Tour of Alberta

“I’m really struggling guys. I’m fucked”

“It’s all in the head now, Oli. Everyone is fucked. You must to think about getting up the hill, and not about the pain. You can do this. Follow Chris”

We had spent the day at the front of the peloton chasing the breakaway. H&R was represented in the break by Alexis, but we weren’t happy with how outnumbered he was. Our main GC hopeful, Travis, had suffered a crash earlier and would no longer be in contention. Chris and I had to follow the front of the group up the final 13 km climb to Marmot Basin. After helping the team chase for over 60 km, I was cooked. I felt dizzy.

Photo by  Stirl and Rae.

The conversation above took place over the race radio between my director and I 140 km into the race. We had 10 km to ride before the base of the climb. They went by too quickly, and I wasn’t with the team at the front. I was struggling near the back. I managed to take the inside on the tight left hander at the base, and followed wheels as we started going up. I didn’t stare at the wheel in front of me, I watched three riders ahead. This way, if a gap opened up as someone in front of me tired, I would see it immediately and wouldn’t hesitate to go around them. It didn’t take long for the peloton to reduce.

I was taken aback by the size of our group. Around 35 riders strong and I could barely hold on. Last season I could pretty confidently drop my opponents on climbs. My only pro ½ win came from a hill climb. Now I found myself on the back of a group – not even the break away. All these riders could, and did, drop me on a climb. I’m racing at a new level. I have respect for my new opponents.

I was dropped with 6 km of climbing remaining. I crossed the line in 38th, 5’09” after the stage winner. I remembered passing Nate Brown, who wore the polka dot jersey for two days at the Tour this year. Past the line there was a gravel climb to a parking lot. I ground my way up, riding from one side of the road to the other, like a paper boy. I was so dizzy once I arrived at the van that Mark had to help me off the bike. I sat down in a chair and closed my eyes. Tears came out. I fell asleep.

Finishing stage 1. Photo by  Stirl and Rae.

Finishing stage 1. Photo by Stirl and Rae.

Twenty-four hours later I found myself holding on for dear life at the back of the peloton. Stage two. I had tried to get into a break a few times early on. After one such attempt, the peloton accelerated past me. My legs were sore, and they rode by me so quickly that I barely managed to grab on to the last rider’s wheel before they left me for good. We were in crosswinds.

In crosswinds, you don’t ride one behind the other in a straight line. You ride in an echelon, to get a draft from the rider in front and beside you. This limits the drafting potential to the width of the road. Only so many riders can fit across the road. The edge of the road, where riders are forced to ride one behind the other with an insignificant draft, is called the gutter.

The wind was coming from our right. I was in the gutter. I couldn’t move up. I hammered. I thought my race would be over soon. I could only hold on for so long. It was brutal. Finally, we turned, and with the wind at our backs we started a small climb. It felt like I’d been riding for hours. We were only 35 km in. Shit. A few kilometres back, I had hit a bump and my saddle tilted forward. I couldn’t comfortably sit on it. I stood up as we climbed, and out of the corner of my eye I saw a Cannondale rider hit a bump. His hand slipped off the bars and he turned and ran straight into me. I fell over onto my team mate, Matt. A few others crashed on top. I got up right away and Kevin grabbed my bike, pulled the seat back into position, and hung the bike by the adjusted saddle over his neck to cycle through the gears. Meanwhile, I brushed my hands off, grabbed a water bottle off the road, thought about what I had to do next, and refused to look back at Matt. I could hear him screaming about his leg. I heard Maxime, my director, yell for an ambulance.

Kevin handed my bike back. I got on and started to pedal. Do I really just ride now? The race is gone. Matt’s seriously injured. Although I can’t help him, it feels wrong to leave him. I was riding though. Time to try and catch the race I guess. I put my head down, and pedalled hard. I couldn’t see the peloton or caravan ahead. Commissaire and police cars and motos passed me. None of them would give me a draft. I chased on my own for around ten kilometres. There was no way I would catch them, but I wasn’t slowing down. I don’t know from where that senseless drive comes. Desperation?

Relief took over when I heard my Director calmly speaking over the radio. I got in the draft of our car. He took me to the back of the caravan. Slowly I made my way through the team cars. He would calmly tell me when to ride and when to sit in a car’s draft. Eventually, I made it back into the race.

Around 30 km from the finish, the team assembled at the front of the peloton. A small break of three was up the road, and at 20 km to go we would enter the finishing circuit. I started rolling through at the front with some Silber riders. We made contact with the break as we entered the circuit. At that point, it changed from a chase to a lead-out. I rolled through with Travis and MA. I was flat-out as I pulled. The team following behind with Ryan protected for the sprint would yell at us to move left or right, to prevent attempts by other teams to take over our position at the front. With just under 10 km remaining, the three of us were swarmed by an acceleration from the other teams. I was at the back thirty seconds later. I went from setting the pace to holding on. Jure stayed with Ryan, and Ryan sprinted to third on the stage.

I felt a part of the team that day. I was proud to be a part of that result.

Hug for Ryan after sprinting to third. Mark Ernsting and Alexis in the background. Photo by  Stirl and Rae.

Hug for Ryan after sprinting to third. Mark Ernsting and Alexis in the background. Photo by Stirl and Rae.

Stage three was hell. I was tired. We did eleven, ten km laps of an urban circuit. The profile of the course, filled with turns and two short, gradual climbs a lap did not suit me. I found myself riding at the back for most of the day. I got off the front a couple times for only a few minutes. I was nowhere during the lead out. I just didn’t have the legs.

Stage Three. Stirl and Rae.

Stage Three. Stirl and Rae.

On the morning of stage four I woke up and wondered if I’d finish the race. I lined up on the start line a few hours later. I wanted to get in the break. I wanted to finish the race. I wasn’t confident I could either.

The rider in front of me sprinted off the line and I followed. Four of us had a small gap by the first corner. I got to the front and hammered for thirty seconds, flicked my elbow, and let the other three take their turns. A few minutes later I looked back. We were now a breakaway.

As we rode through the start/finish onto the second lap, I wanted to raise my hands in celebration. I was in the break at the Tour of Alberta on the day that marked exactly three months since I had started riding again. I didn’t (thank God), and continued to ride. I crossed the line for the first KOM sprint of the day in second. I just wanted some points.

The break swelled to 16 riders. Around kms 80-90 a dozen attacks were launched from our group. I followed every acceleration I could. Rob Britton went with a UHC rider on the hill, and I tried to chase. I couldn’t. I fell into a small chase group, and a lap later a group of riders who had bridged from the peloton caught us. One of the riders was Alexis. He rode by me, and that was it. I was dropped. I rode on my own until the peloton caught me and spit me out. I chased through the caravan and caught back on with about 8 km remaining. On the climb I dropped a second time, and chased until the line.

In the break on stage 4.  Stirl and Rae.

In the break on stage 4. Stirl and Rae.

I moved up to 35th in the GC, 5th in the young rider (U23) classification, 10th in the KOM classification and 9th in the Canadian classification. I’m actually pretty content with those results. I’m proud to have made it to Tour of Alberta, the start and the finish.