By David Rodriguez
Battered, Bruised, and Sick
As I headed into my last race with the Elite team I was nursing a bad cold most likely brought on by my crashes. I went to bed the night before what might be my last race, my morale at its lowest, praying that I would wake up magically cured.
The pack tackles the lower slopes of the Grand Ballon. But where’s Dave… oops – he’s already been dropped.
Breakfast of Champions
I awoke in the morning to the crushing realization that my cold had gotten even worse. It was nine AM and my roommate had already left the hotel room and gone down to breakfast. In two hours we would be heading to the start line. In seven hours I would be on top of a mountain, destiny in hand.
I walked groggily down to the hotel restaurant to find the team talking over breakfast. We were set apart from the other guests and allowed to eat whatever we wanted, but all they seemed to want was baguette and jam. I watched them partake in their morning ritual. Break off a piece of baguette, peel back the foil of a little plastic container of jam and spread on baguette, eat baguette, drink from bowl of coffee, repeat 100 times.
A few tables away, an overweight English tourist was loading his plate with eggs and sausage. I stared at him with a silent yearning, but then I thought of the looks my teammates and most importantly my directeur sportif would give me. I reached for a box of cereal. I pulled my hand back when I remembered that we were forbidden from consuming any dairy products before a race. Sighing, I grabbed a baguette and a little packet of jam.
Eric, our DS, was always the first up and had already finished his breakfast. He stretched his arms out while saying “Alors, les gars, we’ve got a pretty little stage today. Like a mini stage of the tour de France.” He grinned and put four fingers in the air. “Quatre Cols and a summit finish!” He stood up and looked at me. “Daveeed” he said shaking his head like he was looking at a prisoner awaiting execution. “Today, it’s the legs that talk.” He paused. “Today we’ll find out what you’re worth.”
I stared blankly back at him with a mouthful of baguette that I had chewed fifty times in a vain effort to minimize the pain I would feel when I swallowed. I closed my eyes and gulped it down.
While climbing the Grand Ballon, Dave preferred to not make matters worse by actually looking at what was ahead of him.
Come On Legs, Start Talkin’
I was trying to hold my breakfast down as the peloton approached the decisive second climb Le Grand Ballon, a 14 km monster with passages at 10%, As soon as we began the ascension, the race blew open and the 120 rider field disintegrated in a blur of pain. I found myself five meters back from the lead group of ten riders.
We had three hours of racing left and I was riding a pace that I could maintain for maybe a minute and half, desperately trying to grab the wheel ahead of me. This was the decisive moment, the moment I had been training for a year to reach. I needed that wheel, that wheel represented all my cycling hopes and dreams, and that wheel was slowly slipping away. One rider went by me, a second, a third and then a pack of seven riders went by. I cracked completely. My cadence was cut in half as group after group of riders rode by, including all of my teammates. I wasn’t strong enough.
We still had 11 km to go on the climb and my race was already over. The excuses I would give Eric started to run through my head. I was just too sick. I thought I would just climb into the team car when it came up to me.
Dave feeling much pain – sometime after the race.
The slower riding had allowed me to recover slightly and I was thinking more clearly. Suddenly, I was furious. I had come this far only to give up now. Maybe the dream was over but I was going to go down fighting. I started riding tempo. There was a small group ahead of me. I made a deal with my body; I could rest as soon as I caught the next group. But when I did, I could see another one just ahead. OK, after the next group you can rest.
I continued grinding up the mountain, leapfrogging from group to group with no idea of my relative position. With two kilometers left to the summit, I was in no-man’s land.
“Allez, David. There is another group, just around that corner. You need to catch them before the summit,” said the voice in my ear. No sooner had I turned around to verify the presence of my team car behind me than the voice scolded me. “The race is in front of you, David!” I still wasn’t used to the race radios.
I didn’t catch them before the summit but I did grab on to the back of the group on the descent. As I spun down the mountain, the pain-induced haze began to clear out of my mind and my tunnel vision began to broaden. I noticed that the TV motorcycle was following our group. It seemed strange to me that they would concentrate on a group so far back. I wondered why my team car hadn’t passed me yet to go join the other riders from my club that were up ahead. Then I noticed the yellow jersey and his one remaining teammate setting the pace at the front of the pack.
“Eric,” I said into my race radio, “who do we have up ahead?”
“Nobody,” he answered.
The town of Aix En Provence – you should go there sometime. -Photo:Ben Lazarus
After The Smoke Cleared
For some people a moment of truth can lead to an Olympic gold medal, a good job, or a beautiful woman. Mine led me to twentieth place in a bike race. I would go on to race in other elite races as I found my three race trial period extended indefinitely. But those races were the first steps in a new journey towards new goals. That mountain stage of the Tour d’Alsace will forever remain the culminating moment in the journey that I set out on when I first joined the team.
That day I feel like I earned the right to call myself a cyclist. Now I am trying to become a good cyclist. As time passes, all the thousands of ups and downs I went through during my year will fade away and I will be left with that one moment on a mountain in France when I was pushed to my personal limits and I pushed back.
While I was preparing my 2005 season in the United States an incredible footnote got added to my story as my club signed a contract to become the development squad for Cofidis cycling team. The contract means access to better races, better equipment, and a chance, however miniscule, to ride for a pro tour team.
Read part 1 of this story and find out how Dave got started racing the Cofidis’ development team.
You can reach Dave at email@example.com