We spent more than six hours on our bikes and ascended two long climbs. Climbing for over half an hour, the tempo gradually reached the point of discomfort.
Few words were spoken. We both gazed at the road ahead, the peak in the distance, and focussed on the effort. It was December – we knew we should be reining in our effort.
But for Flecha, like me, that is something we find difficult. As in our childhood, we still both want to be on our bikes pushing our limits, which is not always the best for conditioning.
As we reached the summit of the first climb, I asked him if he wanted to ride to the next peak that we could see in the distance. The answer was a simple “yes”. Rod Ellingworth, our team coach, once summarised Flecha’s training method. “He’s not a rider who lacks the motivation to train hard. He knows what he needs to do to be fit. “But he just needs guidance as to when he should back off his workload so that he doesn’t arrive at the key races tired.” Racing his bike is a job; riding it is a passion.
During the ride, we chatted incessantly about writing, races, bikes, cycling history, cars, our families, Catalonia and dozens of other things which I can’t recall. He writes well and has often contributed stories from races to Spanish newspapers.
He has a profound interest in life beyond the bike. A mountain of novels always accompanies Flecha to a Grand Tour. In the team bus or hotel, he leafs through books while his teammates tap away on their keyboards as they check results and chat with friends. To him, the technology which seems to command many of our lives is simply a distraction from the essence. He is seeking simplicity and nature. But he can also be ferociously competitive when he has to be.
Three months before the Classics, he was already focused on the upcoming month of intense racing in the spring. He knew, based on experience, what he needed to do to be in good shape for the races. With the guidance of the team’s coaches and sports scientists, Flecha sought out what he thought would separate him from the rest.
Yet, like most top professional cyclists, he will resist new ideas until they are proven and effective. That caution is in part based on superstition and partly on common sense. There is data and then there is hope.
While most cyclists search for warmer climates to escape winter, Flecha spends weekends at his second home in Puigcerdà in the Pyrenees to sustain and improve his climbing. Unafraid of the cold and wet, he rides while his girlfriend skis, his tyres making tracks in the snow. Cars loaded with skiers pass cautiously. Despite the discomfort of frozen extremities and the risk of crashing, he finds peace and reason riding alone in the frozen environment.
Like his Flemish rivals, Flecha has learned to persist through inclement weather. He has conditioned his body to become accustomed to the cold and his mind to accept and even embrace it. A true Classics rider will thrive in adversity.
When asked if he prefers a wet or dry Classic, Flecha doesn’t hesitate before answering: “Wet and muddy.” Wet roads separate the skilled riders from the hopeful. Flecha seems to have battled adversity since he was a boy, following his dreams despite the hurdles of life.
Prior to the Ronde, Flecha was the focal point of our team press conference. The media fired questions at him. They asked about his past, crashes he had been involved in, his rivals, his tactics and his potential. He deflected criticisms by asking the journalists rhetorical questions.
It was apparent in his answers that he felt his nationality hindered him in a xenophobic peloton. He is burdened with the generalisation that Spaniards can’t handle their bikes on the cobbles and, as a result, don’t belong on the front when there are cobbles. Often blamed for causing crashes, Flecha feels he is scapegoated because of his nationality. There is truth to this.
But like any minority working to fit into a class system based on nationality and performance, he has never felt as accepted or respected by his peers when racing in northern Europe.
It is his tenacity that makes him thrilling to watch on a bike. He will resist and persist, only backing down when it is on his terms.