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!

Friday, July 24, 2009

7/24/09 - Race 7: Ronde Vlaams-Brabant Stage 3, 11 km

Not a whole lot to report today… A nice break for sure! It was a fun little time trial, just under 11 km long. Got on my TT bike out here for the first time ever on the trainer an hour before my start. Needless to say I could have used a little extra time to get accustomed to the setup. But that’s kind of how it goes out here - you get what you need, everything is taken care of… but like everything else in cycling, timeliness is a rare bonus.

Warming up with Will Tehan

The course was super windy and dry, thankfully, but I was blown around quite a bit in the first kilometers and big, sweeping farm roads. The race was basically flat until the last 2 kilometers, which very gradually began to point upwards. By 500 meters to go, the pitch was quite steep, easily six or seven percent gradient. The course was moderately technical, with eight turns, two of which were chicanes. Yet another reason to have had a bit more practice on the bike!

Ben Juzwin, 20th overall, warms up under the super-pro tent-extension

I had a good go. I felt very satisfied with my effort. I was a bit over a minute down on the winner, though not sure about my exact time or place - under 16 minutes and somewhere in the middle of the pack. Our two GC leaders both placed in the top 50, one in the top 20, with both in the top 25 overall after the stage. We have a lot to ride for over the next couple days, should be fun! Tomorrow and Sunday I will race for a stage result, so hopefully I will have an interesting report to go with it!

Job done, the TT bikes get to rest

And... A couple more pics just for fun... Didn't get nearly as geeky as I meant to, but I tried with the one below.

Rebranded Zipp

Wheels and bottles

Thursday, July 23, 2009

7/23/09 - Race 6: Ronde Vlaams-Brabant Stage 2, 145 km

Before I jump into today's race, I thought some of you might appreciate a picture of our soigneur, Noel, whom I mentioned yesterday... A gentle giant indeed:

Noel (L) and Ben Juzwin

The guy is awesome and incredibly comfortable in his own skin. And I must admit, there was something strangely comforting about his large belly holding my feet in place for the massage.

Anyways, the race today was much hillier than yesterday, with four GPM's and four unrated climbs for each lap of 36 kilometers. Much hillier and much, much wetter.

Okay, so its just a wall, not a road, but you get the point!

Not what I wanted to see in the team van on the way to the start.

The race started as basically a carbon copy of yesterday. By kilometer five I was off the front in a small group that was quickly brought back, but just as quickly I was off with another group. Things reformed a few times, but by kilometer 12 I was just being brought back into the fold. I should have remembered that kilometer 13 means GPM - just like last time - but I didn’t. Unlucky #13. I had a one of those “it seemed like a good idea at the time…” moments and attacked since the pack hadn’t completely closed. I went solo hoping to be on the right side of the split that seemed imminent. But, as luck would have it, I took a right-hander and started to motor with what gap I had and looked up to see a steep SOB of a climb looming. It would not have been a big issue if I hadn’t been riding hard for 20 minutes already… I got swallowed up quickly. I would have been spat out, too, if it weren’t for the fact that there are 200 dudes in the pack! I lost a ton of spots, probably 100 before I could hold my position. Deja vu.

From that point on I worked my way steadily back to the front. I got back well after the move of the day had made tracks, around 35 km into the race. The next hour of the race was relatively easy. I had a pretty major break-through in really learning to surf the front of the race and conserve energy. For the next 65 minutes the average speed was 27 mph and my average HR was 163 - for me that is fairly low, just above endurance - over some steep hills, too! I really found a great zone to work in. Basically start in a good position, around 10-20 wheels back and constantly be moving to the outside and hop in the moves going up the side of the pointy peloton. It was really efficient. Sometimes you have to break to find a line to the outside, but you need to get out there or else you are boxed in and moving backwards.

The thought of the day comes courtesy of my friend Aaron Pool, a JBCA veteran. “You have to be pushing forward all the time.” Now, I have heard “if you’re not moving up you’re moving back” and all that jazz as much as the next guy, but for some reason these words just crystallized something for me. I found the nerve to shoot small gaps and really assert myself in a tight peloton - what a great feeling! Not to be too dramatic but there was something very liberating that happened out there on the road today. Definitely my first “AHA” moment over here.

With 50 kilometers to go I was still sitting pretty in the top 15 wheels when some attacks started to fly - pretty heavy attacks. I covered them and joined a group of eight riders with a gap over the field. We stayed away for a bit, but didn’t succeed in getting anywhere. But after a flurry of shots and a couple hours of high pace, it seemed like the moment for a split. It was status quo through the middle of the last lap and with about 20 km to go the race was really heating up. I was starting to feel pretty shot after my early efforts. I used my last bullet to move my team leader up from about 60th wheel to the front of the group before the second to last GPM. Great timing for him, not so much for me. After the GPM I was near the back of about 100 dudes, and I popped off from there at 5 km to go over the next hill… Job done!

I used my big ring for the entire race, which in retrospect seems like a mistake. If you shift down I things feel a bit harder and like the other guys are riding much stronger. It’s more comfortable to just muscle over. But at kilometer 140 it is so much better to be using your big-gear-pushing muscles to make the selection of the day… Even if it means you feel like you don’t have the gas earlier in the race. A tactic for another day!

Tomorrow is an 11 km TT. Not the typical US out-and-back. This stuff is technical over here. Should be new and fun! Maybe some geek pics?

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

7/22/09 - Race 5: Ronde Vlaams-Brabant Stage 1, 145 km

Team bikes

My first Belgian UCI stage race! So, I found out at the last minute that I was going to be going (7 am before a 1:30 pm start), which meant I came with a little less of a mental edge than I might like. But I was really glad to be there. The race is five days long, four road stages of 140-160 km apiece on rollers and power climbs, split in the middle by an 11-kilometer time trial. There were 200 starters.

Main sponsor's banner

One of the cars from the caravan in front of the race - think a mini-parade.

Another caravan car

The race today was 145 kilometers and designed to be a stage for the sprinters. There were three large loops of 35 km each before we went into town for five local laps of 8.5 km apiece. The large loop featured two GPM’s (King of the Mountains competition points sprints) at 13.5 km and 25 km.

The guys pinning up before a pre-race chat.

I was in a mix of moves for a bit, but nothing really got too far away. I bridged to a promising looking group as it was forming at about 10 km and we stayed away for a couple minutes, getting caught just as we hit the bottom of the first GPM. The hill wasn’t incredibly steep, but it seemed like everyone wanted points. And I was at my limit. I gave up about 50 spots on the climb, knowing full well that each wheel that past me was one I would have to pass back ASAP. I took a few minutes to recover, using the time to try and pick-off spots where I could. I was able to get back to the front and burnt some more matches in moves that didn’t get anywhere. And that is about when we reached the next GPM, which was just as miserable as the first!

The move of the day was gone at that point, so I just decided to shut it down and conserve. It was hot today, 29 degrees Celsius (so, like… 85 F?) and I lost a bottle on a short cobble section at the start of the second lap… To cut straight to the chase, I never saw the front of the race again. I did my best to hydrate and refuel, but didn’t have great luck with feeds. I made it through to the local laps on three bottles and was dying to get a feed on the local circuit. Our guys were not there yet! In the process though I stayed to the right to try to get a feed and ended up all the way at the back. I made it through the first local lap fine, moving back up the whole way, but had to repeat the process on the second lap. I did get the feed, but it left me in horrible position. I got stuck behind a big split and that was it. “Grupetto!” and we just cruised in, getting pulled with 20 km to go. I think I should get to start no problem tomorrow… But we’ll see!

In any event, I just got a wonderful post-race massage from Noel, quite the gentle giant. I could get used to this!

Some post-race shots of me (after wiping gobs of salt from my face) and the rest of the guys...

All I need is some gel in my hair and maybe a little make-up and I would be true Belgian!


Monday, July 20, 2009


Here's a little teaser from my ride this afternoon:

Schipdonkvaart - Zuid (South Schipdonk Canal Rd)

Today I went on a nice steady endurance cruise along for about 85 kilometers. I am probably doing a five-day UCI stage race, Ronde Vlaams Brabant, which starts on Wednesday and runs through Sunday. The plan was for this to be my last real volume for the week after all the intensity I got in last week. Being a city-boy, I am used to a short (or sometimes long) commute to pretty OK riding and usually lots of traffic. Already I am getting spoiled out here. Granted, there is little variation in terrain - most rides are pancake-flat. However, the rides start straight from the door and within minutes you can forget that you are even around any kind of city/town. The roads are so quite and the drivers are so polite!

As I mentioned before, even riding on a busier road there are wonderful accommodations for cyclists. The most common is a bike path that is separated from the road or clearly painted on the side, often in red paint or with red bricks. This makes even the "worst" parts of rides so much more tolerable than back home.

Bike path - clearly marked and amply separated from the road!

The kicker is that not only are these bike paths clearly marked on the sides of roads, but also straight through intersections! Maybe it is the bright red paint, or maybe it's just some sort of European sensibility, but drivers actually take note! When turning right, across a lane - hold your breath - they yield to bikes! Amazing! It actually makes quite a big difference in the quality of life as a cyclist... Or at least quality life on the bike (is there a difference?).

Yes, this bike path was painted straight through an intersection.

But maybe the greatest pleasure of riding in Belgium is to take the canal roads that meander along miles and miles of scenic waterways with no traffic and only a few bikes and pedestrians. And by a few, I mean a few - nothing like the Westside bike path for those that are familiar!

From the house it is only 2 kilometers to the closest canal, which you can cross via drawbridge to get to the city of Brugge.

The drawbridge to Brugge

A little further north you can hook up with a pretty canal called Schipdonkvaart, which you can ride east for miles (or kilometers, whichever your preference). I have a couple more pics of this canal below:

More from the Schipdonkvaart - Zuid

So for the entire ride today, except for maybe four minutes on each end of the ride, I was on quite canal roads like this one. The towering trees keep the road shaded and cool. This is really one of the most enjoyable loops I have been on in a long time, both because of the scenery and the privateness. And, in the event you actually run into someone else using the same road, the custom is to yell "Pas op!" as you approach (Watch out!) and the politely move to the side... "Dank u!" Very civilized! I wish it worked that easily in the city. Usually calling "On your left," or "Heads up" causes them to swerve further in your direction. Anyways, I am sure my little Belgian infatuation will slowly begin to wear off - but for now I am completely smitten!

Sunday, July 19, 2009

7/18/09 - Race 4: Gistel Kermis, 112.5 km

The racing is coming fast and furious now. I went to the kermis in Waardamme still feeling trashed from the race on Thursday. My arms still ached, shoulders, and chest were all still aching from yanking on the handlebars during almost three hours of sprints and my abdomen was still quite sore from the wipeout. My legs felt like lead and I went to the race with a little bit of dread, but fully caffeinated, and accompanied by some mates from JBCA (American Trevor Johnson, and Aussies Ben Juzwin, and Will Tehan).

At registration I started to recognize some of the stronger guys and definitely had picked out the teams to watch - an important first step in getting used to the racing over here. The course was super-exposed; the entire lap wound through narrow farm roads with little protection from the wind. There was a lot of wind. The laps were only 3.75 kilometers long. Essentially, the loop was a long triangle. The first long side was a heavy cross-wind, then a short head/cross-wind section, then a heavy tailwind back along the long finishing straight. The wind was vicious.

The race started with the line-up, with people jockeying for position and latecomers snagging prime spots in the front of the peloton and everyone inching up around them. The actual start line was a good 10 meters behind the first riders by the time the race actually began. I was in the second row. I made sure to start in a good spot given the brutal crosswind in the first couple km’s - I wasn’t sure there would even be a full peloton by the time we came through the start finish after one lap!

After how hard the last race was for me, I really wasn’t sure I would be able to finish. I suffered more than I ever have in a bike race on Thursday. I knew I didn’t have the mental/emotional energy to push that deep again only two days later.

Sure enough, there were attacks from the gun, but the racing was a bit anxious as everyone seemed a bit respectful of the course, so the pace was a bit timid. We came through the finish completely strung out at almost 60 km/hr in the tailwind and in true Euro-style jammed on the breaks to about 15 km/hr into turn one. The race became more animated each time through the crosswind with small groups surging forward, but they were reabsorbed through the headwind section.

About five laps in a small group established a bit of a gap on the field, maybe 15 seconds, that held for a little bit. I went with the next move to go - there were about 6 of us - as the pack seemed to be reluctant to chase for whatever reason. We stayed away for a lap, closing on the leaders to about five seconds. On the next lap we were caught by an absolutely decimated peloton that was completely strung out and broken in to several smaller groups. Immediately a counter-attack came past us, then another. I felt like it was a make-or-break moment the race (yes, only about 25 km into the race) and so I tried to go with the second counter-move. My acceleration was somewhat lacking as I was already pretty well on the rivet. I got clear of the field though and tried to power up to the riders bridging. For a bit I closed on them, but then they started to pull away. I looked back to see that the field was a ways back and not chasing hard, so I continued my effort. The bridging riders made it up to the group and so the carrot in front of me was no moving slightly more slowly as the larger group began to get into a rhythm. I knew I had one last chance to bridge.

I didn’t make it. I came within maybe five seconds, but couldn’t close it. I was totally toasted. A group of about 10 riders was trying to bridge behind me and caught me. In short order our group was then caught by the peloton, at which point I searched for a comfortable draft to catch my breath. Reintegrating into a pack is very hard here. You have to immediately start matching accelerations or you open a gap - hard to do when you have gone into the red.

A couple smaller groups escaped during this time, leaving about 30 riders up the road. The selection of the day was done.

The rest of the race was bo-ring. About 30 riders ahead, 30 riders behind, and the rest were dropped. We didn’t really cooperate at all so the race wasn’t about to come back together. With about 18 laps left, there was a crash that split the field. Will and I were ahead of this crash and worked with a group of 10-12 riders to stay clear of the rest, which we did. The only problem was that the leaders were starting to catch up to us on such a short course, so we knew it would only be a matter of time before we got pulled. It was a funny situation - there was no real motivation to work for the group, but nobody knew when the race would end. There were a lot of little attacks and counter-attacks for a few laps as guys gambled, essentially trying to guess the finishing lap.

We got the bell at 13 laps to go to clear the course for the lead group. I attacked through a small gap at the front with 2 km to go and gave it full gas through the crosswind along the gutter. Nobody followed and Will helped disrupt the chase like a champ. I held on to the finish, which was good for 30th place, and 10 Euro! Will took third from the rest of the group for 33rd.

The biggest thing I took from today was confidence in getting a prize as well as being so close to the winning move. And maybe even more important than that I saw that the race at Gistel was an exceptionally hard kermis for various reasons (field, crash, course, etc) and that I won’t have to suffer through living hell each time I do one! Awesome.

Friday, July 17, 2009

7/16/09 - Race 3: Gistel Kermis, 116 km

So, kermis number two! Came to this race a lot more confident after having seen the competition at my first kermis… After I was dropped at the first race, I stuck around to watch and make sure there was no doping control (there wasn’t), which meant I got to see how the race broke up. At the end of that race, there were about 15 guys in various groups off the front with a battered looking peloton straggling behind about 30 riders strong. And since it always looks easier from the crowd, I had a goal to aim for coming into kermis version two: finish in the peloton!

In the Interclub UCI race last week the race finished with 4 laps of what was essentially a long-ish kermis course. The legs in the bunch were all pretty tired after 115 kilometers of racing so the accelerations were a bit more tame, but finishing with the group in that stacked peloton really helped me feel prepared to race at Gistel.

The Gistel kermis was held on a technical 6.85-kilometer course. It featured about 15 turns, one roundabout, about 500 meters of semi-paved cobbles and 100 meters of full-on Belgian cobbles just before a fast, false-flat finish.

The race started out well. I lined-up in the second row and got a good start, staying in the top 20-30 wheels. The good vibes lasted for, oh… about 5 km. Riding about tenth wheel through a crosswind on a narrow farm road I got squeezed into the ditch on the inside of a slight sweep in the road and before I knew it I was kissing the pavement. I did my best to take flight, but just ended up spread-eagle on the ground with the pack scuttling away. Without checking my bike at all (I knew it would be the end of my race if I did) I hopped straight on and made an all-out effort to get back onto the tail end of the pack. It took about three or four minutes of pouring on the gas, but I did make it. I really burned some valuable matches though.

Once I was back in the field I worked my way straight back to the front, finding a position about 20 spots deep to sit in and “recover” and take stock of bike and body (both were essentially fine). As an aside, my first impression is that recovering is something that you just don’t really get to do in these races. I think the best you can do is find a spot where you aren’t burning matches like crazy, but with so many turns there is never really a point where you can relax and settle in. I imagine someday I’ll look back and say “Aha! That was my problem - I didn’t know how to recover yet!” But for now it seems like a pretty tall order. Even sitting in the best place I could find, right near the head of the peloton, the accelerations were relentless. First, there were the jumps coming out of every corner, at least 15 per lap, none of which were easy. On top of that, in order to stay in a smart position, you have to jump several more times per lap to surf the waves of riders coming up the sides and match speeds with riders sailing off the front… If you don’t, you’re at the back in a heartbeat.

The race ended up being two hours and 40 minutes long, and huge portions of that time are a pure, blissful blur of suffering, accelerations, covering and countering, a feed, several missed feeds, and another feed inside the last 10 kilometers (that was the montage, in case you missed it). With about 30 kilometers to go I was severely dehydrated and fighting off some mighty cramps. I was lucky, having missed a few feeds, to know a couple Americans (Ross Berger and Martin Guess from Colorado) who were kind enough to share what they had with me. But it was a too little too late, I am afraid. I started to feel like I was going to keel over from exhaustion. Oh yeah and it was the hottest day since I have been here, probably in the low 80’s (so not that hot, but…) and I felt like I was going to have sun/heat stroke. My entire body erupted in goose bumps and I really was feeling faint. My lungs began to tighten and I bet my eyes were crossed and bleeding. Ah, sweet suffering!

Next week there is a big UCI stage race that I really want to be a part of (there are seven guys to fill six spots) and that prospect was dangling in front of my sorry, mashed ass as I struggled to find any source of motivation to push through. There was that and, of course, the fact that I came to Belgium to learn how to suffer - at a very high level! From 42 to 36 to 30 km to go all the way down to the bell lap I used every mind game in my arsenal to push through the agony. Once I reached two laps to go I knew I would make it. But shit, I really came close to packing it in.

In order to finish, however, I really had to sacrifice my pride. With 30 km remaining the group was together. The last laps would see over 25 guys jump away from the group in twos, threes, fours, and fives. These groups then join and recombine and were not to be seen again. I was absolutely keen on holding a good position to conserve as much as possible towards actually finishing, so I got to see the winning moves first hand. I held my tail between my legs as I watched guys jump away, knowing that if I tried to go with them, not only would I fail, but also the effort would shoot me straight out the back. But I had to keep reminding myself that today was for finishing, so I sucked up my pride and focused on that.

I crossed the line near the front of the first peloton and was satisfied with that. My legs were completely shot and cramping and I could barely stand after the finish. I don’t know if I have ever pushed myself so hard. Just don’t remind me that around here these are training races. Please, don’t bring it up. My average HR for 2:40 was 183 beats per minute and I probably performed no fewer than 250 quick, intense jumps over that time… That’s good training, right? And that’s not to mention 30 km’s (each way) commuting to the race and back.

I felt like a train wreck all night and today has not been much better. As I fell asleep, I scared my roommate pretty bad when I violently spasmed and uttered some sort of loud exclamation of surprise. Twice. That had to be some sort of bizarre display of my absolute physical exhaustion. Soooo, it is time to do it again tomorrow (Saturday). Sweet!

It will be interesting to see how things go without a crash, hopefully getting feeds, and focusing much more on saving every possible ounce of energy for the key moves towards the end of the race. Unfortunately, my guess is that those differences will amount to… Not a whole lot.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Some thoughts about Belgian racing...

One of the most interesting things about the racing over here is the difference in mentality compared to American racing. The guys are super-aggressive, angry, rude racers. They’ll attack from the gun until the finish, yelling the whole way, accelerating full-gas out of every corner. There’s a seriously smash-mouth mindset about the whole thing - its strongman’s racing for sure. I think all Belgian racers feel a certain patriotic duty to be as impolite as possible to Americans racing over here. One time in my first kermis, I got gapped a bit out of a corner (ok, it happened more than once) and was met by a flurry of Flemish curses from the guy behind me as he came past to fill in the gap. His anger was justified, I guess, but you would think that the energy used for the cursing would have been better spent turning the pedals to close that gap. I suppose it was because he was using all his oxygen yelling at me that he didn’t have the energy to close the gap himself; naturally he grabbed my side and gave himself a hard hip-sling up to the wheel in front of him. It is much more important to stand your ground out here than back in the States. I have already gotten pretty good at: a) cursing, loudly, in English or Spanish (still working on Dutch and French); b) completely ignoring someone yelling at me; c) shaking my head in disdain; d) cutting people off to assert myself… I have found all translate pretty well despite the cultural and language barriers.

So like I mentioned, the racing is super-aggressive with attacks fired as relentlessly as anywhere in the States. The accelerations are pretty violent coming out of corners and the pace never really slackens at any point… But here’s the contradiction: going into a corner, turnaround, tight roundabout, or even a narrow bend, they grab brake and lots of it! Partly this is tactical, I guess, since it makes life at the back miserable as the accordion effect dishes out hearty helpings of suffering on those unfortunate souls at the back. But more it seems like guys over here are afraid of going down. Back in the States, if you don’t dive into every corner sans-brake, you’re getting gapped before even starting to sprint, then burning matches accelerating back up to speed in the wind. Here, it is easy to keep wheels through corners, but coming out you better be ready to sprint 100% or else you open a gap and when you open a gap and the dude at the front is giving full gas, it ain’t easy to close. Just a different style I guess, but I have yet to feel like I have to risk my arse just to be competitive. Back home either you lay it all on the line through the corners or you might as well just pack it in and call it a day.

Maybe the coolest thing about cornering here is that you don’t know a corner is coming because of the smell of roasting of carbon or the squeal of dirty brakes, but rather because of the whistles being blown on each corner. It really puts you at ease, sitting 20 riders back, not having to think about whether that road on the left is on the course or if you turn right at the intersection up ahead. You hear a whistle, you brake, you turn, you jump. It makes life pretty easy. Or at least it means you have to be less focused on trying to figure out where the course goes, which gives you more time to pick your gears and get yourself all set for the jump out of the corner. Once you get to the corner, if you aren’t at the very head of the pack, the pace is low enough that you can probably find some kind of sidewalk, bike path, or cobbled shortcut to sneak up a few extra spots. Guys ride over anything here and as they say if you aren’t moving up you’re moving back!

Monday, July 13, 2009

Photo drop

I went out at dusk last night to take some photos... The light was amazing!

Sunday, July 12, 2009

7/11/09 - Race 2: GP Stad Geel, Top-Comp, 165 km

GP Stad Geel is a UCI 1.12 race, part of the Top Competition series for U27 riders. The race features a long loop of 120 pancake flat kilometers, which include one cobble sector of two km. Then the race heads back into the start town of Geel, where the streets are lined with fans for the four 12 km finishing circuits. Some of the bigger teams present included a couple Silence-Lotto development squads as well as a Quick Step devo team.

I felt much better before the start than I did at the kermis in Knessalare early in the week. Just the experience of riding in the Belgian peloton (or off the front or off the back, I guess) really helped me break the ice and break through whatever mental block I was dealing with. I was still nervous at the start and felt pretty self-conscious wearing some goofy, four-year-old, baggy kit. But in Belgium if it serves its purpose, nobody gives it a second thought. So whatever. Anyways, I was still expecting some kind of violent, explosive shit to go down and that it would be nose-to-the-stem hard straight from the gun. Instead, it was just pretty fast and steady rolling out of town. At first there were a few hard accelerations winding our way out of town, but on the smaller Belgian roads things got a bit steadier. And it started to pour.

I was super-conscious of positioning, mostly because there was nothing else really to think about. In a peloton of 200+ it is pretty easy to forget there is actually a race going on. “Mullet” racing: business in the front, party in the back. And shit, I am here to race, so might as well be on the business side of things, at least to get a feel for the racing here. So the early part of the race was spent looking for bike paths and sidewalks to sneak up the side of the peloton. In Belgium, the roads are mostly one lane in each direction, plus a bike path on each side. The bike paths are about 4 feet wide and are either painted onto the road as a shoulder, or are separated by a few feet of grass. It means when training you get a lot of respect from motorists and when racing, you have a lot more risky, fun opportunities to try and advance your position!


Anyways, once I was near the front, I started to try and cover the moves to make sure nothing went away with out my team, JBCA (Johan Bruyneel Cycling Academy), represented. It gave a lot of confidence to be riding at the head of such a big race. But the moves were for naught due to the relentless pace in the peloton, which was calculated to be about 46 kph (just a whisker under 29 mph). That was good to know, since try as I might I was going nowhere. So anyways, basically huge portions of the race are a blur of constantly trying to sneak a few positions here, a few positions there in an effort to stay at the front. That and torrential rain! I was aiming to keep about 25 riders back. The funny thing was that the roads we were on were so much wider than most back home and with full enclosure for the race, it meant that the pack was frequently riding 10 or more riders across. So you might see the front of the race, just a few rows ahead… Good position, right? Then, suddenly you turn into a heavy crosswind section, there’s an attack or two or three, the pack strings out, and suddenly fifth row turns into 50th position, at best. Then there’s a split - and guess what, you missed it! True story. There was one big separation in the first 100 km through a 5 km crosswind section and I found myself near the front of the second echelon. We hovered just a few seconds behind the front group even though we were absolutely killing ourselves to make it back. As soon as we turned back onto a tailwind straight, the gap closed in a snap!

The cobbled sector came at kilometer 97 and the 20 minutes leading up to it the peloton was a place of nervous mayhem with everyone jockeying for better position. I came into the cobbles about 30 or 40 riders back - a little further back than I would have liked. The road onto the cobbles was straight, so you couldn’t tell they were coming. That is, until the first riders hit the cobbles. It sounds like a constant, growing, deep rumble of thunder that quickly swallows you up entirely. I didn’t ride over more than five cobbles before I realized that part of the noise was due to a massive pile-up that sent riders sprawling across the road. Did I mention it was raining heavily? Rain + cobbles + bike racing = FAIL. So, I literally went flying off the side of the road, over the ditch and into the grass and then into the weeks, some five feet off the side of the road! The alternative was to join my comrades in agony on the cobbles. I want to get a variety of experiences out here, but I’m just not so eager to experience what crashing on cobbles at 50 kph is like. Judging from the screams I heard, it’s not so fun. The entire two kilometers was spent powering over the side of the road following some bastard’s hub like a donkey and his carrot. When we got through, I was in a group of about 15 riders about 20 seconds behind the peloton, which turned out to be around 40 riders that made it through cleanly. So I had a teammate with me, so we were both working hard to make sure we closed the gap. And bit-by-bit we did, although team cars were passing us, then we were passing them back once we got closer. This made the job easier in one respect as we were able to draft off the caravan at times. But mostly it just made the chase terrifying, since we were coming back into town for the finishing loops and there were lots of twists, turns, braking, and acceleration - not so fun in the middle of a race caravan. We made it back about eight kilometers before the finishing circuits, which was just enough time to reload on fuel and water.

The finishing circuits play out a lot like a kermis, except that everyone has just raced for over 100 km and the legs are a bit tired. The laps are full of corners and jumps, which really feels like hell after the longer loop, but its really important to come into these laps not feeling like it’s a finishing, but rather a substantial portion of the race… Moving up became much harder and there was much more consistent suffering, with the field rarely swelling at all - just a long line of riders through town. However, I did manage to slowly work my way up to the front. With a bit over two circuits to go I was about 25th wheel. It seemed perfect! But apparently, I was in the right spot too soon! Rather than the pace gradually ramping up leading to the finish, there were spurts of intensity, then on narrower roads the pack would get shut down by the Lotto boys at the front, just riding across the whole road! This made it hard to maintain position. In a lot of ways the whole deal is much easier if everyone is hurting and on the rivet. But when it swells up, everyone suddenly has a shot at moving up, which makes things pretty chaotic. There was a pretty big crash in the final lap that nearly took me down, but I scraped through and made it back to the leaders, just in time to watch the field sprint from the back!

We finished more than 100 miles in about three and a half hours. It was hard, but not crazy, but holy shit was the speed high! It was absolutely relentless at the front. It was great to get that one under my belt and my manager was stoked to see my finish with the bunch in my first UCI race over here. I was pretty happy as well. Now its time to start learning a bit more about what to do over here to make the magic happen…

One final note about the start/finish area. Everything was pretty standard, but exceptionally professional. Barricades in the final 250 meters, 50, 100, 150, 200, 250 meters-to-go signs, finishing arches (yes, plural!) and big fatty white line with a black stripe to race towards. The sign-in area was great, a little podium area next to sign in for team photos. Really cool atmosphere. The one strange detail that left me completely baffled was the music. With the highly professional atmosphere, I was shocked by their taste in music. American music, no less. And its not what you might think. Outhere Brothers,"Wiggle Wiggle." Imagine "Thong Song" on steroids if you haven't heard it for yourself. I had never heard the song before, so I guess it was doubly hilarious - once because I couldn't believe a song with those lyrics existed, and second because I couldn't believe that the race was playing it in public, and loudly! I was wondering if anyone understood it, since nobody seemed to think it was odd at all. But most people speak pretty decent English here... Maybe it's one of those "you had to be there" kind of moments. But I had to share. If you are curious, check it out (jump to about 1:00), but be warned, it ain't family/work friendly!

That's all for now. I'll have a bit more on Belgian racing in general and a bit about Belgium outside of racing in the next week. And some photos, too! Stay tuned and thanks for checking in!

7/7/09 - Race 1: Knesselare Kermis, 105 km

I was super-nervous before the race today. I had heard from a lot of different sources how the race would be (hard, etc) and really let it get to my head. It was hard, but rather than take it in stride and race the smartest race I could, I freaked out. I followed an attack in the first 100 meters. Not the worst tactic, actually, but for totally the wrong reasons. It was good to be dictating the race to start rather than having it dictated, but I was burning matches like crazy. Even when we were caught at about 15 km I stayed up at the front and covered a few moves, really digging myself into the red.

Once I settled back into the field I didn’t have the pop left to match accelerations and kept getting gapped and losing spots. Not a bright race for me at all. I think the accelerations are going to be very hard for me to match for 2+ hours, but wasting myself on/off the front isn’t exactly helping the situation. The race gave me a lot of confidence though. I know these guys aren’t out of my league. I am excited for the next one, not scared, which is the biggest accomplishment of the day! Cool tip from Nick Friesen: sprint hard out of the corner - don’t sit until the guy in front of you does.

An interesting tidbit from the day... Registration is held in the back of a smoky bar. Bikes are parked outside, but when you walk in all you see are regulars smoking and drunk, watching sports on TV. Ummm, is this the right place? Walk through to the back and in a tiny little room lit with fluorescent lights there are a bunch of Belgium officials for registration. Weird weird weird. First you have to get a Belgian racing license (5 Euro), then pay to register (8 Euro). After the race you can return your plastic-y number for 5 Euro, so racing is only 3 E/race!

The courses here are pretty cool. A kermis usually (I am told, and it was the case today...) winds through town before heading onto some small 1-lane farm roads before coming back for the finish. Full-closure, of course! Lots of fans on the streets, its just such a cool atmosphere.

That's all for now, more soon!