“I was on my hands and knees” — Pro riders’ most miserable days on a bike
For Tejay van Garderen, it was stage 5 of the 2014 Tour de France. A trek through Classics country from Ypres, Belgium into Paris-Roubaix territory; a highly anticipated day on the cobblestones. The parcours alone was enough to instil dread in the GC types, but the weather piled it on. The rain started early and drenched the peloton throughout the chilly July day.
It was just the right combination of ingredients to make it van Garderen’s hardest ever day on the bike.
“All thoughts of the race or GC or losing time or whatever go out the window,” van Garderen says, looking back. “You’re more just like, ‘Get your ass to the finish.'”
Cobbled stages in grand tours always bring the hype. Fans relish the unpredictability. The Van Avermaets and Vanmarckes of the peloton may relish a cold day on the pavé, but GC guys aren’t designed for the bone-rattling terrain. Van Garderen, though, can at least recall that day with a laugh. He made it through, after all, and in relatively good shape.
“It was the least enjoyable experience of my life,” he says now.
Does any other sport revere suffering so much? While we enjoy the spectacle from the comfort of our living rooms or the media tent, the pros are out on the road, punishing themselves in a way that is hard to fully comprehend. To try to make sense of it, we asked a handful of pros at the UAE Tour about their hardest day on the bike, and what kept them pushing through.
Van Garderen isn’t the only GC rider whose personal hell was an afternoon in Classics country. Tom Dumoulin points to the 2013 edition of Milan-San Remo as his hardest ever day on the bike.
At nearly 300 kilometers long, the Italian monument is always a tough one, but this was different. Frigid, wet weather made for one of the whackiest classics in recent memory. Even at the start in Milan, temperatures were near freezing. The hills en route to the coast were worse. The peloton rolled out and into the countryside in the awful cold.
“I thought I would lose my fingers, truly,” Dumoulin says.
Ultimately, snow on the Passo del Turchino led the organisers to neutralise the race and transfer riders via bus down to (slightly) clearer roads. The morale was as low as the mercury when the race went on hold.
“I cannot describe how bad it was,” says Dumoulin, the hardman who overcame an untimely a bowel movement to win the Giro d’Italia. “I was almost crying when I went into the bus.”
Not everyone remounted after the midday break that spring afternoon in March. Even with the snow in the rearview mirror, the peloton still faced frigid temperatures and spitting skies. And, of course, a Monument title was on offer at the finish, so it wasn’t like Fabian Cancellara and Peter Sagan were going to let anyone take it easy on the iconic final climbs.
Dumoulin stepped off the bus and clipped in anyway. There’s nothing like peer pressure to pull you through.
“I didn’t want to continue,” he says, “but group pressure made me do it.”
Dumoulin even managed to finish, albeit over 13 minutes down on surprise winner Gerald Ciolek. He says he’s not sure how he made it there. Peer pressure may have played a part, although it’s worth considering the idea that Dumoulin may just have a higher tolerance for suffering than most mortals.
Brent Bookwalter’s hardest ever day on the bike featured cold, wet conditions as well, but his suffering was compounded by the isolation of being a lone rider far from home.
The 2010 Giro d’Italia was Bookwalter’s first Grand Tour. The race got off to an unexpectedly excellent start for the American, who was then riding for BMC. The 26-year-old finished second to Bradley Wiggins in the opening time trial in Amsterdam, missing out on the victory by a mere two seconds.
Once the race decamped to Italy, things got harder.
The BMC team managed well through the first week for team leader Cadel Evans, who briefly wore the pink jersey and also won a stage. Stage 11, the longest in the race, threw a wrench in the works.
“There was a big GC split that turned the race on its head,” Bookwalter says. “It was like 30 or 40 guys, and I was in there. We got like 20 minutes or something. Cadel was in the back with the rest of our team.”
After a fierce fight to make it with the lead group, Bookwalter was asked to do what many domestiques have done through the years: Stop and wait.
“It was freezing cold, spitting snow, spitting sleet, and the gap was 20 minutes,” he says. “They needed me back then – now. So I had to stop on the side of the road, standing there in the middle of nowhere with the team car, just shivering,” he says.
Then the pack arrived.
“They’re like, ‘Okay here they come, get on your bike do some sprints.’ So I’m sprinting in the middle of nowhere trying to warm up,” Bookwalter says. “And this super small reduced bunch comes up to me and immediately I’m on the front, 15km to the next valley just ‘braaaaap’, giving it everything I can, pulled the gap down a little bit. And then we hit the next climb and I was dropped again.”
This time, Bookwalter was truly alone, with no team car and only the cold and the central Italian countryside for company.
“I didn’t even know if I was on the course anymore,” he says. “Middle of nowhere, delirious, six hours in, thinking, ‘This is how it ends.’ I don’t even know where I am.
“Then the gruppetto finally caught me. By then they were fully rucked up for it, they had their tights on, their thermal jackets … I was wearing two rain jackets and just shivering, falling off the bike.”
Somehow, Bookwalter managed to keep it together. He made it to the finish within the time cut, continuing on till the bitter end to complete his first Grand Tour.
Step one of the Bookwalter guide to surviving a gruelling Giro is simple, really: Be young.
“It’s hard to imagine going through that same thing now,” a 35-year-old Bookwalter says looking back.
Larry Warbasse can relate. And thanks to him, so can the rest of us. His hardest ever day on the bike came far from the WorldTour: on a training ride before he turned pro.
“When I was a junior, I did this camp with a bunch of masters guys from Michigan, where I’m from,” Warbasse says. “We went out to California and we did some big ride called Skaggs, which is out by Santa Rosa. Over there it’s a pretty famous ride. I actually forgot food that day, because I was late — I run late a lot.”
Even national champions need calories, but Warbasse was scared to admit to the veterans on the ride that he had left his provisions behind.
“This was supposed to be a seven-hour ride. After four hours there was a gas station on the map so I was like, ‘Okay, I’m just going to buy a bunch of food at the gas station, I’ll be able to make it four hours,'” Warbasse says. “After two hours I asked one of the guys for like an energy bar. He gave me a bar, I ate half, and then I dropped the other half. I was like, ‘No. I’m not going back. I’ll make it to the gas station.’
“We get to the gas station and it’s closed. It had been closed for years but for some reason it was still on the map.”
By this point, it was too late to ask for help, as everyone else was already well into their own food stores.
At least it was a fine opportunity for a young Warbasse to learn the true meaning of bonk.
“I bonked harder than I’ve ever bonked in my life,” he says. “So much that I pulled over to the side of the road and nearly fell asleep. I couldn’t go any farther. The guys had to come pick me up. It was pretty funny.”
Youthful energy and peer pressure can push a rider a long way. It helps when you can focus on better things to come. That trio helped Rohan Dennis survived his hardest day on the bike: stage 4 of the 2013 Tour de Romandie.
Dennis may be the world time trial champion now, but he still had some developing to do as a neo-pro. Romandie, generally considered among the hardest one-week races in cycling, is a cruel teacher. Cold, rainy weather — as usual — made for a hostile learning environment.
“I was far from being good enough,” Dennis says. “I knew about the time cut but I knew nothing about what speed you had to sit on to make it in time. It was honestly something that I basically had to have faith in my teammates.”
At the front of the race, Simon Spilak and Chris Froome were battling it out for both stage honors and GC glory. At the back, 22-year-old Dennis was just trying to survive.
“I was just on my hands and knees,” he says. “I asked a team if I could have a coke and they gave me a Diet Coke. That’s not exactly what I wanted — and while he was eating a sandwich. I was like, ‘Yeah, cheers mate.’ I think it was a sick joke on his behalf. That was something I’ll never forget.”
The light at the end of the tunnel was a time trial stage on the horizon, a chance for Dennis to put his skill set on display. The thought was enough, no matter how things played out.
“I just wanted to get to the finish,” Dennis says. “I didn’t want to look like a softcock. I don’t want the team to think I would just give up whenever it’s hard, and there was still a group of 20 with me. ‘If I just hold the wheel, I’ll be alright.'”
He did, and recovered enough to land a top-10 ride in the ensuing time trial.
Rookie mistakes, nasty weather, tough terrain, taxing tactics — these are all common themes throughout. It’s all refreshingly relatable, in a way, although the resolve that pushes the pros does not grow on trees. After all, every story told here was related with a smile, and plenty of laughs too.
Despite his gruelling debut in 2013, Dumoulin has returned to San Remo three times in his career. Ditto for Dennis at the Tour de Romandie. Van Garderen counts seven Tour de France starts in on his career palmares; Bookwalter three Giri. Warbasse still finds a way to enjoy long training rides.
Maybe that’s why they’re the pros. We love to watch as they punish themselves on the pavé, coerce themselves up the climbs. And maybe, somewhere deep down, they love it too.
What was the hardest day you’ve ever had on the bike?