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.