Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Grand Pyrenees

Two very difficult stages in the Pyrenees are complete and the mountains of the Tour are now behind us! So where to start... Stage 17 was short but included 3 category 1 and 1 hors category climb in the last 75km. It was basically a flat 50km and then mountains. Jens jumped into the early move and it looked ok, but then Katusha wasn't happy because Rodriguez wanted to try and win the mountain jersey. So Katusha pulled all out for the first 50km of the race to keep the break close and then expected Rodriguez to jump across on the first climb (Col du Portillon- 8.3km @ 7%). Frank and I looked to be ready for that move (along with a lot of other guys!). At the base I was with Gregory and Frank, but as Gregory accelerated to make sure Frank was in front, I got cut off and lost valuable places. Frank was able to follow the expected counter attacks and bridge across to the break. There was a good bit of reshuffling and the peloton exploded under the pressure. I stayed in the front with Haimar and Jens eventually came back to us from the front group. When the dust settled there were ~20 guys up the road and we were happy with Frank there because we knew he had the best chance of winning the stage for us. Over the next climb (Col de Peyresourde- 13.2km @7%) I struggled to find a good rhythm and felt like I was suffering unnecessarily. I battled to stay there though and tried to fuel myself as best as possible. After the top it was a very fast descent into a small valley with a few rollers and corners and immediately into the next climb (Col de Val Louron-Azet- 7.4km @ 8.3%). The peloton stretched and those corners/rollers hurt like crazy! We hit the base of Val Louron and FdJ tried to blow things up. They quickly pared the peloton down before settling into a little bit of a rhythm. As we neared the top there were only 30 riders left and about 1km to go AG2R went full gas. There were only 10 riders who could follow. Haimar tried to jump across but didn't make it. I battled to stay close but couldn't follow. I chased on the descent but never came back. Maybe the worst moment of the day was hitting the base of the finishing climb (Saint-Lary Pla d' Adet- 10.2km @ 8.3%) and being able to see the finish looming some 800 meters above me. I can say honestly that those last 10km were not easy!

So that brings us to today. On tap was another relatively short stage at 145km, but it included two of the giants of the Pyrenees: Col du Tourmalet (17.1km @ 7.1%) and Hautacam (13.6km @ 7.8%). I was hoping to be able to try for the breakaway today, but my plan was derailed when I got a flat about 2km before the real start. I went to the car for a new wheel and returned to the back of the field just as we hit km "0". With the narrow roads and attacks there was no chance I could make it to the front to even try and make it into the break. Again 20 guys got away, but today Nibali and Astana had other plans than to let the stage go to someone else. They began to ride immediately and ride hard. The pace they set was incredible. After 75km of up and down, it was time to start the real climbing. Astana set a hard tempo that immediately split the peloton. I stayed in front with Haimar as best I could. About 5 or 6km from the top I began to slip off the pace. I tried to stay close and go at my own rhythm, hoping that I could come back. I lost ground over the next couple kilometers, but then about 2 or 3km from the top I found a second wind and began to close back in on the group. I went over the top I think about 30-40 seconds off the back of the group, but it soon became evident that I was never going to catch them. It was a super long descent, but it was way too fast for me to be able to come back alone. I was clearly in "no-man's land" because there were only 2 other guys who came back to me for the first 20km of the descent. Then after we hit the valley and there was a big headwind, a small group from behind caught us, and then eventually another small group of guys. I latched onto the group and fueled up for the final push to the finish. I crossed the line pretty exhausted, but I'm also feeling a little bit of relief. The mountains are done, I've survived, and now I just need to battle through potential rain tomorrow and a long TT on Saturday. It's so close now!

Regarding the team, Haimar and Frank have both performed well through the Pyrenees and at the moment Haimar moved up to 10th in the gc and Frank 12th. The long TT on Saturday will be a big test, but Haimar has a chance to move up to 9th maybe. We're hoping! Send him strength!! 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Not Many Teeth Left

Weird title, right? It's actually quite applicable because it's beginning to feel like almost every stage is a kick in the teeth! I think that's why this is the hardest race in the World though. Today was the longest stage of the race at 237km and we had plenty of obstacles to conquer. First was the windiness of the area around Carcassonne. Somewhat luckily it was mostly a headwind instead of crosswind, and the chaos was slightly limited. That said, it still took over 70km for the breakaway to finally go. There was a small break gone at one point, but some teams decided they weren't satisfied and wanted someone in the break, so they pulled into the second KOM of the day in order to launch a guy into the break. I knew this was their ultimate goal and I was partly on duty to watch for the break, especially a big one, and I screwed this part up. Our number one goal was watching after Frank and Haimar, but I was given the opportunity to look for a big move to see if a stage win was possible. I knew I missed a big opportunity after it went, but I tried not to dwell on it and do what I could to help out the rest of the stage.

The gap to the breakaway grew steadily throughout the day, and it started to become clear that Astana had no interest in pulling it back and apparently no one else did either. We rode precariously easy over the Col de Portet-d'Aspet and Col des Ares, so there seemed to something brewing for the final climb of Port de Bales. Being an hors category climb of 12km at 7.7%, there was plenty that could happen if a team decided to push the tempo. We made sure to have Frank and Haimar in good position at the start. As predicted, Movistar went bananas at the bottom and immediately shredded the peloton. I tried to hang on to the vicious tempo being set, but I didn't have it. Looking at the results, it looks like several gc contenders had some issues today too. For us, Frank lost time but stayed in 14th on gc. Haimar had super bad luck and flatted on the descent and lost around a minute thirty. Evidently a motorbike was more or less in the middle of the group on the descent and kicked a rock into the road. Haimar couldn't avoid it and immediately flatted. It's super unfortunate because that's something he couldn't control at all. Otherwise he would've finished with the Nibali group and moved up to 8th or so on gc. It's a horrible shame, but hopefully we can make up a little time in the next two hard mountain stages. Okey dokey, tomorrow's a new day!

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Burger Night!

Yes the tradition lives on: burgers and fries the night before a rest day! Nothing like a little pick me up in the middle of a race. And this is the second burger night, which means we've done 15 stages and have only 6 to Paris! Only a few mountains and a short 54km time trial stand in the way. Let's not think about that now though. It's better to focus on happy things: burgers tonight, easy ride tomorrow followed by seeing Lisa. What could be better?! Needless to say I'm happy to get another recharge day before the final push.

Regarding the stage today, it started kind of badly. The break went easy thankfully, but then we continued on these small, bumpy roads for what seemed like forever. I'm still struggling to hold my bars well with my ripped up palm, plus now I have a horribly torn up "undercarriage" from all the abuse it's been getting the past two weeks. I was very uncomfortable and quite grumpy to be honest. The grumpiness did dissipate and I did garner some hope that with only two guys in front that maybe we'd finally have a civil sprint stage. Oh how horribly wrong I was. The last 100km was hectic. First it was the crosswinds. Then with about 40km to go the rain started. At one point it was raining so hard that the roads in the city were completely flooded. I brought back nightmares from Worlds last year. I fought through the winds but the rain had me panicking again. I did lose contact with the peloton with 20 or so kilometers to go, but I kept pushing on despite the fact that I could see NOTHING through my glasses. I was in the cars for several kilometers chasing all out. Somehow I managed to claw my way back to the rear of the peloton, but that's where I stayed until I finally pulled the plug at 5km to go. I wasn't helping the team and didn't need to take any more risks. I just wanted to get to the rest day without any more crashes. Success! Let the rest begin. :)

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Two Days in the Alps

It's been a challenging but rewarding two days in the Alps for both the team and me personally. For the team we've had Fränk and Haimar use their experience and strength of years past to fight their way back into contention for a top 10 in the general classification as well as high stage finishes in each of the last two stages. The team has ridden well in support of those efforts too. Yesterday both Markel and I were able to help them until the base of the final climb to Chamrouse at which point we set them free to do their thing. Then it was a LONG 18km to the finish for us. In today's stage we had another tough mountain pass of Col de Izoard before the descent to the final climb to Risoul. I was close to making the split on top of Izoard, but I lost contact in the last couple kilometers. I was probably 30-45 seconds in a rears and in good company with Kwiatowski and Horner though. I thought we might be able to come back on the descent or in the valley, but the group in front went mach 10 on the descent and we never were able to regain contact. Fränk and Haimar were able to take care of themselves though and had solid finishes. It's good to see them riding stronger as the race goes on because there are three very hard stages in the Pyrenees still to come next week.

For me personally, I'm happy to see myself progressing a bit. I'm feeling stronger and believe that I'm coming closer to my normal place in the peloton, especially on the climbs. Maybe I'm recovering a bit after my crashes! It's also really satisfying to be able to help Fränk and Haimar how I know I can and should be (at least part of the time!). There's lots of racing left and lots of my job to do yet, but I'm feeling confident that I can be there to help these two guys move up further in the classement. Keep checking in to see the news!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Thankful for the Grass

Yes, I had my sixth (and a half) crash of the Tour today. The half is for the mechanical I had on the climb the other day. A foot out and on the ground because of the other's crash is considered a half crash. I really have no clue what even happened today. It was over and I was rolling on the ground (in the grass thankfully!) before I knew it. I picked myself up fairly quickly and remounted, but I knew I wouldn't see the peloton again and just kind of took my time. I found some other dropped riders and crash victims and we made a little grupetto to get to the finish. It actually became a little bit of a panic situation because we were thinking somehow we might be close to the time cut. I couldn't believe it really, but thankfully my veteran teammate Jens knows these things and had the wherewithal to ask our director in the radio. In the end we were all good, so I'm still in the race! Tomorrow we will visit the big mountains (in the Alps) for the first time. I'm hoping to be up to the challenge. And I'm excited to experience the real Tour atmosphere in the mountains. Ciao for now.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Sunshine!

In a nice change of pace today, I got to put on sunscreen instead of my rain jacket! That didn't mean the stage was easy, but it definitely helped make the suffering more "enjoyable". It was a hard start on small roads winding through many towns and the fight for the breakaway was full gas. Jens, Gregory, Markel, and I did what we could to cover the moves. We hoped to get one into a breakaway of decent size because we believed that it could make it to the finish today. I was pretty convinced Cannondale and GreenEdge would have other plans (which was true) for Sagan and Gerrans, but I still gave it my best. It's always hard in the start to go all out knowing that you're going to have to suffer again later and pay for the efforts you're making now. That's all part of the job though. We had an interesting moment before the break had gone that we came to a railroad crossing as a train was passing. We came to a brief "rolling" standstill before the throttle was wide open again. Once the break of 3 finally went, there was a decently long lull before the chase began. Then it was quite fast all day actually. The three out front were moving quite well, I must say.

All was going pretty ok for us in the stage until the run into the first of the climbs. I dropped back to get bottles a good 10km before the climb was going to start and normally that would have been plenty of time to take the bottles and deliver them. Bad luck for me at that moment though was Garmin beginning to pull all out, followed by Jens getting a flat, and then Markel getting a flat. I spent a long time swinging on the back of the field waiting for Kim to come with the bottles. We were only a kilometer or so from the base of the climb when I decided that I couldn't wait any longer. I knew that if I didn't move up I was not going to pass the climb in the front group and then would be of no use to Frank and Haimar either way (bottles or on/after the climb). I scratched the bottles and began my efforts to move up. We hit the climb and immediately guys started calling grupetto. I ducked and weaved my way around guys trying not to crash or swallow my tongue. I made it onto the tail end of the group and hung on for dear life as Garmin burned through their team to set up the attack of Slagter. I made it over the climb and over the next one and then finally was able to drop back to the car and get bottles. I delivered them to Frank and Haimar, gave Frank a couple gels, and then tried to do anything else I could. I wanted to try and attack, but at that moment in the race it is so difficult to move up if you're not in the front already that it was nearly impossible. Plus I was already near my limit staying in the group. I found myself too far back as we descended into the final KOM of the day and fought for a little while to try and hang on, but eventually my legs said enough.

I was happy I could help the team today. I felt much more like "Matthew" today and it always feels good to race, even if it is painful! After the finish I was greeted by some friends from Luther for a brief moment. It's always nice to see some familiar faces. My chat was short, but hopefully I'll get to see them a little more at another stage or two. The Norse family is strong! And as an aside to that, in case I haven't said it, the support from everyone near and far has been amazing. Whether I know you or not, I appreciate all the words of encouragement and support. It means a lot! Thanks for reading. Good night.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The First Day of Rest

It's the first rest day here in France and I'm doing my best to do exactly that. I slept in as much as I could this morning, had a nice breakfast, enjoyed a spin with the guys in the sunshine, had a relaxing lunch, took a small nap, had massage, and am now catching up on some things. The first 10 days of racing has been hard. I've had lots to dwell on or be disappointed about, but I've also had lots to be excited and happy about, so I'm focusing on those good moments! In 21 days of racing, there is going to be a big emotional roller coaster! Mainly I'm happy to have made it here and I'm looking forward to starting "fresh" again tomorrow. Just having this day to recollect my thoughts and decompress a little from a stressful and overstimulating first 10 days has been good. I already feel a bit rejuvenated. I think I'll leave it at that!