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 .

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.

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