Director Jonas Carney reflects on Volta ao Alentejo

Jonas Carney reports on the first three days of racing at Portugal’s Volta ao Alentejo, a UCI 2.2 ranked stage race which saw the team take home two stage wins in 2013, and nearly win the overall. The 2014 edition sees the team aiming for stage wins and again attacking the overall. The eight-man team comprised of Scott Zwizanski, Brad Huff, Jesse Anthony, Tom Soladay, Ryan Anderson, Alex Candelario, Eric Young, and Carter Jones had great success in the first two stages, catapulting Anderson into third overall after he finished third on stage two’s uphill cobbled finish.

In the third stage, with a realistic chance at a stage win, a late-race crash derailed a well-placed lead out train, badly injuring Eric Young and Ryan Anderson in the process. Read through the chronology below for PD Jonas Carney’s inside perspective on the roller coaster opening stages.

Stage 1 | Castelo de Vide to Marvao | 167 km

Stage 1 was similar to last year, with a route from Castelo de Vide to Marvao. 167k. The finish is a difficult 4.5k climb to a dramatic castle built on the top of a small mountain in the western part of Portugal. Our plan was to represent in the breakaway with one of our sprinters to go after mid-race points. The rest of the guys worked to deliver Carter Jones, Jesse Anthony, and Ryan Anderson to the base of the final two climbs at the front.

Everything went to plan as Eric Young made the break and took all the “Meta Volante” sprints. Those 9 points could come in handy later on. After the third sprint we pulled Eric from the breakaway so he could help the climbers, and save energy for the upcoming stages that will most likely end in a sprint. The team did a great job of supporting our protected guys and they had great position entering the last two climbs. Ryan was our best finisher at 17th. That doesn’t sound great, but only losing six seconds to the stage winner on a very tough uphill finish, after the long travel to Europe, puts us in great position. It will keep us in the hunt for the overall.

Stage 2 | Sousel to Montemor o Novo | 192.7 km

Stage 2 was again very similar to last year’s race, which was the decisive day in 2013. We had some local knowledge, but it didn’t help much as there was not enough wind for us to attempt to open the race up. Ryan Anderson took a 3 second bonus early in the stage, which would move him up to around 6th overall. A break that was not dangerous got away and the Ecuadorian team proceeded to set tempo. Our team sat back and waited for the final 5k.

The finish was again uphill – only a 2k climb this time, but it was steep, technical, and on cobblestones so it was difficult. With 5k to go, Brad Huff, Alex Candelario, and Scott Zwizanski took the front and delivered Carter, Jesse, and Ryan into the final kilometer.

It was a huge advantage to start the technical section in the front, and Ryan Anderson capitalized by hammering it up the cobbled climb with the lead group and finishing third on the stage, moving him into third overall.

Entering the third stage, Ryan is only 9 seconds down on the yellow jersey. Tomorrow’s stage is very technical and it has an uphill finish again, but not nearly as difficult as the first two stages. We won this stage last year and we are familiar with the sprint. Hopefully we can contest tomorrow’s stage and continue moving up on GC.

Stage 3 | Redondo to Mertola | 205 km

We rode a smart race today, going all in for the probable sprint finish. We timed our leadout well and were in a good position to win the stage and/or move Ryan further up on the overall standings. There was a fast, technical descent into a town before the third uphill finish of the week, this time a sprint.

With about 1k to go, we had Brad Huff leading and Anderson and Young close behind. Then another rider lost control in one of the curves and took out about 10 guys, including Anderson and Young. They both went down very hard. Anderson is OK but very torn up. His helmet was not broken, which is a good sign. We will see how he feels tonight and tomorrow morning before we decide if he can continue to race. Young hit his head pretty hard. He has a concussion, and required a few stitches in four different places as the crash ended in a ditch filled with shale stone. He’ll be off the bike for a little while.

Stage 4 | Odemira to Santiago do Cacem | 159.2 km

With Ryan Anderson pulling out of the race after yesterday’s brutal crash, our chances of contesting the GC are now bleak. We scrapped our plan of chasing bonus seconds and stage finishes and decided to race aggressively and have some fun. The course had some terrain with which we are familiar, as the start was in the City of Odemira where Tom Zirbel and Scott Zwizanski finished 1-2 last year. Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough wind to use our knowledge of the course.

Tom Soladay represented the team in a nine man break that lasted for the majority of the race. After 100k we tried to get a second group loose, but too many teams had their minds set on a sprint. The finish, like every stage in Alentejo, was an uphill drag – this time about 1k long and Jesse would be our guy. Cando, Zwiz, Zirbel, Brad, and Carter did a great job of riding support and delivering him to the climb. Jesse jumped with 300 meters to go and got a five bike length gap, but didn’t have the legs to hold on and was caught in the last 100 meters. He’s moved up to 14th on GC, but we don’t expect any chances to move him up further.

Tomorrow is the final stage and we expect another sprint. This time the finish is more suited to the real sprinters. While we don’t have Eric Young and Ryan Anderson, we do still have two very fast finishers in Brad Huff and Alex Candelario.

Stage 5 | Alcacer do Sal to Evora | 172 km

After four days of wind and rain being in the forecast but never happening, today we got plenty of both. It was about 45 – 50 degrees and raining for the whole stage and the winds were at about 25kph. At 37k the group split in the wind and about 50 riders would never see the peloton again. We managed to keep 5 of our 6 riders in the lead group, and Jesse cooped up a time bonus that would move him up to 11th overall.

Carter Jones covered the dangerous move of the day, a 9 man break featuring most of the strong teams. The break gained almost 4 minutes, but the leaders, Euskadi, had the help of another team and as a result,  there was no hope for the break. It would come to a bunch finish, but this time with 3 kilometers of wet cobblestones, roundabouts, sharp corners, and a narrow uphill finish. Alex Candelario would be our designated sprinter. We decided to take it from the front to keep the guys safe. At 3k Jesse, Zwiz, and Brad took control as we entered the cobbles and maintained the lead into the last kilometer where Cando would fend for himself and come within a bike throw of getting on the podium, finishing 4th place.

Aside from the bad crash that took Ryan and Eric out and ruined our GC chances, it was a great week of racing here in Alentejo. We’re all flying home tomorrow and Redlands starts on Wednesday.

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