In the hotel in San Sebastian the atmosphere was different than that which I left at the Dauphiné Libéré.
There had been a switch in mentality in the six weeks between the two races. Like a student entering the final semester, there now seemed an eagerness as we neared the end the season. Although there are still dozens of races to ride, the end, somehow, now seemed in sight as we had passed the midway point.
The peloton is now divided between those worn from a tough spring and a hard Tour de France and those rested from a calm summer at home without racing. With fitness and motivation there are still some beautiful targets to aim for: The World Championships, the Vuelta a España and the numerous one day autumn Classics. But, tired each day away is counted and a rider’s pedal stroke is labored.
Like students talking about their summer plans, riders gossip about who has re-signed, who will leave and where they will go. Some riders are relaxed as they have signed their contracts and have achieved the needed results. They, therefore, feel they can freewheel through the rest of the season while others, nervous they may not find the contract they desire, panic like juniors as they fight to achieve what they weren’t able to earlier in the year.
As the peloton rode out of San Sebastian, still calm as the commisaire’s car neutralized the race until we reached the city limits, the riders chatted while they turned their legs over slowly and adjusted their shorts, jerseys and radios for the long day ahead.
For the riders who had just finished the Tour they were reacquainted after a short week at home. They spoke about how their bodies had recovered from the race, what they had done to celebrate their arrival in Paris and where they would be off to next.
Some pedaled confidently, spinning their legs with ease, while others, knowing they were riding one of their last races of the year forecasted their ambition of riding to the feed zone and climbing off. The contrast in the peloton is evident in this period of transition. Some riders are flying while others have grown weary.
After nearly two months away from the races, I reentered the peloton in San Sebastian. In early June, I left France and the Dauphiné Libéré, with 65 days of racing in my legs and roughly six weeks at home in the first six months of the season.
In the team bus I had found the rhythm to my spring traveling from finish to hotel, then from hotel to start with my teammates. We chatted, we slept, we ate and we lived together. In the mornings the coffee machine spat out espressos and after the race we crushed empty plastic bottles as we tried to re-hydrate. In the bus, with the team, I found a comfortable spot and it felt like our den. But, by the beginning of June, I was ready to be home, even if only for a few weeks. The pungent odor of leg balms, the stale stink that wafts from the bathroom and the chatter of the team getting ready to race and winding the day down became tiresome.
At home I found another rhythm training in the mountains with teammates and friends. Many of us were initially frustrated away from the races, as we were ascending the mountains faster than ever and our powermeters confirmed our fitness. We wanted to use that energy effectively. Instead, I found solace by unloading myself on my bike, and spending afternoons with my family who I had missed so dearly early in the first half of the season.
I spent hours on the road training while my teammates raced around France; their performances motivated me even though I felt tense watching races on television. The tension doesn’t grow because the coverage excites me but because I wish I were there, racing with them. It is the same inspiration that drove me to pursue this as a career and now, knowing I could be there and am not, I grow frustrated.
This emotion pushes me as it did as teenager speeding through the city parks imagining I was in Europe floating like Roger DeVlaeminck over cobblestones on his way to victory in the 1974 Paris Roubaix. Out training, I pound the pedals racing myself, and the ghosts around me while thinking of the late summer races.
As we sat around the dinner table in the hotel in downtown San Sebastian, I looked around the table at my teammates. Kim Kirchen was thin and tanned. Like most riders after the Tour, he looked beyond fit. He looked tired and worn.
I knew that on the bike he would be strong and confident having completed the Tour without injury or illness. A grand tour changes a rider in a way no other effort can. With a week of rest the body rebounds. There is a perception built around the comfort of good fitness, that the climbs are shallower and shorter, and the races slightly slower. A grand tour gives a rider a level of strength unobtainable in training.
It was apparent that other riders in the hotel dining room, who had raced little in July, had trained well while others seemed complacent with an evident lack of fitness. The season is long. Ridden improperly it can wear a young eager rider out, or tire a veteran with its consistently hard workload.
During the second half of the season the same complacency, or weariness, is evident in the races. In the spring the entire peloton is eager to be at the front, animating the race to show their face and achieve results. The races aren’t faster than those in the late summer but there is greater depth in the peloton. Now, many riders start under their team’s orders and give in as soon as the race reaches the slightest difficulty, while in the spring those same riders would chase back after crashing, covered in blood, as they still believed they could triumph.
Team rosters wear thin as riders fall sick, are injured or are worn out. On the start line many teams will start with fewer riders than the maximum permitted, as they have nobody left to fill the spots. At the finish some teams will be lucky to have any finishers. In an attempt to gain maximum exposure early in the year, many teams will focus their resources on the Tour de France and the early season Classics draining their riders and staff before the season is over.
The riders who have finished the Tour will profit from their good form for the following month, if they manage to remain focused and aren’t worn mentally from three hard weeks in July. The post-Tour parties and criteriums can easily sap any fitness the protagonists from the Tour have if their efforts are not carefully dosed.
As four of us rode up into the mountains from Girona, pushing ourselves to the point of discomfort, there was purpose to our efforts with imminent goals to achieve. When we reached the top of the mountain, worn from the work, we stopped for a drink at a small café.
Recognizing our faces from past visits, the waiter welcomed us and asked about the races, our training and the coming Vuelta. We sat for a while sipping drinks in the heat. Someone counted the training days left in the season. We lingered a little longer than usual and savored the moment.
Michael Barry is a member of Team Columbia-HTC, husband of Olympic medalist Dede Barry and author of VeloPress’s “Inside the Postal Bus”
Barry also authored Fitness Cycling with his wife and Dr. Shannon Sovndal.