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.