Saturday, August 29, 2009

Chris Horner's Tour of Spain diary: Best laid plans sometimes don't help when the racing starts

by Chris Horner

ASSEN, Netherlands - Not so long ago it seemed like I had months to prepare for the Tour of Spain. Yet somehow the time flew by and Saturday's start arrived sooner than I expected.

Still, the three days leading up to the opening prologue went almost perfectly. It helped that I had only a few things to focus on before starting the last of this year's cycling grand tours with my Astana teammates.

No. 1: Staying thin. It sounds easy enough but it definitely is not. Two or three extra pounds can change a rider's fitness and ability, and gaining any more than that can ruin a shot to do well in the overall classification. So we all spend a fair amount of time obsessing over food. It is a tricky balance - eat too little and bonk; eat too much and pay a heavy price in the mountains. Each morning I hopped on the scale and was happy with what I saw. When I stepped on Saturday it registered around 139 pounds, which, knowing that the team scale is off a little, means I'm around 142 or 143 pounds going into the start of the race. For me, that is a perfect weight to start a three-week race such as the Tour of Spain.

No. 2: Training. This is almost the exact same balancing act as eating. Train too much and you're tired before the race even starts. Train too little and your form drops in the closing days, leaving you to suffer through the race and perform at less than your best. After just one day of this race, I feel like my training has me well prepared, but I will have to wait a few more days to know for sure.

No. 3: Organization. Multiple elements fall under this category. For clothing, I make sure everything I need is in the right place. Everything is organized in one of several places: my regular suitcase, my backpack and my two rain bags that stay in the two caravan cars that support riders throughout each stage. That makes those rain bags the ones I consider most important.

No. 4: Bikes. Each Astana rider has four or five bikes with the team at the Tour of Spain. Each bike needs to be correctly fitted and ready to go at a moment's notice. Since I frequently change my position a little throughout the season, each of my bikes needs to be updated with the current position at all times. (Yes, the mechanics hate that.)

So, after three days preparing all that, I thought I had everything under control and ready to go when I jumped into the car Saturday on my way to the first stage of racing. Then - BAM! - just as our car took off I remembered what I had missed despite all the planning.

I had forgotten to change the cleats on my cycling shoes.

It sounds like a small and fairly unimportant detail, but cleats can be a crucial element. Typically, I change them a few days before grand tours such as this, giving me time to fine-tune them so I go into each big race with new, perfectly adjusted equipment. Now, if I put the new cleats on slightly wrong going directly into the race it would result in a sore knee for sure, which could cost me the whole race if the knee eventually flared up too much. Luckily, I ride with float cleats that have some play from side to side, which allow me a little room for error when putting on a new pair. But still, it wasn't a good omen.

Soon, however, we were at the motorcycle- and car-racing track on which Saturday's prologue would be run. As we entered the parking lot, my nerves started to flare. It was clear that the crowds were going to be incredible inside on the track. Just looking at the scene from the parking lot, I thought we were at a NFL playoff game. Once we parked, I retreated directly into the safe bubble of the team bus.

Thirty minutes before my start time I came out of the bus and jumped on the home trainer in our team area. Twenty-four minutes later, with six minutes until my start, it was time to head to the ramp. As I stepped out of the safety of the garage where we'd warmed up, I could see the size of the chaotic crowds. They were so big and overwhelming it felt like I was a gladiator striding into the Roman Coliseum before a fight to the death.

When I rolled off the ramp, I could immediately feel that my legs were great, but just after the first straightaway - despite all the days of painstakingly detailed planning - everything went wrong because of one small decision that was going to make the entire 4.8-kilometer prologue seem very long. I had chosen the wrong style of front wheel for the day's windy conditions, leaving me fighting with everything I had to keep the bike upright and under control when gusts blew.

I'm sure I took the longest way around every corner, barely ever pushing the pedals. All I could think of throughout the debacle was that I really hoped my family didn't have to watch it. It was by far the worst time trial that I have ever done. I'm pretty sure that most people watching thought I was an amateur in a really fancy outfit. The one saving grace was that my legs were good, which kept me from losing an even more embarrassing amount of time.

After all I've been through this year - multiple crashes, broken bones, missing the Tour de France - I try to keep a level head about the day. Yes, I forgot to prepare more than just my cleats before the racing started. But I hope my major mistake of the Tour of Spain is behind me now, and that I can make up for the lost time and get back to smart bike racing.

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