Tour do Rio, July 27-31
Oi, bom dia!
The Tour do Rio wrapped up on Sunday (7/31), and I am writing this in the final hours of the long flight back to the United States. Spirits on our team are high, as we enjoyed considerable success throughout the race. We didn’t know exactly what to expect going in, but we knew the level of competition would be high, as it always is in South American racing. We knew the racing would be aggressive, and that many of the patterns we’ve come to expect from racing in North American would not be present as the exciting and unpredictable race played out each stage.
It seemed as though fortune was against us as we all travelled to Rio from various points in the United States. Most of the team, which included Anibal Borrajo, Guido Palma, Jamey Driscoll, Tyler Wren, Nick Frey, and I, as well as our mechanic, Hugo Pratissoli, director, Jose Palma, and Soigneur Stephanie Roussous, were scheduled to meet in Atlanta before embarking on the 9.5 hour flight to Rio. Unfortunately, weather interfered with many of the flights, and three of our party were diverted to Alabama before making it to Atlanta just barely in time to catch our connecting flight. We breathed a sigh of relief, thinking that we had navigated our greatest logistical obstacle on our way to Brasil, but that was just the beginning!
When we arrived in Brasil, we queued up to have our passports and visas inspected by customs officials. One by one, they stamped our passports and sent us on our way to baggage claim to collect our bikes and bags. As we waited by the baggage carousel, we noticed Nick walking up with an official in a blue suit. We didn’t know what had happened, but we knew it couldn’t be good. As it turns out, Nick’s visa had expired, and in the commotion, the officials had discovered that Tyler, who had made it through customs undetected, also had an expired visa. They were both detained by the federal police, and we were instructed to gather up their bags to send on the next flight back to the United States. The situation looked dire, and we were virtually certain that we would be forced to start the race with only four riders.
Fortunately, the race was able to pull some strings with the city and provincial government and secure entry for Tyler and Nick. They even made a call to Brasilia, the country’s capital! After a long day in the airport, Tyler and Nick finally joined us at the race hotel in Rio. It seemed as though we had dodged another bullet, but that was only the beginning! The next day’s race held some surprises of it’s own.
The first stage was advertised as a flat day; perhaps one for the sprinters. At last year’s race, a large breakaway escaped early in the stage, so we decided to be attentive in the opening kilometers and cover any promising breakaways. As promised, the racing was aggressive, but nothing stayed away for long over the flat first half of the 150km stage. Unfortunately, our team also suffered another stroke of terrible luck when Nick ran into a cat’s eye and crashed as the race left the neutral zone. He hit the ground face-first, and did considerable damage to his knee. Unable to continue the race, he would spend the next five days following the race in the team van.
The rest of us continued to race aggressively until we hit an open section of highway about 70km into the race. I went back to the team cars for water, and when I returned, the racing had picked up. As I picked my way through a thinning peloton, I handed water to Jamey and Ani and made my way up to Guido and Tyler, who were nearer to the front. When I reached Guido, I looked back and realized that there had been a split in the peloton during the crosswind. We were now in the front selection of about forty riders. When I looked back towards the front of the race, another rider crossed wheels with Guido as he was taking a drink of water, and he crashed hard (see the picture here). This was a critical moment of the race, so I sprinted around him and towards the front of the splintering group where Tyler and I tucked in behind several chasing teams.
Jamey and Ani would join us later in the stage, bravely bridging up to the group. Shortly thereafter, I would pay the price for my earlier aggression, as the relentless hills in the second half of the race shredded the front group. With about 20km to go, I got dropped from the front group and rode in with three Brazilians. Jamey, Ani, and Tyler were left to fend for themselves in the front group, but they were unable to contain the irrepressible Colombian climbers, who attacked relentlessly and finally forced a selection of 11 riders, five of the six Colombians making it into the winning break. Meanwhile, Tyler, Jamey, and Ani finished in the chasing group of 20, and secured GC positions within the top-20.
The following day’s stage from Volta Redonda to Tres Rios was a mostly flat affair, with only one large climb at the beginning. The team of the previous day’s winner, an Argentine racing for a Brazilian squad, controlled the front of the peloton for most of the day, slowly reeling in a two-man breakaway. With about 30km left to race, a few of the sprinter’s teams took up the chase, and the breakaway was absorbed into the peloton. What followed was an absolutely thrilling race into town. We exited the wide-open highway with about 5km left to race, making a 170 degree turn onto the city streets. The road quickly narrowed, and we clattered over speed-bumps and around rotaries. Coming into the last km, I was on Ani’s wheel, and attempted to come around him to set him up with a lead-out. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the speed I needed. As I would later find out, I hit a fairly major bump and knocked my wheel so far out of true that the rim was slamming against the brake pad. Nevertheless, Ani managed an impressive fourth place on his own, and I held on for 12th, despite the mechanical disadvantage (see picture here).
The next day brought a test in the mountains. We raced from Tres Rios to Teresepolis, climbing from near sea level to 1500 meters; summiting with about 10km left to race. The opening 90k of the stage was on rolling highway roads, and Guido and I were told to race aggressively in an attempt to get into an early breakaway. There was a slight possibility that the field would allow a small group to gain enough of an advantage that it could survive over the climb and make it to the line. As it turned out, the race became a battle between two Brazilian teams and the Colombians. Every time a promising break would go up the road, a Colombian would jump across and the leader’s team would be forced to respond. After 90k of all out racing, Guido and I had little show for our efforts except tired legs and bruised egos. Never have I worked so hard in a race with absolutely nothing to show for it. When we finally did hit the start of the climb, I quickly drifted off the back to ride my own pace into the finish. Meanwhile, Jamey and Tyler were going toe to toe with the Colombians as they ascended the massive climb. Near the top, the only riders who remained were four Colombians and Jamey. Tyler was close behind with a few other riders, and descended expertly to catch back onto the front group.
By finishing in the front group, Tyler and Jamey were catapulted into the top-ten along with a dominant group of Colombian climbers and a handful of Brazilians. Saturday offered another stage full of climbing, but with the Colombians possessing a stranglehold on the GC, we thought there might be an opportunity for a small, nonthreatening break to get away in the early kilometers without too much opposition. The race started with a 15 kilometer descent, and after assessing the descending abilities of my fellow grupetto riders the day before, I thought this might be an opportunity to gain a quick advantage on the field and establish a breakaway. Descending at 80kph (see a picture here), I drew out two other riders, one from Italy and another from Brazil. By the time we hit the bottom of the descent, we had establish a lead of about 45 seconds on the peloton and were on our way. Unfortunately, our Brazilian compatriot must not have liked the prospect of 192km breakaway, because he soon fell off the pace, and the two of us were left to ride alone. We settled into a steady tempo, but we were only about to push the gap out to a little above three minutes before the 20km climb out of the valley. When we hit the climb, a group of four chasers had escaped from the peloton and were in pursuit of our breakaway. About halfway up the climb, they joined us, but the Colombian led field was in hot pursuit. Soon we were caught, and while I managed to hold on for most of the rest of the climb, the fierce pace in the final kilometer left me drifting back through the caravan.
After a furious chase back through the caravan on the descent, I was able to reconnect with a group of 40 that had been split off the main peloton. Finding a group like this is essential to surviving on long hilly stages. My teammate Ani and I settled in for what would be a long and surprisingly eventful day in the gruppetto. Meanwhile, at the sharp end of the race, Tyler and Jamey were in another pitched battle with the Colombians. This time, it was Tyler who was able to go over the top of the massive climb with the leaders, and Jamey was forced to chase. Thinking that the team of the rider sitting in 2nd place would chase, Jamey bided his time in the main bunch until the gap to the leaders grew to 4 minutes. At that point, Jamey decided he had to take matters into his own hands, and launched a blistering attack on one of the steep pitches that punctuated the descent to the sea shore. He drew out the remaining Colombian, and they quickly established a gap on the group. The chase to the front group was grueling. A four minute gap means a gap of well over 2km, and by the time Jamey and the Colombian reached the front group, the gap had grown to eight minutes; a truly superhuman feat!
Two kilometers from the finish in the beachside town of Rio dos Ostras, Jamey launched an attack. While he wasn’t able to establish a large gap, his efforts forced the group behind to chase, and set up Tyler for a strong sprint for third place, our first podium of the Tour do Rio! We were all exhausted after a long stage, so we headed back to our hotel and enjoyed our first swim on the Brazilian coast.
The next morning was bittersweet, as we knew that we would be heading back to the United States that night. First, we had one last stage to conquer. The thought before the stage was that a small break would go, but the Colombians would control the gap, and the sprinter’s teams would reel it in during the final kilometers. We were excited for our chances with Ani, our best sprinter, and I was looking forward to an easy day in the peloton followed by some chaotic minutes setting Ani up for the sprint. Much to my chagrin, Ani told me as we rolled off the starting line, that this would be a good day to go in the breakaway. I told him, “Ani, yesterday was really hard. I’m tired!” To which he replied, “Well then if you’re tired, sit in the field, and you can help me at the finish.”
I suppose the breakaway instincts I’ve honed this season got the best of me, because as soon as the attacks started flying, I went on the offensive. I bridged up to a small move dangling off the front, and when it seemed like it was losing it’s cohesion, I seized the opportunity to attack again. Luckily a Brazilian rider saw my move and quickly attacked himself. It didn’t take him long to reach me, and when he did, he pulled me the rest of the way up to three riders who had escaped only moments earlier. Once we reached the three riders up the road, I entered the most uncomfortable 20 minutes of my life. The field was chasing hard, and we had a strong tailwind on the flat roads. In order to maintain our slim margin, we had to pull at about 55kph, and it was absolutely brutal. The italian was sitting on as we rocketed away from the field, pulling with all of our might. Only later would I find out that the Colombians were chasing us so relentlessly because they thought I was Jamey, a threat to their GC lead. It wasn’t until Guido told them who was actually up the road, that they slowed down and allowed the gap to grow a bit. After fifty kilometers, the gap had stretched to almost five minutes, and it appeared as though the peloton may have lost the impetus to chase.
For about thirty more kilometers, we were able to pull at a reasonable pace and the experience was almost enjoyable. Unfortunately, another team decided that they wanted to chase, and our splits were rapidly decreasing. From five minutes, we saw, four and a half, and then four, and then finally down to just over two minutes. At that point we had a choice, we could either maintain our pace and allow ourselves to be caught, or test the strength of the peloton by ratcheting up our effort and forcing them to suffer if they wanted to catch us. We decided to force the pace, and with only four of the five riders working, we slowly clawed back out advantage. With about thirty kilometers remaining, it was clear that the peloton had lost the will to chase. Our gap steadily grew to three and a half minutes, and at that point we knew that we would survive to the line.
Once we were comfortable, a game of who could do the least work ensued. While we each continued to pull, our speed decreased to about 43 kph. The two teammates from Brazil shared the majority of the pacemaking, and as we crossed onto the famous Rio-Niteroi bridge, the one teammate took over almost exclusively for his teammate. We eyed each other nervously, and as we crested the top of the bridge into a block headwind. As we descended, the one Brazilian teammate launched a couple of attacks, but we quickly responded, and when it was clear that no one was going to escape the other, he took over and set the pace for his teammate.
As we entered the final four kilometers, I took up my place at the back of the group, so that I could keep an eye on everyone in the break. The anticipation grew as we passed, three, then two, then finally the flame rouge, indicating one kilometer to go. I’d examined the final 3 kilometers closely in the race bible, and knew that there was roundabout in the final 500 meters that exited into a park. As we rounded the rotary, I went wide, and was able to enter the park on the inside corner, just as the Brazilian was ramping up the pace. As he pulled off, I launched up his right side, and quickly gained a lead of five or six bike lengths on the other riders in the breakaway. I put my head down to see the riders behind me and gauge the gap. When it was clear that no one would be able to make up the ground in the last thirty meters, I sat up. With one last look behind me to make sure, I turned around and raised my hands in victory (see picture here).
It was the most exhilarating victory of my career, with thousands of people lining the street waving flags and cheering loudly. As soon as I finished, I was ushered back to the finishing line and mobbed by reporters. They all asked questions about what the race was like, and how I enjoyed my experience in Brazil. Their excitement for the sport and the race was obvious. Meanwhile, the team joined me at the finish line to celebrate, and as I told the reporters about how the race played out, someone threw a cap on my head, and shoved a coke and a water into my hands. someone brought me a towel to wash off with, and before I knew it, I was being ushered to the podium, being flanked by a Anti-Doping chaperone who would stay with me until I completed the required drug tests. It wasn’t until 90 minutes later that I was finally able to leave the finishing area, still numb from the adrenaline and flurry of activity following the race.
All in all, it was a thrilling race. Even without the win on the final day, I would have left Rio having thoroughly enjoyed my experience. The race was organized and professional, the caliber of the field was one of the highest I’d ever raced against, and perhaps best of all, because it was a UCI stage race, meals and housing was provided every night. Breakfast lunch and dinner was a lavish buffet of all the best Brazilian food. It was a distinct challenge not to stuff myself into a coma every meal, but luckily, we were riding so many kilometers each day, that I could barely eat enough to keep up!
There is still a bit of racing left this season, with the next even coming up on Friday, in Elk Grove, a small town outside of Chicago. Another UCI stage (Tour of Elk Grove) race, Jamis will be fielding one of it’s strongest teams of the year. Look for Tom Zirbel, Fernando Artogna, and Luis Amaran to set some blistering times in the prologue and for Sprinters like Ani to deliver some podium finishes in the road race and the criterium. In all likelihood, my job will be to ride the front, protecting our team’s GC leaders. It’s a job I relish, and I can’t wait to put my good form to the test on Friday.
Thanks for all of the kind words and support. Stay tuned for updates in the weeks to come!