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Australian's hot seat performance
Stage four of the Tour de San Luis was a 19.5km time trial in the city of San Luis and Cyclingnews was able to document the performance of UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling's Ben Day, a stalwart against the clock.
Logistically the time trial was a dream for the Tour de San Luis's peloton as the start house was within sight of all the team hotels and started and finished on their hotels' very street, the Av Illia. The late afternoon start time made it that much more appealing.
It's the little things that perhaps make the biggest difference in the day-to-day performance of a professional cyclist in a stage race, particularly one on a different continent to one's home base, away from such things as a fully-equipped service course, team buses and other comforts taken for granted.
UnitedHealthcare scored a welcome patch of shade right on the course, positioned metres away from the first/last turn on the 19.5km out-and-back parcours, where they established their base camp. There was ample room inside the cordoned off area, their team mechanic Jorge was busily attentive to the Neil Pryde time trial machines given their first competitive outing of the season, and there was a sense of ease and calm knowing that their afternoon had all been planned down to the second, critically important in prepping for a time trial start time with no margin of error.
As I arrived, Australia's Ben Day was nearing the end of his turbo trainer warm-up, and upon stepping off team manager Mike Tamayo informed him that he had 13 minutes until his start time as well as telling Day the easiest way to ride to the start house.
The foreign teams at Argentina's Tour de San Luis primarily utilize race-issued rental cars for team vehicles (no uber busses and fully detailed cars here) and UnitedHealthcare was no exception as Tamayo and I hopped in said car and made our way into the scrum of team vehicles behind the start house, awaiting to be queued up for departure once their riders were ready to roll down the ramp.
These cars take a beating, made evident moments before when we walked past the Ecuador national team's vehicle, complete with a caved-in back end, a casualty of race caravan driving.
At precisely 4:11pm Day embarked on his time trial, the 59th rider to take the course.
Two hundred metres after the start, taking Day passed his Tour de San Luis home at the Hotel Quintana, he entered a roundabout which put him onto a 1.7km straight stretch of road - the Av Lafinur. From there a left turn was made onto the Autopista Santos Ortiz on ramp and a 7km slightly uphill sector of a four-lane divided highway. At km 9.5 it's a 180 degree turn and a re-tracing of the route, with an additional several hundred metres of Av Illia to negotiate past the start house to the finish line.
When asked about his expectations for Day's time trial, Tamayo said, "It's early season, so it's hard to tell where everyone's form is at. But if he has a good day can he be top-ten? Yes. Can he be top-five? Should be. Can he be on the podium? Maybe."
Seconds later he added, "Again, it's January 25, or whatever."
Race radios aren't allowed in UCI 2.1 races such as the Tour de San Luis, UnitedHealthcare doesn't sport the "Venga Venga Venga" loudspeakers on the roof, so encouragement is offered via toots of the horn by Tamayo at the slightest sign that Day may have broke cadence or had a lapse in focus.
It's soon evident that Day's on a good ride, confirmed as he catches both his 1-minute and 2-minute men shortly after the 180 degree turn at km 9.5.
Tamayo is an able multi-tasker, driving the car, referring to notes about the course and recording split times, hitting the horn when necessary, as well as fielding my questions. He's also strategising, waiting for the perfect moment to pass the two rider's Day has caught and dropped so as to re-position ourselves once again close to his rear wheel.
"Obviously I don't want to give the NetApp guy any help so he can get back to Ben. I just need to let the gap open and then shoot past. It's more of a 'feel it' kind of thing, once these guys lose motivation, like right there where that one guy's looking around, that's lack of motivation right there."
And at that very moment, on a slight uphill, Tamayo hits the gas and passes the duo Day has already dispatched, providing them no moment of relief from the UnitedHealthcare team car.
Day turns over a massive gear with steady efficiency and on the return trip, slightly downhill, the Australian at times is rolling along at 70km/h, making it look easy.
A look over to the opposite outbound lane sees a spectator shooing a stray dog off the course. It's a sight taken in stride for Tamayo, a native Venezuelan.
"You get used to it. Racing with it you get used to it, too. Nothing like dogs running into the field all the time."
Soon after the 1km to go sign is perhaps the time trial's diciest turn, the final one, a sharp right-hander onto the Av Illia finishing straight. After a slight screech of tires rounding the bend, we're on the home stretch. With the finish line superstructure looming in the distance, Day's effort is once again confirmed as Tamayo indicates he's close to the winning time set by Xavier Tondo last year (23:23). With a final flurry of the horn to spur Day on, he completes the final several hundred metres alone as the team car takes a 180 degree deviation to head back once again to the start house.
Day's solid performance is quickly confirmed as the voice on race radio crackles with Day's time: 29:59, the fastest of the day thus far, putting the Australian in the hot seat.
As Tamayo jockeys the vehicle into its parking spot in rather confined quarters there's a grinding of the clutch of his race-issue rental car.
"This clutch is like non-existent now. No matter how much you push it in it doesn't even work."
Day ultimately finished the stage in 14th, 1:26 behind Levi Leipheimer's winning effort.