May 26 The Americans are Coming

May 26, 2010, 1:35 p.m. (ET)

The Paracycling Bizkaiko Bira is a two day, three stage race in the Basque region of Spain. The first two stages were short time trials- 11k and 13.6k respectively- followed by a short road race- 42k. Like most of my American teammates, I specialize in the time trial. We got up Saturday to a steady rain, and soaked roads. Luckily we all brought rain jackets.

The course was pretty neat- the start was in the middle of a short, punchy climb, a brief false flat then a screaming descent, a U turn in the road, and back up the climb. All in the rain, under heavy tree cover, so basically in the dark. Unlike my usual style of cooking the descent, and after catching my 30 sec girl in the first 5 minutes, I played it safe on the descent and probably gave up a few seconds rather than a minute or more picking myself out of the ditch. Made the turn, and rolled it uphill as best as I could. It was over before I knew it, and was soon back in the parking lot huddled with my teammates for warmth.

Back to the hotel for lunch and quick recovery before heading out to the afternoon’s time trial course which was supposed to be “a traditional Paralympic cycling course” which translates to “flat.”

Close-up Greta's handsWell, we got there and rode what we thought was the course. It wasn’t very flat either, but after riding for nearly 40 minutes, we realized we’d gone more than the 13k that the supposed course was. It took nearly an hour to find our way back to town to make our start times for the second race, on a course that none of us really knew… at all. But at least it wasn’t raining!

If you’ve never raced a TT blind (And I don’t mean on the back of a tandem - which I'm sure is fun too) I highly recommend trying it. What’s the worst that can happen? I feel that it’s a true-er test of your bike racing abilities. The parts that we didn’t ride were the bigger climbing bits, which made it tough to gauge the effort, but that makes it more exciting. The afternoon was, on the whole, much better for the team, with almost all of us winning our respective categories.

Sunday brought the road race and more rain. All the bikes started together- men and women of all categories- which made a nice big pack to start. My goal for the day was to just race with the men.

I’d established a comfortable lead after the two TT’s and the road race was the time to really whip out and measure. My teammate was sitting 2nd on GC in his class, so I was working to help him in any way possible.

The Spanish had a huge presence in the race, obviously, as this doubled as the Basque Country’s National Championships. My race was 4 laps. As was becoming a trend, it was pouring rain again. After the first lap, we rolled through the start/finish and about 3 seconds later, I found myself on the ground, sliding across the fine, granite-like stone they paved the intersection with. An ice rink would have had more traction. I got up immediately and back on my bike. With the help of the guy that caused the crash, we chased back on pretty quickly without incident.

Halfway through the third lap someone decided he wasn’t satisfied with his spot four bikes into the pack from the left and took a hard turn into someone’s wheel. Domino effect ensued and I was on the ground. Again.

This time my luck wasn’t as good. Something was bleeding, my front wheel was pointing one way and my bars the other, and my bar end shifter (for my front derailer) was hanging on by a thread. It was stuck between the big and little rings but I was able to put it in the little ring, straighten everything out, and get back on the horse so to speak. Luckily, it was still raining.

The last lap I rode in my little ring (I did the previous three in the big ring) and found my way into a chase group. At this point, the pack was long gone, I’d guess 3 minutes easy, so it was just a matter of minimizing lost time, and rolling in to the finish mostly intact. The rain stopped for the finish, which was very considerate.

It was a somewhat frustrating day for me because I had great legs, had no problem staying in with the men, and had a teammate to help. That said, I was happy I wasn’t hurt, and the damage to my bike was minimal.

My GC placing was all wrapped up, so it was off to awards ceremonies. It was absolutely awesome to seeGreta Ali the podium dominated by Americans in the time trials. From our team of nine, seven people won their category. The other countries on the podium counted the American contingent and I’m sure, felt sad and intimidated by our complete dominance of the race of truth.

With a new jersey to take home, came a traditional Basque hat- the txapella and a champagne shower. Leave it to the guy that races the trike to completely drench me. The sun came out just long enough to dry the champagne in my hair and ears. Then it started raining again.

The final half of Team USA’s “Spance” trip marked my second time to France. This trip was much better than the previous time, despite the weather not cooperating with my mental image of “Europe in Spring” (It’s 75° and sunny, which is my mental image for nearly every place I go.)

The format for the Urt International Paracycling Challenge was similar to the Bira in the fact that they’re both Paralympic stage races. The Urt race started with a hilly road race followed by a mostly downhill time trial, a crit then a circuit race. Like the Bira, men and women started together for the road race, but we were split in half- Men’s C5-4 in one group and the women’s C5-1 and MC3-1 started together.

The road race was on a distinctly un-Paralympic course- there were hills! Now, I’ve never thought of myself as a climber, and none of my past results exposed a hidden climber within. I was nervous, which is uncharacteristic of me, and I mean really nervous, more so than any race I can remember actually. Going in to France, my goal was to race with the men, as that’s how I’m going to get faster, and better race experience.

After seeing the course, self-doubt started creeping in- what if I get dropped? What if I totally embarrass myself as a bike racer? Well, I told myself to “Nut up, or shut up and race your damn bike!” It’s just a bike race after all. It’s not something foreign. Once the race was underway, I made sure to have good positioning on the climbs and it paid off on the second lap- the group split and there I was in the front group.

Woah, not expecting that. The 5 other guys in the group did double takes when I pulled through, apparently they weren’t expecting a girl. We stayed away, and the day was a huge confidence boost. While I’m not riding away from them, I can definitely hold my own.

The next morning’s time trial was definitely a course for me- 8.6k, slightly downhill, a few bumps mixed in, all ending on a little kick into a tiny town. It’s becoming a trend, but the Americans slayed the TT again. To borrow a line from Clark, “Time trials and football- that’s what America does!” Of our six bikes, we won five categories which put all five of us in the GC leader’s jersey for the next stage. Once again, the other athletes on the podium were counting the American jerseys standing beside them. I have to admit, that’s pretty cool to see.

That afternoon, after getting lost in the French countryside looking for the next race, we finally made it to the circuit race. The course was rad- shaped like a bow-tie, it would definitely be a challenge. Luckily for us, we were in Europe where “cornering” hasn’t yet been discovered, we’re all sorta gimpy, and we would race in the worst rain we’ve ever ridden bicycles in.

To be fair, it was sunny when we started and the rain didn’t start until probably the 10th minute of a 50 minute race, so it wasn’t all in the rain. Once it started however, it was on. I kept my foggy glasses on because there was so much rain, I would’ve had to close my eyes. The uphill sections of the course were like rivers, with water cascading down the gutters and ruts in the road. The flat road had 3” of standing water which made it exciting riding through the rough roads. It was like a game of Memory trying to remember where the potholes were. And then the front wheel fell into a hole and you found it. In its always good timing, nature turned off the fire hoses and the sun came out as soon as we were finished. After peeling off soaking kits, we threw them all in a trash bag to be sorted and washed later. We just wanted to get warm, and get back to the hotel.

The next and final stage was another 50 minute, plus 2 lap race. Of all the races I’ve done, this is one that I’m most proud of.  You don’t often get the opportunity to race as a team in Paralympic racing, so when it comes around, you remember it.

I have the greatest teammates in the world, and I would do anything for them. When I came around a corner and saw Sam picking himself up after a crash, my brain kicked in to action mode. He only had an eight second lead on GC, and this crash could cost him the win. TAJ was there too, and after making sure Sam wasn’t hurt, we were like fighter pilots going into formation.

Ham and WineThe team time trial intervals we did at camp would really pay off now. My race was wrapped up, but Sam’s was in jeopardy. Come hell or high water, the gap was going to be closed. We rolled like a freight train to close the gap opened up after the crash. TAJ’s powertap said we rolled close to 30mph, and closed about a 2 minute gap in under a lap. After a final shove back into the pack, Sam was back in the group and my job was done. It was especially satisfying because he was able to take the stage win, and held onto his overall lead.

The awards ceremony provided us with the most unique prize we’d ever received- a ham! Each winner got a 25lb salt cured ham and French berets to go with the Spanish txapellas. It was definitely a great experience to go to Europe to race for two weeks. The team was absolutely amazing! Our winnings included 100lbs of ham, nearly 60 bottles of wine, and a bike box full of trophies. I learned that I can race with the men, the training we’ve all been doing is definitely paying off, and 2010 promises to be a stellar season for everyone. The world better be ready because the Americans are coming.

Top left photo courtesy Marco Bardella

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