Image: ©Graham Watson
A Grand Tour feels like a “once in a lifetime experience” that I did seven years in a row from 2010-2016.
When I started racing, I was as a pure mountain biker. I wasn’t even aware of the Tour de France until I was in high school. This was the Lance era and his dominance heightened my own sense of national pride, and immediately I became fascinated and watched the race every summer.
At 16, I got my first road bike and couldn’t fathom how those guys were racing insanely long distances over three straight weeks. When I would head out on my own ride, I would have the jingles that they played during the intro to the Tour coverage in my head, and I began imagining myself soaring through the mountains. I also started to dream about competing for the USA in cycling.
Two years after graduating from Lees-McRae where I raced mountain bike, road, and cross, I signed my first professional contract with BMC (2008). For those first two seasons, my race calendar focused on stage races (plus one Paris-Roubaix). I continued developing and tackling harder Pro Tour races-Tour de Romandie and Criterium Dauphine in 2009.
When I started the 2010 season, I didn’t think I would race a Grand Tour that year. I definitely couldn’t have fathomed taking the podium on my first stage at the Giro d’Italia. What began that year sent into motion racing at least one Grand Tour every season:
- 2010—Giro and Tour de France
- 2011—Tour de France
- 2012—Vuelta a Espana
- 2013—Tour de France
- 2014—Giro d’Italia
- 2015—Giro d’Italia 2016—Tour de France
Fast forward to this season and during our usual pre-season planning seasons, we selected the Tour of California as my key focus for the early season. This meant the Giro was out. I finished third overall in 2016 in California and the race was being upgraded to World Tour status, so I was happy and very motivated by this plan.
Putting it in the simplest of terms, selection for the Tour de France is always a complex and exhaustive process. I told the team that I was motivated and inspired to be there to help Richie again and improve on his fifth overall last year. I wasn’t on the pre-selection for the Tour, which was fine because my eyes were firmly focused on California.
I earned a strong string of results leading up to and during California and it sounded like the team moved me back in for a spot at the Tour as a reserve. In the end, the original nine riders remained healthy, fit and ready to go, so I wasn’t called up. I took this as a rare opportunity to bank some reset and recovery during July. I felt spoiled—I went home for my first Fourth of July celebration ever in Asheville, got in some time on the mountain bike and let myself enjoy the normal things in life: floating down the river and sipping some beers. I think that month definitely helped me stave off a few grey hairs that definitely would have popped up at the Tour.
When it comes to the Vuelta, selection is a little different and delayed. It typically solidifies after the Tour finishes and all the dust settles. I let the team know I was interested in racing but I also saw positives in an alternative race program that didn’t include a three-week stage race.
Now I’m taking the energy that I would have spent at a Grand Tour and applying it to my remaining races. I loved my USA block of racing at the Tour of Utah and Colorado Classic throughout August, and now I’m focused on the late season races. I’ve never done the Tour of Britain before. I’m about to start my second decade as a pro and it’s a boost to get a fresh and new race at this point!
What I missed the most without a Grand Tour this season was the preparing and conquering of all the challenges that arise together as a team. Everyone---staff and all riders ---brings their A game and respect the challenge that lies ahead. It's something you cannot do alone and it amplifies the team aspect of road cycling. You completely see yourself as a part of something bigger than yourself; I have missed that.
With that said, this has been my healthiest season in a long time. I think part of that is skipping the depleting and ravaging effects of a three-week race. I'm enjoying heading into September healthy and fit and ready for more racing. In the past, I’ve reached this part of the year completely blown out simply counting the days until the season is over.
Looking ahead to 2018, I’m motivated to return to a Grand Tour, but I feel like an appearance doesn’t define my season or career. I’ve raced eight Grand Tours and I know that racing one won’t transform me or provide me with something I’ve never experienced.
I’m hungry to be part of a successful team effort and will always be motivated to improve upon that second place result from my first grand tour stage back in 2010.
As an American, the Tour holds the most significance in my heart, especially with our fan and friend base. Every time I’ve done it, I promise myself I won’t go back; it is that savage. But fortunately, cycling teaches us to be quite good at selective amnesia so give me a few months and maybe I’ll be ready for another round.