Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Tour de Guadeloupe; Season Conclusion

“America! Yes we can! Just do it!” they screamed at the top of their lungs. The fact that they could run that fast up this hill and still have energy to scream American catchphrases amazed me to the point that I seriously considered climbing off my bike and offering to let them complete the race for me. The nearest sprinting supporter was holding a bottle of ice water in his outstretched arm, and I grabbed it and dumped its contents on my back as he shouted “Allez, Obama!”, pulling off into the ditch to recover from the effort. The cold water was a good change from the constant drizzle of hot rain coming through the trees as we climbed nearer the summit of the slightly smoking volcano.

This race marked my second trip to France for the year; sort of. After two days of flying from airport to airport, I had arrived along with 5 of my USA National Teammates at the EU customs and officially entered Europe, albeit the French owned carribbean island of Guadeloupe. At this point I feel obligated to admit that I previously had had no idea where, or perhaps even what, Guadeloupe was. The circumstances that lead to my arrival in a heretofore unknown country-island are still a little blurry, but suffice to say that a little known UCI rule (that a pro tour team and its development team can't compete in the same race) was suddenly enforced resulting in the banishment of my Chipotle Development Team from the Tour of Colorado. Since the trek-Livestrong team suffered the same fate at both Colorado and Utah, USA Cycling did a last minute rescue operation to keep our respective seasons' from arriving at a very premature conclusion and entered a team in the 10 day, 12 stage UCI 2.2 Tour de Guadeloupe. This all filtered down to the riders in the days following the Cascade Classic (where I felt honored to be part of dominant team performance that saw Chipotle take the best young rider, sprint, and kom jerseys; in addition to 2nd overall and a stage win). After spending several weeks in Oregon and enjoying another short camping trip in the Cascades with the Boswells, I was ready for one more long race. Sort of.

While becoming accustomed to the double France-Tropical nature of the island, the rest of my teammates and baggage slowly trickled in as the many island-hopping flights were inevitably delayed and canceled by various tropical storms. Finally everyone arrived in the nick of time and we all managed to round up enough bikes to ride for the evening prologue. Things started off well for the US as Nate Brown posted the best time on the 4km course, and Carter Jones in third. I came in 5th and Max Durtschi was 8th to give our team 4 in the top ten.

Things became exponentially more difficult from there. The following day was spent trying to defend the yellow jersey by controlling the front, which came more and more to resemble attempting to herd cats, with all 160 riders seemingly intent on launching constant attacks regardless of typical racing logic and the 1,300 kilometers of racing left in the coming days. The 160 kilometers and extreme heat and humidity didn't make things any easier, and I found myself cramping bad and in all sorts of misery with still 40 kilometers to make it to the finish. I never knew there were so many muscles in my body until every single on of them cramped simultaneously and repeatedly for over an hour. After crawling to the line and collapsing into a ditch, I tried not to think of the remaining 9 stages.

Fortunately for me, that was my low point of the race as after that I kept close eye on electrolytes and hydration to prevent further cramping episodes. After a few days, I was able to recover and began improving. On the first large mountain day I broke away over some of the climbs and came within one point of the king of the mountains jersey. On another stage I was part of a day-long breakaway that survived to the finish. It was my best chance for a win but I was outmanned by the local team that had managed to put several of their riders in the break, and I had to settle for a disappointing 4th. By far the most memorable moment was when Lawson Craddock won a stage only to be knocked over by an official's car as he crossed the line. Not phased in the least, Lawson continued his celebration from the ground.

The weather in Guadeloupe, undoubtedly a major reason that crowds of Parisians travel every year to vacation there, was somewhat less inviting to race in than to be a tourist in. In the most cruel of contradictions, the constant on and off rain only served to make the triple digit temperatures even hotter, as it raised the humidity and felt like riding through a hot bath. At the hotel, clothes, shoes, backpacks, all succumbed to the humidity and a dry/clean piece of clothing became more valuable than gold, as items that were hung to dry inevitably only got wetter. On the road, the slick descents were just as decisive as the climbs as many a rider found himself unable to make it through a switchback turn.

As the race got harder, we quickly lost track of how long we had been racing for or how long we had to go. It was just “make it through today”. After each stage (and the often more mentally draining hours-long bus ride back to the hotel), we were grateful for our proximity to the ocean (also, McDonalds) where we recovered from the day's trials. If we were in the mood, we could also choose from multiple tv channels that were playing the race footage nearly all day. Max, because of his fluency in French, and Lawson, because of his camera-loving antics, quickly became regular faces on channel 1 and 10.

It wasn't just the constant coverage and helicopter's circulating above the race that proved how much esteem the locals gave to this race. As the fight for the yellow jersey between hometown hero Boris Carene and a Belgian challenger became closer, the number of spectators lining the roads became ever higher. And so it was that on stage 8b's individual mountain time trial up the side of Guadeloupe's active volcano, I was being vigorously chased by several of the 40,000 spectators who had packed onto the 5 kilometers of winding mountain road, wearing a mixture of “Obama Yes We Can” and “J'aime Boris” (“I love Boris) t-shirts. I remember watching TV during the 2004 Alpe d'huez time trial where Armstrong cemented his record breaking 6th Tour victory, and this was definitely the closest I've ever come to something like that. I'd entertained thoughts of “soft-pedalling” the tt to save energy for the following stages, but due to the enthusiasm of the crowd (not to mention the leg-breaking gradient) I soon found myself flogging my already exhausted body up the climb to chants of “USA! USA!”.

After I and the rest of my team arrived at the top, we were able to recover in time to be treated to a show of national fervor that would outmatch even the most ardent of european soccer fans. From nearly a kilometer away, I heard a roar of crowd noise steadily approaching the top, the TV helicopter circling above its epicenter. As the yellow clad rider suddenly appeared in the final straightaway, screams of “Boris! Boris! Boris” reached a fever pitch. The man couldn't have slowed if he had wanted to, such a wall of noise was pushing up from behind him. As he crossed the line and it was announced that he had not only kept the yellow jersey but extended his lead, the crowd went wild and a cheer could be heard up and down the mountain. The crowd mobbed him, and, not to be outdone, Lawson ran screaming into the fray to give the national hero a bear hug. Soon, the still panting Boris was hoisted onto the crowd's shoulders to be taken on a victory lap, and even his rivals on the US national team found themselves joining in the chant of “Boris! Boris!”.

There was one very significant downside to the night's exhilaration. Unlike Lance on Alpe d'huez, there was no helicopter waiting to take us back down the mountain. So the rest of our evening was spend sitting in a sweltering hot and wet bus for four hours as we waited in traffic to get off the mountain.

Finally, we made it to the last day, where the team successfully protected Carter Jones' 3rd place overall. Any thoughts of an easy parade finish to the race were quickly thrown out the window as various teams took turns burying it in the cross-winds to split the peleton. Somehow, we all made it to the finish, with nearly as much unbelief as relief. After ten days, we had officially finished the Tour de Guadeloupe, the longest and undoubtedly hardest race I'd ever done up to that point, and in a country that I had barely known existed previously. Two days later, I made it back home again, stepping out of the airport terminal for what should be the last time of the year. Another 3 days later, the airlines re-discovered my bike and bag and I opened the most disgusting pile of moldy clothes I have ever been so unfortunate as to smell.

With my National team and Chipotle schedules' officially wrapped up, I have only the Green Mountain Stage Race next weekend before I call it a season. Starting next monday, I'll be hitting the books at UVM for the semester before heading off into the unknown again to prepare for my second year with Chipotle. Thinking back over the past 8 months, I am amazed and grateful for all the places I have traveled to, people I have met, teammates who have become closest friends, and races that I have done. I have to admit, however, that I have never before been so ready for an off-season. After taking some much needed time away from the life of bike racing in order to recharge the batteries and exercise my brain, I know I'll be on the road again in short order. Thanks for reading.

After a dominating performance in the prologue, the USA was in all sorts of different colored jerseys.

What's a bike race without fireworks?

Every stage involved a mix of baking temperatures and raging downpours

Lawson several seconds before being taken down by a commisaire's car. Fortunately, he was able to continue his celebration from the ground, endearing him to the Guadeloupe public.

Nate Brown gives the USA some time in Yellow

I managed to fight my way into a long breakaway, despite being heavily marked by the team of the mountains jersey. Unfortunately, another group, containing three members of the same team caught us before the end and I had to settle for 4th place.

As Boris-mania swept the island, thousands of supporters donned yellow shirts to back their new-found national hero.

In the Alpe d'huez-like individual mountain time trial, the riders are barely visible through the scrum of people

My breakaway efforts high on the volcanic side of the island nearly earned me some time in the King of the Mountains jersey

National hero Boris Carene, defended his yellow jersey from a number of aggressors

Thomas Voeckler's right hand man at this year's Tour de France, Johanne Genes is Guadeloupe's local legend and the Carribbean's only Tour finisher. Here he spent time as a spectator and television commentator

Not a bad backdrop. Through all the difficulties of the race, I was grateful for the fact that I was in one of the most beautiful places on earth.