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Summer Racing in January – The Vuelta San Juan
Holy smokes, is the 2020 season already here? Yup! 2020 is in full force and for me and five other teammates it started with a blast of summer heat in the San Juan region of Argentina. I’m not gonna sugar coat it, it was a bit of a shock to the system coming from very moderate temperatures of Tucson Arizona to the 40c+ (106 F) degree heat of Argentina summer. Now, I’m used to the heat and don’t mind it being a desert rat myself, but it’s a shock to the system none the less. No amount of sauna training can prepare you for that hellishness. So, what do you do when you’re in an area that sees an average of 90cm of rain a year and average summer temps are in the 104 Fs? You suck it up, put on a lot of sunscreen, you race, and you look forward to an ice cold lager at the end of the day.
So, for many of the world tour riders and pro continental riders coming from the northern hemisphere, San Juan is the first big race of the new season. But for the smaller South American teams San Juan is seems to be the World Championships. For the locals, this is their big chance to strut their stuff. I get that. It’s what Tour of California was to me for so many years. If you look at the history of the race, this is where Fernando Gaviria first stormed onto the scene by whooping up on Cavendish and all the other WT sprinters. It catapulted him into the WT and onto a trajectory as the top sprinter in the world! So, yeah, it can change your life. And because of that it seems like a lot of riders just stopped giving a crap about their safety, let alone that of others. A recipe for mayhem!
This year’s race was exceptionally marred by horrific crashes. It seemed like there was a crash every day, with racers uncorking their inner berserker to do what it takes to “get a result.” The pandemonium began right away with stage 1 seeing a number of riders hitting the deck. The nastiest crash happened within the last 4 km of the stage. Several big GC riders crumpled their carbon frames and lost a whole lot of skin. One of my ex-team mates was ultra-unfortunate and crashed twice! The first time he freaking dislocated his shoulder, and had to have spectators put it back into place before hopping back on the bike. Gnarly. If that isn’t hard core, I don’t know what is. You might think road racers are semi-wussies because we wear spandex, and look malnourished, bony and breakable, but if you ever meet one of us, ask to see our road tattoos (scars). We’ll proudly share with you our best near-death experiences.
Ok back to racing, it didn’t help that I hadn’t raced since August, so I was a bit rusty when it came to the lead out and sprint. Fortunately, my teammate Rudy Barbier was a sharp as an Argentinian steak knife, slicing and dicing his way to a huge win on Stage 1. Rudy’s one helluva bar-banger. He racked up a 2nd, 3rd, and 6th on the other stages. It was rewarding to be part of his insane lead out train.
Not only was this the first race for the riders, but it was the first for the staff, and for the Factor One bikes. I’ve been training on the F-One since December, but the training bike and the racing bike are just two different machines. It’s amazing just how freaking fast the bike is once equipped with the black inc race wheels, the ceramic speed jockey wheels and all the bearings. I mean, I feel like the results already speak for themselves but damn, it’s fast AF. I know equipment isn’t everything in this sport, but when it comes down to a 70+ km/hr sprint, aerodynamics matter, and having a fast, responsive, and trustworthy bike is the difference between winning and losing. So being equipped with the Factor One is a huge confidence booster and I’m so excited to be pedaling one of the fastest bikes on the market.
Alright, enough with the bike and gear talk. There were a few things that I really found interesting with Argentina and racing in San Juan. The first was the current state of their economy. It’s in the midst of a crisis. Since Argentina is so far down South, most Americans simply aren’t aware of its pervasive misery. I was there two years ago, and it was bad, but now it’s worse. Within the last year the Argentinian peso’s value plummeted from 30 pesos:1 Usd to 60:1 with inflation rates at 30%. And the locals tell me we haven’t seen the worst. I kept wondering, since the economy is teetering on the edge of collapse, where do they find the money and resources to put on a big international bike race that costs millions of pesos? The race was first class – the organizers paid for just about everything: our international air fare, a private charter flight from Buenos Aires to San Juan, hotel costs for two weeks, food for two weeks, race vehicles, police escorts, a very elaborate team presentation, and then the cost of the actual race itself. They were truly generous.
I don’t know how what the total cost is but it wasn’t cheap. As I understood it, the government and the race promoters justified the “lavish” expenditure during a time of austerity as a gift of free entertainment for the people. I can say everywhere I went the locals were friendly if not ecstatic. Unlike the Tour of California, where you see maybe 1000 people at the finish of a mountain top, Tour of San Juan had entire cities out watching us from start to finish each day. The races would start sometime around 3 pm and finish around 7pm and you could see that everyone was excited to have the teams in their hometowns.Tossing out a free water bottle or offering a selfie was a high commodity there and the locals made you feel like an actual superstar.
It’s hard to say if the public’s unbridled enthusiasm justified the costs, especially during hard times, but I can say that in even the most impoverished towns we were treated like kings. I’d like to think in return we inspired and entertained a lot of really strong and resilient Argentinians. I swear I saw more kids riding bikes in San Juan than I do in most major cities in the U.S, which is really special. Hopefully, a few of these kids will fall in love with the sport like I did when I was their age. And I hope it gives them something to dream about.
I should also mention that although Argentina is well known for their wine production, it was also really good to see the emergence of micr- brewed craft beers popping up in Buenos Aires. Although craft is not as prevalent as in the US market, I was able to enjoy a few IPA’s from local breweries like El Fermentor! And they were delicious too! So, if you are looking to explore a new country and region, I would highly recommend Argentina to you. On a limited budget, you can feast on delicious, world-famous steaks drenched in chimichurri sauce, sip on a fine Malbec or enjoy a refreshing microbrew in a foreign and welcoming country. I hear they even grow hops south of Bariloche in El Bolson.
In summary, the first race of the season was a definite success for the team. Immediately, the team picked up the chemistry we started at team camp in Israel. We scored big podium results and showed true team camaraderie. It’s really a great feeling to be part of a new and exciting program with dedicated and graceful teammates. One of the best examples I can give to this is how we rode on stage 5. We all came together and gave a lead out for Rudy that showed our cohesion as a team. Even though we only came away with a 3rd place, it was still in our eyes a success, with proof that there are bigger and better results to come.
So now, I just have to make it through another 24 hour travel day as I leave the desert sun of Argentina to the high altitude of air of Colombia. Personally, I can’t wait for Colombia, it’s one of my favorite countries. The food is incredible, the riding is breathtaking, the people amazing and beautiful, and they are in love with cycling. So here we go! More South American Racing please!!
February 22nd, 2020
Vuelta San Juan, Argentina