“You’re off to great places!
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting,
So get on your way!”
— Dr. Seuss
(Post by Tom Carter)
Ageless Champion: Alejandro Valverde in his Spanish National Champion jersey
As the clock ticked down to the start of stage four of the 2020 Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana, the riders had a daunting task ahead: 156 kilometers over five different categorized climbs, culminating in a brutally steep 5K climb to the finish. The first to reach that summit was almost certain to win the overall race after the next day’s flat finale into Valencia. After three stages, seven riders were currently tied for the race lead, including the elder statesmen and crowd favorite Alejandro Valverde—two months from his 40th birthday—and Slovenian Tadej Pogačar, who had recently turned 21. But rather than visages of grim determination, these men wore smiles, as they teased each other like a father and a son who is just coming into his own.
You see, cycling is a meritocracy, and in his brief career the young Slovenian had already earned universal respect among the peloton. The previous summer, Pogačar had battled for three weeks to finish third behind his victorious compatriot Primož Roglič and Valverde in the Vuelta a España, and two days before he had bested Valverde and the other climbers on the Volta’s steep finish in Cullera. So Valverde—wearing the Spanish national champion jersey and with victories in grand tours, world championships, and many, many other races—treated a man half his age as his equal.
Living in Europe puts us close not only to the biggest bike races in the world but also to many minor races. Events like the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana offer fans a chance to be close to many of cycling’s stars without the planning, traffic, and crowds of watching the big races in person. The five-stage Volta takes place each February at various points around the Valencian Community’s three provinces.
While the 2020 edition didn’t pass through our town of Javea, the pivotal “queen stage” had its departure point, la salida (literally, “the exit” or “the take off”) in nearby Calpe. Since it was a sunny and warm February Saturday, my neighbor Ken and I pedaled the spectacular 20-miles down the coast to watch. After passing through our neighboring villages, we bombed down to the Mediterranean towards the Gibraltaresque Calpe rock looming over the town and the sea.
Along the way we passed lots of cycling groups, including some of the pro teams warming up for the day’s stage. At the start we found a robust but manageable crowd of fans milling around with racers outside the team buses. In big races, the buses would have been in a roped-off VIP section. But here we could brush elbows with Pogačar, Irishman Dan Martin, and reining Olympic champion Greg Van Avermaet with his gold bike helmet. At the Jumbo Visma bus, Dutchman Dylan Groenewegen was chatting with fans in the orange sprinter’s jersey, which he earned on day one and wore all the way to the podium in Valencia.
While I admire most of the riders we saw, I felt compelled to seek out two people in particular. The first was Alexander Vinokourov, the legendary “Crazy Kazakh” who turned pro cycling upside down for years before winning gold in the London Olympics. After that victory, he promptly retired to manage Team Astana. As my wife and I named our former cat and our new house in Spain after Vino, I had to at least try. At the Astana bus, I found Spanish rider Ion Izagirre talking with fans. Sadly, he told me that Vino was not with the team for this race. The top teams field teams for multiple races simultaneously, so Vino was probably in South America or the Middle East with another Astana squad.
The other rider I wanted to meet was Joe Dombrowski, an American rider from the Virginia foothills where I used to ride. I had followed him since his career began since he had ridden with students I knew from George Mason University. My friend George had once run into him and ridden along with him near Bluemont, Virginia and said that was a very nice guy. Finally my friend and talented potter, Stacy Snyder, had deemed Joe one of few riders to meet her exacting “cup-worthiness” standards. Her hand-thrown and -painted ceramic mugs have now become objects of pride among the pro ranks, and she works with The Cycling Podcast to sell special-edition, race-specific cups for worthy charities.
Next to the UAE team bus, Joe was warming up on his trainer. Already friendly, he became even more engaging when I told him that I was from Virginia: asking me where in the state I was from and what I was doing in Spain. We also talked about the great riding routes in the mountains west of Washington. Finally I said that a friend of mine had made him a coffee mug. “Oh! Stacy?” When I confirmed he said to tell her hello. This was all less than 15 minutes before the most important stage of the race, particularly for him, as Pogačar’s chief climbing lieutenant. I knew that after several hours of hard racing over multiple categorized climbs, Joe would be turning himself inside out for his young teammate. Yet, here he was, chatting away with a stranger.
After a beach-side coffee in Calpe, we took a different but also scenic route home. Freshly showered and in clean clothes, I plopped on the couch and turned on the last few hours of the race. As the final climb reached its steepest grades, Pogačar poured on the gas and left his elders in the dust to earn the leader’s jersey, which he defended the next day. Just hours before, we had stood beside one of the future stars of the sport and had chatted with his key teammate.
There are many things that I love about pro cycling. But there are two characteristics that make it my favorite sport to follow. It is one of only a handful of sports, including baseball and golf, in which competitors routinely chat and laugh with each during the course of competing. The second is that it’s the only sport I can think of in which fans, quite literally, can be within inches of the riders.
At la salida of the Volta’s queen stage, I was able to witness both qualities in action, all in the middle of an amazing ride with a new friend. It was a day of joyful riding for Ken and me. But the men who toiled on the course also experienced joy: certainly before and after the stage but even amid the stretches of suffering during the race. They, like all of us cyclists, never forget how lucky we are to be able to experience the world’s beauty using only our legs as our engine.
“Cyclers see considerably more of this beautiful world than any other class of citizens. A good bicycle, well applied, will cure most ills this flesh is heir to.”
—Dr. K. K. Doty