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!