Tour of Virginia

I’m picking away at a number of books at the moment, one of which is a collection of essays by writers about their worst travel experiences. This got me thinking about what my worst travel experiences have been. In my trip in fall 2010 I decided it was “Sven Luck” when all sorts of disasters happened on my travels. There are a good number of them I guess. One of them would be getting kicked off the bus in Montenegro, which I wrote about in a previous post. But I think what would be nearer the top of the list is a story from before I went on that trip, back to my days of bike racing.

In the Spring of 2007 my brother Graham and I were both studying full time in university and were both riding for the Priority Health Cycling Team. Graham was on the professional team and I was racing on the U-23 development team. For the previous two years Graham had gone down to the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia for a week-long stage race, the Tour of Shenandoah. It coincided well with the week of academic advising at school, when there were two days without classes.

In 2007 I was at the level where I had the legs and experience to hope that a trip down to the race would be worthwhile. This year it had the added prestige of being an NRC event (National Racing Calendar, the domestic professional race schedule) so it would bring a higher caliber of competition and the name changed to the Tour of Virginia.

The tour started on Tuesday, with a time trial in the morning and a criterium in the evening. We had classes on Monday, and both needed to attend these classes. Tuesday and Wednesday there were no classes, so we were only missing classes on Thursday and Friday. We planned on blitzing the drive down Monday afternoon and evening. Both of us had term papers to write for that week. I had to write a short paper for my African American Literature class as well as a research paper in my Colonial American History class (if I recall correctly, on Native Son and Bacon’s Rebellion, respectively). I recall timidly asking my professor for an extension on my term paper because I’d be gone that week and his response was “Well, I guess you’ll have to work hard early on it!” Graham, ever the procrastinator, had a series of papers due a few weeks before for his reading of Heidegger in one of his philosophy courses. I think I had an easier time of the weekend writing. I recall the basement, where Graham was working, and the study, where I was working, both covered in papers and we were up until around 4am writing the whole weekend. With strained immune systems, we both awoke to slight colds on Monday morning.

After class Monday we headed South to pick up a rental U-Haul truck which we would be driving down to the race, and picked up time trial bikes, spare wheels, water bottles, tool kits, and whatever else we would need for the race from the team owner’s place and set off. We left later than we had wished, and already feeling ill before the start of a very demanding race, desired to finish the drive as soon as we could. We had that U-Haul pegged pretty much as fast as it would go for most of the drive. We found out that it would go 90mph, but that’s where it cut out. It was a windy drive too, so the whole way down there we were steering sideways just to keep the thing on the road. It was about a 10 hour drive, which put us in the town where we would have Tuesday’s race at around 2 or 3am, and the race started at 9am the next morning.

By the next morning, Graham had recovered some of his health back, but I was much worse off. I’d spent the night blowing my nose and coughing my lungs out. Nobody in my room slept well that night! I don’t recall how the races went that Tuesday. I just remember being at the tail end of the results in the time trial and suffering like a dog in the criterium, but managing to hold on and not get dropped. I was once again sick as a dog that night, coughing up a lung, trying to recover for the blood-bath of Wednesday’s race.

Speedy speedy Graham in the TT

The Shenandoah Valley is very beautiful in April. Everything is very green, the terrain is full of rolling hills but there are also quite steep mountain roads about. Wednesday and Thursday were the epic long road stages. Wednesday was about 110 miles with two category 3 climbs and one category 1 climb, and Thursday was about 100 miles with two category 1 climbs. This was my first time in a big stage race, and with my strengths more in short distance races with lots of dangerous turns at high speeds, I wasn’t looking forward to the days of suffering ahead. Even with the best of form and health I’d have my plate full. I just had to make the time cut, which was finishing the race within 10% of the leader’s time.

The race started fast, and before we had reached the 30 mile mark I was gassed and suffering at the back. I remember Graham going to the team car to get water bottles for the rest of us and I was quite jealous of how he could so easily ride through the pack and get back in the race. I was barely hanging on! When we got to the first big climb, the first category 3, I got dropped, but in the flat section afterward, managed to suffer and catch back on to the pack. I had the unfortunate timing of catching back on to the pack just before we began the second big climb of the day around mile 45, the other category 3 climb. This spit me out for good, and I was left to battle the second half of the race with the other miserable sufferers who likewise couldn’t handle the pace and terrain. The race official’s car was far ahead of us at this time, so a group of about 6 of us held on to the side of a car to get up this climb.

I was terrified of what was waiting for me around mile 80, the category 1 climb, which was 7 miles and the average gradient at 7%. I remember suffering up it for quite some time and passing another guy and asking him how far we had to go. We couldn’t have much more than half a mile to go! But he responded that we were only halfway. I was not pleased at this news. By the time I got to the top, I realized that it had taken me more than an hour to climb that hill. An hour of pedaling my bike up a hill! I hadn’t seen any other racers for a long time, except for a few guys from the Rock Racing team whom their manager was picking up and driving to the finish line so they would make the time cut to start the next day. Silly me for being honest about my lack of talent! I was pleased at the top to see a sign saying that the next 5 miles or so were downhill. By the time I reached the town for the finish, all the course marshals had picked up the course signs, so I didn’t know where to go. I had also been on the bike for about 6 hours and was feeling rather delirious and confused. I took a few wrong turns before a car pulled up beside me and told me I was off course. I meandered my way through the finish and found where the team was parked and sat down on the curb wearily. I had missed the time cut by about 10 minutes, so I wouldn’t be able to start the next day. If only I’d hitched a ride with the Rock Racing guys!

Over the next few days since I wasn’t racing I was able to recover my health a little bit. It was disappointing though, having come all the way down there to do two days of racing and the rest of my time spent in the team car following the race. The other days were exciting, however, with Graham riding in the breakaways a few of the days and almost winning the final day. As disappointed as I was to have to finish the race on day two, at least I had limited my suffering (I wouldn’t have finished day three anyway, what with more difficult mountains to be ascended) and was able to watch Graham do well.

The race finished Sunday and we had to blitz the drive back to make it home in time for Monday’s classes. Sunday finished in a town quite a ways away from where it had begun, however, leaving us with a difficult drive back. If all went well it would be about a 12 hour drive. We picked up a passenger on the drive home, though, as Mark, the team manager, would be driving with us. The U-Haul we were in only had two captain seats. This meant that two of us would sit on the captain seats and one of us would sit on the floor between the seats in about a four square foot area.

After the podium ceremony for the final day we hurriedly packed up the U-Haul and set off. Mark likes to drive so he soldiered on through the night for the full drive. Since I had had a few days recovery and Graham was exhausted from the race, he got the other seat and I had the floor. This U-Haul was filthy. Dusty, oily, gross, and the man we had rented it from looked like Jabba the Hutt. I had a sleeping bag for a cushion between the seats and rotated from sitting on my ass, haunches or knees, or managing to somehow curl up into a ball to try to sleep.

We didn’t have directions for how to get back, we were just relying on our navigational skills and a national highway map. This would have been fine had it been a straightforward drive like it had been on the way down, but the route back was complicated. Since from my position I couldn’t see the road anyway I wasn’t part of the navigation process. I just remember that we got really lost, many curses were flung all around, we never stopped to eat, Mark driving the whole way, and being both uncomfortable and intensely unhappy. The drive ended up being about 15 or 16 hours, and we got back Monday morning at about 5am. We got about an hour or two of sleep at Mark’s house before driving up to class. I don’t recall how classes went that week.

Over the following days both Graham and I fell spectacularly ill. Turned out that both of us basically had mono or something similar. I went to the doctor after a few days and passed out in his office. Unfortunately, however, I didn’t get mono from kissing lots of girls, but by sitting on the floor of a dirty U-Haul for 15 hours and basically not sleeping for a few days after doing the hardest single day of racing I’d ever done.

So on this trip we didn’t sleep the weekend before leaving because we had to finish our term papers, I was ill during the race and didn’t finish within the time limit on day two. Graham at least managed to pull out a few solid rides in the breakaways and got third place on the final day. We were both then ill and couldn’t ride our bikes for about two weeks after. Graham got a decent result from the trip, and at least I got a good story and know that however miserable my traveling situation, it’s probably nowhere near as bad as the floor of that U-Haul.

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