Fairly’s Vuelta experience is a real fight to the finish

The American overcomes a painful saddle sore and is poised to ride into Madrid on Sunday

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BURGOS, Spain (VN) — Every grand tour rider faces a series of hurdles and obstacles that require tremendous willpower to overcome. No one is immune.

In this Vuelta a España, nearly everyone has endured some unexpected and daunting challenge.

For Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), it was a bee sting on the first rest day that left his face bloated for the individual time trial. Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge) crashed in stage 3 and raced a week before realizing he had cracked his hip. For Nicolas Roche (Saxo-Tinkoff), it was the cold, when his legs turned into “two pieces of wood” in Andorra, and he tumbled out of podium range.

For grand tour rookie Caleb Fairly (Garmin-Sharp), it was something as innocuous as a wrong-sized stem that has turned this Vuelta into a test of perseverance and determination.

“The bike was a little off the first week and I ended up with a bad saddle sore. It was pretty rough,” Fairly told VeloNews. “I was in survival mode for a week, just trying to get through it.”

“Pretty rough” might be the understatement of this Vuelta.

The 26-year-old Fairly developed signs of a saddle sore by stage 3. Within a week, he was in so much pain that he could not sit in the saddle and pedal. What did he do? He rode the entirety of one stage completely out of the saddle.

“I had to ride a few stages completely out of the saddle all day,” Fairly explained. “It was bad in stages eight, nine and 10. One day I did completely out of the saddle, the other two were 80 percent [out of saddle]. It was worse in the crosswinds, riding at 60kph. Try doing that standing.”

On the first rest day, Fairly couldn’t take it anymore and underwent a late-night “surgery” in the team hotel to treat the saddle sore.

“That’s the non-glamorous side of cycling, with a hotel-room surgery at 10 o’clock at night. The doctor stuck some needles in there. It was really painful. There was a lot of screaming going on!” he said, shaking his head at the memory. “I took the whole day off on the rest day, and got on some antibiotics. Every day it got a little better.”

That was the low point for Fairly, who was intent on making it to Madrid. He came to the Vuelta to help team captain Dan Martin, who crashed out in the first week. Since then, he’s been helping to pull in sprint stages for Tyler Farrar, and looking to fight into a breakaway.

With the saddle sore, Madrid seemed very far away.

“It was hard physically, but also mentally. You just want to feel good on the bike, but when you cannot do that, it becomes very challenging,” he said. “Luckily, I was able to come through that.”

He was able to turn things around and survived three grueling climbing stages across the Pyrénées. He rode well in the “queen stage” and is now poised to arrive in Madrid on Sunday.

“I’m very excited about the Anglirú [on Saturday]. It’s such a famous stage. You’ve heard about it for years. I think it will be a good experience, and the next day is Madrid, so it will be cool,” he said.

Fairly has one more year on his Garmin contract, and said he’s been enjoying his time with the team. He started with Garmin’s development team 2009-2010 before turning pro with HTC in 2011. When that team folded, he raced with SpiderTech before joining Garmin this season.

So far, his first grand tour has been an eye-opening experience, perhaps even more than he bargained for.

“It’s been a good experience. There are a lot of ups and downs. There are so many things that can happen in such a long race,” Fairly said. “It’s funny how it can change so fast, even in the same stage. The day after the ‘queen stage,’ the first 70-80km, I felt just terrible, then I came around. You have to take it kilometer by kilometer, stage by stage.”

After enduring excruciating pain both on and off the bike, making it to Madrid has taken on special significance for Fairly.

“The most important thing is to make it to Madrid and finish my first grand tour,” he said. “There were moments when I didn’t think it was going to happen. Things look pretty good now.”

Fairly ended Thursday’s stage 110th overall at more than three hours behind race leader Nibali. Arriving to Madrid after what he’s been through would be victory enough.

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.