November rolls around. I swing my leg over my trusty steed to ramp up training for my final goal of the season. I am putting in some big miles leading up to the 23rd, so I can cram my face with copious amounts of turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and so much more. I must win at Thanksgiving dinner.
But alas, this year was different – a complete break from my normal tradition of gluttony, family bonding, puzzles, and cutthroat card games. For some sick, convoluted reason, I had decided to do a 10 day stage race in David, Panama from November 19th to the 28th. Most cyclists who I race against had been off the bike for 4-6 weeks at this point, and were starting to think about beginning base miles to ramp up for 2018. I missed that memo and decided to try and keep form from the Tour of Poyang Lake in China and roll straight into Panama.
My buddy who helps me run these fun, strange, adventurous international races told me it would be ‘flat and easy,’ and I had never been to Panama, so it was really a no-brainer. I got a rag tag group of 4 riders together and we were in. The flight over was a bit of a disaster after a cancelled flight and an overnight in Panama City, but everything worked out as I still got there 2 days before the race. 3 of us went zip-lining in the Boquete mountains above David the day before the race and hours before the team presentation, because why not?
The accommodations for the us at Hotel Madrid were pretty good, with super friendly staff and working air conditioning. We got every meal at a local restaurant, and the food was good as well, if not nearly identical for every single meal – rice, beans, chicken, one piece of iceburg lettuce and one slice of tomato and some form of plantain. Every meal. Needless to say, we made a habit of running to the grocery store to grab candy, cereal, bananas, coconuts, and pineapples often.
20 teams and 110 riders started the race, with 5 teams from Colombia, including their top 4 continental professional teams. The race no longer sounded easy. Day 1 was a hotdog circuit on the Pan-American highway. Lots of hard rolling hills, but not enough hills to drop me. After surviving to the end, Wolfgang (guest rider) and I were fighting in the top 10 and everything was looking towards a top 5 result or better on the stage as we fought for position against the big sprint trains. Unfortunately, the leadout we were surfing fell apart with about 600m to go and I got stuck on the front. Crap. Little did I know this would be my first and only shot at a big stage result as I got swarmed by riders in the uphill drag to the finish.
The racing ended up being the hardest I have ever done without question. It was hard on the flats, brutal on the rollers, and completely unsustainable on the hills – this was a combination of pace, heat, humidity, and always tailwind climbing. During the race, we did 2 of the most serious mountains I have ever climbed. One was a 6,000′ climb up to Cerro Negro partway up a dormant volcano (Volcan Baru). It ended up being a one hour and 50 minute nonstop climb for me. Ouch. https://www.strava.com/activities/1290346354
As if the racing itself wasn’t hard enough, the pavement was absolutely brutal. Between 3 of us, we had 15 flat tires during the stage race, ever single one from pinch flatting, and our team van even got a flat tire. We broke 2 wheels and had to replace 3 tires that were destroyed from the potholes and pavement. None of the damage was from crashes either.
You know how some days, everything clicks into place? You get lucky, your legs feel amazing, and you are one with your bike? Stage 9 was not one of those days for me. I cracked. I was fighting sickness, we had just finished the 2 hardest stages of the race (Cerro punto and the queen stage: https://www.strava.com/activities/1292158068) and were 700 miles in. My legs just weren’t having it, I had multiple flat tires, and I did more motor pacing during this stage just to stay alive than I have in my entire 18 year career combined as a bike racer. I am not proud of it, but I just wanted to finish the stage race, maybe get lucky the last day in the circuit race, and go home. https://www.strava.com/activities/1293111980
At this point, the thought of home and my Marc-Pro were the only thing keeping me and Dominik Cinka (guest-rider) alive. We would each us the Marc-Pro for 1 to 2 hours after every stage on our quads, hamstrings, calves, butt, back, neck, and shoulders to combat the beatings our bodies were going through.
The final stage started off well, but soon became a disaster. I was able to get off the front and rocked a breakaway for the first time all race before getting reeled back in. Dom flatted, got a spare wheel from the neutral follow car as only the top 5 team cars were allowed on course and was getting paced back on when the neutral car missed a turn and took him way off course before flipping a U-turn and leaving him stranded in the middle of nowhere. He pulled the plug and rolled back to the hotel. A few laps later, I flatted and no car gave me a new wheel. So I just sat on the side of the road, 4km away from the start and our team car, when I remembered a kid feeding his team one KM back up the road. I walked back to him, borrowed a wheel from him, then got back in the race when the field came around again. I had to finish the Vuelta Chiriqui. Sadly, I wasn’t placed in the results as I was one lap down (about 7km) but my Vuelta Chiriqui experience was over. Technically, we had only 1 finisher with Jefferey May in around 70th place. Brutal.
40000 feet of climbing
Winner’s average speed was over 27 miles per hour
It was one heck of an experience and the hardest race I have ever done. Panama is a beautiful country and the people were incredibly nice, hospitable, and friendly, but flat and easy, this race was not.
Thanks for tuning in,