The Tour de France and other big stage races like it are awe inspiring to me. Watching the riders race day after day for one hundred miles or more, many times at thirty plus miles per hour, through high mountains and insanely fast flat sprints is incredible. Their efforts day in and day out are almost super-human in nature.
In honor of the Tour de France, currently in full swing, last week I competed in my annual stage race, the Giro del Cielo. This was merely a three stage race consisting of a time trial, a criterium (raced on the same day) and then a road race the following day. Competing in just a short stage race like this makes me further appreciate the amazing efforts and achievements of the professionals who ride races like the Tour de France. My little stage race, which pales in comparison, was definitely a challenge for me, pushing myself to the limit three times in just two days.
The nature of a stage race is challenging enough, but the first stage, the individual time trial, was also the most challenging time trial I have done all year. This was not a quick or easy TT with slightly over one thousand feet of climbing in just thirteen miles, and some grades over fifteen percent. The course was also technical and a good test of time trial bike handling skills in addition to being a test of mental and physical strength. Pushing through a tough time trial like this tends to take a lot out of me, and normally I get to recuperate and take a recovery day the next day, but not this weekend! Not only did I not get a recovery day the next day, but I had to do another race several hours later.
My legs were definitely not prepared for a fast crit race later in the day. I had about a six hour break in between races, which was just enough time for my legs to cool down and my muscles to tighten up. I tried to loosen up my legs while warming up, but they were simply not ready for another hard effort. They were screaming for their normal recovery, but instead I tried to push them hard yet again. Only a few laps into the race I found myself falling off the back of the group. I pushed myself to get back in, but couldn’t stay there and so I went on alone, basically racing my second time trial of the day. As the laps went on, I did feel my legs finally start to loosen up and I began to pick up speed and a few other riders who had also been dropped (too bad it was too late at that point to really save my race for the evening).
So, after a dismal crit race on Saturday evening I was a bit concerned about my chances for doing well in the road race the following day. As I warmed up on Sunday morning, my legs felt sore and tight and I was afraid my road race would be a repeat of the crit from the night before. The road race was about thirty miles in length and consisted of five laps with some climbing and some fast downhills. The first two laps were a struggle, and I really wasn’t sure I was going to be able to stick with the group. I fought very hard to hang in, just putting my head down and giving it one hundred and ten percent. About half way through the race a strong solo breakaway caused the race to get even harder as the group worked to chase her down. I really had to push as hard as I could, but the harder I pushed, the better my legs began to feel. As we caught the breakaway rider and started the second to last lap, I began to believe that today was going to be a much better day than I had originally thought. I finished with the main pack and felt pretty strong at the end. It was a wonderful and empowering feeling to know that my legs were able to match the efforts of the other strong riders. Last year when I raced the Giro, my legs cracked at the road race stage, this year it was during the criterium, so maybe by next year I will finally have a race where all three stages will go smoothly for me.
My experiences at the Giro give me sympathy for those riders in the Tour de France who lose it at one stage of the race or another. I see some of the tour riders crack under pressure and it almost makes me feel better to know that they are human too and that not every day and every stage can be their best. No matter how fast and experienced you are as a cyclist, we all have good days and bad ones and not every day can produce a race winning effort. Just take the bad days or stages in stride, learn from them, and continue to grow as an athlete. I know that every race is a learning experience for me and some can be quite humbling as I continue on trying to improve myself and my skills on the bike.