If you are only as good as your last race, then I ain’t that good. Tour of California (TOC), a race that I marked on my calendar at the start of the season with more than a few exclamation points, went pretty shitty. When I say shitty, I mean both figuratively and literally. There was a point this past week, in an effort to not contaminate our hotel room with the toxic smell of whatever was coming out of me, that I sat on a toilet of the hotel lobby restroom, moaning. There was a guy sitting in the stall beside me, and, man, if I was that guy, I would have been freaked out. The sounds, and fluids, that exited my body over the course of the final four days of racing were reminiscent of my trip to Vuelta Mexico last year; fortunately this time round I had far more access to fresh water and Imodium.
Now, as I sit in a coffee shop with my wife, typing this blog out in my hometown of Ottawa, Canada, I find myself wishing I were in a place where two weeks ago, I was dying to get out of. Two weeks ago, I was driving across the Arizona desert, fresh off of a win at the Tour of Gila, with nothing but expectation of success for the week to come, and a deep urge to get back to Ottawa to see my wife on the wings of that success. How quickly things change in bike racing, and TOC, was a cold, hard reminder that bike racing can be an unforgiving bitch.
After spending a week in the hills of San Jose, crashing at Canadian TT legend and Optum p/b KBS’s director sportif, Eric Wholberg’s place, I met up with the team in San Francisco to begin the circus that is TOC. From our team presentation at the CLIF headquarters, to the final stage of this race, we were treated like rock stars. We cruised around in an RV, did TV interviews, were given free things, and had fans wait outside of our bus. At one point, a woman just walked into our team bus and said, “this isn’t the first tour bus I’ve been on… I was a groupie.” It was overwhelming, and for the first time in my life, I repeatedly turned down free homemade cookies—If you ever ride on a team with Phil Gaimon, be prepared to have your team bus filled with the homemade cookies of his adoring fans.
For the first three stages of this race, this energy, and the countless messages wishing me good luck had me feeling pretty excited and confident. I started stage 3, the first “GC” day, with hopes of a podium at race end. The course finish being similar to the one I had won on a week earlier, I thought that as long as Peter Sagan didn’t make it to the final climb, I had a shot at winning. However, after unsuccessfully trying to bridge up to the break on the Mt. Hamilton climb, I found myself descending the penultimate descent in a group of 30 riders that included Sagan. With Sky and Tinkoff-Saxo chasing frantically to bring back the last man from the breakaway, Toms Skujins, I was relegated to the group, and forced to hope that Sagan and other strong finishers would have a bit less in the legs for the sprint.
Going into the final, short climb of the day, we were given a time check of 4:20 minutes, and I could hear a rider from Trek say “there is no way that’s right.” I saw Skujins do this at the Tour of Beauce last year, and although I was impressed by the gap, I believed it; Skujins can roll a break.
After we crested the climb, I prepared for what I knew to be the craziest descent in the race. I had reconned this stage a week earlier with Wohlberg, and were it not for him leading me down the descent, I probably would have gone flying off the cliff on the first corner. The first switchback was a complete surprise, as it was hidden behind a left corner that was already super steep. Watching the post-stage highlights, this was the same corner that surprised Skujins and took him down. Knowing full well how risky this corner was, I braked in anticipation of the turn, but a rider from Trek didn’t. As we hit the beginning of the switchback, he slammed into my bike, and I was sent flying. Fortunately, the grade of the switchback was so steep that the fall felt like the equivalent of the landing of a ski jump; I simply rolled to a stop, with almost no damage to my body. My handlebars ended up getting jammed up in the crash though, and by the time I adjusted them, and got back in the saddle, the front group was gone.
I descended pretty slowly after the crash, and by the time I reached the base, I was over 20 seconds in arrears of the group. Making matters worse, the race commissaire thought I had been dropped, and barraged the caravan. With Team Sky jamming at the front to bring back Skujins, I was forced to chase in the wind.
There are few moments in my athletic career where I have gone as deep as I did in stage 3. In an effort to get back to the group, and salvage my GC position, I buried myself. For the next 15km, I went through more emotions than a girl on The Bachelor. I thought I would make it, and then I didn’t, and then I did, and then I didn’t. It was awful. However, with about eight kilometres remaining in the race, I was able to just get back on to the rear of the group, right as we hit a crosswind section. As guys in front of me cracked, I was forced to jump the gaps that were opening in front of me, and I just barely made it on to the final wheel as the road turned right and we exited the section. Somehow, I survived the day, and with nothing left in my legs for the sprint, I finished eighth; gutted that I didn’t get the result I wanted, but at least happy to have saved a potential major loss in time. Skujins would go on to win (it is always nice to see the Conti guys stick it to the ProTour).
The effort that I put out on stage 3 though, would prove to be my undoing. I’m not sure if it was something I ate (maybe a rogue Phil Gaimon cookie), but I am pretty confident that going that deep, opened up my immune system—and my bowels—and by the time stage 5 began, I had lost my appetite, I had a fever, and I basically needed to be sat on a cork. Over the course of the next three days, I consumed about 3,000 calories total, and burned about 9,000 on the bike. I looked and felt terrible. Each day I would sleep 12-14 hours, wake up, get on my bike, survive, and then stumble back into the team RV and sleep until we reached our next destination.
Stage 7, a day where I thought I would again have another crack at victory, became, what would be the theme of my final three days in California; survival. With the bulk of me left in the hotel lobby and RV bathrooms of the race, I had nothing going up the Mt. Baldy climb, a climb I had reconned twice, and envisioned Phil Liggett on the TV announcing my name as I crossed the line. Instead, I did everything I could to stay within 15 minutes of the eventual winner, Julian Alaphilippe.
Tour of California, for me, was a rough one, but as my old running coach used to say “they wrap dead fish in old newspaper.”
Up next Winston-Salem Classic
Canada's Michael Woods is a former middle-distance runner turned road cyclist and he races for the US Continental outfit Optum Pro Cycling p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies. You can follow his blogs on Cyclingnews during the 2015 season, on his website: https://rustywoods.wordpress.com, and catch him on Twitter @rusty_woods.