Wednesday, July 29, 2009

6 days of racing in the arctic circle

The Tour de l'Abitibi is renowned for both the fact that it is North America's only junior Nations Cup race and the fact that the town of Val d'Or in which it takes place is basically in the North Pole. My journey to the tundra started in Kentucky, where I had just finished the UCI 2.1 Tour of Red River Gorge. Since Hot Tubes would not be going to the Tour de l'Abitibi, I travelled as a guest member of the Wisconsin based team the Baraboo Sharks, who had been in need of a sixth rider. The sharks and I loaded up our bikes and equipment in the trailer and packed into our team manager, Mark Meyer's SUV. I got to know my new teammates quite well in the two day journey to Val d'Or. We finally arrived, to a much cooler climate than that which we had left in Kentucky. The race "hotel" was the town's high school, where each team was given one classroom for a weeks lodging and bike maintenance. Sleeping arrangements were the lines of foam pads on the floor. I was actually pretty pumped, since this would be the first time I got to sleep in class without getting in trouble.
The Tour de l'Abitibi consists of 7 stages over 6 days in and around the town of Val d'Or. Most of the stages consisted of about 90km on a dead flat, dead straight, wide road from some town, into Val d'Or, followed by a bunch of dangerous circuits through town. The townspeople are very enthusiastic about their race, which I suppose gives them a distraction from hunting polar bears.

Day One's stage ended in the standard sprint finish. The favorite's all took a couple digs in the last few laps, but sprinting powerhouse team Austria brought everything back in time for their sprinter to take the win. Stage 2 included a gravel section early in, so I made sure to stay near the front for it. Soon I was in a breakaway group of about 15 riders who were working together well. The break was rolling pretty fast and built up a gap of over three minutes by the time we hit the circuits in town. Attacks came thick and fast from the USA and Canadian National teams, and Canadian rider (and fellow Hot Tuber) Stuart Wight took the win ahead of Charlie Avis and Antoine Duchesne. This pretty much meant that the overall winner would be one of the dozen or so riders who had gained so much time on the pack.
The next day's Time Trial is the signature stage of the race. The 15km race is different from any other I have ever done, since it started underground. Based on our start times, we were taken in waves in a mine-cart (which kind of looks like a tractor-wagon combo) down a narrow mine-shaft. We were told to don our tt helmets for the way down, since the roof was so low. Lighting was scarce, and we all looked a bit apprehensive when we saw how dark the subterranean corners were that we would have to navigate. Once underground, we were kept in a holding room/cave that had water and some oranges. The temperature was under 50degrees, even though it was reaching the mid to high 70's up above. For a warm-up, we were each given 5 minutes on a fitness-center-like stationary bike and then exactly five minutes on our own bike. Race commissares and mine workers who looked like they meant business timed us with a stop watch and made sure that no one snuck any extra seconds of warm up in. Feeling like I was in some kind of far-fetched movie, I received my count-down and started, knowing that this could be one of the most important time trials I have done so far. While climbing the mine shaft, I remembered to stay seated, so that my tires would not slip on the wet rock, and so I wouldn't hit my head on the low ceiling. I also tried to remember where the sharp left hand corner was, where a lone light had recently died. Very grateful that my team had installed small lights on the front of my bike, I finally popped out on the surface.

Once my underground adventure was done with, I got down to the business of turning over the pedals as fast as I could. I felt strong and was able to catch my one and two minute men by the finish. After returning to the school, the results arrived and said that I had finished 4th in the stage and was 3rd overall, behind the USA National team's Andrew Barker and Charlie Avis. I was also in the blue jersey of best 17 year old rider. In the evening, we had a 50km out and back road race. This time it was pouring rain and very cold. Now with a jersey and a GC position to worry about, I got even more perturbed by sketchy shenanigans going on in the pack. We finished safely in a group sprint.

The rest of the week consisted of staying out of the multitude of crashes that went on in the windy flat roads that we raced over. 4th place rider Taylor Gunnman from the New Zealand National team took some time bonuses to displace me from 3rd overall. My moment of panic happened on the 5th stage, when I went down in a crash and had to chase back on with a spare bike. Fortunately some teammates were on hand to help me back and I didn't lose any time.

Going into the circuit race on the second to last day, I figured it would be my best chance to make up the 25 seconds I was from first place overall. I bided my time and waited until the last two 9-kilometer laps. Then I started attacking. I put in 4 attacks and each time got a gap with a couple other riders, but wasn't able to stay away in front of the USA, Austrian, and New Zealand national teams that were chasing. The day ended in another field sprint won by (surprise!) Austria. That night, I started feeling awful. The cold that I had felt coming on had gotten exponentially worse after racing in the rain all week.

I started the last stage feeling pretty out of it, with a doozy of a cold; but it was my birthday and I was in a leader's jersey and I figured I might as well take one more shot at the win. Out on the road, I managed to take second in a time sprint, which put me into 3rd place overall again. Gunmann won the next one and I got third, so I was back in 4th, but a little closer to the overall win. In the town circuits, it was pouring rain and there were crashes just about every corner. With two laps to go I gave a last-gasp attack. I got a gap and pretty much was riding all out, but once again got hauled back with one lap to go. I finished, managing to circumnavigate the huge pile-up in the last corner, to end my Tour de l'Abitibi.

Racing all-out in the rain with a bad cold probably wasn't a great idea, and within a couple of hours I felt like I might die. I talked to the race doctor about some cold medicine or something, but with Nationals coming up, I couldn't take anything, since it might cause a positive test result. So I staggered to the awards ceremony, which they made a huge production out of. I also got a "happy birthday" from the announcer when I collected my best young rider trophy, so I was pretty pumped. I think some people thought I was drunk, but I was actually just really sick.

And with that, the Tour de l'Abitibi came to a close, and the Sharks and I packed up our bags and began the long drive to Wisconsin. I was pretty happy with my first 6-day stage race, and felt like I had already made big improvements from just a month or two earlier. I collected 4th overall, 19 seconds down, and the best young rider's jersey. All this less than a year after I thought my cycling might be over from breaking my leg.

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