Wednesday, 19 April 2017

First fortnight in Spain - Week 2

Click here to read Part 1


Training – Basque Style

While the first week had me rushing around trying to keep up with a hectic schedule, the second week was far more relaxed, which allowed me to get in much more riding. Monday morning was my ride in Vitoria-Gastiez and I joined Ethan for a recovery ride around a nearby lake called "Landa". The weather was ideal with very few clouds and the temperature hovering around 17 degrees, which allowed us to get in some good shots throughout the day.

Riding out of Vitoria-Gasteiz

Lake Landa!

Tuesday was less of a photoshoot day and more of a let's-get-to-work day on the bike as I joined Ethan and another teammate, Arritz, on a ride towards a climb where we would do some hill repeats. Despite the leg grinding efforts, I was dumbfounded by the sheer beauty of cycling in this region. It’s hard to take a bad photo here to be honest - the sights you come across on a ride are often so picturesque that you don’t need an ‘eye’ to capture them.

What I can’t quite yet capture in a photo though is the simple wonder of these roads. Someone driving a car generally might not appreciate the quality nor the diversity of a road, as they are usually only concerned with going from point A to point B in the shortest amount of time. A motorcyclist? Sure, they’ll get something out of the experience. But a truly great road really does, in my opinion, need a cyclist upon it for its majesty to be realized.

Riding with Ethan and Arritz

First exposure to Basque Racing

In Belgium a typical race attracts between 50 and 80 riders, but here the number goes up to 200! Due to a paperwork mix-up, I couldn't enter a race that was scheduled for Thursday in a town called Durango. Instead I decided to ride there and say hello to the team management, who I had not yet met.

I opened the google maps app and checked for directions to Durango. A pretty cool feature was the "Bicycle path" feature that shows the shortest route that can be traversed by a bike. Little did I know that this feature does not yet differentiate between road-bike paths and Mountain-bike trails. In the second hour of the ride, when I was 6 kms away from Durango, I was instructed to take a right turn onto a beaten, rock-laden, 4-foot wide path. While descending.

Not what I expected

Off the Beaten Path

"I'm going to hit the main road at some point very soon." I said to myself and began the descent. But 60 metres in, I saw a huge brown figure rush towards me at 11 o'clock followed by a thundering bark. I hit the brakes hard and stopped in my tracks, watching as a Bullmastiff charged towards me before being stopped by its chains. Despite being a huge dog lover, I realized my best option was to turn around. So this is exactly what I did as I retraced my path faster than a cat living its 9th life.

I took the longer and well-paved road to Durango and met with the team management who were quite warm and curious about my racing history. I waited around until the race flagged off and headed back home.

Catching the start of the race

2 hours and a category 1 climb later, I was back in Vitoria-Gasteiz where I had the chance to appreciate more domesticated canines. All from at least 4 feet away.

Fun fact (and also my favourite stat about Spain so far) : 1 in 3 people in Spain have a dog!!

Group Rides – Basque Style

Thanks to Allan's help I was able to co-ordinate with Joseba Beloki and I joined him and a group of other cyclists in Vitoria-Gastiez to go on a 5 hour long ride. Beloki is a legend in the Basque racing community. He podiumed three times at Le Tour de France, all while racing clean during the Lance era! Despite his high achievements, he was incredibly down-to-earth, chatting with everyone in the group and offering me a bit of advice while even pulling a couple of pranks on his friends!

This was my first 2-man-wide bunch ride in over 5 months, and while I was more strained mentally than physically, I quickly regained my rhythm and was quite comfortable within an hour's time. This was short lived as soon I was put into physical strain as the bunch tackled every road that sloped upwards at a punishing speed.

With Beloki and co.

5hrs and 1700m of elevation later, I was back in the comforts of my room, only to come face-to-face with my nemesis..

That's a 3 inch wide garage lock, next to a mosquito!

On sunday morning I hoped to get in a 4-hour endurance-paced ride in order to recover well from the previous day's exertion. 2 kilometers into my ride out towards Landa however, I spotted a bunch of eight U23 cyclists about to start a group ride.

The rule of thumb in cycling is - "Train with someone who is slightly stronger than you." Keeping this in mind, I approached them to ask if I could join them on the day’s ride. "Sure" they said.

The pace was quite comfortable in the first hour until we hit a climb and were soon going up it at speeds I hadn’t thought were possible. Halfway through, I couldn't hold on and got dropped. I was certain they would not wait for me and began dreading the thought of having to use Google maps again to get back home. Surprisingly, they were kind enough to wait for me at the top of the climbs.
Them Quickstep boys are quick!!

I got lost in translation (and a bit of my shyness) not knowing how long we would be riding for. 3hrs into the ride, we stopped to get some water and I learnt that we were 2 hours and one Cat1 climb away from home. "Oh okay", I replied in my typical stoic manner while internally dreading the obstacle ahead.
After a total of 5.5hrs of suffering over 2250m of elevation gain, I was happier than ever to see my refrigerator. I promptly downed 4200 calories, happy about finishing a solid weekend of training!

Discussing which climbs to take on!

What's next: Barring any catastrophe, I will lining up for my first Spanish race on the 23rd of April. Follow me on Facebook and Instagram for regular updates, and this blog for fortnightly ones.

First fortnight in Spain - Week 1

My First Fortnight in Spain

After I finished my pursuit of a Bachelor's degree in Mechanical Engineering, I decided to find a new pursuit, which happened to be when I heard about United Mint Campus' Cycling Program based in Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain. United Mint Cycling is a flagship athletic program at United Mint Campus and is the first higher education program in the world to blend daily cycling talent development with top flight university academics.


The Arrival!

After 19 hours of traveling, including 20 minutes of dog petting at the Mumbai airport, I set foot in Bilbao, Spain - with three layers of clothing on, expecting the chill of Atlantic winds. To my relief, this ended up being two layers more than what was necessary as the weather turned out to be a toasty 27 degrees!

I was greeted by the friendly staff and students of UMC  and we set off to Vitoria-Gasteiz, home of United Mint Cycling. Vitoria is a picturesque a city of exceptional urban design and is the capital of the Basque Country (or as I like to call it – cycling paradise)

First exposure to Spanish cuisine

It was in Vitoria that I had my first ever experience with Pintxos! Pintxos are the most common food item found in the Basque country. They are the "dosas" of this region - a common snack with 3 or 4 ingredients that can be eaten as a meal but CANNOT be eaten with a fork!
What Pintxos look like!

That evening I checked into my UMC apartment with my roommate –Ethan Egglestone – who turns out to be one helluva strong rider from Australia!
Ethan E!

Meeting my coach and The Vuelta al Pais Vasco

The next morning I met with my coach Allan Davis for the first time in person. Allan is a legend in the sport with wins and podiums in some of the toughest races like Milan-SanRemo and the Road World Championships. He has an Indian connection too with his win at the Commonwealth Games road race in New Delhi. It has been an honor and a steep learning curve working with him.

Allan at CWG 2010

The same day, Allan took Ethan and me to the race start of the Vuelta al Pais Vasco, the most important race in the Basque region of the year. It was inspiring to meet and talk with some of the top cycling pros, all thanks to the VIP passes that Allan had got us.

Heading to the race start with Ethan (L) and Allan (R)

Joseba Beloki (L) and Allan Davis (R)

Yours Truly (L) and Ethan (R)

Sticking to my race day tradition, I spent most of the time hanging around the Orica-Scott Team bus. If you know me well, you know that as the temperature drops to the single digits, my tongue swells and I have a bit of difficulty speaking.

At 15 degrees: "Hi Jack Haig! Best of luck for today's stage"

9 degrees: "Bes-tuth of luck for today'th th-tage, Gerro!"

7 degrees: "Valbatheene! Gwedt goun at yetedayth th-tage. Gwedt veen!"
                  Michael Albasini: "I'm sorry… what?"
                  Me: *Very slowly* "Kongraatulashuns on duh ween!"
                  Michael Albasini: "Oh right. Thanks!"

On Thursdays, United Mint Cyclists head up to Oiartzun, near San Sebastian, for training, strategy and nutrition reviews with Allan. I packed some of my biking kits and got on the commuter bike and headed towards the Bus station with Ethan. The weather turned from bright and Sunny to "Clasica San Sebastian" on the way there. When we arrived we met Allan and he showed us a bit around San Sebastian.
Heading to San-Sebastian

Bonjour France!

Later that afternoon, Ethan and I kitted up and went out for a ride. The San Sebastian region has so far been the best place I’ve ever ridden a bike. Setting out from the urban areas you’re spoilt for choice with regards to terrain: rolling hills to the south-east, a flat valley directly south and more flat roads out towards France along the coast to the north-west towards the sleepy surf town of Biarritz. Our first stop was Biarritz which ran along the coastline. It was a sunny day, with perfect riding conditions at 18 degrees.

Grabbing some Vit-D along the French coast

After reaching the nearby cliff and stopping for photos we turned back and decided to head towards the climbs around Oiartzun. This was my first ride on a road bike in over a week, so it was great to have my legs feeling fresh and responding well to the challenge of the climbs.

Climbing around Oiartzun

After a pintxo lunch, it was time to head back to Vitoria-Gasteiz. A missed bus, and 90 minutes later, we arrived at the bus station. Partly due to a freak accident in the space-time continuum and partly due to poor planning, we found ourselves having to transport 3 bikes and a cricket bat from the bus station to our apartment. As Ethan tugged along with the frame of his bike and me with his wheels, we were stopped by the Spanish police, whose curiosity was piqued by our poor planning and the space-time continuum accident.  After a bit of "Sorry, Habla no Espanol"  from my end and some broken Spanish from Ethan, we were let go.

Skiing and Cycling at Altitude

UMC places a huge emphasis on Work-Life balance and one of their mottos is "Learn (Hard). Work (Hard). Play (Hard)." In accordance with the third point, we headed out on Friday morning to the Spanish town of Baqueira for a weekend of Skiing! The previous night I had received my race bike, so we were able to get that onto the car, ready for an exciting weekend of riding uphill (and skiing downhill) at altitude.

First ever snow sighting!

This was my first experience with snow and I was as excited as a Golden retriever spotting a tennis ball, when we arrived. After picking up the rental skis, shoes, and helmets, the rookies in the group - Ethan and I - headed to our beginner lessons.

Heading to the ski session with the UMC crew!

Skiing is one of those things that looks very easy, and every beginner goes - "Oh this looks so easy. You just move your legs like this. You turn your arms like that. Pah, anybody can do it."

As a beginner I had the same approach and was proved horribly wrong as I repeatedly landed on my rear end and got stuck frantically moving my legs while digging into the snow, which kept me from moving anywhere. Luckily we had a very enthusiastic (as well as gentle and patient) French instructor, and I picked up the basics quite well. She confessed though that she had difficulty pronouncing my name and we decided that she could just call me "Raj".

"Yes, that is very good, Roche. Put your weight on your outside leg while taking the turn, Roche."

"Roche, now we will be descending at a faster speed, so focus more."
"You need to bend your knees more, Roche."

"Erm..How do I move?"

On Saturday morning the ski lessons were scheduled for 10:00AM, but I was keen on riding before that, so I had to head out at 6:30AM. Getting up that early at a ski resort means being greeted with a temperature of 1 degree! I put aside my cycling helmet and instead opted to ride with the rented ski helmet. I looked like an absolute dork, but I was a very warm dork.

Later that day in the ski session, some of my muscle memory from my roller skating days kicked in and I was keen to reach new heights (or descents) faster than the instructor would have liked.

"Roche, slow down!!"

"Roche. ROCHE!! Slow down, or you are going to crash!!"

As I tumbled down the snow slopes more times than I could count and noticed the frustration in the instructor's voice slowly growing, I figured I should call it a day. I decided to give it one last shot though as I joined my (more learned) friends from UMC for a run down a higher slope of the mountain. After receiving a couple of key pointers on weight distribution, off I went, faster, more unstable and slightly more scared than I would have liked to, but soon I found a good rhythm and enjoyed the thrill of skiing, so much so that I did the run again!!

At the base of the ski resort

Sunday morning involved a later start to the day and I set about exploring the mountain from the other side, by bike. I climbed up the mountain and did some efforts, afterwards which I descended down the other side where I was treated to spectacular views, some of which seemed similar to the ones I saw on TV at the Giro d'Italia!

View from the other side of the mountain

Click here to read Week 2