The 2015 race season is officially underway for me and Optum Pro Cycling. It started with training camp in Oxnard, California, where the team rented a massive house on the beach. We could ride south, cruising the canyons of Malibu and Thousand Oaks, or north through the orange groves to Santa Barbara.
Either way, every ride ended at Pepe's (four stars on Yelp), a tiny burrito shack within walking distance of the house, and about the only way I can imagine to fill my belly and replace all the salt we'd been losing for under $8.
I always asked for no cheese on my burrito, but they never listened. Fortunately, my nutritionist says that if they screw up your order and you get extra cheese or free onion rings, you should eat it, because waste is bad and not asking for it means there's no calories.
The main goal of training camp is for everyone to get to know each other and bond. You're just tossed together, essentially with a bunch of strangers, and for the next year these are your teammates, roommates and business partners.
Looking around the room in Oxnard, I thought about my teammates from the past. Most of them became good friends who I've tried to stay in touch with. A handful will eventually be invited to my wedding. Some I got along with fine, but asked the staff not to put me in a hotel room with them again (because they snore, for example, or perhaps eat burritos with extra cheese).
And then I thought that if things go the same as it has in the past, there are couple guys in this room who I'll have a shouting matches with on a bus after a race, or who really get their butts handed to them in the first draft of my next book (though I'll delete it because I feel bad anyway).
I really don't think there'll be any fights on buses this year, because I've known most of these guys forever. I train with Jesse Anthony pretty often, I was teammates with Brad Huff in 2009 (he will lead the stretching at my wedding ceremony), and I lived with Tom Soladay in a stinkbug-infested rental house one summer (most American teams can't afford a house on the beach).
Huff caught me pouring sugar into a tea kettle one evening.
"Still making that sweet tea, huh, Georgia boy? Just like you were when I met you." "
"I don't change, Brad," I explained. "I just get better."
Write that comeback down, kids.
The other thing about training camp is that you have to write your name on everything you own, like you're back in kindergarten.
Not that guys aren't honest, but when you wear a uniform it's easy to grab someone else's rain jacket, for example. In the kitchen it's a different story. I put my name on that stuff. NO ONE MAY TOUCH PHIL'S ALMOND BUTTER. GOT THAT, GENTLEMEN?
Optum is a smaller team than the one I rode for last year, and everyone keeps asking if I'll be able to make the adjustment, if I can find the motivation after a step down.
If anything, racing in the big leagues last year was the aberration, and I'm back in more comfortable, familiar surroundings. It's not like I developed a taste for caviar after one season in Europe, though I did find an appreciation for sparking water and quality espresso.
The last day of training camp was "Camp Champ" day, a 9-mile race. I attacked halfway through, knowing that I'd have no hope of beating Ryan Anderson in the uphill sprint finish.
With three miles to go, with my head down, heart racing and muscles burning from the effort -- in something was wasn't really a race, would earn no prize and only marginal glory -- I laughed about the folks who'd questioned my motivation. It's still in there.
We had a couple weeks at home after camp, and then headed to Portugal for the Volta Algarve, where we butted heads with the big boys for a week. This will be our only trip to Europe this year, but it was nice to start with a kick in the pants, some better-than-expected results and a good sense of what we need to work on as a team going into the rest of the year.
A few of the big names in the sport joined us at Algarve, but the top riders are all scattered at the moment, with Chris Froome and Alberto Contador going head-to-head on climbs at the Vuelta Andalucia in Spain, and most of the sprinters and classics specialists down in Oman.
They talk about how excited they were to escape the harsh winters in Germany and Belgium, and then find themselves frying in the desert.
Oman ended with the riders stopping under a bridge for shade, protesting the dangerous heat and sandstorms. Event organizers and fans love a race with "epic" terrain and conditions, but they take it too far sometimes, and rider safety has historically been a low priority.
I've done a handful of races where I could barely see through the mud in my eyes or my hands are too numb to feel my brakes, and it usually happens that guys talk about stopping to protest, but then someone attacks, and at that point you can go ahead and protest if you want, but that jerk is going to win.
So you keep racing and you catch him, but by then everyone forgot about the protest, or the snow let up, and it's back to bike racing.
It's refreshing to see that the riders in Oman respected each other and came to that agreement on the road, where speeds are high and communication is difficult, and I hope it will make future events prioritize athletes over TV coverage. Pro cycling has a growing union, and Americans have just started to be move involved, so things are looking up.
Not that bike racing has fully entered the 21st century. This a sport where the winner stands on a podium a gets a kiss from the "podium girls," after all.
The ceremony is more tradition than sexism, but there was an incident a couple years ago where Peter Sagan grabbed a handful of a podium girl's butt on live TV, and one race recently released an event poster with a callback to that day, depicting a woman's butt and a cyclist's hand, with the text "Who squeezes them in Harelbeke?"
The international governing body has been taking baby steps towards gender equality, and thankfully it only took a couple days for the poster to be changed, but it still shows we have some work to do. I'll let the bosses deal with that, though.
All I can do is go train. And then grab a burrito. One with "no cheese."