Stages 9 & 10
I haven't written despite winning two stages and leading the tour for six stages. We just haven't had much time. Two stages a day with transfers by car leaves little time to do anything but ride, eat and sleep. I really wanted to win this race because it's the first time since the '97 Vuelta Guatemala (eerily similar in the way the locals seem to band together against the foreigners) that I've been in a position to win a stage race. I haven't won a stage race since 1989. I guess I'm better at the one day stuff.
If all goes well and I get a contract to race next year in the USA, then taking out a stage race or two will be a major goal for me. I am hearing that the 9/11 events are impacting sponsorship possibilities and my current team is having a slight budget shortfall, so I'm not sure if I will be able to stay in the sport next season. I love bike racing but if push comes to shove there is a whole world out there...
Well, they couldn't beat us individually. Today Southland Times (Glen's team), Sofresh (my host family's team), Winton's Pub & South Roads teams and probably a few others got together and decided they were sick of our team dominating the race. From 10km into the race a break of three lower-placed guys, the highest being 2:19 down on Eric, took off. Southland times "chased" ostensibly to retain their lead in the KOM championship. We sat behind, thinking "Okay, 40kph is fast enough, the three won't get too far out." Last split we got at 60km into the 110km stage was 3:12 to the three leaders. We put Hilton into the chase and the speed lifted a bit. Then for half an hour we got no split times at all. Next split we got was seven minutes. We hit full gas, with all of us except Eric pulling as hard as we could. Several other teams were helping, notably the Zookeepers Cafe team of fourth overall placed rider Heath Blackgrove and the Rabobank team. Glen still didn't help even though he was losing third overall. Now we knew that a combine had been formed against us. We had a dozen riders maintaining 50kph on the flat, then when we hit the steady uphill last 25km I floored it and rode at 47kph for a long time. We only pulled it back to around five minutes, surprisingly. Then Glen Mitchell and his team started attacking us. I was very strong and very angry, and there was NO WAY he was going to drop me or Eric. I did have to meter my speed a bit more to reserve some strength for his attacks, which came after every long hard pull I took. It was costing us more time. As we came to the line I was glued to Glen's wheel in the final kilometers. He came through the last turn first, and I beat him to the line on sheer willpower.
We have probably retained the teams classification lead despite losing five minutes to the three guys who were away. Then in the pitifully short, 18km, rain-soaked criterium this afternoon we rode over-the-top-aggro against everyone and anyone. Eric led Graeme out on the last lap and while Glen seemed to have the stage won. G-man pulled through for us and beat Glen by a hair's width at the line in a bike throw. On the cool down lap several guys wondered at us, "wow there's some angry bike riders here". Yeah, we did screw up, relied on splits that were too infrequent, started chasing too late this morning, but our biggest mistake was not foreseeing the 15 man combine that had formed to dethrone Eric. Racing in the USA is straight up and there are fair duels between decent sized teams. Combines don't happen when there are normal sized squads to effectively compete against each other.
We've so far won six out of 10 stages and may still have the team lead, and there's still 200km of racing tomorrow. We have nothing really to lose, we certainly don't care about fourth and fifth overall, so, unlike the last road stage at the Sun Tour, there will be fireworks tomorrow. The combined teams will have to ride very hard to contain the four of us that still have some legs left to fight with. And I have to say I really enjoyed the beautiful scenery and great weather of the first few days, and the great people I've met like our sponsors Calder Stewart Roofing, our staff Pete, Donna, Jerard, John, Brendan, and my superb host family the Grants.
After the prize-giving dinner many people approached me with comments like "too bad it took ten teams to defeat you guys" (a serious exaggeration on the part of the speaker, but one that during the final stage I began to think of myself, even going so far as to jokingly call out in the peloton "is there anyone here who isn't riding for the tour leader?") and similar statements.
I hadn't slept much the night before as my mind kept trying to work out what happened and why.
This night I will sleep well for three reasons.
One. I don't carry grudges. Like the tour winner Karl Moore said, "let me buy you a beer tonight, mate!" (He did. G-man joked "Is this our prize split?" and Karl laughed.)
Two. The combines and tactical intrigues of bike racing are what make this sport so interesting to follow for the experienced cycling fan and competitors. Without these it would be nothing more than triathlon without the swim and run.
Three. Let's put it in perspective: Nicole's death last year; the spirit of the "Share the Roads" team; terrorism and starvation It is ludicrous to take a bit of vindictive bicycle racing tactics personally.