Going into the year I wanted to be at my best at the Baby Giro in June. However I assumed that maybe I would be playing a domestique role more than a leadership role. After only a few races in the u23 ranks in Europe I knew that I probably had a good shot at leading the team. This only motivated me more in training. Nate didn’t want me to get too carried away and sucked into the GC mindset and possibly sacrificing chances at stages or at least racing aggressively. I was already set on at least going for GC to start the race and seeing how it played out. We raced in Tour de Yorkshire at the beginning of May. Lining up next to WorldTour riders and then making the front selection over the final climbs gave me more confidence heading into the start of my big build towards the Baby Giro.
After Yorkshire I flew to Prague and my teammate Karel, and I, loaded up his camper and headed towards the Dolomites to ride some of the Baby Giro courses. He had organized the whole week and I pretty much followed him blindly. I was mostly riding easy that week so I got a chance to soak up the scenery that I knew I would be ripping past a month later. I am personally a big fan of doing recon. It is much easier for me to get excited about a race when I can imagine myself racing on the actual course. I also feel way more confident having firsthand knowledge about the roads, whether it be descents or climbs.
We looked at the decisive climbs of four mountain stages, starting with the stage that finished atop Passo Maniva. The road to get to the actual pass is an endless canyon that is two or three percent for what seems like forever. Suddenly the canyon opens up and you can see a snowy peak directly in front of you and as you make a left turn the road kicks up and you can see the twisty road shrinking into the distance all the way to a lodge well above the snow line. I was pretty wonderstruck riding up the climb. I stopped for a photo just about every five minutes. When I arrived at the top Karel and our Czech driver Milan were waiting in the camper with hot tea and cake, not my typical post ride meal but just part of the experience. That evening we drove over another pass with the camper scraping trees on either side as it squeezed over a narrow bike path sized road. Over the top we could see the Lago d’Iseo one of the most beautiful lakes I have ever seen.
The next morning we woke up at the foot of the Passo Mortirolo, a cycling landmark. The race would tackle both sides of the Mortirolo in one day. We rode up the “easy” side in the fog, but couldn’t get through to the other side because the snow was at least two feet deep. Milan our spontaneous driver, who barely speaks a word of English, drove us down and around the mountain to the base of the famous side which is easily one of the steepest paved mountain passes in the world. Karel and I were in awe as we climbed up through a forest as it snowed, doing a fair bit of power just to stay upright. We eventually got lost and ended up on a goat path and then turned around a few kilometers from the top because of the snow on the road. Nevertheless, seeing part of the climb put an image in my mind that served as motivation later on.
The next day goes down as one of my favorite rides I have ever done. We rode from Feltre to Falcade, the last few hours of a deceivingly challenging stage. The entire day we were staring up at snowy mountains with crazy rocky outcroppings, quite the spectacle. The last day of recon we rode all 38km of the final stage, straight up the Passo Fedaia, of which the last five kilometers average over ten percent. After an unreal week living out of a camper and riding in some of the coolest places I had ever been it was time for a solid training block, and my motivation was at an all time high.
We said goodbye to Milan after being dropped off at our base for the next few weeks: a few rooms on a little farm just outside of the bustling tourist town, Bardolino, situated on the Lago di Garda. We were joined by our fellow first year teammate Kevin and soigneur Martin Holemy. The next two weeks flew by. I was watching my weight pretty closely but still feeling better than ever in the wattage department. Completing intervals was incredibly easy on a seemingly endless number of small twisty roads above the lake and the vineyards. I always find it easier to train on new roads. While you don’t have an exact idea of the terrain or where to go, and sometimes slightly botch workouts because of it, it keeps it interesting and generally if you are in Europe you see a new beautiful place wherever you turn. We spent many of our nights in town eating gelato by the lake. After two weeks had passed in the blink of an eye it was time for my final workout of the training camp, a solid six hour day with a few sets of intervals. I decided to start the ride with Kevin, who was going full gas all day thanks to a workout he called breakaway simulation. I pushed myself as I wound my way up the switchbacks of San Valentino, the backside of Monte Baldo, the tallest peak in the area. Five hours in and after all my intervals were done Kevin and I found ourselves attacking each other up the final climb to get home, motivated to make the most out of the day. I don’t really like going hard without Nate prescribing it but I couldn’t resist and went full gas to pass Kevin over the crest of the climb. We stopped at a café at the small town at the top to catch the final kilometers of the Giro’s first big mountaintop finish, getting us even more hyped to race.
After the camp I went to Annecy, France, in the heart of the Alps for several days until u23 Roubaix. I had one workout with some VO2 efforts. I smashed the first few, feeling stronger than ever and riding up one of my favorite climbs in the world, Col de l’Arpettaz - 37 switchbacks with Mont Blanc in the background. I hadn’t been eating a ton so I started to fall off the pace a bit towards the end of the ride, but I still had one more full gas four minute effort. Two minutes in I sat up, pretty cooked from the big day and lack of food in my jersey pockets. Some days I would’ve just ridden home and written about how I cracked in my TrainingPeaks comments, but I was too motivated for that. I played the Creed soundtrack on my headphones and suffered as best I could and felt so amped after the effort that I smashed it all the way home into a big headwind.
U23 Roubaix played its proper role in my build towards the Giro, giving me a bit of race intensity without smashing or injuring me, however it wasn’t as big as expected because I had mechanical issues and a flat and had to abandon part way through.
Nate made a quick adjustment and added in some more intensity the following week. The next week goes down as the highlight of my time in Europe. I was able to train in the incredible countryside of Toscana while enjoying the Italian culture and seeing some amazing sites in the historic and crowded cities of Siena and Florence with my awesome girlfriend. I wasn’t thinking about my upcoming race all that much off the bike, but as soon as I kitted up and started pedaling I was thinking about the next two weeks. I was able to pre-ride the fabled Strade Bianche, or white roads, stage. On my final big training day through Chianti my girlfriend came along on a rented Vespa. It was sort of like a dream to be training in an amazing place alongside my favorite person right before the biggest race of my season.
I was getting the work done while simultaneously making unforgettable memories and enjoying it all. The Monday before the race I had a few short intervals and I couldn’t help but feel like I was on the best form of my life so far as well as a different kind of spark inside of me. So mentally fresh and physically prepped, I headed to the Italian beach city, of Riccione, where the Baby Giro would start. I was ready.
I rolled off the start ramp and ripped it along the pink painted bike path with fans yelling from either side of the barriers. I kept my head down until the last several seconds before the first turn, trying to minimize my drag. After a few minutes I was already on the home stretch sprinting through the line. After a minute of heavy breathing I felt completely fresh again, ready for the real race to start. It hadn’t been a standout ride in the prologue but I was within a few seconds or ahead of all the big GC favorites, so I saw it as a success, and knew that it would play little to no part in the final standings.
The first road stage saw a quick and nervous start followed by plenty of easy time in the saddle and a constant fight for position up to the final hill only a few kilometers out from the finish. I narrowly avoided a crash at the base and rode comfortably towards the front over the top and safely through the finish, feeling good for the coming days. The next day was similar, but nearly five hours. Again more of a test of focus than a physical battle, but the next day would be different.
Starting with Florence in the background already gave me a bit of a boost, and as the third stage progressed we got closer to the white roads where I had trained the previous week. Guys had been slipping off the front all day and I realized the group up ahead had to be pretty large. My teammate Thomas was up there, but that was it for our team. However most GC guys were in the group with me so I wasn’t getting anxious. Suddenly we turned off at a roundabout and I recognized the road. We headed up toward the town where my girlfriend and I had stopped for lunch and nobody was taking initiative. I accelerated ever so slightly just to lift the pace but suddenly looked back and had a gap. One guy from an Italian team came with me and urged me to push on but I hesitated for a while. Finally I realized that the group was still going easy and I could just go at a steady pace and it would definitely not hurt to have an advantage going into the white roads. It would also be safer in a small group than in the pack. We caught a few more guys on the rolling hills before the gravel began. I started pushing the pace on the last hill before the gravel and after a fast descent we made the left turn and started on the first sector. I almost immediately dropped my companions with ease as soon as it kicked up. Before I knew it I could see the team cars from the group ahead. I flew past them on a narrow downhill section, hoping there was enough room on the side because I knew if I hit my brakes hard it would likely not end well. Within a few minutes I had already made my way to a large group, way larger than I thought was up there. Four FDJ riders were pushing the pace and I started helping them out over the next few sectors, as I was one of the strongest on the hills, and knew the roads well enough to take the downhill sections quickly but safely. I realized that I was on a really good day, and when the moto finally gave us a time gap I could see that thanks to this bridge, I could end the day with a huge advantage on most GC riders. I kept pulling harder. Unbeknownst to me I rode the last ten km on a slow leak but we were hitting it hard, swallowing up the remaining breakaway riders other than a strong solo rider a minute up. At the finish I knew it had been a good day for me. The main bunch rolled through three plus minutes back. That night I couldn’t help but believe that anything was possible and I had a real shot at this race.
The next day was the first mountaintop finish, and also went up or down all day. It was pretty much on the gas from the start, but never full tilt. I was isolated in a group of fifty going into the final 12-kilometer climb. I rode the first part quite comfortably following the wheels of the Colombians who set a strong pace from the base. I briefly looked back and saw how thinned the group was. When there were only about seven of us left a Colombian attacked. As the group split I found it to be my job to close the gap. I went a tad over my limit there and found myself struggling to hold the wheel a few minutes later. I suffered, while still riding in a top ten spot, until one kilometer to go, where I faded hard all the way to 17th. I wasn’t thrilled, but knew I could do better on the next few climbing stages.
I decided that on the next one I would ride at my own pace rather than trying to match the Colombians. The next day was a rest day, something that was new to me. While my teammates all rode nice and easy I put in a few tempo efforts to keep my legs going. I felt good about the next day’s stage up to Passo Maniva. From the start I could sense my legs were a bit heavy but I kept rolling through it, knowing that everyone else was fatigued. Attacks kept going on the flat sections, which made up most of the stage. Once we arrived at the canyon it became a battle for position that seemingly lasted forever. As we made the left turn and the road kicked up I was right at the front of the pack alongside the guys who had dropped me on the previous stage, but when they attacked the climb I let them ride away, sticking to my rhythm. However halfway up the climb I saw guys I knew I could outclimb in front of me. While I had gone easier to start the climb, I felt as if I still couldn’t pick it up at the top. I finished a few minutes back, a bit disappointed with the day and just outside of the top 20, but holding my GC position in 8th.
That night I couldn’t help but be a bit worried as some really strong riders were just behind me in the standings, and I couldn’t seem to overtake the seemingly weaker ones ahead of me. The following day was the double Mortirolo stage. There would be no place to hide. As soon as my teammates and I hopped on our bikes to ride to the start I knew I had good legs. I lined up on the front line wearing the white jersey(looking after it for the Colombian Ardila who was in pink). I settled into a nice rhythm behind the Colombians and the Italian Covi on the first summit. As they smacked it over the top I didn’t overdo it and gave them a slight gap that I knew I could close on the descent. After putting my disc brakes to good use in the first few minutes, I caught the lead group and soon we were making the turn onto the next side of the Mortirolo. Almost immediately three of the Colombians accelerated ahead. Without too much effort I was the next rider behind them. I kept a strong pace but never went over my limit and only got caught by a few riders. Over the top of the climb a few of us ended up together in a group of four. Not feeling completely empty I pushed the pace and I knew we were gaining big time on anyone who was solo through this rolling section over the top of the climb. I lead on the fast descent and before I knew it the short stage was over. I had put in a good ride, and on the day where I had suspected I might have fallen apart I actually moved up to 6th!
The next day was a pretty simple sprint stage and passed without much of a hassle other than the dumping rain in the last few minutes. It was foreshadowing the weather the next day. From the start it was pouring. I personally don’t like rain at all as a cyclist. Maybe it’s because I’m from Southern California, or maybe it’s because I’ve slid out before when the road was just a bit slippery. Either way I’m not a fan of it and it usually makes me shut down a bit in races. However, on this day I knew I had good legs from the beginning. A massive break went up the road and two of my teammates were in it. I was isolated, so I had to be very meticulous about saving my energy in the pack while holding a solid position. This ended with me bumping the whole Casillo train and getting cursed out in Italian until we got to the big climb of the day, Passo Cereda. It was one of my best climbs of the race as I crested just after the Colombians, easily catching them on the slippery descent. After a few rollers we plunged down again towards Agordo. Viktor Verschaeve and I were pushing it on the front, but not that quick, when suddenly I was on the ground sliding around a switchback. I was back on my bike quickly, and regained contact with the group in the valley before the finishing climb. However, that’s when a sticky link in my chain caused my gears to skip every pedal stroke. I still felt super good, so we did a quick bike change partway up the climb and I rejoined without giving it too much. That climb flashed by and suddenly we were at the flamme rouge and I was able to match some of the Colombians’ attacks. There was a slight downhill with 500m to go and we caught my teammate Andre who had been up the road all day at the perfect time. As soon as I reached his wheel he ripped it catching up to Alba and some other rivals in the last minute. I dropped to 7th after the stage as FDJ devo’s Scaroni had been in the break and moved up to 6th. I was excited for the final day, tasting the end of the race and a good result.
The final day was only 35 kilometers, 20 of which were up the Passo Fedaia, a tough climb with brutally steep pitches in the last five kilometers. As we reached the base of the climb I felt strong, and not at all fatigued from the previous ten days. The Colombians sat on the front and before I knew it there were only ten guys left, half of which were not GC guys. I sensed that this was my chance to move into the top five. With five kilometers left Alba, the Colombian, started attacking. Immediately spitting me, and everyone other than two of his compatriots, off the back. From there the road is dead straight for three kilometers…mentally and physically painful. With a kilometer left as we passed the snow line, I looked down the switchbacks to see the Italian in 5th overall about 30 seconds down, but I would need ten more. It wasn’t meant to be as he could see me and closed a bit of the gap. I crossed the line in 12th finishing in 6th overall. I was relieved the week was over. After I crossed the line I kept riding for a few minutes to this beautiful lake atop the mountain. It reminded me how lucky I had been to experience everything I had in the past few months. I rode back down and was greeted by my remaining teammates in the camper eating pizza.
Now for the fun part - photos!