XXX Racing-Athletico

xXx Elite Team Training Camp: Phoenix and Tucson


By Aaron Baker | Feb 22, 2016

Race name: Elite Training Camp
Race date: Monday, Feb 22, 2016



xXx Elite Cycling Camp: Tucson and Phoenix

On the second to last day of camp, I’m descending Mt Lemmon solo because as the Elite’s team’s historically most inconsistent (okay, worst) descender I wanted a head start from the cookie shop on the summit. It’s twenty one miles down. Pine trees and slush on the roadside at 8000 feet gradually give way to more familiar desert landscapes—saguaro and cholla cacti, creosote shrubs, shale slides and sand. My new bike carves through the air—I’m feeling stable, low-slung, and leaning well into the turns. A hot wind blows up out of the ravines, and I’ve very quickly gone from too cold to too hot. I roll down my arm warmers on one of the straights.

I manage to stay away for some twenty miles until a few turns from the base when Jake Buescher, Travis McCabe of Hincapie, and Josh Berry of Jelly Belly come bombing past me. Jake has a huge grin on his face and says something unintelligible as they pass. And there the three of them go, leaning hard into the last corner before the road straightens and flattens toward Tucson.

Jake and I stop to wait for the team at an intersection, and a couple members of EGO roll up to us going the opposite way--small world. They snap a few pictures of Jake (who is inexplicably wearing a pair of EGO bibs), try to sell us something (leafblowers I think), and then start up the mountain. The rest of our team arrives soon after and we discard the torn pieces of pizza boxes we’d stuffed down the fronts of our jerseys for the descent.

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The West has long occupied an important place in the American imagination, a refuge and respite both literally and metaphorically from the more developed and populated eastern regions. In a July 13, 1865 editorial in the New York Tribune, famed editor Horace Greeley advised veterans of the Civil War to take advantage of the Homestead Act, to leave behind the battle-torn and economically depressed post-war American urban centers and settle the untamed lands lying to the west. “Go West Young Man” became a motto for the age.

Greeley may not have been thinking of the desert Southwest’s mild February mornings and seventy degree afternoons, but the number of pro riders you see in Phoenix and Tucson this time of year is testament to Arizona’s draw for cyclists. Those who say they enjoy winter riding in the Midwest clearly suffer from Stockholm Syndrome, a form of pathological hopelessness masquerading as cheer (Stockholm, you see, has winters much like Chicago’s).

I’ve been out here a month already, a refugee from winter, writing mornings and riding in the afternoons. But finally it’s February 11, the first day of the xXx Elite Team’s Arizona training camp.The plan is to race the Valley of the Sun Stage Race in the Phoenix area and then wagon-train it down to Tucson for a solid week of riding.

Ben LaForce is the first to meet me at our Phoenix rental. Tomorrow is the TT, so we put clip-on aerobars on our bikes and set out to experiment with our modified rigs. As a triathlete, Ben looks right at home in the aero position. Aero, I’d say, as hell. For the first of several times this weekend, I notice a teammate’s clear initial pleasure and surprise to find himself outside on a bicycle and in summer kit in the middle of February.

Soon Austin arrives with Taylor Warren, who’ll be riding with us. Ben goes to the airport to pick up Jake Buescher, Tyler George, and Ryan O’Boyle. Eventually the sound of a garage door opening, luggage rollers on concrete, and there finally are Jake, Tyler, and Ryan coming into the kitchen. Austin has clearly worked out how this needs to go: Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” begins at ear-splitting volume and he’s dancing. I won’t look for the words to describe either the dance or the feelings it stirred. All I can say is if we’re ever captured by an enemy general and required to choose one of us to dance for the lives of all, it will be Austin. Arizona Camp is officially on.

The next morning, we’re building bikes in an open garage in front of a sun-bathed, palm-tree lined street.

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On the third and final day of the Valley of the Sun Stage Race, Austin goes off the front in the Cat 2 criterium. I see him doing it and move up into the top ten, then into the front five as the field starts to string out. When he’s caught, I go, drawing out two riders, and then I’m in what appears a fairly promising three-man break. After a few laps, two riders from teams with GC contenders bridge up and sit on, effectively killing the break.

In the last lap, Ben leads me up the inside line through the first turn, and I eventually work up to fourth wheel just before the final corner. For an instant I’m startled to find myself exactly where I want to be with mere seconds left in the race, but then I start to overthink my positioning and decide I’ll try to come in on one of the wheels ahead. The three ahead start to fade though, a small group draws even with us on the left, and then I’m starting my sprint an instant too late. I end up with 10th, and LaForce is 15th. The results could have been much better, but it’s more than we thought we’d be doing against a field like this at this time of year. We feel good about our early season teamwork—it’s something to build on.

Our Cat 1s raced earlier and are already in street clothes. We eat Mexican food on an off-street restaurant patio and then drive through the dark to our next rental house in the Tanque Verde neighborhood of Tucson at the base of Mount Lemmon.

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Here’s the drill: one guy rolls off the front as the rest of us soft-pedal for three minutes. Then we chase him across the desert, ride him down hard like a posse of gun-slingers after a horse thieving varmint. If you can stay from this group for twenty minutes, you’re doing very well. Thirty minutes and you deserve a category upgrade. Once a guy’s caught, the next guy goes—the three minutes soft-pedal, then the chase. Rinse and repeat.

I’m the first to go, straight into a headwind, and I’m thinking immediately that three minutes won’t be nearly long enough when I’ve got a pack of hungry hounds like O’Boyle, Taylor, Tyler, Ben, and Austin bearing down on me. Watts, like metaphors, are flying everywhere. I watch the power meter. My only hope to delay the catch is to get into those hills wavering in the distance, but the hills never materialize until Taylor, who’s gone early, catches me.

I sit up until the group arrives and then we go. A flaw in our planning becomes immediately clear: the benefits of working together in a chase are greatly reduced on climbs, and Taylor is probably the strongest climber in our group. He’s floating uphill and out of sight. When we manage to catch him it’s because he’s pulled over and waiting for us by the side of the road.

Jake is the next to go, and as we fly down the backside of Sonoita Mountain we inadvertently blow past a border control checkpoint with armed officers. After a water stop at a service state, we chase O’Boyle back up the mountain and down the backside. The border control agents see us coming and wave us through—they seem to get that this is no time for dawdling. After we hunt down O’Boyle, we have to chase Tyler. This isn’t getting any easier.

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Eating and drinking take on special urgency.

We finish a ten pound bag of Whey Protein isolate before the week is over. Our team recovery drink mixologist (Ben) makes us each a peanut butter and whey recovery shake at the end of each day’s ride.

No matter how many bananas we buy, it’s never enough.

Clif, Bonk Breaker, and Fig Newton wrappers accumulate on counter-tops, floors, and sofas. Dirty dishes are left piled and teetering upon every available surface.

The house has a piano and a big-screen television but a pathetically unsuitable mini coffee pot. While a nuisance, I quickly realize that the coffee maker is in fact a vital instrument measuring the inherent moral character of each of my teammates. Who watches as you prepare a new batch and is first to refill his own mug as soon as the coffee is brewed? Who would drain the pot of a batch made by another? You may not speak of such things, but you do notice and store the knowledge away.

The meat O’Boyle grilled wasn’t chicken but pork. Why do you keep saying it was chicken? It was delicious even if it wasn’t kosher. “Chicken chops” enters the team vocabulary. “Hey Diesel, when you gonna make us more of those chicken chops?”

A five pound bag of bacon. Three tubs of oatmeal. A third day that same stack of empty pizza boxes has sat in the kitchen.

Within the slightly deranged alternate reality of camp, our relationship to sleep has also changed. One night, everyone is in bed by 9:30.

In the morning we can be found on the backyard patio, surrounded by our bikes in various states of assembly, groggily eating bowls of oatmeal and looking at Strava and Training Peaks on our laptops as we plan the day ahead.

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Mount Lemmon, the highest peak in the Catalina Mountains and named for the botanist Sara Lemmon, is the dominant feature of the cycling landscape in Tucson. It’s a twenty-one mile climb with excellent gradually winding roads rising skyward from the desert floor. At the twenty-one mile point, the road tops off before descending, then rising again briefly to a fork where you can either dive down into the ski town of Summerhaven or turn right and climb to the mountain’s true summit, the observatory hill at 9000+ feet. Hardly anyone goes to the observatory, largely because doing so involves ducking under a gate (trespassing).

On our first ascent, O’Boyle and I have decided to go all the way up, but we miss the turn to the observatory. It’s not the first time I’ve lost my sense of direction on a bike, and O’Boyle’s habit generally is to just charge ahead like a bull. By the time my Garmin alerts me with the dreaded “Off Course” message, O’Boyle is already flying downhill into Summerhaven. I yell a couple times to no effect and finally just pull up and wait for him to return. As he climbs back, he’s yelling “Baker!” every few seconds. “Baker!” “Baker!” I’m not sure how to read his tone—whether its recrimination, telling me to wait up, some combination of both. But we’ve been climbing for over an hour and half and now I’m mostly just thinking about food.

After we’ve ducked under the gate and begun the final slog up through the slushy sandy road to Lemmon’s true summit, I notice something that I’ll notice again on subsequent climbs of the mountain: I appear to have more trouble than others with altitude. My perceived effort and power readings are utterly at odds.

It’s cold at the top. Ryan and I stop, snap a couple photos, and head down to the cookie shop to meet up with the team.

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We’ve got it in mind to take a certain Strava KOM (Saguaro National Park 3 Hill Climb), but we’re turned away at the park entrance because we don’t have passes and they don't accept credit cards. As we ride away from the ranger station, we’re stopped by a local cyclist pulling a child in a carrier. He offers to take us in as guests with his season’s pass. We agree but then the ranger informs him that we’re one too many guests. So Scott (our benefactor) takes out his wallet and pays cash to get the last of us in. The kindness of strangers.

The eight mile circuit through the park is a gorgeous piece of road. After our first reconnoitering loop, we line up for the KOM attempt. There’s some uncertainty about where the segment begins and ends. Tyler and Ben lead things off with strong pulls, I end up doing a pretty short one, and then Buescher goes hard for the finish, ending up with a respectable 4th on the leaderboard--a tie with Tommy Danielson. After the group regathers, we do another loop through the park and turn for home.

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Amidst the constant riding, eating, sleeping, and fiddling mechanically with our bikes, there are many small unscheduled moments of solitude and introspection.

The most constant and palpable reality is, as always, the landscape, and here it is so different from home—wide-open vistas under almost always cloudless skies, the desert seemingly bare until you really look at it and see how much variety of plant and and animal life there really is. Roadrunners , rabbits, coyotes, desert-dwelling doves and wrens, mesquite and ironwood trees, and of course everywhere the many varieties of cactus.

At Le Buzz Café, which is something of a gathering point for cyclists of truly every variet, you’ll see everyone from world tour cyclists who’ve you’ve watched on television to the ubiquitous touring cyclists with helmet-mounted mirrors and loose-fitting lycra. What would it be like, I can’t help wondering, to just move out here? Well, summer as many are quick to remind me, is a scorching hell.

I recall a quote from Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice in which the protagonist regards the Venetian landscape and weather: "The burning void of the sky, day after day, weighs one down; the high coloration, the enormous naïveté of the unrefracted light--they do, I dare say, induce light-heartedness, a carefree mood born of immunity from downpours and other meteorological caprices. But slowly, slowly, there makes itself felt a lack: the deeper, more complex needs of the northern soul remain unsatisfied. You are left barren-even it may be, in time, a little contemptuous."

I may not dwell much on the complex needs of the northern soul while riding the trainer day after day for two months Chicago, but after having been in Arizona for more than a month now, I do remember that Chicago is still my truest home. Perhaps moving between two places may allow me to see both places with fresh eyes and make the best of my time in each. Do I buy that? Not completely. I’ve said more than once out here that they’ll have to take me home in handcuffs. But truthfully, there are still many moments and days when I miss my life and friends back in Stockholm.

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The final ride of camp is the famed Saturday morning Shootout, which leaves from the UA campus and goes south to Madera Canyon. Because of its reputation, our anticipation has built steadily for it over the last week. The ride is everything it’s reputed to be—hard, furious, and exciting. And afterwards we spend most of the afternoon people-watching and drinking beers on University Avenue.

What stands out for me more than the Shootout though is our group’s last ascent of Mt Lemmon, which encapsulates many of the things I’d hoped to get out of camp.

As the team’s newest member, I'd wondered what my place might be among such a strong and accomplished group of bike racers. Our earlier ascent of Lemmon had become something of a contest, with attacks, counterattacks, a climb punctuated with numerous unsustainable efforts intended simply to hurt each other. It was a load of fun, and undoubtedly useful training, but this time is something different.

I ride up with Tyler this time, and with our team captain on my wheel, give all my attention to setting what I think will be a tough but sustainable pace. We climb steadily for an hour and a half, and I watch the power meter the entire time, trying to hold at around 290 while the miles and minutes tick away.

Eventually the cacti and saguaro give way to the pine trees and snow and the temperature dives. Tyler looks impressively strong, and has enough left at the end to come around with me a good kick. Not someone you’d usually think of us a climber, he achieves 64th on all-time leaderboard for the Mt Lemmon climb, a remarkable result when you look at all the people on that list.

I’ve noticed again how much trouble I have breathing up here. Tayler told me after this happened before that a greater need for oxygen, more noticeable at altitude, may be the result of a higher percentage of fast-twitch muscle fibers. I’ll take that as bad news for climbing at altitude and good news for my sprint.

But first a cookie at the Cookie Shack. With two scoops of ice cream. And also a giant cup of Pepsi. And also a slice of pizza.

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After I get everyone off to the airport on Sunday morning, I return to the rental house, which suddenly seems huge, empty, and weirdly soulless. You never want to be the last person left at a party.

Among the many items I find left in the house are a front wheel (still unclaimed—how can someone fail to notice he’s missing a front wheel?), a pair of green Speedplay pedals, a pair of blue cotton shorts (size medium), a Notorious B.IG. t-shirt, three slices of uneaten pizza, a half canister of Vitargo, a bottle of fish oil supplements, and a pair of xXx socks.

I’ll be staying another couple weeks at a nearby (and much smaller) rental before making my way north to rendezvous with the team for SLO camp. Arizona camp has been a success. Everyone rode well, and all the signs look good for the race season ahead. Now as my teammates are all winging their way back to C-town and I’m waiting for the landlady to arrive and check me out, my thoughts turn vaguely toward unfinished manuscripts and the afternoon’s ride. In the meantime, I make another pot of coffee—all for me.

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