Ben King reports: Volta Catalunya

What it's really like to race a WorldTour stage race

3 months ago by Ben King

Hey! It’s nice to report in six months after I last pinned on a number. Following an excellent training camp with Rally Cycling my fitness jumped to another level. My expectations were moderated by the fact that other guys have racing in their legs and Catalunya is one of the most physically challenging races on the calendar due to the fact that it is filthy with huge mountains and only climbers attend. The power tests I’d done in training were encouraging, but racing is the only test that matters. An untimely setback the week before racing prevented me from riding for a few days, but I hoped to ride into the race. Our underdog team had ambitious goals.

Masked up. Left to Right: Joey Rosskopf, Gavin Mannion, me, Nick Zukowsky, Colin Joyce, Nate Brown.

Masked up. Left to Right: Joey Rosskopf, Gavin Mannion, me, Nick Zukowsky, Colin Joyce, Nate Brown.

Volta Catalunya: 7 Stages

Stage 1: 183 km

For whatever reason this 3000 meter climbing stage was considered one of the “easy” days, maybe because the finish is flat. I tried a couple of attacks at the start, but something felt off. Then the course kicked up forcing me to mid-pack. At one point as attacks flew I watched a Quickstep rider trying to advance up the left side. One of the referee motorcycles whizzed up the shoulder of the road and plowed into him from behind. He crashed hard, and for all the talk of rider safety these days nobody ever really mentioned it in the press. It was one of the more shocking things I’ve seen in my career.

Once a break escaped we settled into chase pace. We climbed a shallow grade on twisty roads for an hour then took a short descent. A rider in front of my crashed in the corner before another climb kicked up. I reaccelerated and basically sprinted for two minutes to catch the back of the peloton. It never happened. I joined a small group and I was left wondering where all of my training fitness had gone. Regardless, I was happy to be racing and still optimistic.

Stage 2: 19 km

This short day would be a chance to recuperate and reset for the days to come, except it was my first time on my new TT bike and the position tweaked my legs.

 

Stage 3: 208 km

I followed the first attack again, hoping to find some momentum and rhythm. But, the move put me on the back foot. Colin made the day’s breakaway and we tucked in for the long grind to the finish. When the final climb started, I was one of the first to drop anchor. Something felt way off, but I tried to enjoy the views and grind to the finish in the company of Luke Rowe. I did see a chamois, a wild mountain goat. It launched across the road just twenty yards ahead of us in a cloud of dust and straight down the sheer face of the mountain.

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Stage 4: 171 km

The “Three Climb Day” as we came to call it reached to high altitude at each summit. The race for the breakaway shredded the peloton on the first climb. We regrouped on the descent and everyone I knew made some flabbergast expression of the intensity. On the second climb I held on as long as possible then found a group to grind over and up the final summit surrounded by snowy peaks.

Stage 5: 204 km

After the previous day’s uphill start we buckled up. Still full of optimism I was aggressive at the start. I knew that given my apparent climbing form or lack of it my best chance to make the break was before the road kicked up. When it did I drifted slowly to the back of the peloton which stretched into a long fragile line. Less than one kilometre from the top I lost contact, but fought my way back on the descent. As I reconnected the road punched up again. I made a huge effort to get back to the front just as a very large group took off and that was it.

The rest of the stage I kicked myself replaying the start over in my mind in frustration and shame. Eventually, I reasoned that I just needed to be stronger. Mid race Gavin crashed hard. He lost a lot of skin but battled on. We all lost contact on the final climb of Mont Serat. It’s striking rock spires, a reminder of how small we are. My group, packed full of incredible climbers also reminded me that I’m closer to where I want to be than is shown in the results.

A brief moment to chat with Tejay.

A brief moment to chat with Tejay.

Stage 6: 203 km

Despite close to 3000 meters of climbing this stage suited the sprinters more than any other. I followed the first attack again to no avail. It looked like Gavin had made the break for us, but he never connected with the leaders. The first three hours were miserable for me. I suffered so much on the bike that I found myself in a grumpy mood. The screaming descents on twisty roads created such a strong elastic effect that whenever the road straightened out I had to sprint as hard as I could. There were times when tunnel vision narrowed my periphery. All I could do was shift into a bigger gear, stand up and hope I didn’t lose consciousness when I started seeing stars! Finally 50 km from the finish the pace mellowed out.

We had a plan to protect Colin for the final climb ten km from the finish. Although we were all suffering, we lined up at the front. With 15 km to go I even followed an attack. We passed the climb, and Colin did his best to freestyle the sprint. He put himself in great position. The way we worked together, and the way we rode the final showed me that we are much closer to where we want to be than is shown in the results. It will click soon.

Stage 7: 137 km

The steep climb in the finishing circuit combined with the shorter duration makes this stage one of the most difficult to finish within the time cut, a percentage of the winner’s time. I felt better going for breakaways at the start, but when the road kicked up after ten km, making the breakaway became more of a selection than a roll of the dice to get in the right move. A few riders got dropped and never came back. I passed the climb and buckled up as we entered the circuit. On the third of six laps Moviestar opened the gas and I came off in a big group of riders. We made the time cut.

It felt good to finish this race. Certainly I had hoped for a lot more out of the week. However, there were so many times that it would have been easy to quit that I was proud of the grit it required to get through it and am confident that this butt kicking will reward me in the foreseeable future.

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