Men’s team hangs tough and takes it’s first podium at La Vuelta Mexico: By Eric Wohlberg

Performance Manager Eric Wohlberg reports in from the 2014 La Vuelta Mexico, one of Mexico’s preeminent road races, where the men battled through days of sweltering heat, tough roads and hard climbs to take their first podium of the year. 

Stage 1
Stage 1 of La Vuelta Mexico saw a peloton of 184 ride a short 82km course with 14km of neutral. With a Category 1 climb right out of the blocks, the plan was to make sure we didn’t get caught out on the ascent and attempt to ride negative in the moves to set up Eric Young for the uphill finish. According to the race bible, only the last 200 meters were nasty, and we hoped it would be a relatively easy first climb for our GC guys, but the road just kept going up and the race was quickly turned into a triathlon. Will Routley, Tom Zirbel, Bjorn Selander, and Carter Jones were climbing well, but Routley got pinched off with 3km to go.

The guys went over the top with a group of 25-30 that Selander, Zirbel, and Jones covered, but the attacks were frequent and hard so our three guys had their hands full. Unfortunately Selander narrowly missed a move of 9 but it looked like we might fair OK, since the gap was hovering around 30-45 seconds. There was a long gradual downhill approaching, which we thought would favor the field, but the gap ended up jumping to 1:45 with Creed’s new SmartStop outfit riding the front.

Meanwhile, Candelario, Zwizanski, Friedman, and Young were driving the rear group in order to come up and help. Routley had just made it back into the lead pack and was starting to ride. I went back to rally the troops and took a fine in the process as I was encouraging Candelario, Friedman, Zwiz, and Young to come to the aid our our guys in the front group. They had been chasing pretty much since the first half of the initial Category 1 climb, and still looked strong. Cando et al. made it up to the lead group and the gap to the break was 1:45 with 10km to go. We rode through the pack and resumed chasing hard to bring the gap down to 45 seconds at the foot of the final kicker.

Here, the beauty of timing chips shone like a beacon and the front of the field was gapped up hard and everyone got the same time. This actually helped us as since all our guys are at 53 seconds – most of them would have been further back. It didn’t really favor Carter, as he felt he was closer. The day was a little disappointing. If we made the 9-man move we would have been golden, and we talked about the importance of this. Take a chance on a 3 man move, not a 7-10. But the guys put in a good effort.

Lots of days left down here and we are still in the hunt.

Stage 2

Stage 2 of La Vuelta Mexico saw a considerably longer course of 145Km and awesomely rough roads. 184 speed bumps were advertised and we easily exceeded that. Instead of announcing the rough spots, they should’ve told us when the road might be smooth and saved a lot of time. The stifling heat and high altitude made for a rough day on everyone including the equipment and rental caravan car.

Our general plan was to see what kind of defense the 472 Columbian Team  would mount, keep a close eye on Funvic and Astana, watch for big moves and have our GC guys ride the final Category 1 climb,  which topped out at 125 km into the race.

If the opportunity looked good to throw a couple soft ones in the final 20 km,  we would try. The race was neutralized several times due to detours and rough road conditions. The 472 Team rode a half hearted defense, pretty much in a bluffing match with the Funvic boys (both teams were on equal GC time). Half way through the stage,  a break of 3 got away, no 472 or Funvic, so we were happy to let a seemingly containable move ride. Then the bluffing ensued again, and the break went up to 6:30 and stayed there until the foot of the final Category 1 climb. No one was too psyched to have their team ride hard to the foot of the hill only to get blown out.

Our guys rode the hill well, Tom Zirbel and Carter Jones crested safely in the front split, and the rest of the team  dug deep to keep the separation manageable. With 20km to go the front split was at least 30-40 guys,  and was still not rolling. Gap was at 6:00 minutes, no Funvic,  472 or Jamis riding. Similar to yesterday, we had to ride to keep Carter in play for tomorrow’s queen stage, which has a very tough 10 km hill top finish.

Once our team chased back to the front split, all the guys save Zirbel and Jones lit up the final 15 km. They impressively brought the gap down to 2:07 at the line, in a total team sell out. Tomorrow’s  stage is shaping up to be a battle. We hope to get Zirbel and an additional teammate up the road in the move so he can have a head start on the climb. Carter and the rest will be watching a few key players to the foot of the final climb and then up he will go, like an Angel (of Death).

Stage 5
It was a short, 2.7 km time trial, starting with a 2 km flattish cobbled road, then finished with a 700 m ascent up to Chapultepec Castle, a monument in Mexico City. Despite cumulative fatigue and sadly more cases of the trots, the team raced well. Tom was a very close 2nd ( 3 seconds back), Will was 5th ( 12 seconds back) and Scott was 7th, 14 seconds back. The winner was the same Columbian who schooled everyone yesterday in the sprint. And he raced today Eddy Mercx style (ed. note: this means the rider used a tradition bar and bike setup, as opposed to dedicated time trial ones).

We won the team Classification for the stage, which is a nice bonus. 100 km tomorrow on a flat 5 km hotdog circuit. Should end up in a sprint, and we will have a go at it.

Stage 6
The plan for the final day of racing, a 100km, 22 lap circuit, was to go all-in for the sprint. However the final day began a little rough as both Friedman and Jones were not healthy enough to take the start. That left only 5 guys to control the race and then fire up the leadout train. As anticipated, the 472 Columbia team defended the yellow jersey well for the first half of the stage. Then a non-GC move happened at the 2/3 point and quickly opened up a gap of 45 seconds. At 4 laps to go (approx. 18 km) the Columbians backed off the pace and we knew that the eyes were somewhat on us to close it back down.

Optum Pro Cycling Training Camp

With a little help from the Kenda team, Scott and Will started riding and pulled the move back  just inside 1.5 laps to go. They then led the team into the last trip through the bottom 180 degree turn. Inside the final km, Zirbel perfectly executed the game plan of keeping Cando and Eric clear of the swarm. Then Alex took Eric to 300m to go. Passing the 1000′s of cheering spectators at speeds nearing 40mph, Young nuked it to the line for the win. Two great days in a row for us.

– Performance Manager Eric Wohlberg

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