Sunday, September 6, 2009

Life in Belgium

Cyclists in America often day dream about what it would be like to be an elite bike racer living and racing in Europe. They invision riding on beautiful alpine roads and eating nothing but baguettes and crepes all day. One might imagine how nice the free time would be and the pampered life of massages and flowers and podium girls. While all of this does indeed occur to some degree, America's best young racers do not live an idyllic and exciting life in the U23 house in Izegem, Belgium. Training here is constantly dodging traffic furniture and trucks in the rain while fixing flat tires on endless pancake flat roads. While we are well provided for by the USA Cycling staff, all that free time means bringing one or two books over to read will not be enough to stay busy. One can focus soley on racing, but when racing does not go well, it is easy to become a bit depressed. The culture is more closed than what Americans are used to, and at night every house has metal curtains lowered over its windows.
The payoff, of course, is that the world's most competitive bike racing takes place in this distant country. The new American riders are dumbfounded when the realize that good local junior racers here are escorted to and from races by fanclubs, complete with t-shirts emblazened with a photo their riders face. For my 5 junior teammates and I, these three weeks are a chance to hone our skills in a higher level, and see just how we stack up against these mighty Euros.
After our first race, the day after our arrival, we did back-to-back kermesse races that weekend. In the first one, I was unable to figure out why my chain kept jumping all over the cassette. Half-way through, I realized that my rear skewer had popped open and the wheel was on the verge of popping out. I stopped and re-installed the wheel, then had to chase like crazy in the tough cross-wind section. I've never heard of a skewer popping open before, so I have to assume it was user error and I didn't put in on tight enough. Anyways, the race came down to me, teammates Juan Carmona and Ryan Eastman, along with a belgian, chasing a lone rider. We brought the gap down from 1:30 to 15 seconds, but couldn't catch him before the finish. The other Belgian took advantage of our long chase and took second, leaving us with 3rd, 4th, and 5th places.
The next day's kermess involved more of the same flat, windy roads. Half way through the race, Ryan Eastman, Juan Carmona, and I decided to try to crack the field on a tough cross-wind section. We didn't exactly crack it, but instead Ryan and I found ourselves bridging alone up to the breakaway that included the Belgian National Champion. The rest of the race was brutal attacking and counter-attacking from the lead group. Ryan and my efforts were for naught, and we finished 8th and 9th.
Later that week, Tejay Van Garderen of Rabobank (riding with Columbia Highroad in 2010) took us out on a 4 hour training ride and basically just killed us all. He was pretty much breathing through one nostril the whole time. Coming into this weekend, team USA was still looking for that elusive first victory for this trip. Yesterday's kermesse was overshadowed by the presence of junior Paris-Roubaix winner Guillame Van Kiersblick. By far the strongest rider in the pack, he drove the pace and pretty much made it known that he was the best. Team Director Ben Sharp and I had disgussed that I would try a different tactic this time and not expend any more energy than absolutely necessary to keep up for the first 2/3 of the race. Watching breakaways go up the road without me, I was pretty much pulling my hair out, but sure enough, half way through the break was about to be caught and I felt good and had not made any sort of effort yet. Coming out of a corner I up shifted and got out of the saddle for the 300th time that day and -BANG!- my chain snapped. Kermesse races have no neutral or team suppport of any kind, so my day was done. I scootered my way back on my chainless bike to the car and watched the rest of the race from the sidelines. Watching a bike race you were just taking part in is no fun at all and I was getting pretty bummed. Ryan and Juan once again made the lead group and Paris-Roubaix winner Guillame powered away solo to take the win in front of his fan club. I was dissapointed by my bad luck, but had to keep it all in perspective. The Kooigem kermesse wasn't exactly the World Championships.
I had been keeping track of what the local bars and taverns had my odds of winning set for on the betting boards, and after not finishing that race, they had dropped from a pretty good 1-6 to 1-11. Juan and I had a running competition to see who would be given the best odds.
Today's race, the Criterium International of Bavkove had a junior race at 2 PM (including 10 Euros worth of start money) and a Pro race afterwords, featuring the presence of Frank VandenBrouke, several Silence-Lotto riders, a Columbia rider, Alessandro Pettachi, and two time Tour de France champion Alberto Contador. Needless to say, the town was packed. Once again, we were lining up against yesterday's winner Mr. Guillame, whose Paris-Roubaix win had earned him a contract with Quick-Step for next year. This race however, was a Criterium instead of a Kermesse, so I wasn't exactly sure how that would pan out in a European race. It ended up being just like a kermesse, except everyone wanted to burn all their energy in half as much distance. Guillame rode off the front a couple laps in and looked set to dominate again. This time however, Ryan Eastman and I took off after him and caught him in a lap or two. Four laps into a 33 lap event, the three of us had a 7 second gap over the rest of the field. It stayed less than 15 seconds for what seemed forever, before the elastic finally snapped and we built up a gap steadily. I was seriously wishing we could have waited much longer before embarking on this long breakaway, but once we were over 1:10, Ben told us to back it off a tad so we wouldn't lap the field. Considering how much crashing was being done by over-zealous Belgians in the pack, we didn't really want to be in there. Now we had to figure out how to beat this 6' 3" powerhouse. Ryan attacked him with five and a half laps to go, and I followed Guillame as he chased him down. Then I pulled through and Guillame missed my wheel, and suddenly I had a gap. I rode hard to make him chase again. We were all pretty winded after it came together again, so we just rode another couple of laps steady. With three and a half laps to go, Guillame attacked. Ryan took off after him with me on his wheel. Ryan slowly but surely closed in on him, and Guillame sat up. In a split second decision, I decided this was my moment to go for it all and really put myself in a world of hurt. I came flying by and attacked with whatever I had left. I opened a gap immediately and set about the unenviable task of holding off this beastly rider for three laps. The gap maxed out at maybe 5 seconds, it was slowly coming down, but with one lap left I thought I would be able to pull it off. However, I guess you don't become Paris-Roubaix champion on charm and good luck, because he caught me with less then 200 meters left, paused for a second, and then kicked to the line, barely beating Ryan in the sprint and leaving me to slowly plod across the line.
All was not lost however, since it turned out that Ryan had won a $150 Euro watch as a prime, and I won the same value in 15 cases of Belgian beer. National team regulations as well as the opinion of my parents who may be reading this blog, meant that I could not consume even some of this hefty prize winnings; so I spent the rest of the afternoon selling certificates entitling the bearer to a case of beer for 5 euros apiece. As the crowd got drunker (watching the pro race) I made better business, and with the help of some friendly translaters sold them all for a grand total of something over 80 euros.
In between my salesmanship, I got to enjoy the spectacle of a Belgian Pro Crit. It seemed that all of Belgium had turned out to watch, and the 1.8 km course was packed all the way round, with hardly a spot to sit down. It was about the same effect that would occur if Tom Brady and Tony Romo came to Fairfax, Vermont to play some football. European pro crits are a show, (Contador was paid 1000 euros per lap, in the 50 lap race) and the finish and most of the race is pre-scripted. All the same, the people get to see the heros only inches from them, the riders make money, the pubs sell beer, and the town economy makes a jump. An Eddie Merckx impersonater rode around, and had me fooled before I got a closer look at him. Contador apparently has switched from being a mountain goat to a crit specialist, because he destroyed super sprinter Petachi and everyone else and took the win, wearing his yellow jersey. I had had thoughts about trying to get an autograph, but the size of the mob that followed him and the bodyguards that repelled them, I quickly gave up the idea.
The hardest part of the day was getting out of there in the large team Sprinter van, and traffic was the sort you might see in New York city. And all because of some bike racer with a yellow jersey, imagine....
So I have one more week as a bike racer in Belgium, while I survive the weather and the boredom and enjoy the racing and the craziness. We have two more races next weekend (Interclub races, meaning invitation only UCI races, which will be a higher level of competition than kermesses) and then I will return to Vermont and be a normal kid for a while. For now, I'm going to enjoy one experience at a time.

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