Wednesday, May 27, 2009

European Racing Part 2

The second part of my European escapades took place wearing the stars and stripes of the USA national team. After Morbihan, my Hot Tubes teammates packed up and left for the states, and Hot Tubes graduate and current Lotto-Davo rider Simon Lambert-Lemay took me to the National Team house in Izegem, Belgium. Unfortunately, this is also when things started to go downhill for me. For starters, I came down with a wicked cold that left me exhausted and pretty much feeling lousy. I also had a significant amount of fatigue and scrapes et cetera left over from my Morbihan adventure. There was very little rest for the weary and I was off to Germany before I knew it for another UCI 2.1 stage race. Also on the Germany team were Charlie Avis, Austin Arguello, Ryan Eastman, Andrew Barker, and fellow Hot Tuber Ian Boswell, with Ben Sharp directing. This race was without a doubt the lowest point in the '09 season for me so far. Stage One ended in a deluge so heavy I couldn't see the road, and I crashed hard on my bad hip/leg. I finished but soon afterwords realized that everything was not quite okay, as I was limping bad, in a lot of pain, and unable to produce adequate power in that leg. Anti-biotics were unavailable so I would just have to risk the potentially dangerous infection that could come from the road rash in the area. Needless to say I was in pretty low moral when I got up after a sleepless night in our German Hostel the next morning.



The next stage started off well enough and I made the lead group over the decisive climb of the day. On the descent, however, I saw our team leader Ian standing by the side of the road with a mangled bike and copious amounts of road rash. At least at that point in the race I still had the presence of mind to stop and give him my bike to get him going again. Because of the large climb we had just ascended, the team cars were minutes back. I had time to take a pee and admire the scenery before our car finally came up. I ended up rolling in to the finish on the spair machine, ten minutes back but making the time cut. Ian made the main group but was unable to catch the leaders since the bike didn't fit him.



After yet another sleepless night, thanks to road rash on every part of my body, the party that was going on in our Hostel, a nasty cold, and the uncertainty of limping and feeling a large amount of pain in my leg for the first time since February, I got up for the last stage at an all-time low for the season. My right leg felt like it had about half of the power it normally had and I got dropped on the second climb. And with that my painful Germany experience came to an end. Ian finished fourth on the stage, and Andrew Barker finished 9th on GC.



After that, sitting in the Izegem house, and having been away from home for almost two months, I was seriously questioning whether or not I wanted to continue. A day or two later however, I embarked on an epic ride with two other juniors down into the flemish ardennes, the heart of the Tour of Flanders. I was starting to feel better, and a good old fashioned ride of constantly getting lost and just trying to find the biggest and coolest hills we could find sort of brought the fun back.



I was feeling much better by the end of the week when my final European stage race, the Vlaamse Ardennen, began. We started this race a little short-handed, with only 5 riders instead of the normal 6, but we were still excited for a chance to get some good results in the flemish ardennes. The first stage was a bit of a relief for me, as I was able to ride strong and at the front. Our team was sort of put behind the 8-ball when a large group got 30 seconds up the road. Ian and I chased hard, but most of the other teams had representation in the break and weren't willing to help. After losing that much time, most of our GC hopes were pretty much done.



The next day's stage was epically (is that a word??) hard, with 8 laps up one of the Tour of Flanders climbs. The climb was between one and two kilometers long, and was wicked steep. The width of the road was cut in half by the spectators crowding the sides of the road. Of course, the lousy thing about climbs in Europe is that you suffer to climb as hard as you can, and then you look back and see that the entire pack is still there. The early part of the stage was pretty uneventful, other than a large group off the front that I snuck into. After that came back, the pack was starting to get antsy in anticipation of the last laps. Breaks that went were starting to get more time so I stayed at the front looking for my chance. I got in several moves before finally bridging up to a promising move with two or three laps left. The group slowed and started to get caught so I attacked out of it with a couple others. In the end however, everything came together for a group sprint. Only in Europe does an all-out hilly 115km race in the heat end in a 130 man group sprint!



The next day was a double day, with a team time trial in the morning and an 84km road race in the afternoon. None of us had ever done a team time trial before, and the extremely technical 9km course didn't seem like ideal conditions to learn. We did two laps of the course in warmup to try to get the feel of it. Kit Karzen and Ian Moir were down on GC, so they drilled it as hard as they could in the first half, and then dropped off. Then it was up to Ian Boswell, Juan Carmona, and I to bring it home. We drilled it as hard as we could and finished with the best time so far. Then a team came in a beat our time by .4 of a second. Then another team beat us by .5 of a second. Then the winning team came in a beat us by 22 seconds. At least we didn't have to agonize over losing by half a second, and fourth place out of 32+ teams was a pretty good result.



The final stage of my European racing adventures started off fast enough. Team USA took great pains to line up early for a front row spot, but our dear friends in the UCI decided to switch the start-line at the last minute so we would all have a back of the pack start instead. The super-technical/narrow course meant that it took a while to move up. After 3-4 of our 8 laps, I was at the front looking for moves. Then, at probably the most inopportune moment in the course, I flatted. I drifted back, signalled the commissaire and then waited for the car to come up. I got the spair wheel and started the arduous task of trying to catch back up. For some reason my new wheel was not working with the derailleur and I couldn't shift into my 14 tooth cog. It took two laps for me to finally catch the pack, and by then I was so winded I couldn't fight my way through the pack. It came down to another field sprint, with a spectacular crash in the last 100 meters. I picked my way through the carnage okay without going down and finished in the same time as everyone else. I think my GC was 21st, and 6th (???) in the best young rider.



And with that, my European adventures came to an end. Everything did not go as I had hoped, but I survived my crash course in elite level UCI junior racing and came out of it smarter, stronger, and tougher. Getting a win in Belgium was also a huge bonus, and am still hoping to secure an elusive spot on the World's team. After returning from Belgium, I spent a week in Massachusetts with my teammates before flying down to Nasheville for World's Qualifiers where we hope to send some Hot Tubers to Moscow to represent in the World Championships.
Thanks for reading!

Monday, May 11, 2009

Morbihan race

One of the races that Hot Tubes has always made a point of attending during it's European trips is a race in western France called Trophee Centre Morbihan (or something like that). It's a UCI 2.1, meaning that it is a World Championships qualifier, and all the big international guns are there with their squads. 25 teams were invited, each with 5 man squads. With Nate Brown, last year's winner (and one of only three riders in history to have a chance to win it twice) on our team, we knew we would be marked.

But first, we had to get to the race. It was only about 8 hours of driving away, but it turned out to be a much bigger adventure. About 200km over the border into france (which really isn't a border anymore, since the advent of the EU), the front wheel on the van pretty much exploded. I was in the the race station wagon, and driving behind the van at 20 km an hour we could hear the metal grinding away. We managed to limp off the interstate until the brakes started to fail, and we pulled over in a desolate field in northern france. With Stuart Wight, our lone french-speaking rider, as translater, Toby drove from town to town in the car searching for a garage that would fix the van. Finally, one sent a tow-truck, and we headed off to a tiny town called Neuf-Chatal. There they showed us that the wheel was about to fall off, and also informed us that they couldn't fix it for a very long time ("Oh, tres grave monsieur. Big cost, eh?")

Toby, Gabriella, and Stuart went off in search of a rental car. The nearest was about an hour's drive again, and when they arrived, the rental car place claimed to be closed. Meanwhile, I and the rest of my teammates wandered the town (where nobody spoke english) searching for food. By the time we finally procured a rental car, and moved all of our stuff from the van, it was at least seven o'clock PM. So we gave up on making it to our destination and stayed in Rouen. The next day, we made it to our race provided hotel. It was an interesting place. For starters, our room was about the size of an economy car. There was no bathroom, or even a hole in the ground. The toilet was down the hall, and constantly out of toilet paper. The shower was in the room, basically a clear plastic box about two feet by two feet, so your roomate was sitting right next to you when you showered behind the clear plastic. The owners of the hotel (and restaurant, and bar) spoke no english, so it was up to Stuart (or Stueee as we call him) to translate for us. When he wasn't available I had to put my measly French speaking skills into use.

Then it was time to race. The race is the biggest junior stage race in France, and people from all the surrounding regions come to watch. We had a Hot Tubes fan club at all the stages. The team presentation was the night before, in what appeared to be a huge conference hall. Mayors and sponsors and business people and other important persons sipped wine and ate copious amounts of the food while the riders sat in circles with their teammates, nervously waiting to be called up to the podium and introduced. As the defending champion, we were called up last. We sat or stood where we were directed while the announcer rambled on incoherrently, getting more crazy as he went on. Even Stueee couldn't understand the announcer anymore. Then he called in "Naaataaaaaan Braaaaawnnn!!!!!!!!!!" and the crowd went pretty much crazy. When the announcer tried to ask us some questions in French we just nodded, smiled, and pointed to Stueee. He appeared to be answering well for us, but afterwords he revealed that he had really no idea what the man was saying, the announcer in such a frenzy. Then they played our national anthem and we left the stage.

This race was huge, not just for the riders, but also for the populous, and our defending champion Nate was pretty much a celebrity. Before the race, he was asked to sign pictures people had taken with him last year, and an old lady in a wheelchair wanted to meet him. People begged for our water bottles, which we couldn't give away until the end of the race, because we were running a bit low. Nate also had a sizeable number of female fans that followed him around and somehow managed to be right next to him when he collapsed after the finish line. Fans and those who had simply heard where we were staying came to the hotel to look at us I guess. I have no idea what they were hoping to gain by peering at us from their car windows while we assembled bikes.

All this attention, while pretty cool I must admit, pretty much meant that we couldn't so much as go to the bathroom without the entire pack wanting to follow us. The first stage went okay for us. We drew last position in the caravan, which meant that if we had mechanical trouble, we were pretty much out of luck. I tried to cover as many moves as possible, and got in a good early move over the kom climb. We got caught, and then Nate and Stuart bridged up to a big move, with Lawson already in it. Then Lawson flatted out, and four riders were still clear from Nate's move. All Lawson, Gavin, and I could do was try to respond to the constant efforts to get accross by the Belgian and French teams. Up ahead, Nate and Stuart were desperately trying to catch the four leaders, but the rest of their fifteen or so man group refused to help the race favorite. In the circuits, there was a nice 400-500 meter climb right at the finish line. I would start it at the front, drift back to about 20th by the top, then go like a madman to close any gaps, pretty much maxing out the whole time. Then I would look back to see the entire pack still there. I took awhile to get used to the fact that at this level, pretty much everyone is as good as me, and the pack won't get decimated just because we go hard up a hill. The stage finished with four men away, then Nate and Stuart in the break about 25 seconds back, and then the pack with the rest of us at about a minute.

This left us in decent position. Nate and Stuart were both very close to the lead, but not conspicuously placed in the top three. The rest of us were still within striking distance. The time trial on sunday was where we were hoping to make up ground. It was a little over 7km, with a couple good hills in it. I clipped some aero bars on and tried to get it as close to my real tt position as possible. Then I took off. I had Toby in the car behind me, shouting encouragement. I felt pretty good. I got into a rythm fast, and was pretty much spinning all out on the flats. At the climbs, I sprinted from bottom to top out of the saddle and in the drops. Approaching the finish, I caught my minute man and sprinted up the last climb to the line. I thought it was a pretty good ride. Then I looked up at the electronic time keeping board. My time was 10:22; the best time so far was 9:25. The day went downhill from there.

Lawson was our only rider who managed to break 10 with a 9:58. Nate's chain got stuck in the disk only 300 meters in and was delayed for nearly a minute while they tried to fix it (he still finished with a time of about 10:30). To make matters worse, the winner of the time trial (with a rediculous time of 9:15) was the winner of the previous stage. I wasn't even on the top page of the results, in about 50th. I have no idea what happened.

Going into the final stage that afternoon, we were pretty far down, with only Nate and Stuart in striking distance of the win. Toby told us that we were racing for all or nothing; he couldn't care less about 9th or 10th place, and that today would take an extraordinary amount of courage. We were aiming for a 2006 Floyd Landis comeback, minus the drugs. We pretty much had to crack the big teams such as Avia and Predictor-Lotto and DCM that were so interested in following Nate's every move. Then Nate would have to give an amazing effort to get back nearly two minutes. So we kitted up and headed over to the start line, ready to start the fireworks early. And boy did they, at least for me.

About ten km in, Gavin attacked. Immediately Avia and Predictor-Lotto sent people after him. I jumped as hard as possible and went after the Avia wheel. Next thing I knew, I went from 35mph to 0 in about half a second. It was the strangest crash. I think another rider from the other side of the pack was going after the same wheel. We both had our heads down and never saw each other. His bars were rapped around my seatpost, and we were sliding sideways down the road. I hit the ground hard. Luckily I didn't hit my bad hip, but just about everything else hurt and was bleeding pretty bad. I was in a daze, and just lay in a fetal position until the pack passed me by. The race doctor came up to me and started asking me questions in French, I still felt paralized and not quite awake. Then all of the sudden, I heard Toby's voice, "Anders, what are you going to do?!". That pretty much woke me from my daze, and I just yelled, "I gotta ride!" So Toby went to work on my bike, while Gabriella helped me limp accross the road and avoid the impatient team directors threatening to run me over. The bike was a mess, and took quite a bit of work to repair. We were so far off the back that we weren't even sure we were going the right way any more. Toby motorpaced me at about 70km/ hour until we regained the caravan. That was quite an adventure since my bars were still bent. My elbow was the worst, and I couldn't bend it as it got more and more swollen. I zoomed back through the caravan towards the pack. The dutch team, who was sharing the same hotel with us, gave me a thumbs up as I came through. I caught my breath behind the last car before the pack. Then I sprinted up and into the pack. I decided that if I was going to keep riding in this kind of condition, then I wasn't going to mess around. My elbows were pretty messy, so I couldn't use them to fight for position, so I moved up by just riding straight up the side of the road, with no draft. I got to the front to see DCM and the the Yellow Jersey's team going all out on the front. I found Lawson and asked what was going on. Apparently Nate had gotten up the road with a small group and the pack was in a panic. The gap was staying at 25 seconds.

Eventually Nate's group got caught, so I attacked as soon as it did. It was a pathetic looking attack, since I couldn't bend my arm to sprint, but I got away all the same. Gavin and an Avia rider came across, and we drilled it as hard as we could. Like Nate's group, we got 25 seconds, and no more. Apparently, once again, DCM and Predictor-Lotto and all the others were chasing flat out. Our Avia companion refused to help, and we started going back to the group. Just before getting caught I attacked again, this time a Frenchman came with me, and the best young rider. We stayed away until we reached the circuits in town, and were swallowed up.

Up until that point I had been riding on adrenaline and a kind of ticked off attitude. But now that was worn off, and I realized just how bad everything hurt. I was also on the edge of bonking, after all that time off the front. I slipped back through the pack, and with 4 seven km circuits remaining, was at the very back. I couldn't stand up to sprint after the corners well, and my seat was twisted out of position. I got dropped a bunch of times, and was ready to call it quits. For some reason I didn't, and I caught back on again and again. I suffered more in those last laps then I can remember suffering in any bike race. At the finish, I gave one last gasp effort to close a gap from me to the wheel in front of me so as to keep the same time as the rest of the pack. Up ahead, our heroics had not gotten the job done, and none of our attacks had stayed away. As soon as I stopped, I collapsed, and spent the next thirty minutes getting pavement picked out of me by the race doctor.

So the race was definately not a resounding success for Hot Tubes, but Stuart did save the day by securing our lone piece of swag, third place in the best young rider (17 year olds) competition. I was tenth in that classification. Now my teammates have flown back to the USA and I am getting ready to go over to Izegem with the USA National team to start the second part of my European adventures. I think I go to Germany next, but I'm not really sure.

Monday, May 4, 2009

First Races In Belgium

Going to Belgium to race must be like what it feels like for a 5th round draft pick quarterback who suddenly finds himself starting against the Baltimore Ravens. Bike racing in Belgium does indeed feel like football in the USA, with local stars seen stopping by pastry and coffee shops; revered as the next Tom Boonen or Stijn Devolder by their supporters. As the owner of the small cycling-oriented hotel we are staying at said, "Tourists come and go with economy, but racing goes on no matter." In fact, the bike seems to be inherant in just about every part of life here, from the 40lbs town bikes that carry the commuters, to the 60 year olds out for a weekend spin, to the various levels of competitive riders always seen on the narrow roads of Belgium. So telling an inquisitive Belgian that we are a cycling team here to race means we can puff out our chests a little bit.

The flight across the atlantic was uneventfull and my Hot Tubes teammates and I were picked up by Hot Tubes graduate Simon Lambert-Lemay (currently riding for Belgian U23 team Devo-Lotto) from the airport. We then arrived at our place of residence in Oudenaarde, called the Hafter Kammen; which is a sort of hotel/bed and breakfast geared towards cyclists and cycling teams and is only a few kilometers from the Koppenberg. My teammates and I assembled bikes and had a day to work the kinks out of our legs before it was time for our first European race of the year in Hoboken. The race was 120km long and was a UCI 1.14 Interclub, which basically means it is as hard as it can be without being a world championship qualifyer. 32 teams were invited, each fielding 5 or 6 man squads, so the total start list came to 185. The USA national team was also present.

This was my first experience with big-time european racing, and I have to say, it wasn't all that pleasant. We only had four riders, since Lawson Craddock had to finish exams before flying in the next day. The course consisted of two dead flat 50 km loops (each with over 30 corners) and then two and a half 10km finishing circuits through town. The highest climb was a bridge. I started in about 50th position and was working hard to move up, but so was everyone else and I was pretty much getting slaughtered. Then a bunch of guys decided that a good way to move up was to jump through some traffic dividers to get onto a walking path; unfortunately they drilled a pole instead and caused a massive pileup right in front of me. I went down on the pile of bodies, very grateful that I had remembered to insert the crash pad over my bad hip. Besides some chainring punctures in my leg, everything was fine. I started chasing through the caravan. I finally got up to the race and began trying to move up from the back again. This time, I was able to slowly but surely make progress. I had just about made it to the top 20 when I felt my rear tire go flat. I managed to get out of the way of the crazy Belgian pack and put my hand up. The chief referee radioed my number to Toby back in the caravan. Luckily we had drawn car number 8, so I didn't have to wait long. I got a good fast wheel change and was once again chasing through the cars. There was just no way I was going to get off that easily in my first Euro race of the year apparently, because when I finally made it back through the pack, I was caught in another crash. I didn't actually fall, but my bike was on the bottom of the pile and I was standing in a ditch. At that point I wasn't sure if I was going to start laughing or crying, but instead I just waited while the Belgians frantically pulled their bikes and my bike apart. I chased back again and made contact. All this happened in the first 50 km.

While all of this had been happening to me, Gavin had made it into the winning move, and Nate and Stuart were patrolling the front. I was pretty much winded from my interval training in the caravan, and only saw the front for small patches of time after that. I tried to help cover moves with Stuart, but in all honesty, I was pretty much a non-factor in the race after that, something I'm never really psyched about. The finishing circuits were pretty bizarre, especially since they involved a 40mph gradual descent followed by a hard turn onto a cobblestone section, then a u-turn, over railroad tracks, on cobbles, followed by a sprint up a bridge. We did this three times. The last time I was actually sitting in decent position, when three riders right in front of me fell on the railroad tracks, while doing about 8mph. I did a big loop around them, and by the time I got going again, was way out of position. Gavin got the best USA result of the day in 14th. I suffered home midpack at 91st, with Nate and Stuart in between. There's a velonews article about the race covering the USA national team's escapades at the race at http://velonews.com/article/91502/a-fred-s-eye-view-these-guys-ain-t-all-that-junior .

This wasn't all that great of a way for me (or the team) to start off our Euro racing calendar, so at yesterday's kermesse race in Vingte, we were all anxious to put matters to rights. This course featured 13 circuits on narrow roads totalling about 100km, and a fierce wind. A kermesse is by no means as competitive as an Interclub, but with a field of 80-90, an American team can expect plenty of opposition from the home teams. With Lawson Craddock having arrived, we were fielding a full five man squad. We started things off with a bang by sending Lawson up the road. Then Nate and Gavin bridged up with a couple of Belgian riders. Then a large group of about ten attacked in an attempt to get across, so I covered it. With three out of five in the move ahead, our team was in an ideal position, so I just sat on. This earned me an earful of more flemish curses and death wishes than I thought imaginable, along with a few attempts at my front wheel by angry riders; but I still refused to take any real pulls. I tried to bridge alone to the leading group, but a group of three came up to me, so I sat on that group. Despite my refusing to help, they were closing the gap on my teammates in the lead group. As soon as they made the junction, I attacked with Lawson on my wheel. We quickly built a large gap over the small group behind us, since there were two Hot Tubes teammates in it. Then we looked back to see Nate bridging across. We waited, and soon we had a three man team time trial going. With Gavin in the group of four behind us, and Stuart policing the pack behind that, we built a big lead in a hurry. The family that owns the hotel had come to watch the race, along with all the other guests staying there, so we had our own fan club spread all around the course. It felt pretty pro to have all those people yelling for " 'ot Tubes, 'ot Tubes!". With a kilometer to go, Nate, Lawson, and I started talking about how we should finish. Nate, our team captain, unselfishly decided that I would cross the line first, followed by Lawson and then himself. We jacked up the speed as we came into town, and crossed the line, hands raised. Behind, Gavin took 6th to complete our team dominance.

I haven't won a race in a very long time, but that wasn't the reason that this day was so special for me. After breaking my leg last August, and waking up from surgery to the sight of hospital lights, I thought my racing days might be behind me. Through the winter, as I struggled to complete twenty minute trainer rides at 100 watts, I wanted to quit and just be content with being able to walk again more times than I can count. The team win felt like I had come full circle, and all that had happened to me was finally behind me.

I have been in need of a haircut for some time now, so today I finally headed into town, race winnings in hand, and got the Euro hair-cut. It's not quite Tom Boonen, but it's pretty different than the standard buzz cut that I usually get. The other interesting thing that happened today was when a Rabobank rider came out of a side road in front of us while we were training. We tried to catch him, but I get the feeling he didn't want company, because he got in the drops and started hammering as soon as we came up behind him.

On Wednesday we leave for France, where we will be competing in the country's biggest junior race, a three stage event in Morbihan. I think it is ranked UCI 2.1, which basically means it's the craziest thing I will see until I manage to go pro. We have the defending champion, Nate Brown, on our team, so the crosshairs will be on us. I'm psyched for the chance to get Hot Tubes on the top step of the podium again.