By Michael Hernandez
So, I’m sitting in front of my keyboard…and I’ve decided it’s time to
stop working for a few minutes and spin out a yarn from the days of yore.
Inspiration comes from this year’s Vuelta a Espana…a magnificent race for
the true lover of cycling.
Back in the day, when I was first introduced to wheeled adventures, I was
lucky enough to stumble in with an established, welcoming cycling community.
Now, there were egos and hammerheads and November Champions galore, but
overall, it was a wonderful place to learn how to ride a bike. We all lived
in an area that considered cycling the fringe of the fringe – so we kept
tight knit, just for survival.
The team I rode with (now in hibernation) had a bucket load of masters
national champions, the requisite number of ex-pro’s to keep you in awe, and
a rather thriving collegiate scene that kept feeding the fires, so to speak.
I’m thinking back to a stage race that was taking place in the northern part
of the state – a wild, windy, unforgiving part of the world if there ever
was one. It was a quick and dirty weekender…a morning road race followed a
couple hours later by a grueling time trial – and then the obligatory
criterium the next day to please the fans and the sprinter folk.
Our team, a mixed unit of hardened vets and wide-eyed youngsters (ok…just
me) were pretty much dominating the region in results, but this event would
draw the evil hordes from across the Rocky Mountains…so, there was local
pride to be defended. In the morning road race, after the usual barrage of
attacks thrown out by the teams – the break of the day went up the road and
most were content to give them a little leash to play with. Forgive me now,
for I’m going to insult the intelligence of some by talking a little bit
about the art of the break-away.
The Break – it’s often remarked in commentary and by aficionados how
important the TEAM is in our beloved sport of bicycle racing. But, I reckon
a lot of us really don’t have an appreciation of just HOW much of a team
sport cycling really is. Well, the ‘break’ in cycling is often just a
prelude, if you will, to the real action of the race. The narrative of a
race often goes like this:
huge attacks early
to establish a break – each team desperate to ensure the break
is most beneficial to them (and thusly, detrimental to the
the break then dictates the nature of the big chunk of time
spent riding before the finale… I call this period
riding,” because it’s often a down-time for the ‘big riders,’
but also when magical things can happen right under their
noses. “Middle-Earth Riding” – this is where teams who aren’t
represented by riders in the break must ride tempo to keep
them within striking distance. But, they probably will not
want to actually CATCH the break…because that would just cause
another flurry of attacks…so, it may be easier to ride tempo
to keep them close (or not – it’s so complicated!). But hey,
those riders who have a teammate up in the break flogging
himself (or herself) to stay away from the pack get a nice
free ride at the expense of the competition (we call it, the
tea & crumpets position). The Middle-Earth riding will last
until we enter the late “crunch-time” sections of the race.
usually late in the race, this is when teams play their cards.
The break will have been out in front for a long time,
spending huge amounts of energy, sweat and pain to stay off
the front. It is the break-away rider’s responsibility to do 2
1) stay away from the pack so that competing teams must
chase and use precious energy – but ALSO,
2) be able to win the race if the break stays away to the
finish. Heavy responsibility, indeed! That is why a team
always wants an experienced, reliable and TOUGH rider(s) up in
the front. One who can destroy him/her self for the benefit of
the team, but one who can also meter their efforts and be able
to finish well. Truly, it is a rare rider who has both of
“Crunch-time 2” –
the last 20% of a race will be its hardest. You must accept
this and be ready for it. Rookies do not understand this. The
finale is when the ‘heads-of-state” will come out to lay claim
to the race as theirs. The teams will have designated leaders
- these riders will be protected by their teammates…allowing
them to save energy until the most important part of the
race…the drive to the finish line!
And so, back to the road race…that day the break-away consisted of 4
riders, all from different teams. Not many riders to share the burden of
pulling along at 25mph+ for 4 hours of a long, windy road race – especially
against a big field of chasers. Again, we must revisit the art of the
break-away: team captains must have huge amounts of racing experience so
that they can determine which breaks are, or are not, beneficial to their
team. Our team had a maestro at the helm…a grizzled, ex-pro who had raced
pretty much on every continent of the globe – we’ll call him ‘Falcon.’
As soon as the break got 30 seconds on the field, Falcon was up front
slowing things down in the peloton - chatting with the ‘foreign’ teams,
riding second wheel when it got fast to disrupt any organized chase, setting
just enough tempo to discourage riders from attacking but, at the same time,
riding slow enough to allow his teammate to get up the road, second by
second. It was beautiful to observe – because if you weren’t specifically
watching him (like I was…learning), you wouldn’t have noticed him at all. He
was doing his job of helping establish the break – but totally anonymously.
He was playing that peloton like a damn fiddle. One guy – controlling the
race…and most didn’t even know it!
Well, the break is gone up the road now. We’re in the main field and it
has settled down to a brisk tempo ride being led by a couple of teams who
missed out on the break. Now, our team regroups and talks up strategy. 2nd
in command of our team (and the strongest rider), the brash and cocky mouth
of the group (we’ll call him “Peacock”), is yammering on about how we’ve got
the wrong guy in the break. Peacock had a point – representing us in the
break was a master racer who had been forever a category 3 rider, but that
spring had decided he’d wanted to jump up with us show-offs and have some
fun. He’d upgraded and this was his first race in the big-show. Let’s call
him “Porcupine,” because he was a guy who couldn’t really climb, couldn’t
really sprint, couldn’t really time trial…but man, he was tough as nails and
a bristly-bastard, if I’d ever met one. I’d been training with Porcupine for
a few weeks and knew he was in good shape – but that long of a break? And,
we have to remember – this was a stage race based on overall time. If we let
some competitor get a big time gain on us in the road race, we’d be flushing
our hopes for the overall down the drain. You don’t race for second place –
you GET second place if you don’t win.
So, Peacock keeps up his complaining…”wrong guy, wrong guy” – but Falcon,
our captain, just smiles and says, “no problem.” In the break with Porcupine
are 2 rather non-descript riders who we weren’t too worried about – but the
other was a bit of a fancy-pants (former Shaklee rider…there’s a team only a
few will know about – we’ll call him “Stinky”) who painted himself as a
top-class time trialist. A danger man, but Falcon seemed to know something.
And so, the race continued on.
I remember snippets of that day – a bastard Navigator rider who kept
attacking over the yellow line and the accompanying cat-calls from the
elders in the field for him to stop being such a wank. The stress of
following (marking) the attacks of teams attempting to launch their riders
up to the break. The thrill of a team time-trial chase after one of our
team’s best riders flatted. He had punctured and 2 of us dropped off the
field to pace him back in to the pack – but a rival team noticed and they
drove with everything they had in an attempt to drop us all. It was an
amazing chase that lasted over 15 miles. Awesome. Now that I think about it
- that incident might have been what decided the race because with the huge
speed during that part of the stage, the field had closed the gap to the
break-away riders down to under a minute. But, when our team caught back on
(much to the dismay of our rivals) the pace shut off in the peloton and the
break’s gap ballooned once again. Fatigue from the high speed and
over-confidence that the break would soon be caught (since they were so
close) caused a slow down, and it changed the race.
And so, with only a few miles left in the race the break-away was still
out in front and looking like it would succeed. Porcupine was not the
strongest of the group - but, Stinky was too confident. In the last miles,
he had dropped the other two riders with a series of vicious attacks, but
Porcupine would not be shaken from his wheel. And in the sprint – Porcupine
was able to come around him for the stage win! Unbelievable! So we had
victory in the first stage…but would the war be won?
Porcupine was wiped out. Spending all day out in the wind and heat, and
then the searing effort to win the stage sprint…he was shattered. We sat in
the bed of his truck, his face beaming from his first win but a bit of slump
to his shoulders with the weight of race leader on his back. He was, plain
put, a bit afraid of the responsibility – and rightly so. Falcon came over
to us, and I remember it so well, Falcon walking his slow pace, nonchalant
and care-free – “So, nice race, huh?”
“Yeah…thanks,” came Porcupine’s reply. A pause, Falcon looked out at the
horizon for a few moments…you could see him assessing wind, the heat, and
something else that I’ll never know.
“You’ll win.” And with that, a quick handshake with Porcupine, and a nod
at us both - he walked past and began an animated chat with a couple
out-of-town competitors about a great Chinese restaurant they should try
while in town.
I just kept watching him – what a cool cucumber! Totally free and
enjoying the moment…damn, Zen-master! I turned to joke with Porcupine and
call him “grasshopper” when I noticed that his shoulders were straight and
proud. His eyes were already on the time trial, so I decided to keep my
thoughts to myself and get his bike ready for the TT.
The TT: damn Stinky is totally tricked out with disc wheels, fast-guy
helmet, crack shifters and a bad attitude. Yeah, he’s pissed that he was
nipped in the sprint by some late-30’s, pudgy hack with an ancient steel
Masi and 32 spoke wheels. Porcupine gets borrowed super-fast wheels, though,
for the TT. He’s given a bit of a rub-down by a teammate’s girlfriend and
all kinds of congratulations from the locals for winning the race. He’s on
cloud nine and I’m so happy for him I could cry. But now, it’s all on his
shoulders. As race leader, he starts last. Stinky is his one-minute man and
there’s not a word spoken between the two at the start gate. I’m sitting 6th
and am on my way back from the turnaround when I get my first glimpse of the
two riders fighting for the victory. Stinky is riding hard…too hard.
Porcupine is holding his own, but definitely giving an all-out effort. I
finish and I’m immediately back on the course to shout out encouragement to
our man on the finishing straight. Agonizing minutes go by with no sign of
either rider – and then, I see him…Porcupine! He has passed Stinky out on
the course somewhere, “how did that happen?” Did Stinky flat? Porcupine’s
bike is rocking side to side as he muscles every ounce of energy in to the
final mile. He’s flat out, there is nothing left…a brave, inspirational ride
and I’m jumping around waving my arms in celebration like I’ve just escaped
from the loony-bin. Then I see Stinky…he’s cracked. He gave up! And loses
almost 2 minutes to our man!
The criterium –
Now we’ve got to defend our man in the criterium. There are a number of
guys who’ve had stellar time trials and are now within a minute of
Porcupine. This criterium had a nasty little hill in it that would be
breaking the legs over and over again. It comes down to this - our team HAS
to control the race. I’m Porcupine’s right hand man. It’s my responsibility
to have him on my wheel the entire 90 minutes. I relish in the role. I’m
totally committed to Porcupine, come hell or high water. Immediately the
race is fast, every team is slamming down the hammer because word has spread
that Porcupine is a ‘rookie’ and there’s whispers that he can be cracked if
it’s hard enough.
On our team, we each have roles - some accept and some rankle a bit under
them. We’ve got to keep the pace hot enough to discourage break-aways, but
we’ve got to conserve our energies for late in the race when time gaps can
explode. It’s a hot day and the course is unrelenting. As we expected, the
early half hour of the race is aggressive and reckless – Porcupine is
suffering a bit and I have to keep my accelerations slow to not gap him off
my wheel. We never see the front of the peloton, but he’s solidly in the
first half. The next 30 minutes are a blur of remembered attacks and chases.
One particularly risky move forced me to leave Porcupine and go to the front
and chase like all hell to bring back the guy who was sitting 3rd in the
overall standings. VERY dangerous, but we bring him back with about 15
minutes remaining. And then, it happened.
Peacock (you remember…the mouthy #2) follows a Navigator and NutraFig
counter attack up the right side – it’s waaaayyy too fast. I’m already a bit
pissed because Peacock hasn’t really been working to defend our lead in the
criterium thus far – and now he’s up the road with guys who can motor away
from the field. This is dodgy - but there is a bright side. If Peacock sits
on the two (doesn’t pull through) it will slow them down a bit to keep our
man in the lead and, if they stay away to the finish, he can use his fresher
legs to sprint past them for the stage win. Sounds cruel, but that’s what
stage racing is…utterly cruel.
But, we can’t let the lead trio get more than 50 seconds, because the
Navigators rider would then over take Porcupine for the overall
championship…so, it is imperative that we keep them within sight. The chase
is on! But, what’s this? Peacock is pulling full-bore with the two rivals!
What the hell is he doing? Instead of riding the team tactic, he is stupidly
working with the two danger men and pulling away from his race leading
teammate. Oh, that IS cruel…and idiotic, because he sits 15 seconds BEHIND
the Navigators rider and should they finish together…he loses!
I’m fuming now…I turn back to Porcupine and tell him to clamp his teeth
on to the bars, ‘cause we’re going full tilt RIGHT NOW! Falcon is
immediately up with me and we’re soon joined with one more teammate – so,
it’s 3 on 3. We’re flying. The depths of pain you can endure for another are
so much deeper than what you would inflict upon yourself for personal gain.
It’s incredible. We pulled them back and by the finishing lap were within a
couple of seconds. The race was ours!
And, in a fitting bit of poetic justice, Peacock gets shelled in the
finishing sprint by the other two and stumbles across the line with nothing
gained and respect from his teammates lost. Cruel – but earned.
So, it’s nothing compared to the trials of this year’s Vuelta – with
Nozal and de Galdeano and Heras and Beltran…but, thinking about it sure does
make me admire them from the bottom of my heart.