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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 competition)

  • once established, the break then dictates the nature of the big chunk of time spent riding before the finale… I call this period

  • “middle-earth 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.

  • “Crunch-time” – 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 things:

    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 these qualities.

  • “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.


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