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The Tour of Catalunya was last week. It’s sort of a home race for Garmin-Sharp, with most of our riders based in Girona, Spain, and it was nice to go to a race without stepping onto a plane. I just drove the trusty ol’ Renault to the team service course where the bus was parked.
It was a stacked field in Catalunya, so the startlist was intimidating. Even worse, in the four, seven-day stage races I’ve done, there was always one time trial that I could treat as a rest stage (well, except San Luis). No such luck here, with long stages and lots of climbing every day.
The first couple of stages were pretty straightforward, and by straightforward I mean lots of wet corners. The second day finished in Girona (we flew right past my favorite cookie stop in Banyoles). When I looked at the stages a month ago, I thought how cool it would be to ride into my new hometown, with all the cycling-friendly crowds, greeting pals, and teammates at the bus after the finish. Instead, it was dumping cold rain, and the only cheering I heard was from teammate Alex Howes (he skipped Catalunya for Criterium International).
“Phil! You suck!” he yelled.
My role was to support our GC guys: defending champ Dan Martin, Ryder Hesjedal, and Andrew Talansky. That meant moving them around in the field, riding out in the wind to make sure they had a draft, taking their jackets for the climbs, and giving jackets back for the descents. It’s harder than it sounds, OK? And really important.
Tom Danielson started the race, but whacked his knee during the second stage. Since he was my roommate for the week, I had hotel rooms to myself after that. Remember the scene in “Home Alone” when Kevin made his family disappear and then ran around the house, dancing, yelling, and eating junk food? It was just like that. The race started out wet and only got worse, with two stages in the snow. And I don’t mean snow on the ground. This was “go back to the car and take whatever they have for warmth” snow, and mountaintop finishes. On the second consecutive snow day, I finished minutes behind the leaders. I pegged director Johnny Weltz in the chest with a snowball and climbed onto the bus, where I sat on the floor of the shower, too tired to stand. Despite the dismal conditions, I was in a good mood. Looking out the window at the snowy pines and the bundled crowds who trekked up there to cheer us on, I remembered that this was what I’ve always wanted. Miserable or not, I’m racing with the big boys now.
The WorldTour does have its downsides, however. I tried to make the early break one day, which would clearly be established on the first climb, right from the start. I attacked over and over, followed counterattacks, and kept hitting it the whole way up the 40-minute climb. Last year when I attacked on a climb, I was off the front no problem, but Katusha wasn’t having any of it on this day in Spain. Over the top, I finally had to give up.
Dan Martin rode over to me and said, “Good effort. Make sure you eat something now. We’ve got a long way to go.”
I tried for the break again the day after, a 220-kilometer windy stage, which started with another long, twisty climb. One minute I was fighting my way to the front of the field, but the next I hit a rock and went to the car with a flat tire. I chased back into the group just as it was exploding to bits, and found myself off the back, with a pack of 40 guys who were having a worse week than I was. At that point, if Contador had flatted, he would have punched it across to the back of the group no problem, but I’m not Contador.
I took my pulls in the group and crossed my fingers that we would get lucky. After all, the break would have to go sometime, and the field would stop to pee. Sure enough, after 30 minutes in the wind, we cruised up to the nature break, and I even had time to take one myself. Many hours later, I had the gas to follow attacks on the last climb, trying to help Ryder into a late breakaway or to put pressure on Katusha for Dan Martin to grab a stage result. It wasn’t much, but I was happy to find out that I could contribute at the front of the race, and it probably looked cool on TV.
On the last stage, I was feeling OK. I was worn down from the longest and hardest race I’d ever done, but I knew I had the legs to finish my first WorldTour race — and that’s pretty cool. But then Talansky flatted, at possibly the only time in a stage race worse than my flat on the 220km stage: with the big names attacking each other on technical, hilly, wet finishing circuits in Barcelona. Three of us waited with him, and my finish line became the back of the field. My job is to help the team, not to finish the race, and I’m alright with that. I’m also alright with the fact that we won the team classification, so I got to stand on the podium, receive the flowers, all that jazz. Then we drove back to Girona, airplane-free.