Monday, April 2, 2012

Vuelta Ciclista El Salvador

So I’ve been seriously neglecting my blog for the past few months, but I draw the line of procrastination at international events. This is mostly because there is always something interesting to say when you race in another country, especially an underdeveloped one.

After a month and a half of suffering from mononucleosis, I finally got back on the bike in time to get my invite to race in El Salvador for the National team, having a pitiful amount of base miles logged and no intensity as of then. So my coach and I dreamt up a massively masochistic training schedule to tear my legs off and sew them back on just in time to hop on a plane and head into the Southern Hemisphere.

Looking back I give myself credit for not packing any cold weather gear and going through all the trouble to find a compact crank set, because as it turned out all the racing we would be doing would be in ridiculously hot and humid weather on mountainous courses. Not only that, but the race schedule included a five day UCI stage race sandwiched between two UCI one day races without any rest days. For those of you who don’t like long sentences that’s seven days of racing in a row.

We got three days to attempt to acclimate to the insanely hot weather as we stayed in a small complex owned by the promoter just a stone throw from the beach. If you ignored the fact that the bathroom had four adjoining doors to it the place seemed like paradise; a large shaded outdoor patio hung with hammocks beside a pool that looked over the pacific ocean. I was almost fooled into thinking we were on vacation until the first 1.1 UCI race arrived and I realized I was in for a long, sweaty week.

After packing our bags and moving into a Hilton hotel at one of the highest points in San Salvador, we were to prepare ourselves for a welcome dinner and team presentation at one of the promoters’ houses. I’ve learned over the years to have no expectations on USA team trips because foreign race promoters always seem to dream up the most bizarre ways to put on a bike race. This was especially true for El Salvador. In the land of no information, we had to just abandon all expectations and go along with the mariachi band and a giant dancing yogurt bottle. Sometimes the race takes place off the bike as well, because with just one tiny table stacked high with food, and over 70 hungry cyclists waiting for permission to serve up, it was sure to get ugly. Representing USA, we felt we had the responsibility of taking initiative and leading the charge to the table, because as soon as the other teams saw us practically running with plates in hand, everybody else feverishly stampeded the table. Luckily most of us got out alive with a random assortment of food piled on our plates.

Day 1 lived up to El Salvadorian standards as it soon reached over 100 humid degrees on the dusty streets of El Salvador. Skinny dogs and cattle roamed fields and streets, impoverished people rode bikes or on top of whatever produce was piled high on truckbeds. Some were crammed tightly in trucks or hung off the sides, either staring at us or whistling cat calls. It was everything you’d think of El Salvador to be, and it reminded me of how lucky I was to not have to live in a place where armed guards and barely sustained life is the norm. Most of these people would probably never ride a plane, own anything over $3000, or get to order sushi for dinner, all of which were things I had and did during the trip. It just makes a person realize what little it takes to be happy.

The first day started just outside the San Salvador velodrome, and neutral rolled out through the small streets onto the major highways that were blocked off just for the race. My role in the team was to work for Amber Neben for the entirety of the seven days, because she was racing for points that counted in earned the US an extra spot in the Olympics. Thus, I had to keep the field together until the final climb where Amber could take off and race for the finish. This meant chasing attacks for Amber, getting bottles for Amber, or mixing a margarita for Amber. My race would essentially end at the climb. So when the race went by and we finally hit the base of the climb, I shifted down into a small gear and prepared for a long ascent when my chain decided it would have its last hoorah and jam itself into my front chainring so thoroughly I couldn’t even pedal. After about 5 minutes of waiting for the bus to pick me up and take me to the top I was informed there was, in fact, no bus. So what was the next best option? I strapped my bike to the back of the El Salvadorian team car and rode on the back of a police moto to the top. Yeah, that’s right, there I was in my USA team kit with helmet on and all sitting on the back of a police motorcycle passing all my teammates to the top of the mountain. I think that was my best finish ever.

The second day was the first stage of the Vuelta Ciclista El Salvador, which even had a cheesy song made for it that all the El Salvadorians seemed to love. Stage one featured five tunnels that had absolutely no lighting and a lot of hills my body did not like. Just 35 km or so into the race I got popped off the back on a steep section and couldn’t fight my way back. I finished the race with a small group of stragglers, disappointed and feeling defeated by the sun and hills.

After rehydrating thoroughly I started Stage two with more motivation than ever. Not only did I survive the rolling foothills, but I also felt I did my part for the team in keeping the race together and safe for Amber. Fortunately Amber ended up winning in the final 12 km climb up the side of the volcano that averaged 10% grade. I was way off the back fighting my own battles with the 20% grade sections and cursing El Salvador and volcanos and cycling in general for making me suffer so much. Whether or not it was me, I’m pretty sure someone won a Guinness world record for the most paperboys done in an hour.

Day three featured two stages as if racing seven days in a row wasn’t enough. The profile for the morning road race showed a flat, 47 km circuit race that was about as benevolent as a rabbit. It wasn’t until we got to the race and pre-drove the course that we realized it was a much different story. Apparently the person who made the profile for the course didn’t feel like adding in the three malicious kilometer hills that tore the field to shreds just 7km in. I, being one of these tragic victims, got the ride off the back for 40km followed by a promotional truck for Frutti Fresh drinks that played the same jingle over and over again for the next hour and a half. I got to play it over and over in my head as I floated the 4 km time trial that afternoon (“floating a time trial” is a term used when you’re not even remotely close to any significant place in the race and just easy pedal on your road bike and then later laugh at how horrible your time was).

Day four consisted of a 125km course of mostly downhill sections that would finish us several thousand feet below where we had started in San Salvador. At this point Amber Neben had pretty much locked in the win, and had to just finish safely with the pack for the next two days. Of course, it’s never that simple. I started out the day by getting in a fight with a road reflector, and the reflector won. Fortunately my bike was okay for the most part because I took most of the impact on my head and skinned or bruised about 30% of my body. Apparently nobody thought I’d finish the 80 km by myself because they applauded me like a hero when I slapped on a spare helmet that looked about 20 years old and jumped on bike. If I had been in a European race I’d have been pulled right away, but since it was El Salvador I got to motorpace the hell out of that last 20km. I came into the finish line to discover that Amber Neben, too had had her own tumble, and had lost minutes to the leader. In the last 10 km of the race the field had hit a nasty section of torn up road and potholes, and Amber’s handlebars literally snapped beneath her. The spare USA bike did not have her pedals on it, so after an excruciating pedal swap she finally got paced to the finish line by what was left of the USA team, about 4 minutes down.

I admired Amber for how gracefully she took the whole event, and we went into the final stage ready to make an aggressive race. The stage had been shortened to a 75 km mostly flat race because of road construction on the climby section. Thus, despite our efforts to attack and make a fast race so that Amber could hopefully get up the road, the field was just too attentive to her moves. Even though Amber finished 4th in GC, she somehow obtained three jerseys for separate competitions.

Our celebration of the finish of the stage race was short lived as we still had one more 1.1 UCI day race to do the following day. My participation in the race ended at the base of the final climb, where I promptly shut down any type of competitive mechanism in my brain and easy pedaled to the finish. There’s only so much stress a human can take, and seven days of racing is just about at my threshold.

Next up on my schedule is some racing in more developed regions of the world, where I can actually be assured that there is a sag van behind me. Such luxuries.

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