Monday, August 17, 2009

8/16/09 - Race 16: Bekegem Kermis, 116 km

I’m gonna start this story from the end.

I got 24th place at Bekegem. On paper it was one of my better results, I guess… But it has been a while since I had done a kermis and I had learned a lot in that time - the result was a bit of a disappointment. Never mind, 10 Euros in my pocket - can’t complain about that! I rode home with the boys with my mind on a hearty dinner and a good night’s rest. Onward!

I crossed the finish line with one other guy. Behind one other guy. I attacked him through the short cobble section around the last turn with 300 meters to go, but I couldn’t hold it. I had already burnt some big matches. Just ahead my teammate played out the exact same tactic and result against a teammate of the fella who beat me. Shit.

With one lap to go (7.5 km) it was the four of us, two-on-two. With two kilometers to go I let a gap go to my teammate and one of them jumped across. I was too blown to take advantage of the situation. So it became one-on-one, times two!

I was dropped, again. Just up the road, my teammate, Nick, had just popped too. Ahead of him a group of two teammates had started working together, also off the back. I caught Nick and we started chasing the duo ahead of us. Since we had just dropped off the back second group on the road, we were passed by the follow car and ambulance, so we assumed we were on the last lap. We caught the two guys and I ripped past them on the cobbles with the last match I had left and sprinted to the line, throwing my bike to take it from one of the other dudes! … It wasn’t the last lap. You never really know over here until you see the checkered flag and its over. So, I tried to recover.

When I came back to the “peloton” it was only about 15 riders! The race had obviously blown to pieces in the first 60+ km of racing. But I was toast! I did my absolute best to get into the rotation and chill. My legs were burning and my lungs were empty, but it was my head that was in the worst shape. I was mentally toasted and totally disappointed. I only lasted about a lap.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have the mind wrapped around the situation quite properly. “Donnie, you’re out of your element!” comes to mind. Not that I haven’t rolled a break before, and it wasn’t that I didn’t belong there, but I still feel uncomfortable in the Belgian peloton. People yell (at me or others) and I’m the only one out of the loop (and unsure whether its at me or not). People yell in English and suddenly I am singled out. It is really a hard barrier to cross - racing as a foreigner - though I am sure once I get used to it, it will be hard to see how it ever seemed so big. Anyways, I let myself be abused. Instead of pushing back or telling someone to “take it easy!” or “steady!” when pulling through I just kind of gritted my teeth and tried to do my share, quietly. I ended up doing more work than anyone. Such a waste. I think I was so focused on not doing more work that I fell into a sort of trap (I think of a pitcher in baseball with a full count being advised “don’t throw a ball!” instead of “throw a strike!” if that makes any sense. I don’t think a strategy is a list of things not to do. Oh well). I still am sort of in shock that I let it happen. Next time, I need to be more assertive and confident. The last moment was a gap opened in the middle of the group and I refused to be used to close it and we were all already on the limit. I just didn’t have the gas to close the gap when the guys behind me jumped me, swearing. I cracked. Physically and mentally. But I set myself up for it. Learnin’!

I was in the break of 12 guys, leading the race! Finally, I made it up there. I knew I was capable - I knew it - but it was so good to finally have everything to come together for me. Immediately, I started trying to size up the situation. My first concern was that I was the only foreigner in the group and I am sure it was the first thing everyone else noticed, too! I knew that they would try to use me and take advantage of my inexperience (its assumed), so I tried to be invisible. Not necessarily the best tactic, in retrospect, but I partly had the right idea. I tried not to take long pulls and show extra excitement and eagerness to work. I made sure not to close gaps that weren’t my responsibility and show willingness to pick up other’s slack. But I also tried to take a nice, steady pull each time through, so nobody would single me out as being strong or weak. Basically, I tried to hold my cards close to my chest.

At the start I was calm and relaxed. I was not worried about whether I would make the lead group or where it might go or who to watch. It didn’t consume me today. I was focused, clear, and relaxed - totally at ease. The first riders went up the road straight from the gun and I just accelerated into a smart position at the head of the race. Five guys dangled just ahead as a counter-move went and was brought back just as quickly. Then, in the next couple kilometers, a couple other moves went, and went nowhere. I was reacting super-quickly, without any thought. Somehow I had found my zone! About 5 km in I took my first real dig, following a counter-attack off a failed move. After a hard kick and a short acceleration, I looked back and there was a solid gap between me and two other guys and the rest of the field. Soon we had caught the leaders and worked immediately to widen a very narrow gap. Things seemed good but I knew the pace would be relentless. The field started to catch us, shattered, about two km later. Only four guys made it completely across before the elastic snapped! Then we were clear and our gap started to grow - painfully, very painfully, but steadily.

The course at Bekegem was everything kermis all wrapped in one. 116 km, 7.5 km loops, a technical section through town, narrow farm roads, crosswinds, cobbles, you name it! JBCA had six guys in a medium-sized field. We had a nice 20 km commute over to the race, registered early (I got lucky #3!) and rode the course once to scope it out. We got to the line just in time to get the prime spots on the front and munch a quick bar - then it was game on!

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Ronde van de Provincie Antwerpen, Races 12-15

This stage race finished last weekend on Sunday: three days for a prologue and three road stages of 140-160 km each. We came with six riders in a field of 200: Aaron, Ben, James, Taylor, Will and myself. The race was for U27 riders only. That and the flat parcours promised aggressive, fast racing for the whole weekend, and didn't disappoint!


The prologue was a short one, only 4.6 km long with a few corners along the way. It was an early morning for us to commute to the 9:30 start two hours away... But aside from that, not a whole lot to it, really. The pain was intense, but over before you knew it! The winner was in just over 5:30 and our whole team was top 60, under 20 seconds back! A really solid showing for the group. Aaron was our top man in 23rd, but the time gaps were small compared to what we expected after three races of fireworks to come.

The TT bikes ready and waiting in the team garage

The prologue was my first time with a follow car giving me instructions. I think for a longer event it would be immensely helpful for concentration and pacing, but as it was, I actually found it a bit distracting and failed to really find a good rhythm. Anyways, it was a cool experience after years of watching pro's do it!

Stage 1, 154 km

I'm gonna give a real short recap of this one. In the end, we had all five of the other riders in the first two groups behind a solo victor, which put us in a great spot. The team was active chasing down the break of the day and covering important moves - a really super team effort!

The TT bikes are done for the day

My race was absolute shit, however. I helped cover early moves and aided in the chase when a smallish group got up the road. But the whole time I was pestered by a weird catch or rub from my rear hub when I accelerated or cornered. Or at least that's what I thought. At first I had thought it might be my rear brake, so I opened it all the way, which didn't help. Later, my rear wheel started locking up on straight roads and I freaked out, thinking that the whole thing might seize up! So, I drifted back from the front all the way to the back of 200 riders strung out in twos and threes to get a wheel change. I got one, it took a while (my fault) and I had to burn a huge, huge match just to get back. I still felt the weird catch on my wheel. I chased all out through the caravan for about 20-30 minutes (maybe more, maybe less... it felt like hours!). I learned a lot doing it though. I was too scared to get right on the bumper of my team car (and by right on, I mean right on... I was comfortable at about half a meter. This infuriated my director, who kept signaling for me to get closer, so I tried! It was so counter-intuitive, but you have to get within five cm of the bumper to be most efficient, and, believe it or not, safest! If you hit the bumper at that speed you just graze the bumper and get pressure on your bars... With a bigger gap, if he hits the brakes? Straight through the rear window!) going over 60 k/hr.

Long story short, I made it back, brought some extra bottles to the boys, helped chase some more, then it was lights out. I struggled to make it to the finish, but got pulled with a couple local laps to go, which at least meant I got to stay in the race! But man, what a day. My rear brake was more than rubbing - it was applied for the entire day. What a moron I felt like. Oh well, it happens.

Stage 2, 145 km

Stage 2 was not our teams best race. A split got away about halfway through and rode away from the field, about 35 guys. Race over. We had Aaron in it, but some other teams had three or four guys up there. Basically, a couple of ours guys missed out on GC big-time. Aaron moved up to 10th overall, though.

Stage 3, 160 km

The queen stage! It actually turned out to be quite a lazy one. We left for Antwerp from about 100 km away in a point-to-point race. We had a light cross/tail for most of the way and an early escape that was not a threat to GC. This meant that the racing was actually pretty tame for most of the day. Position was still important and I tried to keep laser focus all day. The race would flare up every so often as guys would get ansy and try to jump across in a group to the break, which was hovering at around one or two minutes.

After 100 km we were due to arrive in Antwerp for five finishing circuits. Each circuit had about 1.5 km of nasty cobbles to contend with, in two sections, which we hit on the way into town. At 10 km to the first cobble sector, the pace went from chit-chattable to full-bore! Everyone started really fighting for the top spots. We hit the first section in beautiful position. Six of six guys from JBCA were in the top 40 riders, with our man in prime position just out of the wind. The first cobbles were not soooo bad, pretty standard as cobbles go over here, but the second ones were gnarly! There was only about two km between the two, so they almost just were a blur of one giant jarring road. Ironically, the part that hurts worst about cobbles is coming off of them! After you get free of the earthquake of cobblestones, your body just wants to relax, but of course the pace shoots way up and its time to get straight on the gas and get up to speed. Anyways... The second set of cobbles... On either side was a narrow, packed-dirt section. I was about 30th, just a couple wheels behind Aaron. I felt strong - tired, but strong - and was able to grab tons of places just heading straight up the middle over the cobbles. Eventually, my momentum started to lag, so I moved into the line on the left - nobody was riding the middle it seemed.

Before the real swelling began... Just a minor flesh wound that would soon look like four knees!

Well, it didn't end well. Suddenly, the dude in front of me jump out of the ditch onto the cobbles in a really unexpected way. Before I realize what's what I am staring the end of my race in the face. The dirt section was interrupted by small paved section of driveway. Thanks to erosion, the last meter before it was gradually sunken in, leaving about a 30 cm "curb" at the end of the line. I smashed my front wheel into it, got a front and rear flat (tubulars, too) and flew onto the cobbles in a heap. Aaron had been two wheels in front of me and went down on the same shit. He tried to get back in, but my race was over. In the end, so was his and a teammate who gave up his bike for Aaron to try, but he lost his 10th place on GC.

A small consolation after a hard weekend of racing. Dinner for one.

It was a really disappointing end to the race, which I suppose is why I didn't write about it right away. Oh well. That's bike racing!

The next race is a kermis in Bekegem tomorrow afternoon. On Tuesday is a big Interclub race, which features the Kemmelberg (of cycling infamy), twice! 20%+ grades and cobbles = FUN FUN FUN!

The Kemmelberg.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Racing, Redefined

I have been learning a lot here. That was the focus of the trip and it hasn’t disappointed. From vague “shoulds” and “should-nots,” to generally an improved race sense, to specific points of etiquette and technique, the five weeks I have spent in Belgium so far have been eye-opening. But, I think I am starting to see the bigger picture of what makes racing in Belgium so special… And the thing I have learned that overshadows all the other lessons is: how much there is still to be learned before I am a complete bike-racer.

The first thing that makes racing in Belgium special is the races. Of course, there are the classic training races that we here a lot about back in the States - kermises. These races are super intense efforts, almost always between 150 and 180 minutes long (100-120 km). The fields at these races range in size from 50-200 and the caliber of riders varies within each race by quite a bit as well. However, the top guys are really, really good. Just like crit-specialists in the US, there are kermis riders and teams here that have the routine dialed (then of course there is betting and under-the-table deals, etc!). So, day in, day out, you can race 60-75 miles against some of the best guys in the region, not to mention 10-20 miles commuting each way to and from the race! And the thing is, these are the small races. Within a given area (in my case, West Flanders) there are usually two to five kermises on a given week. That means that there are enough top-quality training races to be had that if you wanted, you wouldn’t have to do a single interval for months (but maybe not the best idea).

Ben and James get ready for Stage 1 at the Tour of Antwerp

Since I am with JBCA, I get to take part in larger UCI races as well. Technically, kermises are UCI 1.12 rated, too, but the “Interclubs” are often just called “UCI races” and are mostly 1.12’s and 1.2’s (and 2.12/2.2 as well). The UCI races are in some ways glorified kermis races, but there are some key differences. First off, the field is deep (always around 200 riders), with tons of riders that are very strong; some that are “just” strong, and only very few that fall short of that. The UCI races are not limited to short, technical loops like kermises, but rather usually involve one or several laps of a big, moderately technical loop (well, very, very technical compared to your typical road race in the US… The only races that compare to it that I have done in the States are the two road races in the Redlands Bicycle Classic, especially the Sunset Loop), before entering the “local laps,” which are smaller, technical, crit-like circuits for fans to watch the finish unfold. Typically the last 50 km or so are held in the local laps - so basically imagine a 110 km loop (a 65 mile RR) that finishes on 50 km of local laps (a 30 mile crit)! Also, UCI races feature a huge caravan of at least 30 cars, including commissaries, doctors, ambulance, teams, etc… Everything is very professionally run, and there is tremendous fan support from locals, family, and friends!

So, the bigger-picture lesson I have learned out here? Yes, I could be a better sprinter. Yes, I could also stand to climb better. Yes, I also could be better at bike-handling, cornering, navigating through a tight peloton, attacking, argy-bargy, surfing the front, and reading races… All those things come with years more experience at this level than I have. These are some of the things I thought I could do fairly well back home, but they’re things that I have found I can’t yet do well enough - these are the basics of cycling. But, the single greatest lesson I have learned out here so far transcends every nuance and particularity of our sport… And it is the pure, steady manifestation of all competition: focus, discipline, confidence, and unemotional, unshakable desire - the ultimate test of mental capabilities!

The Aussies have a bit of the Roubiax dirt/glasses shadow after some nasty cobbles on Stage 3.

To create a stark contrast, I would say that everything I have accomplished as a cyclist in my years racing in the States was done via brute strength and instinct. Here, killer-instincts and big numbers are obviously still important, but the thing that really sets the winners apart from the rest is mentality. What this means to me is having the focus to be as efficient as possible throughout the race (ie no extra braking, proper pack-placement to avoid needless accelerations, staying out of the wind… Basically, at every moment of the race, literally at every second, being aware of any possible means of using less energy). It also means to me having the discipline and mental toughness to endure as much suffering as possible. There is no limit to this capacity, theoretically - it is a mind game. When physical limits are so closely matched (the best and worst riders in the UCI fields are probably only separated physiologically by 5-10%, at most - say in W/kg or whatever metric), it makes sense to me that the guy that can dig deeper will achieve more… You should “have no mercy with yourself,” as my director, Bernard, puts it. Then, pair that mindset with self-confidence (and lack of self-doubt… for instance believing that if you are suffering everyone else is suffering the same/more and that you can beat them despite the pain). The final ingredients are the ability to read a race situation and other riders in a heartbeat and obviously to have a huge hunger to win, without a strong emotional attachment to a particular outcome that will cause you to panic and race out of fright or anger or jealousy or desperation. Everything is cool, calm, focused, and calculated… Never mind the fact the race is cruising around the countryside and through small towns at over 40 km/hr!

This is seen as the essence of sport over here. And if nothing else, when everyone around you is so strong, you can’t just throw your efforts around willy-nilly. If you are not efficient, you will be toast after 150 kilometers at 45 km/hr. If you are not positioned well going into a crosswind section, you certainly won’t be racing for the win at the end of the day. If you move up in the wind or are near the back through town or commit any number of similar mistakes, you will not win the race. I think it is rare that a guy who wastes energy during a race has a shot in the finale.

Even our neighbor, Mike, an ex-boxer, has tried to share some insight into the sporting mentality: “When I was fighting I would look these big, strong, tall, guys in the eye and think ‘I am going to fucking beat you.’ There is no difference between a one-on-one cage fight and a bike race…” except that in a bike race there are many, many people in the cage at once.

Monday, August 3, 2009

8/2/09 - Race 11: Ooostnieuwkerke Kermis, 115 km

Just a quick update today.

So, racing over here is still humbling! No surprise, I guess, but just when I thought I was ready to cash in some learning chips and ace (and by “ace,” I mean make the lead group!) a kermis I got thrown a curveball.

The course on Sunday was short, only about five km long. The home straight was wide open, about three lanes wide, but quickly we were routed onto narrow farm roads, much smaller than anything you would race on in the states… If two cars come in opposite directions, they will each have to dump a couple tires into the grass to sneak by (which of course they would do at 70 kph!). The back-roads wove around with a few turns before dumping the race back on the main drag for the last 500 meters.

I came into this one hoping to race really smart and save my energy for the critical moments. My mantra for the day was Patience! in hopes of compensating for my overly-aggressive tendencies. I felt, after my last race, that “What I have really learned about my own racing style is that for me to make the winning move, I really need to hold back…” WRONG! In retrospect, that attitude is completely off-base. Patience and smarts are definitely key, but you will never make a winning move here doing anything resembling “holding back.”

In a nutshell I thought I had figured out that the race usually takes at least 30 km to develop and for serious splits to start. I took the first laps mellow, but I rode in a good spot, about 15-20 wheels back. I knew stuff was going off the front, but was not concerned - I was really relaxed and was able to ride in a very comfortable zone. The second lap it was back together, but the pace had gotten very high and I could tell things were heating up! I was a bit too far back to respond to attacks that went in the middle of that lap and watched as I saw quality rider after quality rider jump away from a gassed, hesitant peloton. With about 10 guys ahead I really got the feeling that this was a key move - maybe not the move, but a move not to be ignored! So, feeling like today had to be the day to make the move, I panicked and tried to jump across right away, before the gap was too big. Mistake #1 was getting caught a little out of place waiting for the race to “develop” and mistake #2 was trying to bridge to 10 of the strongest riders, solo!

I got two-thirds of the way there before I blew. The pack behind didn’t react at first, but two more guys jumped away from the pack and came up to me. I saw them coming and accelerated with them, but I didn’t have the pop to get on their wheels. They made it across without me and I sank back to the pack, defeated. I should have been in a better spot and more attentive, then I should have waited to try and make it across with others rather than trying alone (it rarely gets you far out here). A big thing out here is to “race with you head and not with your heart,” meaning to think tactically rather than have your race be dictated by emotion and adrenaline. Very good advice, but hard to take to heart (or mind) right away! I need to work on this a lot - it may actually be more of the problem I identified in being too aggressive… Maybe I am being aggressive for the wrong reasons (ie heart, not mind).

The gaps were very small, the front group splitting in two but remaining just 20 seconds ahead of a chase group, which was another 15 seconds ahead of us. But that was the race. 15 guys were gone, 10 km into 115km. Go figure.

My race almost ended disastrously as I lost my rear wheel going into a hard corner over cobbles. It felt really weird, like something was seriously wrong with my wheel or like I was going to roll a tire - I really lost my nerve after that. Two laps later my rear wheel was almost totally flat - slow leak. That was the end of my race, in a group of about 20 guys fighting for 16th place with 40 km left. Could’ve still been a decent result, but hey, that’s bike racin’. Truth be told I actually wished for a flat out of pure frustration once I missed the split… So, I got what I deserved, I guess.

Tons more racing to come soon, and maybe more pictures and less block text next time!

Saturday, August 1, 2009

7/30/09 - Race 10: Ooostkamp Kermis, 101 km

Our hometown race! We had a good group of guys out for this one. It was a lot of fun to be racing on familiar turf.

The race was a bit smaller than some of the others I have done so far with only about 50 guys on the start line. It was great to be in a bunch with a lot of guys in the same kit - a feeling I haven’t really had since leaving the States. We worked really well together and were in just about every move.

As far as my own race is concerned, I am starting to pick up on how to race out here. What I have really learned about my own racing style is that for me to make the winning move, I really need to hold back, like, “Whoa nelly! Easy there champ!” As soon as the race starts I have some kind of mental tick that makes me race flat out until I find my limit. So, out here I have learned to surf the front of the race, staying tucked into the front of the pack, waiting out the early attacks and counters (which are relentless) until the right moment. Still though, I find myself wasting a bit too much energy trying to go with smaller moves, essentially forfeiting my cushy spot in the pack and burning matches, only to lack the punch to go with the move that matters.

I think this development is a bit different for everyone that comes out here. But, I am convinced I have the strength to mark the important moves and get away in the one that counts. Things just have to come together. I need to stay focused on being at the front of the race but not the front of the race. And I really need to develop a better instinctual response to moves as to whether they warrant the burning of a match or not… More often than not, I follow too much in the beginning, then in the middle where the right one goes, I can see it, recognize how crucial the moment is, but physically can’t respond. For me, it is about learning better patience and focus. And the funny thing is that this growth I need to make as a racer is spurring me to look at myself off the bike with the same critical eye. I have never felt bike racing so directly influencing my perception of myself as an individual!

Anyways, I missed the main move of 12 guys. I rode in the second group of about 20 guys. A group of four dangled off the front as we unexpectedly got the bell lap two laps early (to leave room for the front group to race freely). They stayed away. Behind, I stupidly tried to get away inside the last five km instead of saving it for the sprint. I started third wheel, but waited for someone else to go. Dumb, again! I got fifth in the sprint and 21st on the day. It would have been great to crack the top 20, but I am getting there… I’m just saving it up for one big breakthrough!

And here I have some pictures from the race today... Hopefully some of these give a better taste of some of the cultural differences between racing at home and in Belgium. Enjoy!

Registration is in the back of a bar, you find information at the website for Wielerbond Vlaanderen (roughly translated: "Flanders Bike Racing Association"). The information for each race looks something like this:

02/08/2009- OOSTNIEUWKERKE (W)
1.12B - ind.reg.wedstr.(100-120 km) Elite z.c./U23

Technische gegevens:

115 km - 670 EUR. - I: Café De Most, Roeselarestraat 239, 8840 Oostnieuwkerke - U: 13:30/14:30/15:00 - K: Mostschool, Roeselarestraat 179, 8840 Oostnieuwkerke - Contact: Patrick Mertens, Lijsterstraat 1, 8840 Oostnieuwkerke (Tel.: 0473/755354) ( - Extra info: 23 ronden van 5 km

The Belgian version of a page: distance, prizes, I: instcription (registration) U: opens, closes, start, blah, blah...

115 km - 670 EUR. - I: Café De Most, Roeselarestraat 239, 8840 Oostnieuwkerke - U: 13:30/14:30/15:00 - K: Mostschool, Roeselarestraat 179, 8840 Oostnieuwkerke - Contact: Patrick Mertens, Lijsterstraat 1, 8840 Oostnieuwkerke (Tel.: 0473/755354) ( - Extra info: 23 ronden van 5 km

Outside the bar for registration

Inside the bar: Ummm... Is this where I register???

Just walk casually to the back of the joint...

And... Voila!

And here is a little bit from the course today...

Only a couple short cobble sectors... If you even consider these tame little things cobbles. Pshhh.

It wouldn't be Europe without a roundabout. Mind the big rubber stoppers!

The finish line just after the race.

Well, that's it for today. Thanks for reading!

Cash-money: 10E for 21st place!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

7/26/09 - Race 9 and more!: Ronde Vlaams-Brabant Stage 5, 145 km

I am pretty bored of telling the same old story and I imagine it would get stale to read if anyone has actually been drudging through all the blah, blah, blah about this race. The hyper-condensed version goes like this: front, cover, cover, cover, front, cover, cover, GPM (shit), feed, front, cover, cover, GPM (shit), froooooooooont, feed, front, cover, feed, front, catch the break, full gas, race over. Phew! Glad that’s over. (As a side-note, I finished 133 out of 140 finishers and 200 starters, 15 minutes back. There was really never any motivation to race for a high place for myself once I lost 10 minutes on the first stage in calculated time once I got pulled in the local circuits. But, humbling nonetheless).

Instead of the detail I wanted to write a little about the last week from a couple days out. First off, the support has been phenomenal. Every morning breakfast was provided for us at 8:30 am, then it was off to the races. The bikes were already packed into the team van, bottles prepped (water or mix), bars rationed, Cokes at-the-ready, recovery shakes and protein bars standing by. At the race the staff unpacked bikes, pumped tires, laid out chairs and race bags. Then, before the start, a quick pre-race massage from the soigneur, bottles divied up, and extra layers shed at the line.

During the race, the support car was in the caravan, driven by our director, with spare bikes on top and a mechanic in the back seat ready for anything (he wasn’t needed much, fortunately - two flats in over 3000 combined km - not bad!). In the feedzone we always had two people, one with mix (and Coke on the last feed) and one with water.

After the race more Coke, then some protein bars/shakes. All our dirty clothes were taken in a laundry bag to be readied for the next day. Then each rider gets little recovery “sandwiches”: two hot-dog buns - one with jam and one with jam and cheese. At first they were a bit revolting, but they actually really hit the spot! Plenty of water was doled out for the drive home and the staff packed all the bikes and bags back in the van.

Back at the house, the mechanic washed and tuned all our bikes, taking special requests for any focused service on malfunctioning parts. (This guy, Jaak, was awesome. He works for Quick-Step as one of their mechanics and he has his shit down. He comes with a little kit with his toolbox, lube, degreaser, and black, Specialized jumpsuit. He cleans a bike to perfection in under five minutes and puts on new tires in a snap. It was awesome to watch - a true professional). Meanwhile, the staff unpacked all the stuff while riders showered, then it was time for a 20 minute massage - a beautiful thing after 100 miles and 100 miles on tap for tomorrow.

Jaak, or mechanic for the week

Then, it was off to a nice restaurant for dinner, where the friendly chef made us basically bottomless plates of spaghetti, rice, chicken, fish, and all other sorts of goodies. When we got back it was straight to bed for us, but the hard-working staff packed bikes and readied bottles for the next day. The race was hard for us, but probably almost as demanding on the staff - only three people! A huge thanks goes to Bernard (director) and Ann (his wife), as well as Noel! It was really amazing to see what a huge difference that level of support makes when it comes to a stage race like that.

In five days I rode about 400 miles and 17 hours. It was a blur of ride, eat sleep, eat, repeat like I have never experienced before. You really don’t get to do races like this back home. Most stage races are only four days long and include at least one crit and one TT, which means at most two road stages of 60-100 miles apiece. These stage races can be very hard, no doubt, but it’s really a different kind of race when each day is over 90 miles long. Really a blast to be a part of.

In retrospect, probably the biggest thing I learned in that crash course in Belgian UCI racing is how mental a game it is. Obviously there are huge physical demands, but past a certain threshold of base fitness and endurance, it is really a mental game. I think it all comes down to two things: focus and willpower.

In order to stay position well, you have to really be 100 percent present 100 percent of the time. As Aaron put it, “It’s like meditation - on a bike,” with the subtext being that you are suffering like hell and risking your life in tight corners and at very high speeds. But he is right. Positioning is completely about focus… Which is great, because it has given me a new seed to start meditating with again. I really believe that meditation could be a hugely important type of training for these races. It is funny to think of racing back home, because of how little I was aware of focus as an essential quality of bike racing. In the States, strength alone can take you much further, I think (although definitely not “all the way”). Out here, if you lose focus, you’re fucked, so it’s a trial-by-fire and you have to learn quickly and adapt. I think that one lesson alone could have taken me years more to learn racing at home. Hopefully there will be more like it!

The second part is definitely the ability to suffer. Even the early move here goes once everyone has been on the rivet for a little while. There is no such thing as a small group just rolling off the front and then they are gone for most of the day. To get away at all, you have to pound people into submission and be ahead of them when they decide to submit and the elastic snaps. But to do that you have to pull yourself inside out. It doesn’t really seem like it happens any other way… And I haven’t even seen, really, what it takes to win a race out here. But I imagine it’s a double-dose of the same.

Appropriately-sentimental picture...The sky in Brugge the day after Stage 5.

The next race is a couple days off and for now it is complete recovery mode. I am really excited to keep the lessons coming! Hopefully, I’ll have more interesting stories and lessons to share soon.

7/25/09 - Race 8: Ronde Vlaams-Brabant Stage 4, 158 km

Like most mind-blowing, life-altering, “AHA!” realizations I have had in my life, the surfing success I had in stage two was fleeting. On tap for stage four was 158 kilometers broken into three loops of 45 kilometers, followed by two 12 kilometer circuits. The course featured three GPM’s at 14, 19 and 32 kilometers through each lap. Fortunately today my life at the head of the race was not over on the first GPM, probably thanks to its late arrival at kilometer 14 instead of 13…

We came into the race with four of six riders left in the race, two of which were top 30 on GC, with a good chance at cracking the top 10 if the right break got away. The plan was to ride together at the front and try and get someone in the break, hopefully one of our GC guys.

Da bikes. Only 3/6 guys left... My new ride (#100) is in the foreground.

I started in the front row, which was a really nice change of pace. Immediately I covered every attack that went, basically keeping a really high speed jumping from one wheel to the next as guys tried to establish moves. It was actually remarkably comfortable to do - much easier than being a little further back in the bunch and fighting for position. Soon we turned down a one-lane road and things were single-file and really fast, but nothing was getting away. A few km and several turns later, we were on a wide-open road with a strong headwind so there was less incentive to be at the front and the pack swelled… And it was then that my moment of pack-surfing glory came to a screeching halt.

At kilometer 10 I got caught behind a big swarm on my left, but immediately tried to work my way to the outside to keep moving up. Unfortunately, the pace had slackened considerably and rather than a pointy peloton the front was flat, straight across the road, making it very difficult to move up.

The first GPM came and went with the pack stringing out quite a bit, which left me way back in the bunch. Out here third or fourth row when things are chill means easily 50th wheel once it is strung out. It was lightning fast up through to the second GPM 5 km later. And that’s where I got into some trouble! The second GPM was about 600 meters long at 15+ percent gradient, not my style at all. I need a longer, shallower ramp. I lost a lot of spots.

Not your average parking lot

By the start of the second big lap I was back at the front - and to my surprise a break had not formed yet. I threw myself back into the fray, covering every move I could. It was shocking to realize that this pace and aggression had been kept up for 50 km and counting!

Still, no moves got anywhere, and it was déjà vu yet again when I didn’t have the legs to stay up front on the first GPM on the second lap. I was in horrible position after that - just in time! Descent, turn, drill it, crosswind, still drilling it, turn, full-gas, tailwind (actually incredibly hard as gaps are nearly impossible to close), turn, crosswind, still full-throttle, turn, slight uphill, turn, whoa! Wall straight in front of me and I was going backwards! I came loose from the back of the peloton.

With a teammate and about 10 other dudes, we were able to chase back onto the peloton in about five kilometers. It was a hard chase through a heavy crosswind and we were picking up stragglers every step of the way, but being passed by cars from the caravan at the same time. Unfortunately, the caravan cars were punching it pretty hard to get back up to the field, so there was no drafting at that point… Once we got through the crosswind it seemed like the pack slowed a bit and we worked our way up through the caravan and back onto the tail of the field. A break had finally gotten away.

The last big lap was quite mellow as teams with GC hopefuls did some solid work on the front to keep the break in check. That meant the last lap was easier - and I was quite grateful. I really went into pure survival mode just to make sure I finished! I came to the front of the field, at which point I was asked to start working to bring the break back (no radios in Belgian races - my team leader asked me to the old-fashioned way) and even just a handful of kilometers in the rotation at the left me feeling like I was burning the last of my matches.

A tasteful addition to the team van!

Coming into the local laps I was in solid position and felt like at least the finish was in the bag. I drifted back a bit as I got a feed from Noel as a lot of guys were gunning up to the front at that point. There are not really official feed zones here, its pretty much whatever goes - just like the rest of racing in Belgium (hopping sidewalks, using bike paths, cutting through gas stations, etc).

The last 30 minutes of the race were at 50 kph and so I was OK with coming in at the back of the bunch and just focusing on the next day. I guess I kinda wussed out. I really should have gotten back to the front and done everything I could. I messed up. With 10 km to go I am in the last 20 wheels of about 120 guys, just chilling. I didn’t really realize how easy I was taking it, because my HR in my file was below endurance. My director could see me from the caravan, so here comes up to the back of the strung-out peloton honking his horn and shouting at me, “Get you fuckin’ ass back up there, man! You’re sleeping back here! Move up NOW!” I got my ass up there… Out of sheer terror!

I was amazed at how much I had zoned out under the excuse that I was “saving for tomorrow.” It seemed reasonable to me, but that’s mostly because I was tired and sore. Anyways, I flew up to the front, getting into the top 30 wheels in less than two kilometers. I was floored by how easy it was. But it wasn’t so easy at the front! Coming up the side of the peloton felt much more like sticking my head out the window of a moving car… The last five km were at 50 kph through a headwind and it was mayhem. People were taking crazy risks to sprint for 18th place. It was pretty nuts. In the end I just tried to stay out of trouble, but it was good to see the field sprint take shape. It is a game of positioning out there, 100 percent.

I felt like shit at the finish (in a couple ways). We lost some time and a couple spots on GC, which everyone was pretty bummed about. My director was in a terrible mood. He was especially angry at me, having upgraded me to my second new bike in as many days - this time a SRAM Force/S40 equipped Fuji Team Carbon, a really sweet rig - and he made some comment about what-did-I-want-a-golden-bike?

One day left!