The road was bad. It was narrow enough to be termed a lane except for the circumstance of its being laid down here in a part of northern Spain where anything not a dusty field or a distant mountain was eligible for consideration as a major thoroughfare. It was potholed, pitted, and cracked, bordered on both sides by dry irrigation ditches, and sifted with gray dust, and wracked with stones. None of that was the worst thing about being on this road. The late winter Spanish sun was thick on the backs of the riders, but the wind that yowled across the open, colorless land was bitter cold, so there was no way to dress right, to neither sweat nor freeze, even amid the usually stable rolling microclimate of humid breath and body heat that exists at the center of a pack of cyclists. That was also not the worst thing about being on this road. The worst thing about being on this road was being on it with this pack.

The group of 136 riders was tense, nervous, eager, anxious, desperate, pushy, excited, with far too many of them willing to ignore the condition of the road, the unpredictable push of the wind, and the draining effect of the counterpunching sun and cold.

They were not all like this. Among the seventeen teams were several composed of seasoned pros and true stars for whom the five-day Vuelta Castilla y Leon was just another chance to get in good training miles, another prelude to the big races of the year. There were some of the gods of the sport, such as Carlos Sastre with Cervelo, Christian Vande Velde with Garmin, Denis Menchov with Rabobank, and Alejandro Valverde of Caisse d”Epargne, and some of the steady paycheck riders, most keenly typified by Victor Hugo Pena running down the final days of his long career, with Rock Racing.

The character of the pack was defined not by its leaders this time, however, but by its fodder, the full squads of tiny continental teams such as Andalucia CajaSur, Barbot-Siper, and Burgos Monumental. For the Spanish and Portuguese riders on these teams (Burgos, in an expansive move, did have one rider from Ecuador), this year’s Vuelta Castilla was their best shot ever at getting noticed by the big European teams. They knew the world was watching the race this year. It was the first official showdown between Lance Armstrong and Alberto Contador….

On this first stage, the pack had been riding as if the entire Vuelta Castilla — or an entire career — could be won on these 168 kilometers. There were ceaseless, desperate attacks and, once those were caught, immediate counterattacks, then counters to the counter. Most of the maneuvers seemed as if they were timed to take place on the worst stretches of road, but the reality was that many stretches of road could be equally termed the worst. As a solo attacking rider or group of two or three threaded between potholes, those in the pack rode blindly into the rough. The handlebars felt like jackhammers in their hands….Riders leaped forward out of the pack, fell back into it, others leaped and came back, and the sides of the pack frayed and fell inward. Rocks skittered under wheels. The wind continued to blow against all of this, and with about twenty kilometers to go there was yet one more leap and fray and another falling inward, except this time the falling inward was actual and the left side of the race began running itself over.

It was a crash.

Red and blue and yellow and orange jerseys disappeared over the fronts of the bikes that had an instant ago been carrying them, and the colors strobed as the riders somersaulted or slid along the pavement until they ran into someone else who had just finished sliding along the pavement and were, in turn, slid into or run over. The left was a clot, and what remained of the race streamed to the right and passed around it. Some of the cyclists were off their bikes and running all crooked on their cleats, one hand on the saddle or handlebar. The team cars were coming up on the scene now, and also the motorcycles with their engines searing hot and as loud as they were hot and exposed out where they could peel the skin right off a rider if the drivers weren’t careful. Riders were walking stiff-legged in circles, or holding their wrists, or already back on their bikes without fully realizing they had risen from the ground, and mechanics were jumping out of the backseats of the team cars and unlocking new bikes from the roof racks and pushing them under riders. It was absolute chaos, and it was pretty ordinary for a bike race.


This is from chapter six of Tour de Lance