Our team recently had the honor of competing in the team time trial at the 86th Road World Championships in Tuscany, Italy, centered around the ancient, beautiful city of Florence. It was the first-ever running of worlds in Tuscany, and the second time in two years the men earned the team time trial (TTT) invite, due to their second place finish in the UCI America Tour.
It was the first chance for the women in their first year as a UCI registered team, and they used the race as fitting capstone to their six-week campaign in France and Italy, their first trip to Europe together under the Optum p/b KBS flag. Our program was one of only five in the world to bring both men’s and women’s team to the race, but hopefully more teams will follow suit as the sport continues to modernize its ethics.
Both teams were stationed near their respective start lines. For the men, that meant a house in the hills near the small, non-tourist town of Pescia. For the women, that meant a house in the hills near the small, non-tourist town of Nievole. Tuscany is a picturesque place. Uniformly green and lush, with colorful foliage dotting the landscape, it was similar to the idealized version of the region I had in my head, courtesy of our friends in Hollywood. Rural towns like Pescia and Nievole have a distinct old-world quality, with fantastic bakeries, gelato shops, and family-style restaurants and Neapolitan pizzerias.
Helping to support that “old-world” feel, reliable internet access in Tuscany is very hard to find. Chalk it up as another thing we spoiled Americans take for granted, but it’s amazing how helpless you can feel without instant access to the world wide web. It’s also refreshing to be disconnected from it all, as it’s become second nature for people to slide out iPhones at the slightest hint of boredom. It’s good to remember that there are ways to stay entertained besides scrolling through endless tweets and curating our Facebook profiles.
When the teams settled into their secluded hillside digs, the directors set about completing a dizzying array of preparatory tasks. Planning routes and training schedules, attending manager’s meetings and registration, scoring LeMond Revolutions from a local distributor, and tracking down some bike bags stuffed with gear lost by the airlines all fall onto the plate of the director. They are usually at the center of a whirlwind of logistics.
Mechanics Bob Gregorio and Mike Gavagan, each functioning as a one-man service course, stay very busy. TT bikes require extra care, with complicated headsets and scores of rider-specific measurements. The bikes must be expertly tuned, as one mistake, whether a crash, flat, or a dropped chain, can spell disaster for a rider caught outside tightly choreographed TTT formation. With the slipstream effect in full swing, speeds surge above 40 MPH. A twenty foot gap would be impossible to bridge for rider dropped due to mechanical issues. Mechanics carry part of this burden.
Logistically, it is challenging for a continental team not based in Europe to jump the pond and quickly gear up for such a big event. A team like Belgian outfit Omega Pharma-Quickstep, who won the men’s TTT by less than a second over Orica-GreenEDGE, has an array of vehicles, a massive team bus, and lots of staff to help make the riders comfortable as they prepare to suffer on race day. We do things a bit more by the seat of our pants. We don’t know the great roads to train on, so we seek them out. We don’t know the best and cheapest places to stay, so we gamble a bit on accommodations. Transporting bikes is a big issue, as without the hand-built rack systems in our trailers back home, bikes are essentially stuffed into the back of a rental truck and tied down tight. Our men and women are capable of competing and winning against the best in the world, but it requires some extra effort.
Once training began, another thing became quickly apparent – Italian drivers are aggressive. Despite the fact that 95 percent of motorists are piloting pint-sized hatchbacks, there is a definite need for speed on the Tuscan roadways. People drive fast, tailgate you when you don’t, and pass whenever possible. Scooters occupy any available space, slicing through openings in gridlock traffic with a confidence that is astonishing. It makes driving an exercise in patience, as daydreaming at the wheel could result in catastrophe.
This fast & furious mentality can make training rides somewhat difficult. Simulating the tight pace line of a TTT is hard enough, and on open roads it can become dangerous, with a rider in proper TT positions stares at the few feet of road in front of them. Directors follow their teams in support vehicles for extra protection, and European drivers are used to sharing roads with their spandex-clad friends, so things went pretty smoothly.
Following our freelance training sessions, each team is given a scheduled time to tackle the freshly-paved course with a police escort the day before the race. This run-through is crucial, as the directors compile extensive notes on bumps, manhole covers, roundabouts, blind turns, and anything else that could shave precious seconds. Riders soak it all in, committing the course to memory like studying for a live-action final exam.
All of this comes into focus on race day, as the teams silently assemble their gear and warm up on their trainers. There is an electricity in the air at races like this, where one small miscalculation by athletes or staff can spell disappointment for all.
The courses, 56.8 km. for the men and 42.8 km. for the women, were split into two distinct and incongruent parts. Part one was simple, running across mostly straight, flat pavement, and would be a test of power and aerodynamics. Part two was all about technique, throwing riders onto the narrow passageways and asymmetrical stone pavers of downtown Florence, speeding by the city’s spectacular 150-years-in-the-making Duomo. The duality of the course meant riders lulled by the straightforward run-in would be courting disaster for the chaotic finish.
The women finished in 8th place, a solid result for their first-ever competition together in the TTT discipline. The men had a rough day, with one rider falling of the pace earlier than expected. In the TTT, one rider dropped means five riders tasked with sharing that extra work. Over 30 miles of riding at 30+ MPH, being down a rider causes a huge power discrepancy. Teamwork is so important in the TTT, that it really doesn’t matter who your strongest rider is. It isn’t a leadout train, despite how it may look. Capturing a result calls for a cohesive unit to suffer equally. The men finished in 23rd place out of 33 teams, left wanting more. They will have another year to think hard about what it takes to be successful in cycling’s most unique and challenging discipline.
There is truly no better way to cap off a season and reward athletes for a year of hard work than at the world championships. Although it is a reminder that the team has room to grow on the European scene, it is invaluable practice for the future. I strongly believe we will be back next year with both teams stronger than ever, pushing further up the standings of the world’s best teams.