The one thing that I've always liked about cycling, and probably the thing that got me into this sport more than anything else when I was younger, was the simplicity of it. It was always very simple. The harder that I worked and the more time and effort I put into it, whether it be training, recovering or stretching, the better I went. It was a simple equation and not many external factors could interfere with the correlation between hard work and direct results. In the first week of La Vuelta Espana 2003 however, this correlation was destroyed by one of those rare instances. The aftermath of it has left me feeling empty and unfulfilled. Like I have some unfinished business.
After seven days of the Vuelta, I was forced to withdraw due to a stomach virus. The start of the Vuelta had been almost a dream run. I was a little out of competition form in the early days, as I had chosen to prepare in the contolled training environment rather than using races, so I wasn't race sharp, but as each stage collected in my legs, my form was coming to the fore. Each day I took the start line, I knew that I was fast approaching where I needed to be. Most importantly, I was rediscovering my confidence and getting into the mindset where I believed I have what it takes to sprint with the best in the world.
I truly believe the Vuelta was my opportunity to take my cycling career to a new level. To show that I can mix it with the best and triumph. For the first time in my life, I felt I was ready mentally and physically. And more than anything, it was the next logical step for me to take.
...As the swell started to rise, I was paddling with it, waiting for it to pick me up. The swell was steepening, forming a huge wave and I was getting ready to stand up and ride what felt like was going to be my biggest wave yet. Just as I was about stand up though, I clipped a rock on the reef, my surfboard cracked and I came crashing down. When I resurfaced, I could see the wave surging away from me. I had been left behind. It was a good one and if I had caught it, I know that I would have been able to pull off one of the best rides of my life.....
The wheels started to fall off my dream Vuelta after stage 3 into Santander. It was torrential rain that day and this is when I must have picked up the virus. That night after dinner, I went back to my room and suddenly felt chilled and aching. Every part of my body was sore. All through that night, I had to get up every hour to go to the toilet. I had a severe case of diarrhoea and it was a sleepless and exhausting night. The next morning I felt weak but the thought of pulling the pin then never even entered my mind. I figured it was just a 24 hour tummy bug and I just had to ride it out. Unfortunately things only got worse and the 24 hr bug turned into a 48 hr bug, a 72 hr bug and finally into a week long debilitating suffering-fest. But it was during stage 7 of the Vuelta - the longest and hardest stage of the tour - that I had the worst day of all....
...I had pain everywhere and I suffered unbelievably at times just to stay with the four other riders who'd also been dropped. I tried to eat but my stomach had shut up shop and everything I swallowed soon came back up again. Even water. Things were going from bad to worse and riding the longest and hardest stage of the Vuelta on an absolutely empty gas tank felt almost suicidal. My entire body thumped with pain and I was cold and miserable. The only place I could think about were the hot mineral water Polynesian Pools in Rotorua. If they had been right there, I would've just hopped off my bike and slid into that soothing water - clothes, bike shoes, helmet and all. No doubt about it. I thought I'd hurt myself on the piss sometimes but nothing compares to how hard I punished myself that day. When we came to the bottom of the last climb, one of the other 4 riders told me we could take it easy. We only had 12kms to the finish and although all uphill, we had plenty of time to make the time cut. I couldn't say anything to him in return. I had been sitting on these guys all day, saying nothing and thinking little. I was numb. As we climbed up the last climb, I started to see stars and black spots. I couldn't push. The other 4 disappeared but I had my head down and didn't pay much attention to anything that was going on around me. All I knew was that I was going as hard as I could. I began to recognise the climb. I don't know from when but it's often like that when you race - you have a vague memory of the town or terrain but aren't able to pinpoint it exactly. Especially at this point, as I already felt like I was in some other existence.
I carried on riding but I was getting weaker and weaker. For the first time in hours, I lifted my head up to look at all of the cheering spectators coming down the mountain from their day. There were plenty shouts of encouragement but I wanted more. I wanted to be pushed, I needed help. I was longing for that moment's relief, just those few seconds where they'd push me and I would be able to do nothing. Just a couple of seconds was all I was after. Then it began. I started to go from one to the next. I knew that once it started it would continue. People love to be able to touch the riders and once someone sees one spectator get that souvenir touch, they all want to get in on it. I was hoping that this was going to save me. I started to feel a bit like tarzan swinging from one vine to the next through the jungle. Only I was swinging from one spectator to the next. Speeding up and slowing down through the peaks and troughs. I only wish I'd had the morale to bang my chest and yell...
Most of the support came from the famous men in orange. The supporters of the Euskadi Euskatel team that stand out like dog balls on the sides of the road in the big tours, going nuts. You can say what you want about Basques but there's no doubt they are the greatest when it comes to showing their enthusiasm. They love it and we love them for it and this day I could've kissed each one of them as they ferried me along. One of the other not-so-cheery spectators came along. Only he tried to Liverpool kiss one of my orange-clad mates on the forehead. I didn't stop to check it out as I had other priorities, but as the orange man let me go, he got struck by another spectator, who I guess was upset at the sight of me being pushed up the hill despite the fact that I was deadlast and over 10min down from the second to last rider. I couldn't believe it and thought that in my state I must have begun to hallucinate. I found out later that seeing was believing - it turned out to be a 20 person brawl behind me. I guess that sport is more than sport to some people - aside from the athletes themselves.
After stopping the race, the worst thing that could've happened would have been to feel well again the next day. Fortunately, this was not the case. Things were still happening from both ends! All I could do between trips to the loo, was sleep. This removed any doubt in myself and my team that I may have survived the next two hard mountain stages if I had made the time cut the day before. The door was well and truly closed. I suffered a lot over the following days with continued diahrroea and vomiting. But nothing, for a long time to come, will eclipse the suffering I endured to try and finish that day my Vuelta came to a premature end.
It has been over a week now since I stopped the race. I still haven't really come to grips with the disappointment. People tell me that I must try and turn it into a positive, that I have other races I can concentrate on and do good in. But it's not the same to me. As much as I'm trying to lift my morale and deal myself out another 'mental card', it's real hard. Especially with only 2 weeks left in my season. As our Spanish friend, Teo said, when I tried to be philosophical about the whole thing by saying there are other races I have to focus on now..."Yeah, but this was the Vuelta and you had the form to do something big. This was your moment and it may not come around again anytime soon...Que mucha pena...Que mala suerte" he would say repeatedly. He's been the only person to say what Carole and I have ourselves thought so often since my exit from the race.
I haven't even been able to watch the Vuelta on TV. I tried to the first few days after I got home from the Pyrenees but it was doing my head in. Besides, it's hard enough with people telling me that it's a shame I had to drop out and how I could've made some major results, let alone watching the sprints that I should be a part of, on the box. I guess time will be the only thing that'll get me over the heavy feeling of disappointment that I feel so much of right now. Time...and other races.
Next on the list is Franco-Belge. A four day tour in Belgium. Every race is important now. At this point, I still haven't had any word on a contract. Things are not looking good and I don't know which team I'll be going to. The big problem with our team at the moment is that most of the riders I'll be going to race with this week and next week, haven't got contracts either and will be going all out to try and get results - and contracts - in the 11th hour. It's going to be a tough couple of weeks. We'll just ride this roller coaster and see what happens.