2009 was my first year racing in the big leagues. That’s back in the days of Tour of California taking place in February, and I believe it was stage four where I followed the very un-deft move by the rider in front of me who hit the deck and I the same. It was on a frigid, soaking wet day, so after cursing a little bit in English to meet his Italian (turns out, we went on to become teammates and friends in 2011 on Liquigas), I remounted, rode maybe ten minutes further in agonizing pain before I sussed out that my arm was broken.
A few short months later, anxious to make it back to Europe and impress my new team, I was thrown into the deepest of the deepest pools. I touched down in Europe and went directly to Ronde van Drenthe, a hard-fought UCI 1.1 in the Netherlands, known for starting in a gymnasium and racing literally out the door, then taking place all around a scenic Dutch landfill. From there, it was directly off to the full Ardennes week — Amstel, Felche, and Liege. Next was Romandie which over the course of the race was mildly concerning to me as I wondered how anyone could speed up and down the Swiss Alps so quickly for five days straight, let alone the three week Giro d’Italia I raced immediately afterwards. But trial by fire was the name of the game, and only slightly crispy and singed, we won five stages, put Carlos Sastre into third overall, so I successfully made it to the other side.
My teammate in 2008 on Bissell, João Correia, said that if I ever finished a grand tour, he’d be there to congratulate me. Somewhere around stage 17, he realized that might become a reality so he promptly booked a trip from NYC to Rome.
The final day of the Giro was an individual time trial around that ancient city. We sped around the Colosseum and Pantheon, weary and cross-eyed from effort, and as spectacular as I’m sure it was I didn’t really take much in, merely wanting to wrap up the hardest stretch of racing I ever encountered. Which is a very close testament to professional racing in general: travel the world to unique, exotic, and historical places, but speed by any historically enrichment at 23mph in order to focus on the task at hand. Don’t stand when you can sit, don’t sit when you can lay down… and don’t consider being a tourist and taking in a little world history because that would hinder performance — the mantra of nearly every professional cyclist ever.
Why do we ride? Sure, racing a bike is meant to prove something, to win something, to help someone cross the line first. Riding, though, is an altogether different matter. Done correctly, riding is a method to absorb angst and replace it with pleasure. It’s pedaling to soak in the world around you, to share the time with friends, and to take in the unquantifiable stress of life and stoke the emotional wellbeing of your soul.
It’s unique territory, the life of a pro cyclist. Wake, breakfast, ride, lunch, massage, dinner, sleep. The reality of that isn’t as peaceful as it sounds as it’s met with austerity and abstemiousness. The actual day to day is often dry and hollow, spent away from people you really care about, focused solely and selfishly on being faster. It’s a longing to quench an insatiable thirst that no matter how much you drink just won’t go away. (I just had a nasty bout of poison oak. I nearly called it an insatiable itch that won’t go away… for about 2 weeks and then suddenly, thank goodness, it’s gone.)
I loved racing and am forever blessed with the career it gave me. I retired from bike racing for a dozen or more reasons. In the end, I decided a decade was sufficient at the sharp end of the sport, although I still wanted to still be able to get on my bike not for training or to power through an interval, instead to ride a bike for the sake of riding a bike. Conveniently, it also means you can finish a ride and crack into a beer.
…or, better yet, reach for a beer smack in the middle of the ride.
So what if you could combine that professional life and put a romantic twist on it? What if you could sate that never-ending thirst, truly soak in the ride, embrace the massage, absorb your surroundings, and go deep into conversation with the people around you. Plus have a beer in the middle of the ride.
There’s a tremendous professionalism afforded to someone who’s has seen this life with racing glasses on. Your personalized laundry bag is picked up dirty and dropped off clean, your luggage whisked away in the morning and waiting for you in the evening’s hotel, the rainbag with your name inscribed on it waiting in the car if and when you might need to swap clothes if you warm up or cool off, the massage by knowing hands of someone who’s done massage tens of thousands of times on professional cyclists, roadside arrows out on course, the day’s schedule to know every important detail of the day — these aren’t details meant purely for your convenience, they’re directly from the WorldTour.
Let’s cut to the chase, darn it. I just wrapped up the most enjoyable week I’ve ever spent with my bike. inGamba was born through João’s vision to take in the finer points of bike riding and meet them with the simplicity of professional racing — wake, breakfast, ride, lunch, massage, dinner, sleep. Vacation is meant to be simple. It’s meant to be fulfilling. It’s meant to be enriching.
We toured the Alentejo region of Portugal where the pace of life here is unlike anything I’ve seen before. While the pace of European life is slower than that of the US, southern Europe moves along even easier. More peaceful yet is Portugal.
We saw Roman ruins, hundreds of thousands of cobblestones, and never a single anxious car or driver. Perfect weather met with stunning scenery, we took in the sights, sounds, terrain, exquisite meals and dynamite wine (and cheap European lager); it’s weeks like these that I value the time I spent racing, get to share stories among the four former pros there (a world champ and national champion included) and really embrace my time on a bike and the places it takes me.