Monday, March 26, 2007

Impulsive with Tactical Error, but Back!

Recovery is an amazing thing! Did the Yale group ride Saturday because I wanted to see my friends. Was just going to say hi and turn around, but the weather was so nice, the pace so pleasantly moderate, and the company so good that it ended up being a rather lengthy ride. I felt borderline bonking the whole time but not exhausted in that post-stage race way that demands extreme rest. Sunday at the last minute I decided to race Bethel, mainly because I had a convoluted plan to pick up my brother, visiting from Alaska, at the train station near to the race. We had five riders at the race, and I was going to sit tight and do nothing, be a decoy in my series leader's jersey. I lasted about five laps... Kathleen was off the front with one other and someone in the field did a hard effort up the hill to try to bridge, stringing it out. I knew I could hop across alone, so I did. The three of us worked together - sort of - the other woman was doing basically nothing which didn't make me happy. I attacked and went off alone, but then once Kathleen attacked and got a gap on her I needed to sit up and wait, which I didn't do, uncertain of what was going on. But we both made it, 1-2. The Bethel Spring Series is one thing; national level racing is wholly different animal. The first real target on the horizon is a 50k national calendar circuit race in Richmond, VA on April 7th. People coming from California races will be flying - we will have our work cut out for us. Photo from, copyrighted.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Wednesday - Peace with the Brazilians

The Brazilians have swagger and they rocked this race, winning a bunch of stages. We had had a bit of a rivalry on the road. But here's what's awesome about these races. First Jorge and their coach commandeered a bus and driver so we could finally leave the party, they we headed to the airport together. Suddenly we are trying to bring them to race Philly, we have an invite to race in Brazil, and we are all friends. So: Us and the Brazilians (with monkeys), us happy, and the trophy ordering from a menu in the airport. We were all so glad to be going home.

Tuesday - Party at Reuben's

After the race we showered and got back on the bus to go to a party/awards ceremony at Reuben's beach house. The bus ride was 1.5 hours, excruciatingly hot. We were all exhausted, but in my case exuberance at being done had taken over. For once my stomach felt ok. Hiroko cracked. Digging so deep for the whole week, drinking gallons of blue powder just to keep going, and she was done. I have never seen this dear friend so exhausted, so reduced and vulnerable. She found a bed at the villa. Later in the night eating some pasta and bread helped her feel somewhat better. You will see by now why the party photos seem unrepresentative of the race experience, but here are more, including the bus, Jorge, the villa, Andrea, Kathleen, and me doing some sponsor promotion, the podium (1st- Evelyn, 2nd - Tatyana, 3rd - Longo), the team podium (Evelyn's team, the Brazilians, and us) Kiki dancing, me and Kiki, and the ever-solitary Jeanie Longo.

Tuesday - Stage 6

Today was the last day - a 55k race that included a 14k finish climb with extended sections of 15%+ grade. My stomach felt better in the morning. I had not come this far not to finish - I just needed the energy to do it. During the 100k race the day before I had eaten a cracker and 100 cal of Gatorade. I ate Wasa crackers and tuna (again, mass intake of heavy metals not top of list as nutritional concern) for breakfast. We drove to the start line which was literally at a gas station on the side of a 4-lane road. I was worried I might not make it up - bought a Coke and Snickers bar (you might recognize this as a dire measure on my part) at the gas station. Sat there on the curb waiting for the start. Warm-up schmorm-up. Kathleen was going to go for it on the climb, Hiroko too if she felt ok. Andrea and Mandy were going to light up the race, make it hard going into the climb. Jorge asked for a volunteer for a suicide attack off the line. I was so mad about yesterday, about sickness derailing my race, I just said "I'll f****** go." And so I went, right off the line. Brought a Brazilian with me and we worked together, no talking just mutual understanding of how this break benefited both our teams. It gave us TV time, goaded the leader's team into chasing (as though a 3 minute gap would have allowed me to win the stage, though maybe my companion could have...), and to my benefit, wore down my break companion who was on par with Hiroko and Kathleen on gc. And so we drove it, 20 miles before getting caught (at which point Mandy countered in fine form) and then I was done. That was it, pow, bonked. Now to make it up the climb. And I barely did. I think even when I am not bonked, this is the hardest climb I have ever done. I was standing in the 34-27 trying to keep my speed above 3mph and thought at many times I would have to walk, or get into the sag wagon. I was in last place again so had plenty of water and Pepsi to drink from Kiki. I probably drank 4 Pepsis. I ate the Snickers. The climb took me 1.5 hours but I made it. Kathleen finished a very strong 8th; Hiroko 12th (both for stage and gc for both riders). At one point Kathleen witnessed a cadence of 13 rpm on her bike computer. Andrea and Mandy had ridden great climbs, putting the team into 3rd place on team classification. Hiroko survived to post a great result and I barely finished, but everyone else had been getting stronger by the day.

Monday - Stage 5

I woke up in the middle of the night cramped in pain and now throwing up in addition to the usual distress. This was crazy. I wasn't even sure I should leave the hotel, let alone race. But somehow though the thought of staying in El Salvador and not racing was even worse than the thought of racing. And in spite of how badly I had been feeling when not racing, I had been ok on the bike, if limited in my ability to eat. I gave myself the guideline that if I thought I would get extreme heat exhaustion I would drop out. I forced down some crackers Hiroko gave me. Consideration of hydrogenated oil consumption was not top of the list. I also took some stomach medicine from the race doctor that I decided was safe. Megan left early to fly home. Today was the "downhill day" we'd been joking about, the race that finally didn't involve huge climbing and featured a net elevation loss. At the line I couldn't stand up straight and Jorge did not want me to start. I was going to try. As the race started my back and stomach felt ok, but as soon as the first attacks started less than 10 miles in, I was off the back and chasing back on: I was totally empty. In a matter of time I was getting dropped even with the bunch going at a snail's pace, making ample use of the caravan to claw my way back on repeatedly. I made it 50k of 100 before I was done, done, done and barely able to turn a pedal, going 15mph on a gradual downhill with no wind. The race was gone. Now I just had to make it 30 more miles, sad and weak, my whole back cramped and the temperature 100. And there I was, just me and my motorcycle cop, riding through the countryside of El Salvador. Peered into domestic life taking place in earthen homes on the side of the road; waved at kids; exchanged "what are you doing here" glance with a gringo; encountered cattle in the road; rode past a burning garbage dump and through a roadside fire, the air shining and crackling with the heat. The policeman blocked a large boar from crossing my path. With about 10 miles to go, my friend Marielle came along, followed by the sag wagon (driven by Kiki). We were last. We worked together and rode in. The team had animated the race and scored 8th place in the final sprint. Andrea was feeling better. For once, no banquet. I drank a Gatorade and that was it. In bed. Drank Pedialyte. That night I got an IV and I felt all the fear of an American hyped with fear of foreign medical care getting medical care in a 3rd world country. I think it was the right call - a sealed disposable needle is what it is - and that's it's just paranoia in me that questions it. Ate an applesauce.

Sunday - Stage 4 Circuit Race

The Guatemalan woman had suffered two broken bones in her leg, at least one compound fracture, and was undergoing surgery. The bus driver was in jail. Should we have quit the race then? I felt like going home. This isn't the only time I have done a race that is unsafe, but each time it gives you pause. Combined with feeling awful, with how this experience was shaping up with so much illness for everyone, my will to race the circuit race was minimal to say the least. At the line, the officials spoke about the accident and what they had done to guarantee the safety of the circuit race, which was on the same course as the time trial course (but with a rolling enclosure and police escort). Our team plan was to sit in for the first of five laps, then for Mandy and Andrea to go on the attack. If I felt good I could attack late in the race, but I was pretty sure my race would be about survival given how depleted I felt. On lap two, Andrea launched a sweet attack that formed a break of six riders. The leader's team chased, which was hard for me but better than surging. The break lasted - Andrea got 4th. So close to a podium but/and a fantastic result and huge motivation to the team. In the field, I jumped on Longo's 2k-to-go attack but we got caught and I backed off in the chaos at the end. 15th place and same time. Oh and it turns out I got 5th in the time trial; Kathleen a very strong 9th. After the race I feel worse than ever, drink a Gatorade and that's all I can do. The team goes to the mall to eat; I stay home lying in bed sleeping. Jorge brings me plain noodles which I force down.

Sunday - Stage 3 TT

Today is a double stage: 9.1k TT and 60k circuit race. Recovery mix and dry cornflakes for breakfast. Dehydrated and depleted but thinking maybe I am getting better. Hiroko still sick, Andrea now sick too. Megan in bed. Kiki the bus driver was getting tired and had overslept, so we left for the time trial 45 minutes before the scheduled start. I was in 8th place overall so would start toward the end. We arrived at the start first having driven to the finish line by mistake, 15 minutes in advance. My legs felt awful. The Guatemalans lent me their rollers and I was able to do a hard interval to bring the heart rate up, while others rolled around the parking lot. I had aero bars and a fast front wheel. The top riders had full tt gear. Jorge gave us the rundown on the course, indicating a number of places to be considered "safety mode," given hazardous road conditions and turns on a course none of us had ever seen. As the team's lead rider, I was followed behind by Jorge and Pete in the team truck, in case I had a mechanical. They also provided safety: the course was open to traffic. I was protected but almost flew off course a few times because of confusing marshalling. I started ok, but then was absolutely lugging it, wallowing, up a gradual false flat into a headwind. I finished strong through some corners and round-abouts but had really had a weak middle section of the race. At the line the race was not the focus: everyone had felt their safety in jeopardy and Hiroko had taken a wrong turn and been riding in traffic, Mandy ushered around a roundabout twice. We soon we learned that a Guatamalan had been hit by bus. All of us silenced and disbelieving, Jorge furious in his cool way, we high-tailed it out of there, for once close enough to travel on our own outside the caravan.

Saturday - Stage 2

After a quick night's sleep we are out the door. We joke that our team is leading the punctual jersey competition. I am falling behind on food and water, still sick. I've abandoned eating anything not bought from the store so am down to cereal, bread, and recovery drink mix. Hiroko is fighting hard, subsisting on blue drink mix and crackers. Today is 110k with some big 15k climb in the last 25k, then the same flat finish as Wednesday's Gran Prix de Santa Ana. Our team is going on the offensive today. Megan attacks from the gun, then repeatedly, but each time the Brazilians sit, defending the sprint jersey. Ay, negative racing is a drag. I made it through the first QOM in a comfortable fifth wheel, sprang across to a little break at one point but it got squelched. We had some of the bang-bang attack-attack that makes racing cool and that had been missing from this race, which was taking on the pattern of noodling until you get to a huge hill, then going flat out. One counter stuck, with the "local" team threatening for the leader's jersey. Leader Tatyana, the Ukranian who is 29 and has been racing since age 11, did what she needed to with a small and inexperienced team: went to the front and brought it back. For probably 10k we were lined out as she towed us through a headwind at 25+ mph. I sat happily 4th wheel. Our team missed the counter, and a break went of four riders midway through the race. Megan heroically got bottles from the car and kept us hydrated in the heat. Two riders in the break crashed. One was Caroline, the British rider, a super climber from duathlon who is basically brand-new to bike racing, and she came back to the field in quite a bit of pain. I was missing some horsepower but doing pretty much fine. The climb started and it was a nice tempo, no surging, that winnowed the field. We caught one more rider from the break, but two were still off the front, one from the local team and one Brazilian. I did not follow the sprint for the QOM and came over the top probably 30 seconds behind a lead group of about 10. Hiroko and Kathleen caught me at the top, and I began to drive it down a twisty descent through the race caravan. Oops - I dropped them. I caught on and they joined a few minutes later. At this point we still had some surprise climbs, and the racing was on. Evelyn and Edwiga Pittel from France were launching attacks, as was Tatyana, who was probably trying to improve her odds by dropping some of the local team and limit her losses to the rider up the road. This was the hardest racing of the week so far - and cool - on little mountain twisty mountain roads and through tiny villages. We came into the finish and I did not play it too well but did what I needed - no time gap and 10th place. Kathleen got 9th and Hiroko lost 57 seconds in a time gap. Those Brazilians can sprint. The Italian from Cogeas took the win with the long breakaway and moved into the lead. The Brazilian from the break held on for second. After the race we were by the car changing clothes when Megan appeared in the street, crumpled, and began screaming for a hospital, wailing with pain. Jorge picked her up and ran her to the bed of the truck. People were running all over to get a doctor. Her entire core was cramping. The race media scrambled to photograph her and I got in a fight with the journalist trying to get her some privacy and he was telling me all this "free press" garbage. It was terrifying. She was in excruciating pain, and had no idea what was going on. She had cramped on the side of the road and with the help of a race motorcycle cop gotten a ride from a local in a pick-up truck to the finish line. I think she thought she was going to die. Megan went with the race doctor to the hospital. I was very upset, head completely out of the race, worried and not sure she should be there alone. I haven't spoken much about our multi-lingual and gregarious director Jorge but he is incredible: cool, knowledgeable, super-organized, and versatile. He navigated the race like I have never seen anyone do. I trusted his judgement almost absolutely but at this point I had moments of questioning it, or maybe just questioning the circumstances of the race, of being there at all: this was over the top. And then we went to another banquet. Megan returned to the hotel later that day, in a great deal of pain but knowing that what had happened was cramping due to heat exhaustion. This for someone who delivers me bottles all day? The world is not fair. We went to the mall to go to the grocery store again. I bought a plain sandwich and bread at a gourmet restaurant - I was so hungry and could not eat more cereal. Others ate McDonald's, following Megan's previous strategy of going with the processed and uniform. My definition of health eating certaintly changed during the trip. Mandy continued to eat everything, a strategy that would keep her healthy for the entire trip, astonishingly.

Friday - Stage 1

Friday morning I woke up sick, sick, sick of the stomach. Eating and drinking are essential to stage racing. Falling behind on either spells doom, especially given temperatures close to and above 100. This was the first low point of morale, especially in the context of two teammates who had already been/were currently sick - I thought this was supposed to be a bike race not some illness boot camp. At 10:30 we boarded the bus, lorded over and driven by Kiki, the organizational maestro of the race, to head to the start line by the ocean. After 1.5 hours on the bus, we arrived at the sea, where we climbed to the outdoor patio of a seaside restaurant to be served a pre-race meal (that of course I would not eat). Bands played loudly beside us; Kiki danced with racers; there was lots of laughing; and I wondered if I would be ok today. Hiroko ate crackers and tuna; I had some cereal. At 2:00, we finally started, with the temp at 40C. The course featured rolling hills for 50k, a number of tunnels, and a 10k finishing climb. I was in the unusual role of being the gc rider who would sit in and conserve energy and try to do as well as possible on the final climb (Kathleen and Hiroko would also conserve; Megan, Mandy, and Andrea would cover breaks as necessary and get us water). This is kind of tough for me since I like attacking and wild breakaways, but it's probably good practice in being patient. Plus, when I don't feel well, even I don't much feel like attacking. There's also a sense of responsibility to your teammates - that when you have an easy ride to the climb you had better deliver a good effort up that thing. I am pretty strong right now but not so confident in my ability to scamper up hills with Colombian mountain goats. I had on a super easy gear - a compact crankset with 34-27 as my easiest gear, practically suited for mountain biking! The lead team had won the prologue and set a steady tempo on the rolling hills of the first part of the course. The gearing allowed me to sit and spin up everything, never needing to waste energy standing. My team rode well, positioning well. We went through some tunnels where visibility was basically nil. Here's us riding by the sea, in a photo stolen from El Diario de Hoy. I am #15, in green riding by the race leader with her yellow jersey. Local hero (and very good bike racer) Evelyn Garcia #1 in El Salvadoran national champion light blue; Longo beside me in French colors; Colombians in white with horizontal stripes; Brazilians in green and yellow; Tatyana the blond in green and yellow at the front; teammate Andrea at the top; Colombian Lozano just ahead of her in young rider's white leader's jersey. The approach into the final climb was awesome - we turned off a highway into this small town with twisty streets and even cobblestones. Evelyn Garcia drove it through the cobbles. I was second wheel so got to use her good line as people behind had to make up ground in corners and take worse lines. Unbeknownst to us they had rerouted the course due to an accident, so the mileage was off. I wasn't so sure how far to go, but oh well! Evelyn attacked hard on the first pitch, taking probably 15 with her. I did not follow the surge and was soon picking people off as the climb started. I caught the Colombian Lozano, who is my opposite in terms of climbing style, especially this early in the season - a little person who will stand up and surge, then sit down and rest, then surge again. We worked together but I might have worked too hard, since when Longo came up to us later in the climb Lozano could follow and I dropped off. I got 11th on the climb and felt I did my best, especially given the morning, with maybe a few tactical errors. Hiroko and Kathleen also climbed strongly, finishing close behind. After the race there we were in this tiny mountaintop town, a big spectacle for the locals with dance music blaring. And this is when the race becomes an exercise in going with the flow: Hiroko is really sick, I am not tip-top, we've been sitting on the ground for hours, changed but filthy and exhausted, and there is no way we can leave because we have no idea where we are and must travel in the bus and in the caravan. Finally we are leaving - it's dark out - but then it turns out we are going to a banquet. At this point I am feeling bad, nauseous and depleted and overheated. Eating and drinking is a major chore. Hiroko and I sit in the team truck for another hour or so until we finally leave. The other teammates are still healthy (and perhaps crazy) and eat something at the banquet, or at least drink some soda. We drive 1.5 hours and return to the hotel at 9:30. I eat tunafish and bread. We leave for the next morning's stage at 7:15.

Thursday - Vuelta Prologue

Turns out this stage race, which I thought was flat except the last day, is a race for mountain goats... The prologue was 4.6k, 2.3k up a mountain, then 2.3k down. I had a 50-11 as my biggest gear but could have used more for the flying descent. Rode hard but knowing of limited capacity to surge. Pleased to get 7th. On the health front, Kathleen had recovered, but now Hiroko was sick.

Wednesday - Gran Prix de Santa Ana

The racing was on! The one-day Gran Prix de Santa Ana was a 102k road race that looked to be completely flat. My team for the whole event consisted of Hiroko, Megan, Mandy, Andrea, Kathleen, and me. Jorge Romero was our director; Pete our mechanic. We didn't know what to make of the field, except we all knew Jeanne Longo, the 49-year-old French legend who has been to five Olympics already and won who knows how many national titles. Our race plan was to sit and watch - not my cup of tea. The race was lame, we noodled at about 15mph for a few hours, then all of a sudden just as I was wishing the finish would come we started ramping it up on a highway-grade climb that just got longer and longer, 10k at least. I went with the first surge but could not follow the second. I was mad - if I had been top five during the climb I might have made the six-person split. Instead, frustrated by a race plan of doing nothing, I got lazy and was maybe 12th wheel and just missed the action. The whole team did. Tried to organize a chase after, and we worked for a while with the Columbians and Brazilians, but ended up calling it off as the gap ballooned. Jumped at 1k to go, thought I could lead the team out, instead got a little gap and just lead out the Brazilians. 13th place. Kathleen, recovered from illness the night before, posted our top finish with 10th. Disappointing race for me - neither good racing nor good training. Wednesday night the stomach was not tip-top, a sign of things to come. At this point I was still eating foods like plain rice from the cafeteria, drinking only bottled water, not even brushing the teeth with tap water. Here we are before the race doing some sponsor promotion with the Schick ladies: back row: Jorge, Schick ladies, Pete, front row: Kathleen, Hiroko, me, Megan, Mandy, and Andrea. We are all healthy and I look decidedly more robust than I do now.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Tuesday - Team Presentation

Given that the hotel was in the middle of the city and on a steep hillside, we had all been wondering how we might spin the legs out. My friend Marielle from France and Burlington, VT was racing with her Italian team and had plans to go for a ride. Andrea, Megan, and I scrambled into bike clothing and leaped on a bus to go for an easy ride with Marielle and two of her teammates - the Ukranian Tatyana and Caroline from the UK. We drove about 30 minutes before the bus pulled over on the side of a highway by a roadside stand selling coconuts. Time to ride. The diesel exhaust was incredible. Tatyana insisted we ride exactly 60k, to the decimal. Tuesday afternoon we piled on the bus in our matching polos for the team presentation. This is where I started to understand the lay of the land: The race is sponsored by an El Salvadoran who runs a Swiss bank and who is a massive cycling fan with an interest in developing South American riders. He's created an Italian team, Cogeas, starring an El Salvadoran talent, Evelyn Garcia, and this team was the starring team of the race. Ruben travels in an armored Lincoln Navigator with sirens and never without several guards armed with automatic weapons. We sat in the center of a velodrome under a tarp. VIPs sat beside us. School children and military personnel in camouflage filled the stands on the side of the velodrome, occupied by promotional give- aways and whatever else forced them to be there. Soon we realized in some disbelief that the guest of honor would be the president of El Salvador himself... With great fanfare and security he made his entrance and spoke of the importance of the race in showing people that the country had recovered from civil war.

Monday - Weather Change

We were picked up at the airport by race staff. At international bike races such as La Vuelta, typically the race organizers organize logistics for all the teams, from food to housing to providing a car for the director to drive in the race caravan. You are taken care of, you mix with other teams, and you go with the flow. We then made the bus trip to an athlete complex in Ciudad Merliot, a sub-city of the capital San Salvador.

Choose a Spin

How will I remember the Vuelta de El Salvador? Only partly and cynically like this photo from Tuesday's post-race party, but I didn't take any photos of myself doubled over in pain and throwing up, getting an IV hung from an unwound clothes hanger attached to a ceiling tile, seeing my teammates suffer beyond what any race should call for, or of my barely finishing the final two stages due to total depletion. I also missed the breathtaking poverty, street signs indicating prohibition of handguns, plumes of diesel exhaust and a landscape riddled with litter. At some point early on and already sick, I recommitted to making the experience as positive as possible, and entered a state of focus and denial that got me through it. The whole team did the same. Maybe I made some bad judgements, perservered too much, but as you can see from this photo, I made it out ok. There were even wonderful aspects of the trip. More to follow.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Inevitable Busy Day

The double bike bag is packed with 100+ waterbottles and a sparkling clean bike; another bag full of oats and bars (plus the few items of clothing deemed necessary for 90+ weather); and the novels (Gilead and History of Love) ready to go. Tomorrow we leave the house at 5:20 - daylight savings a bit inopportune this year, though energy conserving. Did some quality suffering off the front in the wind today at Bethel. You feel a bit like a bully showing up at Bethel with a team of seven riders, but oh well, that's racing, and we all benefit from an active race that prepares us for the races that count. Looking forward to the novelty of no email for a whole week!

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Geography Lesson

No one should accuse my team director Greg of thinking small. On Monday my Targetraining team, a brand-new team with most of its riders coming straight out of New England winter, heads to El Salvador for some international-level races. Count the contrasts: 20 degrees to 95 degrees, Bethel training race to international competition, training blocks to seven races in six days, neoprene booties to dousing the head with water to avoid smoke coming out the ears. Needless to say, it will be a welcome adventure: Adventurous spirit brought me to bike racing and yet the reality of training is that the body thrives on near-boring routine. As far as the race, my teammates and I might be just suriving, but hopefully if we spend our matches carefully we can do a bit of racing and get some results. Because the team has taken care of logistics, I feel woefully ugly-Americanly- oblivious to where I am going. I dredged up this map at least (which looks suspiciously like the kangaroo-shaped city of New Haven, in mid-jump), just as I hope to dredge up my Spanish. A friend from school who was a Peace Corps volunteer in El Salvador will be visiting there as well, staying in San Salvador close to the athlete hotel. She might come watch a race. It would be great to see the country from eyes that know enough to go beyond fearing it.

In My Spare Time

I am creating a blog. Let's see how long this lasts! This sign sums it up. I hope to keep track of pedaling adventures and possibly even some ideas on that cutting-edge intersection of environment and health.