If there were one word to describe the beginning of my season, I would have to say it was “adversity.” In a sport that is all about planning and preparation, where we pay attention to every detail, analyzing our training schedules, our race programs, in search of the perfect combination to help us reach peak form when it matters the most, it can all go awry faster than you can imagine.
After a winter of perfect preparation, a fantastic training camp with my team, and a successful start to my season at Volta Algarve, things came off track. I returned to Girona, Spain, and immediately got sick. After an extremely healthy winter it came as a shock. I had been doing things right; I couldn’t pinpoint anything that could have caused the illness and I was frustrated. Every day that ticked by, every day of training missed, was a day closer to Paris-Nice.
Paris-Nice is perhaps the hardest one-week race of the year along with Pays Basque (a race that gets very little recognition in the U.S., but is extremely difficult). From the moment the course rumors started flying this winter, I felt that this year’s edition of P-N could be a good one for me. At Algarve I was hopeful; however, as I laid on the couch trying to regain my health, I knew deep down that it was too late. With such a trying race you cannot attempt to ride for the overall without a solid, healthy lead up. As hard as it is to admit to myself that something has gone wrong, it is even harder for me to admit it to others, especially when they are depending on me. So it was with a great amount of disappointment that I told the team I would not be ready for Paris-Nice.
On some teams, illness means you get benched, put on the shelf, forgotten about until you are healthy again. No one wants a rider who isn’t in top shape. However, on Garmin-Barracuda, they handle things quite differently. Immediately, rather than just wish me luck in training and forgetting about me for a month, they presented me with a plan: I would go to Tirreno-Adriatico, another prestigious one-week race traditionally used by riders gearing up for Milan San Remo and the upcoming one day classics. I was surprised and thankful for the opportunity as I knew that getting a solid one-week race into my body would be important later in the season and after a cursory glance at the courses, I felt that the race held a lot of potential, especially with a TTT to start it off and a few mountainous stages to determine the GC.
After a strong start for our squad in the TTT, on stage 3 things came crashing down for me, literally. A slight right-hand bend, a rider swerving out of the way, and a bunch of gravel on the road let to my teammate Ramunas and I hitting the ground. Whenever I crash the first thing I do is get up; if you can stand up it usually means you are alright. In the blink of an eye, Alex (one of our skilled mechanics) had me back on the bike and chasing the peloton. In that moment, with all the adrenaline coursing through my body, all I could think about was getting back.
As I pedaled on I noticed that my bike wasn’t functioning. At the top of the climb I switched bikes and continued the chase. Weaving through the caravan, dodging dropped riders and braking cars, flying through blind corners, taking any and every risk to regain the flying peloton. Eventually I made it back, just in time to get dropped again as a slight crosswind battered the fatigued riders at the back of the field. Slowly, dejectedly, I pedaled to the finish. The pain of the crash set in. It hurt to move my arm and by the end of the stage my hips were burning. On the bus, the doctors cut my clothes off; I couldn’t move enough to get my jersey or shorts off by myself. I was in shock and it would be a few hours before my body would calm down.
The next morning, as I was feeling the full effects of my crash, our director Charly Wegelius gave me a way out of the pain. He said no one would think less of me if I stopped, it wasn’t the Tour, and there was no point in doing any real damage to myself. The truth is, he was right, but there was no way in hell I was going to stop. I had quit two races in 2011, one due to physical problems and another due to illness. I knew that the pain of quitting was worse than any physical pain I had experienced. I had to prove to myself that I could handle this, that I could get through the pain, and finish this race.
At the end of last season Jonathan Vaughters told me that a time would come when things would go wrong, and not on a small scale. Perhaps it would be during the Tour in the future, or any race where I was in a good position, perhaps in the top ten or five overall, or even leading, and things would go wrong. I would get sick, I would crash, and then, he said I would have to be able to keep going. While I never hope to get sick or crash, my accident in Tirreno provided me with the perfect opportunity to prove to myself that I can handle more than I think; that mentally and physically I can overcome whatever obstacles present themselves.
I have said it before, but I have to say it again: cycling is one of the toughest, most demanding, most brutal sports in the world. Throw yourself out of a car going fifty kilometers per hour wearing nothing but some spandex cycling clothes, then get on a bike and ride for another few hours. Then wake up the next day and go for another six-hour ride. It sounds insane, but it is what we do. No other sport demands so much pain and suffering from its participants, but that is part of what makes cycling so special. To see people overcome all obstacles to win, or sometimes simply to finish a race is a truly spectacular thing to behold.
While at Tirreno, I watched Bradley Wiggins take the victory at Paris-Nice. Last summer he watched his Tour dreams fade away as he was lying on the side of the road with a broken collarbone. A couple months later he was standing on the podium at the Vuelta, and now, less than a year later, he was standing on the top step of one of the hardest races in our sport. It just goes to show that while things can be tough at times, while our hard work may seem fruitless, it is all worth it. There is light at the end of the tunnel.