Sam’s curiosity about his own physiology led him to pursue a degree in Exercise Biology from the University of California, Davis. He continues to race on the Herbalife 24 p/b Marc Pro-Nature’s Bakery Elite Cycling Team and is excited to leverage his experience and educational background to help cyclists of all levels get stronger and faster.
**Data analysis/nerd alert by Nate Dunn when noted. Click on images for full detail.
A UCI level race guarantees a high level of competition and landing on the podium proves that you are capable of riding at that level. The Vuelta Independencia Nacional Republica Dominicana is a UCI 2.2 8-day stage race in the Dominican Republic, which I recently went to with the goal of landing my first UCI level podium. After narrowly missing the podium on stage two (4th place), we entered the meat of the race.
The next six hard road stages put us at about 28 hours of racing in seven days. Throughout the race I knew that I had great fitness and I was racing well. I was making crosswind splits, large selections, important breaks, and was doing well on the stages with more climbing.
Despite the great fitness and aggressive racing, staying mentally fresh at this race is especially difficult. The organization is very chaotic. Stage start times and distances are really just estimates. The food is questionable at best (we went out for KFC and pizza the last couple nights), and there is a whole lot of waiting around.
I was especially frustrated after stage six. The finish was changed while we were racing, which was not communicated to the riders. The 3k to go sign was really at 1.5k to go, and the finish line was just a guy waving a checkered flag next to a random white crosswalk line. I was 6th in the sprint without even getting to open up a sprint. The winner was the only one who saw the finish in time to actually sprint.
Technical Downtown Circuit
Despite the general chaos of the race, I still found myself racing well going into the last stage. The last day of any stage race is difficult and this one was no exception. The course was tricky, technical, and punchy. A fast descent leads into the last two corners, both of which either had manhole covers, open manholes, or thick crosswalk paint.
After the last corner, the finishing straight rolls upwards for about 30-40 seconds to the finish. A 180-degree turn at the other end of the course and a couple more rollers make the course surprisingly hard.
The morning of the race it was dumping rain, which was going to make the course very dangerous. Last year the stage was cancelled when the rain caused several huge crashes.
Potholes and Flats
This stage is a textbook example of why developing mental toughness is so important. This was a very difficult stage mentally. Before the stage even started, the field was chanting on the start line to have the race shortened to 10 laps from 15. Everyone was nervous about the rain.
Less than a lap into the race, I hit a pothole and flatted immediately. My teammate Dave gave up his rear wheel, but our team car was nowhere to be seen (our other teammate had flatted just before me). I started chasing but the race was on and no one in the caravan was doing me any favors as I tried to chase up the finishing climb.
Groups of riders were already getting dropped, making the situation even more chaotic. I continued to chase for the next lap and a half, clawing back seconds until my team car finally found me through the start/finish. I made it back to the end of the caravan and put in one last big effort to make it through the team cars and back to the tail end of the field.
Half a lap later the rain picked up on the sketchy descent, and the field neutralized itself (I have never seen this happen before). We rode easy for another lap, and the field stopped itself on the start/finish and refused to race.
The team defending the yellow jersey argued briefly with the officials, who then sent us on our way again. One rider, who was off the front before the field stopped racing, now had six minutes on the field.
The team with yellow proceeded to ride a hard tempo on the front. Due to the nature of the course, just riding in the field is punchy and difficult. Riders were continually getting dropped due to the repeated accelerations.
Rain and Fatigue
Rain continued to fall, very hard at some points, and I spent a lot of the race feeling like absolute garbage, especially on the harder parts of the course. After 7 days of racing, I was really starting to doubt my ability to do anything on such a hard finish.
Two years ago on this same stage I had blown up in the final sprint, and had not been a factor. Knowing how the stage had gone previously for me, I thought that I would need much better legs than I had. I even told my teammate Nate Freed at one point that I wasn’t even going to sprint, “it’s not worth it in this rain and I feel like s***”.
Having a deeply ingrained mental toughness is something that is often noted as a requirement for competing at the higher levels of any sport. Many people see it as something that you have or something you don’t have, but I really believe that it is a learnable skill.
I clearly remember Steven Cozza, former Garmin Sharp rider and long time NoCal resident, telling me when I was a junior racer on Team Swift that you should never give up on yourself in a race.
I also remember my first coach on Team Swift, Laura Charameda, telling me that I had to sprint for the city limit sign at the end of one of my first long rides. Even though I was tired she said, “you just have to do it”.
With two laps to go up the finishing climb, the field really began to split near the back where I was. I was able to ride through the riders getting dropped, and knew I still had something left. With one to go I found myself at the front of the field up the finishing climb. I hovered near the front the rest of the lap, and just tried to stay safe in the most dangerous corners.
I avoided a crash in the second to last corner and came out of the last corner in the top 15 or so. I came out of the corner, took five hard pedal strokes, dropped my chain, got my chain back into the big ring, then started to close the gap that had opened in front of me.
On the Podium
It was a long, slow motion uphill sprint. There was no hiding on the wheel, you either had the legs or you didn’t. I was closing on the leaders all the way to the line, finishing second in the sprint and third on the stage, my first UCI podium.
Making it through a stage race like this is hard, even for the strong riders who are racing well. Although newer racers may not be able to relate to 8 days and 30+ hours of racing in a foreign country, every rider at every level will experience setbacks and challenges that they will have to overcome if they want to succeed in this sport.
I believe that failure is an essential part of the learning experience in cycling, and that developing mental toughness is one of the most important outcomes of experiencing failure.
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