Nick Schultz diary: The emotional rollercoaster that is Grand Tour racing
In his first season as a professional, 22-year-old Australian Nick Schultz (Caja Rural-Seguros) is racing his first Grand Tour: the Vuelta a España. Nick has been blogging about the race for CyclingTips and returns today with a post from the second rest day. In it, Nick takes us behind the scenes of one of the world’s biggest bike races and shares his perspective as a first-timer on the Grand Tour scene.
Well, here we are. Rest day number two. Boy am I glad to have made it this far! It’s been more of the same brutality and I have come to terms with the fact that this is the reality of a Grand Tour. I am currently flying from Grenada to Logrono on a chartered flight with the rest of the peloton, some team staff, race organisers and associated press. Logrono is where we’ll spend the rest day.
In this entry, I’ll reflect a little on some of the mental challenges of riding a Grand Tour and the stuff you don’t really get a chance to observe unless you are embedded in the peloton.
The mental and physical challenges
First and foremost – fatigue. At this point, after 15 stages, I feel as though I am at the limits of exhaustion. Yet, in saying that, I felt the same on stage 8 and I’m still here! An interminable weariness has crept in and spread throughout my whole body. Thankfully, we are well cared for by the incredible support staff with daily massages that are generally close to an hour long. They focus on legs, but any little niggle (back, neck, feet, etc.) will be attended to.
Most things hurt, yet none quite as much as my ‘gooch’. For those unfamiliar, this word refers to the contact point between body and saddle. There’s all sorts of things happening down there, but don’t worry – I won’t get into the nitty-gritty…
Secondly – the mental side of things. It’s a bit of an emotional rollercoaster and I probably haven’t been this ‘on edge’ since I was in the process of finishing year 12 at school. Even the little things can induce mood changes. Anything from average food at the hotel, to wondering why the peloton doesn’t sit up and let the break go after 75km of attacking?!
Hierarchy in the peloton
Being in a second tier (Pro Continental) team elicits some baffling reactions from some (and I stress, some) of the WorldTour riders. This can be quite demoralising. In cycling, there is a very clear hierarchy and the Pro Conti riders, particularly the younger riders, are frequently reminded that they are at the bottom of the pile in a race like La Vuelta.
It’s an interesting mindset within the peloton at large and something I have never quite understood. We all like riding our bikes, we all gather on the same start line and struggle to the same finish line, yet there is a certain lack of equality amongst riders and teams. It can be small things — for example, if a WorldTour rider fumbles a bidon? Not a whimper from anyone. By contrast, if a speed bump dislodges a bidon from a Caja Rural, Manzana Postobon or Aqua Blue bottle cage, there’s likely to be a disproportionate amount of verbal and sometimes even physical abuse.
Bearing witness to this culture sometimes begs the question – why do I do this sport? Simple answer … the vast majority of the guys in professional cycling are top blokes! They’ve been there, done that — usually the hard way with no short cuts. There are some awesome mentors both on the road and behind the scenes. All sport needs its drama and personalities and the rough and tumble of racing at the top level is not for the soft or faint-hearted, and rightly so.
I’ll keep trying to fly under the radar and avoid any wrongdoing with a view to keeping everyone happy and becoming a better rider (and person for that matter).
Ahhh – nice to get that off my chest!
So what’s my routine like at the Vuelta? Things are quite repetitive on any tour and that doesn’t change at a Grand Tour. I wake up, grind some coffee beans and either brew up a French press or aero press. I’ll head down to breakfast, have a feed and then generally have a small amount of time to finalise my race bag. We’ll set off to the race in the team bus and arrive a touch over an hour before the scheduled start.
It’s obligatory to sign on pre-race. I’ll normally punch that out as soon as we arrive. Following that, I’ll have an espresso while the director gives us his briefing for the day.
The stages generally get underway between 12-1pm and finish just before 6pm. There can be transfers of up to a few hours and on occasions we will arrive at the designated race hotel after 8pm. Once arriving, we’ll each have a massage and then dinner is normally served between 9-10:30pm. Late nights are on the cards every night but having lived in Spain for 18 months, this is a normality.
To keep me sane, I’ll FaceTime my girlfriend every night after dinner and offload the day, before winding down into bedtime which is generally around midnight. Sleep quality has been reasonably good throughout the tour. I’m often a bad sleeper but haven’t had an issue so far.
There are certainly things I miss when I’m on tour and my guitar is probably at the top of that list. That’s always been something for me to immerse myself in and that I use to zone out from current events. I miss slow mornings spending time to make breakfast and coffee, all the while having the time to enjoy it in a laid back environment.
To say that there’s a lot of hype and media attention at the Vuelta would be an understatement. It’s hard to pinpoint whether that’s down to the fact this is Alberto Contador’s final race, or if it’s ‘normal’. Our time pre-race is flooded with fans and spectators along with quite a lot of media. It’s a nice reminder that this is the big league and I really enjoy the presence of the many cycling supporters. It’s great to see people out there enjoying the spectacle.
I do wonder, however, what percentage of those people are there for the cycling, and how many are just there for our water bottles. I’ve never had so many requests to hand over a bidon! When I inform them that, unfortunately, I’ll need it for the stage ahead, the sadness on their faces is almost like they’ve lost a loved one.
On the big hitters (and others)
And, finally, a note on the riders in the race. The peloton certainly isn’t lacking in big hitters and it’s very special to be racing alongside these guys. It’s incredible to see where their hard work and persistence has taken them and I aspire to be half as good as the majority of this peloton one day!
And it’s not just the stars either. The riders employed to help the stars are simply phenomenal. Their strength and ability to continually ride in aid of their leader is a dynamic perhaps only seen in cycling and the respect that I hold for those guys couldn’t be higher. I’m trying to watch, learn and absorb as much as I can. It’s the pinnacle of our sport and it’s humbling to be part of it.
Having just touched down in Logrono, I’ll wrap things up and get stuck into some sleep.