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There are always the clear contenders in the Amgen Tour of California: the obvious riders on the forefront of people’s minds when considering potential stage winners and overall contenders.
But in a sport as unpredictable as cycling, one where tactics, external influences such as the weather and even luck play a major part, there are also always wildcards that must be considered.
Such dark horses are those who can spring a surprise and take major success if things play out well for them.
Javier Megias is one of those. While many WorldTour riders have the Amgen Tour of California as just one of their season goals, aiming for a good performance in the course of their build-up for the Tour de France, others have built their entire season around peaking for the event.
For rider such as Megias and Pro Continental teams such as his Team Novo Nordisk, the Californian event is one of the major targets. There is no holding back. No eye on other events. This is the 100 percent race and, in theory at least, those with such a specific focus should be much closer to their own personal top level.
Last year the Spaniard rode strongly in the event, netting 14th overall. But a better insight into his ability is his second overall in the Tour of Korea and, the previous season, his runner-up slot on stage six of the US Pro Challenge.
While Megias didn’t perform as he hoped on Monday’s stage two, his hopes remain high that he can chase a stage win sometime between now and the race’s end on Saturday.
“The plan is to go in the breakaway every day,” he said on Monday evening. “That’s our big chance here. Today was really technical and dangerous on the descent after the last climb, with a lot of U-turns and tight curves. Quick Step was pulling really hard, and then on the climb Lotto Jumbo set a really high pace. In the next days, we’ll have another chance to go in a breakaway, and I’ll do what I can to go for the victory.”
Heading into the race, the 33-year-old said he was happy with where he was at. “My form is growing,” he told CyclingTips then. “This race is one of my goals of the year. The management told me that California is extremely important for them. I needed to be on my top form here, this was the priority.
“These days I am feeling really good. In the last race [the Gran Premio Città di Lugano] I crashed and I couldn’t finish, but I know my form is good.”
Asking how his condition compared to this time last year, Megias said that he wasn’t sure, but believed it was better. He is also aware that what he can achieve will depend on how the race plays out. Seeking opportunities will be important and, perhaps because of this, he started the race prioritizing single day success rather than a top ten overall.
“Good GC is okay [to aim for], but I think a stage victory is even more important. Fourteenth last year was good, but nobody knows I was 14th. If you take a victory, it is different. I think that is much better. I do think a stage win is possible.”
An important example:
If Megias does shine, it will be a huge moment for the team. But it will also represent something much bigger. He was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in 1998. He was already a cyclist at that point, but got hit with a range of symptoms.
“I was peeing every 30 minutes, eating a lot, losing weight,” he says. “Nobody in my family has diabetes and we didn’t know anything. I lost maybe 20 kilos. I was almost in a coma, and then my father said, ‘hey, go to the hospital and have blood tests.’
“I was there for three weeks, I think, with the doctors teaching me everything. It took some time, I learned everything about diabetes and then, after two months, I was again on the bike and racing again.”
Back then there wasn’t such a clear understanding that people with Type 1 diabetes could compete in high level sport. In fact, that itself is one of the aims of the team: to show people that such a diagnosis doesn’t mean the end to an active lifestyle.
Instead, when managed and monitored carefully, exercise can be an important part of dealing with diabetes.
Years later, Team Novo Nordisk’s example has shown how possible it is to compete at a high level. Back in 1998, though, Megias said that those treating him weren’t sure.
“The doctors said yes, sport is good to manage diabetes, but not as a professional. But I said, ‘why not? I want to try.’
“Doctors are always scared. With these kind of sports, cycling, you can have a hypo [hypoglycaemia – low blood sugar] and then you can crash. They were a little bit scared. But I am really, really stubborn. I said that I want to do it, I want to be a professional. I need it.”
Megias went on to achieve that goal. He turned professional with the Saunier Duval – Prodir team in 2006, eight years after diagnosis, and competed there until joining his current squad in 2010.
In the years since he has been one of its strongest riders, taking the aforementioned results in California, Colorado and Korea. He was also third in the Grand Prix de Plumelec-Morbihan in 2012, seventh in the Gran Premio Città di Lugano in 2015 and eighth in last year’s Japan Cup.
As the team’s oldest rider, he also plays an important role in guiding the squad. His advice and encouragement spurs the others on to their own achievements.
But, perhaps, most important of all, they serve as an inspiration for those around the world who are also diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes.
“I think we are a really big example,” he says, thinking of the fans who will turn up each day at California and other events, or follow the squad’s progress online. “It is also a beautiful message as well.”
Targeting a history-making Tour invite:
Looking ahead, both Megias and the team want to achieve more. Getting the message out to as big a group as possible is dependent on Novo Nordisk’s success. The more successful the team is, the more it will generate media coverage and raise its profile.
Strong results should also boost sponsorship and move things closer towards achieving a long-term goal.
Team manager and co-founder Phil Southerland knows that having an all-diabetic squad in the Tour de France would be massive news and a five star motivation for those with team type 1 all around the world. Because of that, Team Novo Nordisk is targeting a ride in that race by 2021, the 100th anniversary of the discovery of insulin.
“The Tour de France is the best race for all the riders,” says Megias. “Every rider wants to do at least one time the Tour de France during their career.”
Before then, though, Southerland has told CyclingTips that competing in one of the other two Grand Tours is a significant goal.
Megias agrees. “I really want to do a Grand Tour with this team,” he says. “Not this year, but hopefully next year we can be on the start of La Vuelta or the Giro d’Italia and get some experience for the Tour de France in 2021.”
Unlike the others on the squad, Megias has actually already done a Grand Tour. He competed in the Vuelta a España in 2007 with the Saunier Duval squad. He was a solid 49th overall and was fifth on stage 16 to Puertollano.
According to him, Southerland is leaning towards doing the Giro d’Italia first, but he personally hopes to begin with the Vuelta.
Either way, if and when that happens, it would be a huge moment for the squad and also for diabetics worldwide.
Before then, though, he wants to make the most of opportunities this season. He had a deliberately light programme this year in order to ensure that he is fresher for California, and also has more left in the tank for other races later this season.
If he’s judged things right, he will underline his ability this week in the Amgen Tour. He’s been fixated on the goal of a stage win for several months.
“I think every year I am improving,” he told CyclingTips at the team housebuild in the Dominican Republic last Autumn. “I think in the last two years I am feeling better, better, better, better. I can feel it.
“I think the 2017 season is going to be good. Last year I was second in Korea, I got some good results, but still we need one more step…victory. I think we can make it this year.”