There is a reason that every grand tour takes place over the span of three weeks. Cycling greats have long said that the third week of a race is when legends are made; that anyone can survive the first two, but only a real champion can carry on till the end. After completing this year’s Vuelta a España, an edition that many are saying is one of the hardest in the races history, I can say that I firmly agree.The first two weeks of the race, or the time leading up to the second rest day rather, were the stage for some spectacular racing, culminating in the climb of the infamous Angliru on stage 15. I’ll share a little of my memory from that day, since it is the one I remember most from the race. Some of you might think I remember the stage particularly well because it was the day I was in the break but that really seems like only a small part the stage. The real story that day was the final climb.
The Angliru has been used only five times in the Vuelta’s history, and for good reason. It is brutal, ridiculously steep and punishing to anyone, even the riders who are on top form. Looking at the faces of the favorites that day ― with the exception of Cobo who would go on to win the stage and later the entire race ― everyone looked near the verge of death.
For those of us in the back, it was simply a matter of making it to the line. While I was weaving my way to the top, I couldn’t help but think about who had made this road, and more importantly, for what possible reason. It is unlike any other road in cycling and, while I am happy to have had the experience once, if I never go up it again that would be fine with me.
I read later that a few years ago, on a crash filled day in the pouring rain, my teammate David Millar stopped right before the line, got off his bike and handed his number to organizers in protest, claiming that climbs such as this had no place in a bike race. While I wasn’t quite ready to hand in my number by the top (we were lucky enough to race in dry conditions), I was certainly thankful the next day was a rest day that would offer a welcome respite from five demanding days in the mountains.
The last week passed by in what now seems like the blink of an eye. In reality, it held countless ups and downs for me. There were moments when I was sure I would make it to Madrid, even times when I would attack, trying to once again find my way off the front. Then, there were times where I questioned what I was doing, where I was literally scared to the point of tears that I might not make it. It may seem ridiculous now, but during the race the only thing that mattered was making it till the end. There was no room for any other thought in my mind, and as the third week drew on, every ounce of my mental and physical energy was devoted to that sole purpose.
On stage 20, I had one of my worst days ever on a bike. I had gone through the whole race without every being in the proper grupetto (the last group of riders on the road), but on this day something changed. My body finally said “enough.”
My legs gave out and from the start I knew it was going to a struggle. I had said before that I thought I knew what it meant to suffer, but this day, this entire race really, has redefined it for me. At the beginning I set out to gain experience but more importantly, to push my limits, to see where my breaking point was. Well, with only two days left race, I had found it.
I spent the stage at the back, not by choice, but because hanging on was all I could manage. This was the day that I was scared nearly to tears. I couldn’t help but think: I had made it through nineteen stages, was this really how it was going to end, this close to the finish? On the last climb of the day, with still fifty flat kilometers remaining, the grupetto formed, led by my teammate Andreas Klier.
Early in the day Andreas, a seasoned veteran and accomplished professional who has ridden alongside the likes of Jan Ulrich and Erik Zabel, nearly stopped from heatstroke. He recovered with the help of a few ice cold bottles poured onto his head but now, it was he who reassured me that we would make it.
Although we would not reach Madrid till the following day, the finish of stage twenty was the most emotional for me. As we slowly but surely approached the line, with plenty of time to spare, I couldn’t help but smile. Earlier in the day I had been angry and scared but now, I was filled with happiness, a sense of accomplishment that can only come from facing a great obstacle and overcoming it. I had struggled, I had fought, and I had not given up. A certain seven time Tour de France winner once said: “Pain is temporary. Quitting lasts forever.”
It’s true. No one cares if you quit, people will forget, their worlds will go on, but it is you who would have to live with it every day for the rest of your life.
The next day, As I neared the final finish line of the race in downtown Madrid, I sat up and drifted off the back of the pack with one kilometer remaining. For me, the time didn’t matter, I wanted to savor the last pedal strokes of the race, soak in all it meant to have made it through my first grand tour. As I glanced around, I saw something foreign, something strange: riders were smiling. For nearly the first time sine the race began, the harsh looks and angled glares that most riders assume on a daily basis, were gone. Teammates embraced on the bike and clasped their hands together in brotherhood. We had made it, we had survived.
While Juanjo Cobo stood on the stage to the cheers of the masses, I celebrated my own personal victory. I made my way to our bus, passing anonymously through the crowds of people who had gathered to see us that day, and embraced my ever supportive girlfriend who had come to see me and share the moment. I hugged my teammates and sports directors, and laughed as Johnny Weltz said a few choice words about what a race it had been.
It has been a few days now since the Vuelta ended, and I have had some time to reflect from the comfort of my home in Lucca. Competing in the race was a milestone in my life that has forever changed me as a rider and maybe even as a person. As each year passes, I find that many races fade away, many victories and defeats alike are forgotten, but this was a race that I will never forget.
I hope you all enjoyed following along.