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Paradise Found: 3 days in Girona with Team High Road

My skinny pants, they’ve started fitting again. Wear them in December? Never. But my training this spring has been strong. And the few times I’ve pinned on a number, it’s been a pleasant surprise.

The problem, though, is this: Nothing is more anathema to a bike racer than small signs of progress. Looking good in the mirror thanks to a smaller-than-typical ass? Looking good on the bike as shown by a top-10 placing in last week’s race? There’s only so much glory to be had there. For those of us who love life best from the perch of a 200g saddle, our ambition must always outstrip talent; our goals must pay no mind to the insufficiency of time available to achieve them. Our biggest dreams are intense, wildly esoteric, and are always personal. We care little for ‘signs of progress’. Victory: How do you define it?

While I’ll never pooh-pooh the chance to rock the baby, 2008 has been an unusual year. Rather than fixating on the normal menu of springtime races here, I switched gears a bit by cashing in my invitation from Team High Road pro Craig Lewis to visit him in Girona, Spain to do some riding. Craig is in his 4th year as pro, and thanks to a pair of national titles plus superb results in the Tour of Ireland and the legendary Tour l’Avenir (Lemond and Landis are the only Americans to have ever had better results at l’Avenir than that earned by Craig in ’07), he earned his first ProTour contract in 2008. (You can click here to read more about Craig’s pre-High Road racing.)

Girona has been documented ad nauseum as the training grounds of the stars (see here and here (excellent old school content) for two examples, or pick up a copy of Daniel Coyle’s superb book ‘Lance Armstrong’s War’ to get an extreme sense of this). My purpose there was more than mere sightseeing, though. A long winter of base miles plus no few interval sessions this spring have all had one purpose: To prepare myself for logging some big miles with Craig. To do it while being able to maintain conversation on the flats. To do it while surrendering only single-digit minutes -- not minutes-by-the-dozen -- on the climbs. Victory for me? I wanted to pummel myself, but to do so without making Craig feel like a babysitter.

I arrived in Girona just a few days after Craig raced Criterium International -- the two day/three stage epic whose brevity belies its cruelty. His preparation for the race was less than ideal. He’d raced Paris-Nice two weeks beforehand. But his promising start -- he’d cracked the top-20 in the Prologue -- got violently undone by his 60kph crash on a rainy descent later in the week. There were two mass pile-ups that stage. Reports varied, but some estimates claimed that nearly 80 riders total went down. It was an experience like none other, Craig told me. It was a 7-day race, nearly 1,000km in length. The thunderstorms and fog were so bad, though, that the climbs and the TT were irrelevant: The final GC got sorted out on 2 descents.

Craig’s efforts in Paris-Nice came with a cost. He got a sinus infection later the following week, and since Spain’s medical system basically shut down for 4 days for Easter, it morphed into full-blown strep throat. He eventually scored some antibiotics and started to recover when High Road management sent him off to Criterium International. They knew he was sick and they didn’t want to send him. But Criterium International is an ASO race. If they sent less than 8 riders it’d be a dis to the ASO, and given the current ASO/UCI donnybrook, High Road didn’t want to risk irritating the ASO in the least, and thereby imperil their Tour de France slot.

Stage 1 started poorly for High Road. A large group got off the front and High Road had no numbers in it. Craig and a teammate were sent to the head of the peloton to chase, and they nuked themselves in a two-man team time trial for eons. Their efforts failed, and the net result for Craig was that -- legs now shattered, throat and sinuses still a mess -- he got dropped 300m into Stage 2.

When I made it to Girona, Craig was finally over the hump. He’d authoritatively shed his sickness. He’d retrieved his legs from Criterium International hell. He celebrated that morning with a 3-hour motorpacing session with Patrick McCarthy of Team Slipstream, chasing a scooter driven by our old friend Allen Lim. (A cool tip from Allen about the wireless Power Tap 2.4: Its signal is so strong that he attaches a head unit to the rear view mirror of his scooter. It reads off of Pat’s hub, and since Pat sees the same data on the head unit on his handlebars, it allows him to shout to Allen about the pace in watts. Instead of needing to yell the glorious-but-vague ‘Faster! Faster!’ he could holler with precision, ’450! 450!’

That afternoon Craig took me on an hourlong spin around the lovely Girona foothills -- his second ride of the day. We chatted about his spring, his hopes to kill it at the Tour of Georgia, his chances of riding the Giro d’Italia, and -- perhaps of paramount importance for a budding American Euro-pro -- the ease with which his wife-of-four-months Courtney has embraced Girona. In the span of a brief 20 miles he impressed me more deeply than ever before: He seemed no different than an Ivy League med student, or an MBA candidate with dreams of working the trading floor at Goldman Sachs: His vision of his professional future was crystal clear; and of equal clarity was his plan to deliver himself there.

I couldn’t help but compare Craig’s approach to the way I dealt with being a 24-year old bike racer. Back then, I reminisced, an impending race gave me cause for extended rest beforehand; and to soft pedal my way to recovery for days afterward. The races I chose were weighted to those with best proximity to tantalizing nightlife. Was life ever better than the Tour de Lousiane stage race in pre-Katrina New Orleans? I was young, unscared to suffer on the bike, and delighted to watch my newlywed wife prance around our French Quarter hotel room wearing nothing but a Pulp Fiction-era Uma Thurman wig. We were that couple on the other side of the hotel wall. And more than once I skipped the Sunday crit thanks to the midnight wonders of Saturday night.

Compare myself to Craig? Let’s not even bother juxtaposing fitness. Just set our mindsets alongside each other -- little more is necessary. Craig has the approach of a 24-year old CEO about to take his company public: Disciplined, focused, undistractable from the long-term view -- those are his hallmarks. Me at 24? I was the punk working the mailroom, scheming to sneak away at lunch for some afternoon delight.

We met the next morning in Girona’s main square, one of many beautiful squares in town. Each was ringed with outdoor cafés and sparkling boutiques; and each was dense at all hours with Spaniards sipping their coffee, smoking their cigarettes, arguing or falling in love or just generally killing time. And killing time is a finely cultivated art form there. As far as we could tell, it’s the defining act of Girona: Communion with the sun, in a drowsy but not-unalert laze.

After our perfunctory coffee, we headed out for what would prove to be the epic ride of my visit. We numbered 4: Me, my friend from the states Andy, Craig, and his High Road teammate Michael Barry. Michael is a hard-nosed veteran. He’s finished top-30 in the GC at the Vuelta a Espana, he recently won a stage of the Tour of Austria, and a few years back he was on the Discovery squad that won Team GC at the Giro d’Italia and led Paolo Salvodelli to overall victory in GC. Despite these successes, though, Michael is perhaps best known for his book ‘Inside the Postal Bus’ about his years as a domestique for Lance Armstrong on the US Postal Team.

The plan for the day was 90 miles with 2 serious climbs and a mess of smaller ones. Craig and Michael referred to the ride as ‘going to St. Hilarie,’ a phrase that held sinister resonances to my overactive imagination -- St. Hilarie, Sir Edmund Hilary, Mt. Everest, savage climbing, etc, etc. I put my tough face on -- as tough as I could summon given the company I kept that day.

We quickly exited Girona traffic and the mesmerizing beauty of the surrounding countryside soon asserted itself. In those pockets of Europe unscathed by World or civil wars the majesty of the architecture and the heavy presence of history overwhelms. The roads we traveled were the single modern intrusion through ancient farmland -- fields and orchards still tended to with the same patience -- stoic and unsentimental -- in effect here for the last 1,000 years. Humble churches, complicated aqueducts, shattered half-castles all rose unpredictably from the hillsides, providing new mystery every few km.

Our pace was neither hard nor easy. The roads twisted, tipped, dropped, and narrowed without pattern. A few 2-3km climbs foreshadowed what we’d be tackling later in the day, as did the kamikaze descents. The next time you read a story about a Spain-based pro getting nailed by a car on a training ride, keep this in mind: The roads roll for hours at a width barely greater than a golf cart path. Centerlines have no place there. And given the frequency of traffic -- it’s so rare for blessedly long periods of time that you forget cars exist -- your survival instinct dims and you’re liberated to rip through hairpins with the surgical recklessness of a rally car driver.

For me, the situation was a self-conscious one since my bike was equipped with standard SRAM Red brake pads, but with wheels built on Mavic Ceramic Open Pro rims. The stopping power was great, but the squall of my non-ceramic pads was deafening. I’ve always been a pokey descender, but my caution has mostly been a private affair. Now that my braking sparked a cacophony, it’s became everyone’s business. Each time Michael and Craig gained speed through a corner, I ached to restrain my instinct to brake. I hope the resulting silence -- regardless of the invisible terror it evoked in me -- prevented them from asking each other if I’d ever gone downhill before.

After riding for about 90 minutes Michael and Craig peeled off the front in typical two-abreast style. ‘You guys wanna pull for a bit?’ Michael asked. I was stunned by the question. They were safe up there. In my unfamiliarity with the Girona roads and inexperience with what heavy-hitter pros do & don’t expect etiquette-wise from a training ride -- this was their workplace, for goodness sake -- I found his suggestion to be a ridiculous one. Craig was tuning his form for Pays-Basque then Georgia. Michael was doing the same for Liege-Bastogne-Liege and Amstel Gold. Sit on the wheels of two American amateurs? I could articulate the entirety of my astonishment, vast as it was, with little more than a single syllable. ‘Huh?’

‘Why don’t you pull a bit before we hit the climb?’ he asked.

And so we did. How could I not be embarrassed by the added inches that separated my bars from Andy’s, in comparison to the shoulder-bumping, bar-kissing closeness with which Michael and Craig had been pulling? How could I ride in any way save strictly-in-the-saddle, certain to never stand, to never inadvertently thrust my rear wheel into Michael’s front? And how could I set a pace that didn’t over-reach the limits of sensibility?

We made our way into a lovely village called St. Coloma. We threaded some tight corners, wended our way through a traffic circle or two. Drivers gave us generous berth. Pedestrians nodded at us as we passed. The café scene, not unlike Girona’s, was in full effect, and a handful of folks pointed as us as we rode by.

Ours was a sympathy pull. Michael and Craig were showing us unbelievable and unnecessary courtesy -- treating us like colleagues by entrusting us with the front. But to the residents of St. Coloma, we were four men on the job. The illusion, I fancied, was one of Andy and I setting a man’s pace, towing along a pair of grateful High Road pros. I let out a laugh. The King of St Coloma. That’s me. Til the day I die.

We exited town and rolled through orchard after orchard. Fearsome mountains lorded directly above us, and behind those were the sky-scraping, snow-streaked Pyrenean monsters. The rollers turned into a sustained false flat. Then the false flat tipped ever-higher. The pace Andy and I were setting was uncomfortable and certainly untenable for a climb that appeared to be so beastly long. The road steepened again, and as soon as I committed to the thought of peeling off the front, Craig pulled alongside me. Was his breath labored whatsoever? Negative. Based on appearances, his pulse sat somewhere between hair-combing and coffee-stirring. In what I hoped was a joke he said ‘The climb starts right up here,’ pointing to a bend up the road. ‘About 10km,’ he said. A few moments later Michael rode around me, hit some buttons on his SRM, then doubled his speed before vanishing. About 10 seconds later, Craig did the same.

Road signs told us we’d reached the foot of St. Hilarie. It was never brutally steep, and it was unusual for the fact that it went about 800m uphill at a stretch, then went about 200m mostly flat. It stair-stepped like this again and again, provoking then relenting, making it a challenge to establish a steady rhythm. The views of the valley below -- greens and golds and browns boasting of the earth’s richness -- fought with the distant Pyrenees for my affections.

When I eventually reached the top, it appeared that Michael and Craig’s wait hadn’t been eternal. It was a triumph, I decided, since they hadn’t turned around in rescue mode to go looking for me. As I rode up to them I noticed that their team-issue Giant frames had a decal on the top tube I hadn’t previously noticed. ‘Die Mannschaft,’ it said. Man shaft is right, I thought. It’s exactly what these guys grab when they hit the climbs hard. Based on the way I felt atop St. Hilarie -- 10km climbs don’t exist where I come from -- my man shaft had been tested and found to be wanting. It was much to my chagrin, I must add, that later in the ride that Michael explained to me that Die Mannschaft, in fact, has nothing to do with his (or Craig’s) fully vetted manhood. Rather, it’s German for ‘The Team’, as in ‘One for all, all for one.’

From the top of St. Hilarie it was another 3km of climbing to reach the pass. From there we whiplashed down to the valley, railed on the flats for a nice stretch, then Craig turned to me and said ‘Here we go again. 8km, and it gets kinda steep at the top.’ Once again Michael fiddled with his SRM for a moment, then gunned it. Craig soon followed suit.

As I watched them scream away for another interval, the fatigue in my legs spread to my brain, spawning strange, tired-man thoughts. I passed the time doing a new version of old math. What working stiff hasn’t asked themselves these questions before -- How many hours a year do I spend commuting in the car? How many hours do I spend asleep? How many days, how many years of life is it? Aren’t there equivalent questions, I wondered, for pro bike racers like Michael and Craig? On the average week -- training, racing, it doesn’t really matter -- how much time do they spend in the pain cave? How many hours a week in that mystically pure state of suffering? How many days -- how many months -- of life will they spend cognizant solely of that one thought we all share in those moments: Don’t give in?

This climb was significantly steeper. Counting down the km’s was slower work than I would’ve liked. I tried to abide by the cardinal rule of climbing -- never look at the top. But the hairpins came once and again, no less repetitive and distinct as Alpe d’Huez. Standing in anonymity in the boonies of northeastern Spain -- there wasn’t even a road sign naming it at the bottom -- it was a climb few would ever seek out. Unlike the Alpe, obscurity would be its eternal fate. And in an attempt to shave off every last meter I cut the corners on the hairpins, requiring me, in fact, to steadily look far up the road to scan for cars barreling downward, and straining my morale -- just a bit -- for the first time in the ride.

We were climbing southward, so with every bend in the road I’d catch a hazeless, unspoiled panorama of the Pyrenees. As a backdrop it was more than just picturesque. For my riding partners surely it was a steady motivator. The Tour de France, Vuelta a Espana, Tour of Catalunya, Pays-Basque -- what served as window dressing on this ride was the place of reckoning for the most important races of the season. It added another layer of majesty to the terrain.

This ascent proved to be less of a success for me. About 800m from the top Michael, Craig, and Andy ran into me after they’d doubled back from the top. By then we’d been out for nearly 4 hours. Craig seemed concerned about how I felt. ‘I’m doing great,’ I told him, and I spun a hoarse and thoroughly unbelievable tale that I’d been distracted by the lovely views. In fact, I’d run out of water before the climb began, my legs were blasted, and it was only foggy, anecdotal memories of college Microbiology lab that prevented me from fingering my chamois in search of an unspoiled dollop of chamois cream to use as makeshift ChapStick. I was pretty well brutalized by the time we reached the tip top. I stopped to take a leak, and in my momentary relief that the worst of the day’s climbing was done, I asked them for the name of the mountain -- given the extent of my suffering, I wanted commit the place-name to memory.

In proof that the worst disses are the ones that are completely unintentional, Michael and Craig looked at each other and shrugged their shoulders in unison. ‘I dunno,’ Craig said. ‘Back side of St Hilarie….I guess?’ For me, an epic. For them, just another problem to solve -- and not a memorable one at that. It stung. But it made me laugh, too. I’d left my ego back at the café in Girona. I’d gotten a full dose of the medicine I’d signed up for. How could I not be stoked about that?

We descended back to St. Coloma. I did my best to resume my royal bearing there, but I lost myself in the 700 calories of sugary treats I inhaled at the gas station. After a glorious 25km descent, then one last 5km climb, we made our way back into Girona. The next day we took in another one of Girona’s countless fantastic climbs, Ells Angels. It’s only 10 minutes from the Girona square, it’s 13km to the top, and you’ll cross paths with the occasional geriatric German hiker, but otherwise you’ll see no cars or other signs of life.

Girona, Spain: Do yourself a once-in-a-lifetime favor and go visit it with your bike, with some well-tuned fitness, and after an extended diet. The riding is maybe the best in Europe. The landscapes are heavenly. The restaurants and shopping are top-notch. And the café scene -- ah, what a dangerous temptress she is! You can fly to Barcelona and rent a car for the 90 minute drive there. Or if you can connect from inside Europe, Ryan Air flies directly to Girona, saving you the unpleasantness of Barcelona traffic. Our hotel, the Ciutat de Girona, is perfectly situated and was excellent in every way. The restaurant there, Café Blanc, came highly recommended and lived up to its billing for delicious Catalunyan food at decent prices. Maybe we’ll see you there, because based on our experience we’ll definitely be back.

And when you’re scanning race results on cyclingnews.com, give props to Michael Barry and Craig Lewis. With all of the scandal and general idiocy in the ProTour scene over the last few years, these are guys worth rooting for. They come from rock-solid families, they’ll have productive lives after they quit racing -- no matter what sort of results future races bring -- and neither has the ego nor the dysfunctions that define the last generation of ‘heroes’.