind generated by 160 riders creates a spooky noise akin to the metal-on-pavement scraping of a crash. There is one descent in particular that is about 80km/h and late in the race Vogels is towing McEwen past... I make room and marvel at the nerves of a man who has crashed going even faster in the Fitchburg-Longsjo stage race, and is back doing it again apparently fearlessly.
There are two climbs on the course but there isn't one meter of flat ground so the legs are constantly idling or under pressure. The gentler of the two has wide bends in the road and once the pace picks up we're doing at least 40km/h in a long single file line, with the g-force from the curves generating a sense of going much faster. Three huge inflatable bridges with sponsor names on them serve as mental markers for me. Only the first three laps are slow, after which it seems the Italians have opened the chequebooks and have numerous guys on the front setting tempo. Fourth lap I'm already wondering if I'm completely unprepared. I received 160+ emails of congratulations and support regarding the World's. Some of these supporters are under the misconception that because I could podium at the 160km SFGP and solo away at the 100km Carolina Cup that I am in the same league as the top 20 guys here. I really appreciate the thought, but I must tell you that the difference between Boonen and myself is like the difference between a Cat 3 and a domestic pro. Were I on a Euro team, racing classics and tours over here, then perhaps as a younger rider I had the talent to be in his lead-out train, no more!
Back to curb-to-curb race action. In the early stages, riders give one another plenty of room and I heard of no crashes. At crunch time it's a different story; the peloton increases in density and there is no room for error... no matter how ketonic and oxygen-deprived you become. Over the top of the first climb, the peloton must decelerate for the second feed on the right side and constantly changing (lap by lap) barrier/crowd conditions on the left. At one point, a Latvian turns right in front of me... I felt his movement more than saw it coming, and just barely squeezed between his sideways front wheel and the throngs of screaming fans. Some fans are face painted, others waving huge flags or holding massive signs with their favorite rider's name painted on; the devil is out as well. I actually heard my name a couple times... thank you, whoever you are!
The feed zone
I got past the magic first nine lap mark, and began to hope that I could finish. There wasn't much work to do for Fred, just trying to save him one percent by picking up his feeds. Before you think that's totally inconsequential, let me describe the feed zone. Team USA only staffed the first zone, which is on a 3 percent grade a kilometer past the finish line. Most laps there was one team train or another absolutely railing it in a six to eight man line on the front. To pass them on the left in order to get over to the right was a ridiculous waste of energy. The alternatives are to pass left as far as possible and then make a bunch of enemies by cutting through the head of the peloton OR you must time which wheel to jump on perfectly in a right side peloton pass. Go too early and you'll be swarmed by 50 guys. The best I managed to do (keep in mind that I'm trying to keep a tight governor on energy expenditure; sure I could attack off the front to be first into the feed zone but it'd be a waste) in nine tries was about 10th wheel.
Stay too far to the right and you have to come to a crawl... then identifying unfamiliar feed zone personnel is another challenge. Soigneurs often wear the team jersey, and the French have identical colors and similar jersey design. Best case scenario I get two bottles... one each for Fred and I. The musette bags seem to have nothing but plain water which simply won't work for the heat and distance today, so one lap I ditched the two full waters and sagged my way on the bigger of the two climbs back to the team car. The course is so full of roundabouts and turns that feeding from the car must be done very quickly. Tom has to hand up the bottles, energy bars, match his speed to mine, keep from hitting a car right next to him, AND turn a 90 degree corner at double the speed any sane person would negotiate such a turn in normal traffic conditions.
Lap 11. The peloton is cracking on every rise, and shatters on climb 2.
Lap 12. I'm still here! 100 guys remain from the original 173. I've been on straight water or Coke for over 20km now. Minor muscle cramping is setting in. There isn't enough left in the legs to go back to the car anymore. This time I see Fred just ahead of me over the top, and he's looking over his shoulder. At the base of the climb there were at least 30 guys behind me, and now there's nobody even in the cars just behind me. I'm second-last wheel. Vogels is struggling too after a long day of towing McEwen around... Fred fades behind me while ahead a gap is opening. I hear Fred shout for me to close it. Initially I try to do so but there is simply nothing there... I can hold about 50km/h, the speed of the bunch on this false flat summit, but no more. Rather than chance opening a one second gap to a dangerous five seconds, I reach a hand back to Fred who takes it and I give him the best madison throw I know how. Technically this is illegal but guys do it ALL the time. It's just considered fair play especially when you were the one to open the gap (not the case this time!). The sudden deceleration sends me right out the back. Vogels is also dangling off but I can tell he isn't ready to call it a day, and the two of us bomb the next two corners and just claw our way back on.
Some people may wonder why McEwen was criticizing the winning Belgian team. What wasn't made clear in media reports is that Robbie was simply pointing out that their team took no responsibility for closing breaks or gaps at the business end of the race. With Bettini attacking and Petacchi swinging at the back (I know what that was like!) the Italians really didn't have to do any chasing, either. It was amazing seeing how many guys sold out their national teams for their Italian trade teams though!
Lap 13: Finale
It's only Fred, Guido and I left as Jason has just been crashed out. Saul went on a rampage for the first four hours; none of the early breakaways would finish this day. I know that I don't have enough to do any real work for Fred and Guido, so now I'm just groveling to hang on to the wheel ahead. Most laps you could bomb a corner here or there, perhaps pull out of the line and advance a few places, but no longer. You are where you are, and where I'm at is not good. It's a long thin line of riders, and I can see the first of them hitting the bottom corner of climb 1 about 30 seconds before I get there. Boom. Gaps everywhere and the peloton blows apart for good. I'm with about 20 guys... a few half-hearted attempts are made to close the 10 second deficit on the descent. With the world champion about to be selected from the front of this race, there will be no further regrouping. Into the base of the final climb, a shout for gruppetto goes out. Basically, who cares whether you are 60th, 70th, or 120th at this point. A couple guys ignore the call and keep racing. My legs are going to lock up if I don't keep at least some tempo going and I really just want to climb off and have a drink, so I ride a little harder than most for the final 10km. We're mostly two-by-two (side-by-side) group riding just to finish now. In just 10km, we lose fully five minutes to those still racing! At the line the mob of fans, press and team support is so thick that we must pick our way through at a walking pace. It takes nearly 10 minutes to go 1km to the USA tent.
Some members of our contingent do the hotel basement dinner hall. We're in Madrid, Spain, come on! Seven of us pile into Tina Pic's rental Audi A4. It's a stifling cramped ride to part of the old city, but well worth it as I finally get to see some historic architecture and one-lane cobbled streets. Tapas, risotto, wine at a sidewalk table. Bike racing barely makes it into the conversation which mostly focuses on religion, thank God. Fred's coach, from the Basque region, shows up and leads us on a midnight bar crawl.
The next place has an old-world charm with Moorish tiles halfway up the walls and rounded plaster corners. Van Morrison and Beatles tunes are playing and the drinks are very stiff. Fred and I can't believe that our metabolic systems are so jacked at this point that we can drink half a dozen drinks and not even feel tipsy. Next up is the Kapital club. It's a 20-minute walk on ancient narrow streets between five story residence buildings. Wrought iron balconies, flower boxes, working shutters and above all silence (lack of cars?) in the midst of a city of five million people characterize this neighborhood. The Kapital may be one of the top three most famous clubs in Madrid, but the DJ is lame, the TV screens flash silly graphics, and the crowd is of a different orientation. On to Club Joy, where most of the peloton including new world champion Tom Boonen is celebrating. The gender ratio is still skewed 8 to 2 M/F but at least here I don't feel like I'm getting checked out by other guys, so I dance a little and hang out with J-Mac. Odd, nearly 280 kilometers of racing and half the peloton seems to be here at 3am, partying and dancing as if they all had desk jobs. It's fun but not nearly as much as if Dawn was here with me.
We get Fred back to the hotel five minutes late for his 4am airport run, and I crash out for five hours of sleep. They've got a killer automatic espresso machine in the cafeteria that I can't miss before my airport run, and after a few coffees and goodbyes, we're off. My ticket is somehow screwed up, the reservation has been cancelled, and I'm on stand-by for the flight out. It's Kiwis everywhere at the airport. Latham, Gudsell, and a newly engaged Kiesanowski (to American cycling legend Jeff Pierce) are all there. A seat comes through and I'm in a full sprint to get to the gate as I pass yet another Kiwi, my longtime team-mate Greg Henderson. The next 18 hours are just like that. Sprint from one gate to another and stand in interminable lines at airports under construction, with Kiwis all about. I sat next to a Kiwi on one flight, ran through a terminal with two Kiwi women trying to catch their Auckland flight... weird.
Interbike trade show
If you are there, look us HN pb Maxxis guys up. We don't have the crushing autograph draw of Hincapie or a cute blonde downhiller, so I can actually talk to you. Here's our schedule:
I get to bail out a day early so I can meet the shippers at the Iowa storage unit. I'm bound for NZ October 10th! Over there the biggest thing going on for me is a quiet celebration of my 10th wedding anniversary, and then a few smaller bike races like the NZ Nationals (right in our new hometown of Palmerston North), the K2, and the Southland Tour. I've also got to buckle down and start research on my next career, urban redevelopment. As well as shop for a new home and connect all the kind people who have written me about the Junior Prestige Series I proposed.
I owe so much to promoters, mechanics, soigneurs, host families, team-mates and managers, and there is no way I could list you all here, but thank you. This 2005 team was absolutely amazing, and every one of you is my friend for life. I'd like to mention a few riders and managers who have made my career really rewarding.
In no particular order, my deepest thanks to: Jonas Carney (should I be thanking you for my coffee addiction? Wish I could snowboard in Chile with you but I'd probably bust a leg); Kevin Monahan (crushed that I missed your wedding for a bike race); Greg Henderson (thanks for the faith, and you are lookin' LIGHT, bro); Hayden Godfrey (next time I'm unplugging the internet!); Glen Mitchell (many more hikes, bikes, and fishin' rods to come); Frank Scioscia (how is that college fund, anyway?); Len Pettyjohn (for rescuing me from despair after losing the Olympic team selection in '92); Roy Knickman (for taking me under your wing from '93-'95); Scott Moninger (Coors Light '88, rock on!); Mike Sayers (absolutely the most giving person I know... I can't hold a candle to the writing about Sayers by Mike Jones (check it out on www.soprojones.com); Brice Jones (the coolest Arkansas intellectual other than Bill Clinton); Fred Rodriguez (your RC-10 had to be carbon fiber to beat mine, didn't it!); J-Mac (our dirt road blitzes will be my best training memories); Jeff Corbett (Crusty, you are the Man, and I'm really happy for you that 2005 turned out to be so personally and professionally perfect); Gustavo Carillo (the multilingual, multicultural, intrepid leader of many adventures); Oscar, Juan, Ron, Davis, Chris, Chann, John, Chris, oh man, this would take all day. You are all the best, and I hope you visit us in New Zealand!
The writing bug may hit me from yet another bike race at some point in the future, but I feel like I'm out of fresh material to continue as a diarist. So, after 19 years racing and about nine years writing, goodbye!
Email John at firstname.lastname@example.org