This is one of my favorite races on the summer calendar.  It’s well run, there’s a festive atmosphere, and there’s always some top name pros that show up to pay their respects.   Lots of these guys want to win this race as I’m sure it carries some heavy significance.  Let me tell you, it’s no charity ride!

There were about 130 riders that started the A/B category.  It was hot, dry and windy.  Everyone knew that as soon as we turned the first corner into the crosswinds things were going to get blown to pieces.  This meant that the neutral section behind the lead car was filled with panic as everyone was jostling for position.

As soon as the lead car pulled off and we turned into the crosswinds everyone realized that it was a cross/tailwind and the bumping and positioning was all for nothing.   The pace was on and there are always attacks at the beginning of these races, but nothing too threatening that could get away.  When the pace is over 50km/hr and everyone’s legs are fresh it really makes no sense to try to break away, but people always try.  The pace settled in after about 30mins of foreplay.

It took a few twists and turns to get the conditions that were needed to create the perfect storm.  As soon as we had some dead-on crosswinds the strong riders went straight to the front and put the race into the gutter at 55km/hr.  To me this is more exciting than an epic mountain stage in Le Tour.  I love nothing more in bike racing that seeing the peloton get ripped to shreds by roaring crosswinds (assuming I’m one of the ones up at the front!).  It’s absolute chaos to keep your position in the rolling front echelon while over a hundred other riders are holding on for dear life strung out in the gutter.   Now this is bike racing!

After about 30mins of this ripping pace the split in the field was well and truly established.  About 30 riders made the front group.  It took one quick look around to see that the cream had risen to the top.   I was among the company of riders like Greg Henderson (Columbia-HTC), Darren Lapthorne (Rapha-Condor), Tom Southam (Rapha-Condor) along with a bunch of other young gun pros.  I was also pumped to see that four out of the five of my O2 team had made the split but unfortunately one of us was part of the collateral damage.  More on him later…

For the next 50km everyone in the front group played nicely together.  We rolled along smoothly trying to get as much time on the rest of the peloton as possible.  This wouldn’t last long though.  There was a moderate climb coming up and some vast exposed plains at the top where the winds would pick up again.  I wish I had my camera. The blue sky and rolling terrain was stunning!

We got to the top of the climb with about 50km to go and the attacks began.  Henderson was riding like ten men and he made the first of many moves.  Not only would he launch vicious attacks – he would do so right on the edge of the road (on the side away from the wind).  This meant that nobody got any draft whatsoever and it hurt every single person who followed.

About six of these attacks managed to shed everyone except 12 of us.  I was feeling pretty good still so I decided to have a crack when it looked like everyone was tiring (I sure was!).  I hit the group right after a move was brought back during a lull and no one followed except for Henderson.  He caught up with me as I was going balls out and came around and said “okay, let’s go”.   Oh man!  What did I get myself into?!  We still had 40km to go and I was going as hard as I possibly could. There was no way I could keep this pace up while Henderson was clearly within his comfort zone.  I was punching way above my weight!

Not to worry though.  After a minutes someone bridged up to us, and then someone else,  then the rest of the group.  “Thank the Lord!” I thought to myself.  However, straight after we were caught the attack of all attacks came and a group of six got away.  My legs were absolutely bombing at this point but Henderson, Lappers, and four others slowly pulled away from us.  There was nothing that could be done because the nature of the teams up there meant that my remaining group wasn’t going to chase anything down.   30km to go and the race was pulling away up the road.

Naturally Greg Henderson won which I’m assuming looked something like his Vuelta win. It could have saved us a whole lot of pain if we just decided this on the start line and went to the pub during this scorching hot afternoon.  I don’t think anyone would have disagreed.  Hopefully next year we’ll be smarter…

2009_vuelta_a_espana_stage3_greg_henderson_columbia_htc_wins

Photo from http://www.cyclingfans.net/

Speaking of pubs on a hot afternoon, if you’re wondering what happened to my O2 teammate (CJ) who was caught out in the gutter and never to be seen again, he ended up in the local pub in some one-horse town along the race course (Dookie I think).  After getting dropped he saw a refreshing looking place where he could sit down and wet his whistle.  Not a bad idea if you ask me.   Just like they did back in the day at the TdF!   I was actually surprised that he came rolling past the finish line only about 45mins after we did.  He still came in ahead of a few people!

Also, congrats to my teammate Tymmsy for taking out the honors in the criterium the day before.  What a stud!

Things to note from this race:

  • To be at the front in the crosswinds you not only have to be strong, but you have to be confident and predictable.  Any hesitation in snagging your place in the echelon and you’ll be left behind in the gutter.  Also, don’t overlap wheels too much with everyone is changing positions in the pack so frequently.
  • There’s no need to be aggressive in trying to get your place in the echelon.  All the top riders are letting each other in and waving with a quick thank-you.  Many other lower level riders are pushing and elbowing and never to be seen again after a few turns.
  • Be aware of the wind direction and always be up at the front when a corner is approaching.  If it’s windy out and there are no crosswinds in the direction you’re heading, once you turn a corner means that there will be crosswinds!
  • If in question, always carry one more bottle than you think you’ll need – even if it means carrying it in your back pocket.  This was a mistake many people made in yesterday’s hot and dry conditions.
  • When everyone else is tired is the time to attack.  You’ll be tired too, but the lack of reaction from the group is what you’re trying to achieve.   Also, if a Grand Tour rider like Henderson is there, don’t even bother attacking because he’s just getting warmed up!