My eyes were closed, I couldn’t see. Maybe I didn’t need to: I had dreamt this moment so many times, I could do it in the dark.
It wasn’t because of the pain that was in my legs and my lungs. For a moment I was floating. Eyes closed, rolling. Rolling across the line, arms in the air, hands on my head, my heart. I don’t know what I felt at that moment. Maybe relief. Maybe elation. Maybe some combination of the two.
I rolled to a stop. People rushed around me, going wild. I couldn’t breathe. I could hardly see or even hear. The finish officials tried to get me to move. I couldn’t. I had to sit still, head hung over my handlebars, resting on the top tube of my blue-and-gold Ridley bike, still hyperventilating, trying to recover from the effort, trying to comprehend what I had just done.
I was in disbelief. I actually did it.
The three kilometres before that moment were the longest of my life. Pain coursed through my entire body, my legs turning from smoothly oiled pistons pumping out a perfect cadence to two pieces of Silly Putty going every which direction other than up and down.
My director Nicki Sorensen was shouting in my ear: time gaps, motivation, advice, equally as stressed as I was. My eyes were half open, my jaw clenched in a tight grimace. I could not let this one go. No, I had worked too hard and suffered too much to lose to a few more minutes of pain.
I drove, sliding all over my saddle, all over my bike, trying to squeeze every single ounce of power I had in my body and put it on the road. At 2km to go, my director told me to ride a 2k time-trial. At 1km to go he said the same. With 700 metres left in the race he told me I had the race won as long as I kept going to the finish line.
I didn’t believe him. I would not leave this one to chance, no, I was not going to sit up, not going to savour anything until my front wheel had literally crossed that line. I pushed and pushed, and finally passed it, 40 seconds in front of my pursuers, for my first professional victory, my first WorldTour win, and my team’s first victory in its short history.
Until that point, the 2017 Tour de Suisse had been a symbol of my career. So much work, so little to show. I was bad in the prologue, I crashed on stage two. I’d prepared for the Tour de Suisse for most of the season, and it wasn’t off to a great start. I’d come into this race off the back of a month where I spent 22 days staying in an apartment on top of a mountain by myself, living like a monk: measuring everything I ate, doing my training to the T, everything to be the best I could be for Suisse.
I wanted this whole season to be great. I worked so hard to be ready for my debut with my new team that I came to Europe at the end of November and did not return home. I spent Christmas alone in my apartment in Nice. I stayed there for New Year’s as well. I went to Australia weeks early to be as good as I could be for my first races with Aqua Blue Sport.
On what was supposed to be our first day of racing of the season in Australia, after months of focused preparation, I woke up with a fever and mouth so swollen I couldn’t speak. Rather than racing with my team-mates, I ended up racing to a hospital.
I waited for hours alone, rolling around on a hospital bed in agony until a doctor arrived to remove the stones that were blocking my saliva glands. Safe to say the first races did not go as planned.
Last year, I prepared the entire first part of my season with an eye on the Giro d’Italia. I did my own altitude camp for three weeks in Sierra Nevada, I ticked every box to be ready. And then, after three days of the race, while stretching on the night of the first rest day, I pinched a nerve in my hip and the entire lower half of my left leg went numb. I raced for three days without being able to pull up on the pedal before the team doctor pulled me from the race.
It seems I have hit some hiccup or roadblock every year. They say success takes blood, sweat, and tears. It may be cliché, but I can attest that my career has had plenty of all three.
Each of the past three years, I have not signed a contract until October, and at one point last year, I did not even know whether I would be a professional cyclist any longer. At some point in each of those seasons, I have ended up on the phone with my mother, head in my hands, unable to hold back tears.
In 2014, it was at the Tour of Switzerland where I was told that my contract would not be renewed as I was not “WorldTour level”. I called my mom again. I broke down in tears. I had put too much into this sport to stop so soon.
Two days later, I was third on the queen stage of the race after a big performance, and was told that if only I had won, they would have changed their minds.
After the Tour de Suisse in 2015, I was at an altitude camp in Switzerland, when I received a phone call out of the blue saying my contract would not be renewed. I called home from the remote mountain pass I was staying on top of to relay the news, and broke down again. I luckily performed well enough in the Vuelta that the team changed their mind.
In 2016, my team [IAM Cycling] folded and I was left without a home until the end of the season again. I called my mother at one point, when I did not know what would happen for the following year and couldn’t hold it in any longer. The poor woman has probably been under as much stress worrying about me as I have worrying about myself.
It’s hard to believe that after all those years of hard work, dedication and drive, we only get three seconds to put our hands up at the finish. I always wondered how it would feel to cross the line of a big race first, but to be honest, I didn’t feel all that much.
I was in disbelief. As in, I don’t actually believe I realised what happened until some time later. I was getting interviewed on television and it’s as if it took the words to come out of my mouth for me to really recognise what had just occurred. And that’s where it hit me, when the years of hard work, of suffering, of heartache, disappointment, sadness and nearly every other emotion that had been building over the years just poured out.
I cried on international TV, I cried on the podium, I cried at the press conference. I’m not sure whether I lost more from sweat that day or from the tears, but I felt lighter, as if the cinder blocks of stress I had been carrying around for years were lifted from my shoulders.
That evening, I called my mom from Switzerland once again. This time, however, was different. I’ve never looked forward to making a phone call so much in my life. I could not wait to share my elation with the person who had been on the other side of the line every time I hit rock bottom. She picked up the phone. We both broke down in tears.
It was only fitting that my first WorldTour victory occurred in the very place I had experienced so much heartache before. If my career ended right there in that mountain town of Villars-sur-Ollon, I would have been okay with it. I could have just lied down in the green grass on the side of that mountain and savoured the day, grinning from ear to ear, totally in peace.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time in the spotlight of the sport I adore so much. I received messages of congratulation from every corner of the world, from friends, family, riders in the peloton, even one from my childhood cycling hero.
— Mark Cavendish (@MarkCavendish) June 13, 2017
very happy for @larrywarbasse such a hard worker! bravo
— PHILIPPE GILBERT (@PhilippeGilbert) June 13, 2017
I showed up to the sign in the following day and it was as if I had arrived at my surprise birthday party, with everyone hugging me and congratulating me. I could never have imagined that so many people would share in my joy.
I was floating once again.
But as much as I enjoyed that day and that week, life goes on. After accomplishing one big goal, it’s time to recalibrate and refocus. So now, it’s on to the next one. Back to training, to living on the tops of mountains, to weighing my food and myself, chasing that next big fish. When it will come, or where it will be I’m not sure, I just pray to God it doesn’t take as long as the last time…
Larry Warbasse had to wait less than a fortnight for his next win, the US National Championships