Since the first training camp in December, the time has been flying really fast. After 10 days of training in sunny Spain with a perfect company of my teammates, I went for a short trip to Prague to spend Christmas with my family. I enjoyed the last couple of days of cross training - gym, hiking on snowshoes and MTB - before heading back to Spain for second team camp.
The second camp was already much more intensive. Apart from a rest day that we spend with media, presenting our full squad and sponsors for 2019, it was all about training and recovery. All the photo shooting and meetings were done during the December camp.
I have been making nice progress, both in my comfort on the bike and my performance, so we decided with the team I will get back to racing already in Argentina at Vuelta a San Juan. I was super excited! It has been almost 16 months since my last race, and I was eager to be back racing as soon as possible.
In order to have the best conditions for training, I decided to do another week of training in Spain. Together with Julian Alaphilippe, we traveled a few hours northeast of Calpe to Girona. It is definitely my favorite place for training during the cold winter months. And it is always nice to have a friend to train with, especially when we are on the same race programme during the first part of the season and thus we can do most of the training sessions together.
The first couple of days in Argentina have been a huge shock for my body, flying across half of the globe and suddenly training in temperatures of 40 degrees [centigrade]. Suddenly I was a bit jealous of all the pictures of snow-covered Europe. But after three days of suffering in the heat, my body finally started to feel more comfortable, and my mind became more and more excited about my return to racing.
It really hit me in the evening before the first stage. The team presentation was a huge show, with thousands of fans, tango show and fireworks. It was probably even bigger than the one I got to see at the Tour de France. There, I really realized, I am about to race again. We even did a short, 10km criterium. That was a nice introduction to ride in the bunch again. Being able to feel comfortable in the peloton was something I was a bit worried about as the race was coming closer.
People say that you never forget how to ride a bike. Fortunately, it is also true for moving through the peloton. After a couple of nervous moments during echelons on the first day, I became comfortable again. It felt almost the same like each of the first races of previous seasons. The memory of MY injury and the pain I have suffered during the past year has been still in the back of my mind, but once I get absorbed in the race I am no longer aware of it.
I have always enjoyed riding for a winning team. For a team that goes into every stage with a purpose and a plan how to win. For me, it makes the racing much more exciting and enjoyable. I was happy I was able to be helpful to my teammates since the first day, bringing back breakaways, setting up our leaders for the final and then, already on stage 2, to share the joy of winning.
My body has been dealing with the demands of racing surprisingly well. I have been recovering well and did not feel any pain in my back. I just had to spend each day doing a few minutes exercising and then enjoy a massage in the evening. Even for the time trial, my performance was pretty good, considering my still very upright position on the bike.
After Julian’s second victory, we went all in to defend his lead in the general classification. It was a tough task, with a mountain top finish in 2,600m. The whole team put a brave fight, but we fell just a little bit short and Julian ended up second. In addition to it, our young gun Remco Evenpoel showed his class too. At 19 years old he did his first pro race since he just moved up from junior category. I enjoyed watching him refining his racing skills and finishing the week in the top 10 while also becoming the best U23 rider.
The last two stages were incredibly fast, with 48 and 50 km/h average speed, respectively. We had two narrow misses with our sprinters. First, we came just 12 seconds short on closing a determined breakaway of Argentinian riders, and then Alvaro finished second in the last stage. It was a beautiful end to the week of racing. The Atmosphere was incredible, the 15km long circuit around San Juan was lined by thousands of passionate spectators. Sometimes, I even felt goosebumps.
And goosebumps I had as well when I crossed the finish line. I made it. I am a rider again, capable of performing well and eager to keep improving. I would like to thank immensely all the people who supported me during the past 12 months. It gave me so much energy, helped me to keep the spirit high and motivated me to come back as strong as possible. It has been a long path, but now the adventure can continue.