On Sunday I stood backstage at the conclusion of the Amgen Tour of California secretly hoping for the battle to continue. 8 days of racing was now punctuated by the buzz of the crowds outside of the Staples Center in downtown LA. I was feeding off of that energy while internally I wrestled with mixed emotions. I really didn’t want the race to be over and I really didn’t want to be 2nd again. On one level I was fired up. The body felt great and the legs were primed to continue this battle. Instead, I was being ushered toward the stage and for a moment the thought shot through my head that this is what it must be like for a boxer being told, ‘that WAS the final round. You live to fight another day.’
Nearly two weeks ago I loaded the family in the van and sprinted north. Destination, Berkeley. It would be a 6+ hour drive so with some reluctance Randi and I introduced the boys to the DVD player in the van. It may only be funny to us to know just how conflicted we were about starting that habit.
Berkeley is home to a lot of great memories for Randi and I. When she was a student at the university there I had a small apartment in town and spent quite a bit of time on campus. I know the campus and the town well and it was a welcome treat to reconnect with my past. I rode some of my old training routes and then hit some of the coffee shops I favored back then. I prefer Cole Coffee and Caffe Strada, but to each his own. At Strada I spotted a student in Lycra who suddenly recognized me. He got such a charge out of the unexpected encounter that I felt especially welcomed to be back.
We eventually drove to Santa Rosa where the team presentation would be held and the race would start. Prior to the Garmin team presentation I was chatting with George Hincapie. Suddenly, BMC was called to the stage so I just decided to walk up with George and the BMC guys. I was planning to leave after a few moments but it seemed funnier the longer I stayed. Finally Paul Sherwin looked at me strangely and asked, ‘what are you doing here?’ and I made my exit to everyone’s amusement.
The first four stages were bumpy and frustrating. They would each end in field sprints where we were working to get our guy Heinrich Haussler a win. But Sagan was truly special this past week and amazingly Heinrich would finish 2nd to Sagan on each of the first 4 stages. I’m not sure that’s ever happened before in the pro peloton where the same two guys finish 1-2 four days in a row.
I’d been looking forward to Stage 5 all year. It was a target for me and I wanted to win. I felt the Bakersfield TT course best suited me and I was aiming to prove it. I had studied the course, ridden it in preparation and memorized it. The course was FAST and a perfect one for my skills. I didn’t have to get out of the aero bars much at all and I loved the downhill start. I think I caught 3 or 4 riders in front of me and that gave me extra motivation. I left it all out there and could hardly breathe when I crossed the line.
There’s always the rush of reporters to get an interview after the finish but I was spent and had some trouble catching my breath let alone make an intelligent statement. I felt confident about my ride but Tejay was starting after me and he was the only rider I suspected that had a chance of besting my time. I retreated to the team bus to rest and wait. Tejay would falter in the second half of his ride and eventually take 3rd on the day.
It was so cool to be on the podium with Jens Voigt (who took 2nd with an amazing TT ride). Strangely, I find much of my inspiration to train and race outside of the peloton, except for Jens. He is one of the very few in our profession who truly inspire me. He’s a legend for his iron will but what many fans don’t get to see is his genuine good guy nature, his sincere friendliness and his good humor.
My Stage 5 win moved me into first on GC and now a real threat to capture my first overall win at the Amgen Tour of California. Having finished 2nd three times before I was anxious to finish on top. But there would be climbing days to come and the more pure climbers would surely attack. The thought of that reality raced through my head when suddenly and unexpectedly, as if he could read my mind, Jens put his hand on my shoulder and told me ‘you can do this. You can win.’
Back at the hotel with the team it was calm. No celebration, no champagne, no trophy. My win had put so much time into contenders that our strategy might have to be re-thought. I had entered the race aiming to win the TT not the GC. With Big Bear and Mt. Baldy stages again this year I discounted my chances. Now I was re-thinking it all with the kind gesture of Jens playing on a loop in my head.
I felt strong all week and wasn’t terribly worried about Stage 6. I’d ridden well to Big Bear last year and expected that it would come down to a sprint finish again. But its normal to have our doubts until the legs and the body prove otherwise. At the start I spied Jens intently looking at me. He said nothing but simply nodded his head at me. It was the confident gesture of a man who knew better than I, a man purposely reminding me of his comment the day before. We rolled from the line and I felt as strong as I’d ever felt. I rode the stage well and my confidence for riding with the leaders up Mt. Baldy grew. I told myself I could climb with the best.
My night before the Baldy stage was restless, not because I was anxious but because I was fired up. I felt charged, ready to go, ready to battle. I would not concede the leader’s jersey without a fight. Doubt me if you want but I was ready to turn myself inside out on that mountain stage. I suspected it would be 3:30 to 3:45 to cross the finish line and I would ride it with the mentality of a time trial. I would concentrate, stay focused and ride beyond the pain. But at the start line I felt the nerves building, creeping, making a final assault. Doubt was edging through the thinnest of cracks. Again, that iron man of the peloton (who is not on our team) made his way over to re-shape my focus. Jens squared up in front of me and calmly said, ‘I believe in you. You can do this.’ You can’t imagine how much those words meant to me.
My team rallied in front of me through the first several hours as we locked in on a blistering pace. Riders on the front were going full gas until they dropped off. It was an uphill time trial and everyone was hurting. Horner was out front on a valiant effort to go for broke on the stage but would eventually be caught (finishing 6th). The real pain would come as the pitch turned further upward near the finish. Robert Gesink attacked. Tejay and Tommy D went with him. Not wanting to blow I rode my own pace hoping to bridge further up the road. The crowd was hugely supportive and they inspired me. Suddenly, a heckler spewing hatred and questioning my will to climb surprisingly took me to another level. Nearing the finish I spotted Tejay. I pushed hard to close and finished a few seconds behind him. But where was Gesink? When had he finished?
It wasn’t long before the calculations came back to me. I lost the leader’s jersey to Gesink and I was crushed. As professional cyclists we become conditioned about dealing with defeat. But this hurt and I was upset. After a brief recovery I turned around and headed back down to Baldy Village a few miles below the finish. Heading down I passed some of my teammates who earlier had buried themselves for me. We shot each other that knowing look that said, ‘this was a battle we did not win.’
My makeup is such that it affects me more to lose than to win. I usually find myself even tempered with my wins, surely satisfied but not ecstatic. But when I lose I feel devastated. I expect a lot from myself and falling short is hard to take. So there I was, on stage on Sunday, my boys in my arms, the three of us soaking up the love of the fans, for an admirable 2nd place finish.
In all of the mixed emotions since Sunday’s finish I find myself returning to gratefulness. Grateful for the chance to do what I love, race my bike. Grateful for the work that my teammates did for me. Grateful to Barb and Chris who were our awesome chef’s during the week. And grateful to all the team staff that helped make the week special (my TT bike literally came together the morning of Stage 5).
I thought AEG and Amgen put on a great race this year and I look forward to returning. And I would be remiss to not also thank USA Network for running Law & Order every night. That awesome show, and the unflappable support of Jens Voigt, were my evening decompression.
Photo: Casey B. Gibson