When you crash out

We’ve learned that the world of pro cycling has its ups and downs, and one of the big downs is being out of a race before it’s over.

We drove to Pismo Beach on Tuesday morning and picked up Eric at his team hotel just as his RALLY teammates were mounting up to ride down to the beach for their start. The team of eight would be seven. On Stage Two in California Eric had suffered a crash on the roads out of Modesto that cost him his bike and some time. When you go down in a pro race you seldom know why—someone ahead hits a pothole or two guys touch wheels or something, so one goes down then three behind him, then five or six behind that. Eric hit the pavement at 30 mph, and if you don’t break your collarbone (the most common serious injury in cycling) then you mount up again and speed to catch up. Unless your bike is damaged. Eric’s right-side brake lever shifters were damaged, so he stood and waited for a replacement from his team car that follows the race.

The yellow jersey, Marcel Kittel, went down at the same time, but Kittel’s team is strong enough to send someone back to help pace him forward if it became necessary. Eric pretty much knew he’d be on his own to make his way back. The tail end of a pro bike race consists of dozens of vehicles: officials, team cars, media, neutral support (sponsored by SRAM and willing to help anyone), medical, and law enforcement. In order to chase back to the peloton you dodge the cars, drafting behind each one for a minute or so and playing leapfrog all the way through. Eric was riding a replacement bike from the top of his team car, and it’s a race bike like his own but isn’t dialed in on his body specifications—so it’s a tough day ahead.

The toughest part is that he knew he’d have to catch the group before they started climbing and if he couldn’t do it he’d have to climb alone. He couldn’t do it, and he did climb alone which is like a death sentence for a sprinter like Eric—he spent the rest of the day pushing through the wind by himself. Exhausted and sore from hitting the pavement, he suspected the worst. The UCI time cut is 10% above the winner’s finishing time. Stage Two, Modesto to San Jose, was won by Rafal Majka who also went into the yellow jersey. Majka took 3 hr 44 min, so the time cut would be 23 minutes later. There were 41 riders who finished together 20:46 back, and they were all safe. This grupetto included most of the big-team sprinters like Kittel and Jon Degenkolb and Wouter Wippert. None of them climb well, and they all know how to conserve their energy for the next day’s race. That was the group Eric couldn’t catch.

The team drove to Pismo Beach that afternoon, and we later learned what a terrible day it had been all around for the team. No one had made the break group so the whole RALLY day had been pretty much of a disaster. Besides Eric, Adam De Vos had also suffered a minor crash that left him sore and bleeding and all had lost time in the race standings. Evan Huffman, their best overall, was 12 minutes down.

In Pismo Beach the next morning I pulled into a Shell station across the parking lot from their team motel, and Carol walked over. Eric came out wheeling his bag, got in, and we left Pismo Beach about two hours before the race start. We talked about how to spend the day. He had a flight out of LAX at 7 pm, so we just needed to get him to the airport about 5. We decided to take our time getting there and see a bit of wine country on the way—the Santa Ynez Valley that the Hollywood film Sideways had used for locations.

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