I have been fortunate to race all over the world since jumping to the UCI Continental Team: Team Illuminate. I have been racing with this team since 2016 and it has allowed me to race in more than ten different countries. As someone who started racing bikes competitively only five years ago, this is something I have to pinch myself about every time I swing a leg over a bike.
The season started in Colombia and Thailand – and China was next! This would be my first-time racing in China, so there’s always a little extra excitement – and nerves! Let me tell you one thing – I did not go into the race with any expectations. . This was something different for me – typically, I put a lot of pressure on myself, especially if the race’s parcours might suit me.
I landed in Taiyuan three days prior to the first stage, well into the evening. I was fortunate to meet up with a local rider to recon some of the first stage – at the time, I didn’t realize how much this would come in handy during the race!
The next day, we were joined by the other four teammates for another spin and the Tour of Taiyuan’s extravagant opening ceremony… a massive water and light show with amazing performances. After that we had a team meeting to discuss the first stage. On paper, it looks relatively challenging: longest stage of the race (206km) and clearly the “queen stage” with 3,000+ meters of climbing. Typically, I can do a little course analysis through Strava to determine the difficulty of the climbs, but we were in China – no Strava! Regardless, we knew the race distance, we had a “rough” plan, and went to bed expecting a small breakaway to go after the first sprint point ~20 km into the stage – prior to the first climb. It was bedtime after a quick serving of Preload – I’d certainly need that in the legs/body with a long, hot stage on tap!
The morning of the race is a typical scramble of trying to get some food and hydration in you, along with the last-minute mechanical checks. We rolled out from the start and attacks started flying.
I very vividly remember telling one of my teammates to relax as nothing would stick until later in the stage, but before I even finished the sentence, I was chasing a move! A few of us bridged up to a small group after only 8 km of the stage. Next thing I knew, we were a relatively big bunch of 20-25 guys still chasing four others up the road.
I settled in with our sprinter, Martin, and the next thing I knew I heard we had four minutes on the main bunch… FOUR MINUTES?! At first, I didn’t believe it. Sure enough, the next time I heard a split, we had seven minutes. Unreal. From there, I just assumed we’d maybe crest over the first KOM point, just to get swallowed up by the peloton – but we came over the top with close to nine minutes.
As guys started to fall off from our front group, Martin was still there by my side. I was impressed – he has a massive engine and had already won a stage in the Tour of Thailand this year – but I didn’t expect him to climb so well! As we headed into the HC KOM climb of the day, he rolled up to me with another bottle, signaling it was nearly the end to his day.
My director spoke to me for the first time. He knew I was in a great spot and tried to convince me not to let my legs get the best of myself and jump for the KOM points. I tried to listen to him, but still came over the top in second, as our group shrunk to five or six guys. The crazy part – we still had 100 km to go and a big climb left!
I continually tried to get hydration and food into me, as things can quickly head south towards the end of a race. I still had no expectation we’d stay away from the remainder of a chase group, but our small group grew to six to eight guys as we started the final climb of the day.
The moto told us we only had a minute and a half on a group of chasers and I knew if there was one of the GC/climber guys in that group, I’d need a better head start on this last climb in order to make it to the line in a front group. I accelerated on the climb and only one other rider followed me. My legs still felt good, and I tried to keep him motivated and working, as guys behind us started their chase. The “top” of the climb was a rolling section, prior to the final descent – which is what we had ridden up the day before – so I knew exactly how far we had to go, and even more so, what kind of gap we’d need to maybe make it to the line! The last 30 km after the descent was completely flat AND with a tailwind… We could stick this!
We came over the top of the last bit of the climb with just over two minutes. We rallied on the descent and were told we had almost four minutes – here we go! I was working well with my breakaway companion, but he was clearly getting tired, as he asked to push a little less as “the group can’t catch.” 25 km is still a long way out to think that, I thought…
Not surprisingly, we quickly lost a minute of that due to a wrong turn off a highway. For the first time in my life, I had to get off my bike and hop over a bush onto an off-ramp. I tried to keep the motivation up, but also knew if the gap went under a minute, I’d have to do something. My strengths are not in a sprint so I would need to make this one solo!
I saw my opportunity to jump free with what I thought was 8 km to go – so as I saw the other rider ease up from a pull, I jumped. He couldn’t respond, and I put my head down as the race jumped up an on-ramp and into a headwind… that I had no idea was coming. For a few seconds, I felt my legs almost decide to cramp – but held it off… the Preload and Active Hydration were doing their trick!
When your head is in a dark place, you have to constantly think all the people that have supported you and all of the training you have done to get yourself there. Why waste a moment without giving it 150%?
Coming into the final 3 km, I couldn’t believe it. Everything hurt, but I kept giving it everything, knowing a big time gap could actually make a significant difference for the entire six day stage race. When I finally reached the final 100m, the feelings were incredible and surreal! My first UCI win!
Pulling on the leader’s yellow jersey and receiving stage honors was something special. It’s what you train for. All the sacrifices you make in your daily life culminate here. It’s why I want to pin on a number and race!
If there’s one thing I learned from this first stage – be aggressive and seize the opportunity. If I had sat back and waited for everyone else to make the moves or fall off the pace, I would have found myself nine minutes back. The race could have gone a million ways – I could have been that guy that blew up and ultimately finished at the back of the bunch – but at least I gave myself the shot to win! And lastly, don’t save that gel or bottle for “later” in the race. If you’re not properly hydrated or fed, you’ll miss those opportunities. Keep on top of your nutrition plan!
For the remaining five stages, I was able to successfully defend my position as the leader of the General Classification – all thanks to my team and teammates. It’s a weird scenario to have to sit in the group and be smart about your positioning while your team takes care of the race – I’m so proud of them. Oh yeah, and better yet – Martin? Yeah, he won four more stages along the way too – even after using some extra energy that first stage to help me get the win. I was a lucky and fortunate guy that week!