Racing in developing countries is always an adventure, and the 2014 Vuelta Ciclista a Nicaragua was no exception. Surprise finish lines, surprise bathroom visits, errant trucks and livestock, and loose interpretations of the rules and ethics of road bike racing greeted Team Clif Bar Cycling as they tackled the 14th Vuelta Nicaragua on their Argon 18 road and time trial bikes in October 2014. Riders took turns writing reports each day, providing unique perspectives on surviving a five day national tour in a foreign land.
Etapa Uno - Pete MorrisDay 1: We woke up to the scrape of silverware and yelling of various expletives in espanol. The other teams are all much more rambunctious than we are at 6:45. I'm not even sure if they drink the coffee, but even Mark, our resident expert, said that 3 cups of the stuff they serve at our hotel is about half as strong as his cup at home. I guess they must export all the good stuff. Anyways, we all hurry to get kitted up to be ready to roll at 7:45 with the other teams that are staying at the hotel. After standing and waiting around, which would become a new theme for the day, we follow about 40 other cyclists out on to the streets of Managua. During this expedition to the Claro! HQ we learn that hand signals and blatantly ignoring all stop signs, stop lights, and generally acceptable directions to travel on specific sides of the roads are all to be ignored. We only take a handful of wrong turns and ask for directions a few times, which almost always involved spinning around in a huge traffic jam and effectively making every single person in their car very angry at us.
We finally hear very loud techno music and roll into the huge blow up banner and the sign in. We all hang out and drink a couple more bottles each because it's already 90 degrees and the humidity is somewhere between someone spraying you with a hose and being dunked into a swimming pool. After the president of the whole Nicaraguan sporting federation gave us another shoutout for coming all the way from American, and referred to us as American Brothers at least a few times, some very short-dressed podium girls took pictures with all the VIPs that were at the send us off. We all agreed we probably didn't need any pictures with them. Not that they weren't good looking, but they weren't good looking.
Time to hit the neutral 10k rollout with a rolling police escort that proceeded to get overwhelmed by the sheer amount of traffic and we came to a complete stop a few times. Just to make sure we were properly riled up, we did a few punch climbs at a pace I would describe as soul crushing, but it was all evened out when we hit a stretch of cobbled road, and even the commissar's car could not keep up with TCB as we rolled off the front of the field. After arriving at the new start and a quick cinco quatro tres dos uno! we were off.
The race began in a serious rainstorm that had started during the roll out, and as the first attacks were flying, the amount of rain hitting you in the face would have drowned a small child. TCB quickly adopted the style of racing and were in nearly all of the moves. One move of two guys got a little bit of a leash and we quickly assembled and shut it down as a show of force. Little did they know, the real show of force had yet to come. With all 5 of us rolling the top 20 wheels, the first sprint point came up. At 3k to go we were lined up on the front, cruising over 30mph and keep the field single file behind us. I've never had such an amazing leadout and we had 4 guys left at 1k to go (this may or may not have to do with Menso's ability to ride literally double of these guys thresholds for numerous kilometers in a row) and Miles, Jacob, and Blake all smashed it and I got to hit the wind first and hold on to in front of a couple real sprinters that were very confused about what had just happened. It looked exactly like UHC/Sky whatever mega team you want to mention. It was glorious. After that we had a lot more respect and they let us do it again for the 2nd sprint. With the sprints out of the way, most of the teams decided to throw their cards in at attacking over and over and over. We all rotated through and covered move after move, and I remember thinking to myself that I was starting to get a little bit tired. Unfortunately, that's when the real haymakers started flying, but luckily we had Miles just cover the 5 hardest attacks of the whole race, all in a row, like it ain't no thing. I can't stress enough how amazing the team rode and how we were always where we were supposed to be and rode just extremely well. That is until I started cramping with 5k to go. As I came out the back of the field, one of our new friends gave me our bottles we had stashed in his backpack/moto/neutral wheel/onesizefitsall follow scooter, and another scooter came up and handed me a couple bananas from the 5 year old riding on the back with orange sunglasses. I downed two bottles and two bananas in 30 seconds and fought my way up to the field. It was getting fairly rough and that's when I saw TCB lining it out again and setting up the sprint. The signage was completely off and they moved the finish line a couple K closer and I watched a sprint 10 wide go to a guy that somehow got his arms up in the air over a thin white line and the race was over. 3 guys in the top 10ish because they don't really care after top 5, and we all stayed upright and rode like machines.
Etapa Dos - Menso de JongToday started much like the last, with 6:30 AM and delightful Latin American music coming way too soon. It is strange, though, to be in a stage race but not be physically worn out, since the stages are the shortest of any road race I've ever done. No sketchy neutral start was called for today, but we still had to wait the standard hour in the sun at a random gas station on the edge of Managua before a jarring immediate start to aggressive racing.
The big teams wanted to show their stuff today, so the first 40k of rolling hills was a never ending series of attacks that couldn't possibly get away since we were going 50kph. The guys did a great job following surges so I wouldn't have to burn any matches, and thankfully the Movistar team took charge and started riding tempo on a long gradual downhill. At the bottom of it we made a 180 at a roundabout and headed right back up the way we came, with the field strung out and beginning to suffer even on the slight 2% grade. Pete and Miles did some good tempo setting on the front to discourage surges, but we unfortunately lost Jacob to a rear flat and he began what turned into one of the longer, hotter, two-water bottles solo rides of his cycling career.
The remaining four of us made the right line choice and were able to slot into the top twenty before the big climb of the day began at 52km, a 6km stair stepping highway that ascended in a near straight line. Pete brought me a bottle and then started calling for grupetto, and Blake made it about five minutes up the first of three main ramps before overheating his engine, but not before opening up a lane for me to move into the top ten. I sat on in the big ring drag race up the hills from then on, content to let the lighter guys duke it out for the KOM points at the top. I considered sitting on the front and riding VO2 max for five minutes to whittle the group down, but with the TT coming up I didn't want to blow myself out for nothing. Miles was not far behind, but just too far, and ended up in no man's land with a small second group and finished with them.
By the middle of the second ramp, the main selection had been made and Movistar was riding a good hard tempo on the front. The final 500m ramp was around 9%, but 500m isn't far so I wasn't worried at all. I went over the top with five guys, just a few seconds back from the ten or so that sprinted for the KOM, and quickly caught on and then tucked past them on the steep, straight descent. But before the fireworks went off on the last steep 500m of the climb, I got a few words in with the most awesome person in the race.
Edith Guillen is the reigning Costa Rican women's ITT champion, and is racing the Vuelta Nicaragua with a men's team! On the first stage, she was given a call up and got more applause than any of the men, and then proceeded to finish comfortably in the main group. Even after that display, I was still a bit surprised to see her in front of me after nine minutes of what for me was low zone 4 climbing. The group was fewer than 40 at the point, so I rode up next to her and told her "eres fuerte!" and then flexed my skinny arm to make sure she understood through my gringo accent. She smiled and laughed, but unfortunately that was the moment the dudes on the front decided was the right time to start sprinting. She eventually finished with the second group on the road and I'm interested to see how far through the field she finishes in the ITT on Friday.
After blitzing the descent with the red leader's jersey wearer, he and I had the unenviable task of responding to attacks from three teams with 5-6 riders present in the front group. I was glad when a second small group joined us, bringing the Movistar team back into the lead group. With four strong teams unwilling to work together, the burden was lifted on me and I was free to tailgun the 30 rider group as a few guys made solo attempts and Movistar sat on the front riding a decent pace to keep them in sight.
As appears to be normal in this country, the race organizers were once again woefully unable to measure the distance of their course, and our 135km race ended up being only 97km. Without teammates, I had to surf wheels at the finish, but I was definitely stronger than the bunch on the false flat drag to the line and came across a respectable 7th after not really sprinting so much as jumping from group to group.
The rest of the field filtered in over the next hour, we all had lunch, drank probably a dozen bottles each, and headed back to Managua to prepare for tomorrow. I'm excited to put my power to good use on the 38km flat ITT, and the other guys are treating it as an easy day and going for a nice hour long ride on the course to save their legs for Saturday's road race. I'm sitting in 9th, tied with eleven guys on time, with only bonus seconds separating the eight in front of me. With some luck and composure, I should be able to make up that time tomorrow.
Etapa Tres - Miles "Burmese Python" LamonStage 3 was a “40 km” time trial in the outskirts of Managua. From the previous two days we have learned that most race distances here are not the most accurate… Yet being a slightly shorter course provided us with some relief. It was probably one of the hottest days most of us have had on the bike. Probably close to 100 degrees and 95 % humidity. Not only did we have to battle the heat, most of us were also battling illness as well and made this a brutal day. One to survive, recover and prepare for another day. We arrived at the start of the TT and it was again a start at a gas station parking lot, with no available shade within site in the intense heat. The plan for the day was that those of us outside of GC contention that we will soft pedal it, while Menso’s plan was to absolutely crush it. I rode at what I thought was a soft tempo, keeping my heart rate at only 155 bpm… although I was enlightened by my teammate Jacob on how to properly soft pedal a TT. So soft pedaling a TT really means going at like 85% of your max on a road bike when your 30 minutes down on GC and the other contenders have full blown TT rigs and aero gear. That is how it is done, basically he's not a wimp and is a man with a mind for victory. An impressive ride on a tough day. Blake, Pete and I all kept it in our pants today, even though we all have c**** like Burmese pythons and legs like fucking canons, we chose to save those blessed gifts for stages later in the week. Menso put in an incredible ride even with his deep tubular wheel flatting about 2 minutes before the start. After much yelling en espanol, he found a random rear wheel from another team. After suffering like a champ on the way out he really put the power down and had a faster split on the way beck finishing 8th about 2 minutes down on the winners time. Four guys averaged over 49kph on the rolling course, undoubtedly aided by passing big rigs. Cheating to get ahead seems to be a fact of life in Latin American racing. Undaunted, Team Clif Bar kept our composure today even with the heat and various fluids exiting our bodies, and lived to ride another day.
Etapa Cuatro - Jacob GerhardtManagua-Boaco: 84 kilometers
Today started with an early 6:45 wake up. All of us have been dealing with some sort of serious stomach ailment that we picked up after the second stage, which includes but is not limited to vomiting, diarrhea, chills and stomach cramps. Needless to say most of of were not feeling our finest. The start today was at a Claro! HQ about 10k from our hotel. There was a nice cafe next door to the start so we were able to get out of the 90 degree heat and down some coffee before the neutral roll. After the time trial the previous day in the 100 degree heat the pack seemed satisfied with a mellow neutral 10k roll to the start line. This gave us the chance to warm up and gauge how we were feeling for the race. A few of us had not eaten breakfast (or had lost it right before the start), so we were downing water and Clif blocks at the highest rate possible. The race started with a fast flat stretch about 15k long, before making a right turn and starting a series of rollers. A break went almost from the gun of about 5 riders, and the teams high up on GC kept things strung out until the town and a right hander. We rode together about 3 or 4 teams back and just tried to keep things consistent and smooth so Menso could save as much as possible for the mountain top finish. As we rolled through the town at around 30 mph a pick up truck took a turn directly in front of the peloton, the leading two teams smashed into the side of it and a good number of guys went down. We had just enough time to react and avoid the carnage. The race was stopped for a good 10 minutes. We took this time to down a few bottles each and load up for the rest of the race.
The race was restarted directly after the right hand turn with 55 km to go and the break at 2 minutes up on the field. From here on out the course was rolling with two 3-5 minute kickers before beginning the final 10km climb with a mountain top finish. As we rolled passed the tethered horses (which I learned later take the place of mile markers since no one in this country knows how to measure distance correctly), one horse in its exuberance to follow the race broke its tether line and galloped along with the race.
As we hit the first of the climbs the field began to shrink. The heat and humidity was taking it's toll. We climbed and descended what felt like endless rollers as we approached the main climb. Pete brought Miles, Menso and I one last greatly needed feed before we began the climb. The first kicker split the field in half with a 1000 watt acceleration followed by a hard effort over the top. We rolled down the backside and moved up in the reduced field a little. The second roller was just as hard and Miles and I cracked hard with about 8k to go. Menso continued on in a greatly reduced field and Miles and I soft peddled it the rest of the way in. On the main climb Menso kept it hard a few seconds behind the leaders. As the 7C team car was trying to feed their riders alongside him and officials on the side of the road were shouting to inform him of the surprise "1k to go". Things got hectic and he crossed the line 300 meters later in the top 10....yet another example of the expert measuring skills of the Nicaraguan officials. Miles and I crossed the line a few minutes later and then Pete came through. Blake however was a no show for the next 15 minutes or so. Come to find out he was making himself acquainted with the local foliage in the form of toilet paper and hurling the remaining remnants of breakfast on the side of the road. He refused to get in the broom wagon however and crossed the line within the time cut.
We had lunch and a refreshing swim at a nearby hotel and made it back to Managua before the biggest rain storm I have ever seen rolled through.
As a side note: apparently the hotel staff thought Pete was Thor and I was Captain America, so they all had to have at least three pictures each with us.
We all seem to be on the mend and are thrilled to throttle the criterium tomorrow.
Etapa Cinco - Pete MorrisToday was the 5th and final day of our Latin American adventure race, and culminated with the race we (everyone but Menso, but even he a little bit) were really looking forward to. Unfortunately, the sickness that had taken hold in each and every one of us at varying intensities was trying its best to make sure none of us felt spectacular going into it. We had laid down some solid planning, and the green jersey was well within my grasp with some clever lead outs and tricky cornering, and we were looking forward to one final show of horsepower like we were able to do on the first day.
We rolled down to the crit, only to find that the course didn't even closely resemble our map that we had been studying, and they had managed to fit quite a sizable hill, some people may disagree with me on that point, and a 180 into our flat 4 corner we were promised. We soldiered on unfazed and were getting primed for a 35k final showdown. After a laughable neutral lap that took every bit of shouldering and nearly all out sprints to keep myself just barely on the front row, we briefly put our feet down and we were off.
The first 3 laps were insane, and I think a couple of the teams had just decided to try and make or break the race right there. By 2 laps in you could see groups of 5-10 riders gapped off every few hundred feet and the lead group was already down to 30 or so riders. The pace didn't lift going into the sprint and we weren't quite sure whether the correct lap was really being announced, but some poor positioning our part left us unable to contest the first sprint up the serious roller that had start/finish planted nearly at the top. After reassessing the pace and our plan, we decided to let the teams tire themselves out over the next couple sprint points and really make it happen and go for the stage. The pace barely backed off as the race continued and we notched the next two sprints without incidents, staying in the steadily shrinking lead group.
Once we hit a few laps to go, we tried to get organized and line it up. We had some bobbles, but we all made it on each other's wheels after a couple tries. In the end, our efforts from the past few days caught up with us and with one lap to go we just couldn't keep our train in front of the rabid pack and we let Menso run wild off the front continuing his lead out. He lead the whole last lap and lead out the sprint for another top 10 for the race.
It was sort of a lackluster result, and definitely not what we were aiming for, especially with our forte being crit racing. After all the dust settled, we had to be really happy with what we had accomplished with a top 10 in every stage, a top 5 on stage one, and a leaders jersey for a day. I know we always talk about the dice falling in our favor, and this was the time it did. Except we were all very sick. I'm not saying we would have won the whole thing if we were healthy, but the first stage showed what we were capable of and everyone thought we were a paid pro team with how we rode. We did everything we wanted to do until the crit, and to be honest we were just barely hanging on being alive, let alone the racing part. I was blown away at the things we were able to do, especially being forged on the fly and not having any real experience doing it. It gives us some hope, and something to remember next time we set out to do something that we haven't done before.