Laughter resounds through the camper as Mark’s joke carries from the back to the front where George, who is at the brunt of it, sits. On the puffy pleather couches and fabric chairs we lounge in our cycling shorts, waiting until the last minute, like school kids, before heading to the start. Our radios dangle from our ears, our jerseys are piled along with our helmets and race food ready to be pulled on at the very last minute. The mood in the camper is jovial; men act like children for a few moments before we step out into the crowd that patiently waits outside the bus for a photo, an autograph or an interview. I now appreciate these moments more profoundly as I know they are some of of my last with this team.
An hour before the start, a plan was drawn out at our team meeting so we know our roles. The meetings are predictable and sometimes seem more like a formality than a necessity. By this point in the season we know our parts and everything falls into place as soon as the race begins. We step down from the camper knowing the task, the predicted outcome while hoping we can control the variables that could thwart us.
In Missouri, the team entered the race with a well-rounded group of domestiques, classification riders and a sprinter. We set off from St. Louis with several goals: to win stages, to win the overall classification and to win the team classification.
As we now enter the final months of the season, the team cannot depend on the cooperation of other teams on the flatter stages, where a sprint is likely. We have won too often and they now search for any way possible to beat us. The simple way, although not the most effective, is to allow us to control the race in the hope that we will tire and fail during the finale. These are the tactics of losers and only work if we make errors or when riders fall ill. To win consistently a team needs to be at the head of the race.
On the front of the peloton we pull for hours with our rivals in a long thin line behind us. It is a job I enjoy. Knowing my teammates are behind in the draft, ready to pounce at the first attack, I pedal away, watching that my speed and wattage stay consistent. As we ride the focus is on the road ahead, the gap to the breakaway and the difficulties we may face. We gauge our effort based on our knowledge of the race, the competitors, the course and our level of fitness. With the experience gained in the thousands of kilometers we have ridden together we can eliminate most variables to accomplish the goal.
During the first stages of the race we accomplished one goal: stage wins. Mark took two and held the leader’s jersey before his body was overwhelmed by illness, forcing him to quit. Now, our focus has changed from the sprint finishes to winning from breakaways. We will attack to incite breakaways as we race to increase time gaps and victories.
In the coming year, I will miss the guys with whom I now share much of my life on the front of the peloton and in the hotels. Next season, I will move to another team, and this will be one of my final races with Columbia-HTC. Together, in defeat and triumph we have bonded. Perhaps it is a cliche, but the hard moments seem to have built the bond more than the victorious ones.
Despite being offered a position to race with Columbia-HTC again I decided it was time to make a change and to experience something new, in a developing team. The key to my happiness on the bike is being able to progress in a nurturing environment.
After the race, in the team camper, we wipe down our sweat, slug down our recovery drinks and buzz with the energy of the final moments of the race. When the goal has not been accomplished, when we have not won, the remaining adrenaline that pushed us to the finish line is blown off in fumes as we bark, cuss and complain about what went wrong. Faults, fissures and failure are identified. As the fumes dissipate, the focus turns to the future.
Conversely, when we are victorious, the atmosphere becomes electric with the same energy that carried us over the line. It spills out of our bodies in hugs, yells and stories.
It is an emotion I will never forget and one I hope I can always feel, and embrace.
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.