With three stages of the 41st Vuelta Independencia Nacional in the books we were excited to see what the second half of the trip had in store for us.
The typical morning routine would something along the lines of: waking up and heading straight the breakfast (or see if there was any breakfast that day), forcing down as much rice, spaghetti, sandwiches or eggs as you could, and then getting kitted up quickly so we could follow a local team to the start. Stage Four was a little different, it was our first transfer to the start in Villa Altagracia. The course was a 138 k, 13 lap circuit about an hour away from Santo Domingo that we did the previous year as well. Nothing particularly tricky about this course aside from a somewhat narrow finish stretch so we packed our bags to bus over to the start. Upon arrival Team Captain Blake Anton showed us once again why he is such a good leader by forgetting his bibs bringing his strike count up to two. Fortunately the start was running an hour late which gave Blake plenty of time to get a pair of bright red shorts donated to his cause. The rest of the day was less exciting, which was good, everybody stayed safe and Brad Wiggs and I maintained our GC spots and nabbed a couple top 20s in the final sprint.
Back at base camp I went straight into recovery mode. Knowing what the queen stage was going to slap us around with tomorrow I wanted to be as fresh as possible to stand a chance against the small climbers. A little stretch session with Brad and a layer of Zealios Race Relief to help lower the body temp and we were good to go.
Stage five was either the day to look forward to or dread, nothing in between. With a 9 mile long, 4000 foot climb averaging eight percent 50 miles into the stage, it was something I wanted to prove myself on after last year. What should have been a calm and straight forward first half of the stage turned into a somewhat chaotic stretch. The run-in to the climb is littered with big, deep potholes. Our guest rider, Cameron Hawk fell victim to these massive holes double flatting both of his wheels and later crashing and ejecting his water bottles in two separate occurrences. Kyle hit a pothole so hard that his computer ejected, never to be seen again (thankful for tubeless wheels and tires!) Upon reaching the climb everyone helped Brad and I stay at the front while a hard pace was set to split the group and prevent any attacks. About a third of the way up the climb our group had dwindled to maybe 10 riders. Soon after, the previous multi-time winner from the Dominican Team ACT attacked, never to be seen again. Brad and I covered a few smaller attacks and powered our way over the top with the rider third in GC. A crash on the descent by our frenemy and multiple attacks later, our group of three sprinted into the finish where Brad and I went 4-5.
I kept my second place in GC but only by one second over third and Brad moved up into fourth. It was hard to be disappointed by the result of the sprint when both of us crushed the queen stage and are both now positioned high in the results. To top it all off, Kyle Kirby (who is technically the second skinniest guy on the team) turned himself inside out on the climb to help the team maintain our third place in the team GC competition.
After such a good result for the team it was only appropriate that it be followed up with the worst bus transfer back. Nothing is more unpleasant than being crammed in a small, hot bus for hours after a long hard stage. Followed up with three hours of traffic meant we missed lunch and went straight into dinner. With no second meal to hold me over and help me recover it was time to take to the streets. Last year we made a late night visit to the market a few blocks down and were quickly recommended to never do that again as it can get quite dangerous at night. But these were dire circumstances and I would not make it through the night otherwise. So I rode down, grabbed some bars and bananas and called it a night.
The next morning was the earliest wake up call yet. We were being shipped over to Santiago which was about two hours away. The course was a lollipop with a steep downhill into the penultimate corner and then a steep uphill going into the finish, making a fast and sketchy race. The goal for today was to not give up anytime. I was one second up on the rider in third place in GC, so we wanted a break to go up the road and for me to not get gapped in the finish. And the team did a great job making sure that all happened. We got a little too close to catching the break in the end but I was able to finish at the front and maintain second place in GC.
Now it’s Sunday morning, the last stage of the Vuelta is just a couple hours away. A small wave of relief is settling in knowing that soon we’ll be able to relax once the job is done. After breakfast we roll down to the start, the course for stage seven is the same as the one day Grand Prix from a week ago but a little shorter. With three intermediate sprints with bonus seconds on the line the plan was the same as the previous day. Unfortunately it seemed like other teams had different plans. During the first portion of the race no group had any luck escaping off the front for very long. Despite the teams best efforts the rider in third place got a one second bonus when Kyle Kirby got blocked on a sprint. I was now tied time wise for second place in the general classification, unsure of how the officials would score the final result. Fortunately a small group of three put a gap into the field, protecting me from losing any additional time in the sprints. After a few efforts to try and make it up there and tire out my rival we settled in for the sprint to hopefully get a small time gap. Despite finishing ahead of him in the sprint we remained tied at 7:11 back from first and since he had better stage placings throughout the week he was awarded second overall.
It was hard to accept what felt like a huge loss at first, knowing that I had almost finished as runner up in a huge stage race in the Caribbean. But in reality it was still a major accomplishment, and on top of that we were able to help Brad get fourth in GC and hold on to third in the team GC. In what has seemed like a season full of podiums so far for the team, this one was special. Being able to finally have a big result, share a podium with Brad, bring some hardware home for the team, and make this whole trip even more worth it. To celebrate a successful week we all followed up the award ceremony with a visit to the local McDonald’s. After that we returned to base and started the packing up process.
With almost all of us on the same flight into Mexico City it made getting to the airport a breeze. Upon arrival there everyone went our separate ways, congratulated each other hoping for another successful run soon at the next race (little did we know that this trip would be the last race for a while). Brad and I went our way to try and work our way into a lounge to splurge for our seven hour layover. After various attempts we settled for a celebration at the airport Chili’s. In Caribbean island fashion we ended the trip with a couple of massive margaritas. Until next time DR, we’re going to get ya eventually.