February is early. Really early. In my mind it’s too early to race your bike absent a lethargic and lackluster local time trial or a Strava throwdown with your husband’s team. Since this is my feeling and attitude, naturally I decided that racing what would not only be the longest stage race I’ve ever done but also the first UCI road race of my life would be a great idea this February. I mean it’s not like my CX season had only ended a little over two months ago or anything like that (who needs an off season? not this lady).
Niels and I headed down to Vanderkitten team camp on February 20th where we mostly concentrated on being awesome and photogenic. It was so great to see my friends and meet my new teammates! We rode up hills, drank tons of espresso, learned about Canary Foundation, drank our weight in Osmo, and brushed and braided each others’ hair. We even got to go on a ride from Mike’s Bikes with our fans wherein Niels was christened as the official Manderkitten.
I should back up a little bit though. I’ve never travelled to a third world country so in an attempt to be real diligent I went to the UW Travel Clinic (awesome) to learn all about how to not get sick in El Salvador. I was prepared! I got vaccinated for stuff! And three types of water purification systems! And two types of bug spray! And 200 texts! I was not going to get sick! I was going to be able to text!
So naturally I caught a nasty cold on the last day of team camp. Before I’d even gotten on the plane to El Salvador.
After 4 days of fun five healthy Vanderkittens, one sicky, and Jono (OG Manderkitten) headed down south for our adventure (!) at Vuelta El Salvador. When we arrived at the airport we had no idea who was picking us up, where we were staying, or how to fill out a customs form (it took me 3 tries).
Luckily there was a very official looking Thule guy named Robert with “Vanderkitten” written on a sign at the airport waiting for us. He and a small child loaded all of our bikes and luggage into a truck and the truck drove away … without us. Thankfully Robert came back and drove us without our luggage to the race hotel (The friggin HILTON!!!) Doubly thankfully when we got to the hotel our luggage and bikes were also there.
Our first full day in El Salvador we met Wilfredo who would be our driver for our entire stay. Wilfredo was the perfect fit for us because he didn’t speak a word of English and none of us spoke a word of Spanish. Luckily Jono and Wilfredo managed to make up their own special language that they used for the rest of our time there. Wilfredo is also seriously the fastest and best driver I have ever met in my life. We quickly learned that there is not a single problem in El Salvador that cannot be solved by using your horn. Wilfredo would often get us to where we were going faster than if we had a police escort. It was unreal, but I digress.
On this first day, Wilfredo drove us out to the coast where we did a beautiful shakeout spin followed by some serious recovery time at Ruben’s (the race director) beach house. Unfortunately on the way home we got caught in a little bit of rush hour traffic but it was no big deal, Wilfredo just honked his horn, drove us down some stairs and through a field and we were magically back at the Hilton.
In cycling and in life it’s very important to make friends. The Vanderkittens excel at making friends so on our last day before racing was to begin we met up with the Colombian national team to go on a short escorted ride. It was our understanding that we were to be taken to do a few laps on a quiet and low-traffic loop just a couple of kilometers from the hotel. The loop just so happened to be on a 6 lane freeway with many signs like the above that we ignored (they were in Spanish so I plead ignorance).
After our shakeout spin it was time to get dressed and prepped for team presentation! The presentation party was at San Salvador’s beautiful 333m outdoor velodrome and featured everything you could imagine! beauty queens! large stuffed corporate mascots! A Salvadorian Rolling Stones Cover band! Fireworks! The MC asked us what song we would like played when we were called up on stage. I said I would appreciate anything in Britney’s vast library but my request fell on deaf ears and they played “American Woman” when we went up.
The first day of racing was a 1-day race called Grand Prix de Oriente and I … bowed out. I was so sick on that last night before we were to start racing that Jono and I decided it was better for me to not start in hopes that I could heal a little before the stage race was to start. I stayed in the hotel and concentrated real hard on not being sick. It didn’t completely work since I was still coughing the next day but I was so grateful for the extra rest and recovery.
The first day of the stage race was a rolling coastal stage that took the peloton through 4 terrifying unlit tunnels and finished up an exposed 6k climb. I like to get a crash out of my system early in the race so I rode straight into a pileup during the neutral rollout. Once that was over and done with it was time to race! Adventure! Through each tunnel I somehow managed to start in the front and then magically end up in the back except for the one time that it counted, the time we were being photographed. When we hit the final climb, I popped almost immediately. My heartrate had been spiking the entire race and I knew that I was still sick and couldn’t hang on. Kate and Ruth killed it though finishing 7th and 9th on the stage! I rolled in a few minutes back in 16th and was rewarded for my efforts with a seat on a local bike and a Coke! Coke became my best friend during this tour.
The next day was the TTT and a circuit race both right in the heart of El Salvador. The Vanderkittens had practiced our TTT skills in the hotel room the night before so we were totally dialed. Just after the first few teams went off we received word that two riders on the ISCorp team had been hit by a car on the urban run-in to the main part of the TTT course. I refuse to post the video here because I don’t want to see it again but I will say that there is a video out there of the collision and it is terrifying. After hearing this we were pretty cautious for the first part of our race. I have never done a TTT before but I think we did pretty well at communicating and taking appropriate pulls. We finished 7th about 1:20 down from the winning team.
That same day was the circuit race which was … interesting. It was on the same highway as the TTT so we were familiar with the course. After the neutral rollout we were stopped and announcement was made in Spanish. I didn’t bother to ask anyone what the announcement had been but would later find out that what was said was “we are moving the finish line.” Whoops. Ruth and Kate finished in the top 10 and I found out we had finished 20m after we had actually finished.
The next day was el Boqueron. It’s as terrifying as it sounds. The race is a 36k flat-ish run in to an insanely hard 14k climb with pitches as steep as 21% and an average grade of 10%. Starla was kind enough to go in a break in the first 5k of the race while the rest of the peloton farted around, everyone dreading the impending climb. We hit the climb and I did my best to protect Ruth by moving to the front and trying to set a false tempo. This lasted approximately 500m before everyone just pulled around me and eventually rode away from me. I ended up riding the rest of the race with two other women and finished a surprising 13th on the stage which moved me into 13th on GC. Not bad for being sick and having almost no climbing in my legs.
Next was the circuit race which looked flat-ish on paper:
But actually started straight up a brutal 2.3k climb before twisting through the city into a somewhat technical run in to the finish. I did my best to cover moves, pull back breaks, and protect Ruth for the finish. Even though I still wasn’t there for an organized leadout, Liza was able to set Ruth up to finish 6th! In the UCI points! Despite Ruth’s good result, for some reason though I ended up being the one taken to doping control! Doping control! UCI!
The next day was the longest race of the tour, 115k and I woke up feeling like absolute death. I started the race and somehow found my way to the finish line but did it on almost no food. I couldn’t keep anything down. Thankfully Liza made the break and finished 5th! More UCI points! Starla and Ruth had to pretty much coax me all the way to the line. I lost 2 GC places and 5+ minutes on the stage.
The final day of racing I was still having a hard time keeping food down but was feeling at least 50% better than the day before. This was probably the most unforgiving stage of the tour beginning up a 14k climb with barely a flat or unexposed section of the race:
I made it with the lead pack just about to the first QOM but couldn’t match the acceleration to the line. I ended up in a group of 4 that included Ruth. We rode tempo together all the way to the finish line. I didn’t have much in my legs so I was happy for the company and to get through the final day of the tour. Jono was awesome and for the most part stayed with us the whole time feeding us bottles and coke. We lost a lot of time on the stage but by that point, given my health struggles throughout the entire tour, I was just happy to have gotten through it.
The next day was a rest day before the last two one day races of the tour and this was my time to say goodbye. I was sad to not race the last two days with the team but needed to get home and didn’t want my health to suffer further. Wilfredo drove me and my gear to the airport where I hopped a plane to San Francisco. When I arrived in San Francisco I was greeted by this line for immigration. I’m not lying, this was only the back 25% of the line and I only had 1:45 to get through immigration, pick up my luggage, get through customs, walk to the domestic terminal with my luggage, re-check my bags, and make my flight to Seattle which happened to be the last flight of the night. Adventure!
Lesson of the day? Crying will get you everywhere. I cried and begged my way to the front of that line and somehow managed to make my flight back to Seattle with about 15 minutes to spare.
Since this post has already become a novella I am going to add an epilogue to turn it into a true novel.
Without exaggerating I have to say that I could not be happier on my team. I don’t think I personally have ever gelled so quickly and easily with a group of women and I don’t think that there is a more fun team on the planet than Vanderkitten. At every meal and before and after every race I would look around at the other teams who were often sitting quietly together or playing with their phones (okay we played with our phones too but much less) and we were always cracking up over one thing or another. Every woman on this trip added something cool and interesting to the team to make us into this vibrant and awesome whole. Kate was without a doubt one of the wittiest and funniest people I have ever met. Liza and Jeannie were constant sources of laughs and wisdom. Starla is one of the most selfless teammates I’ve ever met. Ruth, despite her youth is funny, fearless, and focused and knows bike handling and tactics inside and out.
I guess what I’m trying to say (OMG FEELINGS!) is that I am so happy to be part of such an awesome team of women with such unique and fun personalities. I love the mission of our team, I love our sponsors, and I love spending time with them.