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.
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.
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.
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!