Monday, May 31, 2010

Life in Switzerland

After my first European adventure of 2010 was interupted by illness and a broken bike, I again touched down at the Brussells airport looking forward to some more euro-style racing. I was more excited than usual, because for this trip we were going to be racing in Switzerland, a country I had never been to before. As a warm-up, I raced in the Vlaamse Ardennen Belgian stage race first. After an overall mediocre result there, I was happy to be off to the land of yodling, hole-filled cheese, big mountains, and good chocolate.

The team for this trip consists of myself, Ryan Eastman, Lawson Craddock, Ben Sweedberg, Nate Geoffrion, Kristo Jorganson, and team director Ben Sharp. We loaded ourselves, 18 bikes, and a lot of other stuff into the van and began the drive through France to Switzerland. The drive was rather mundane until suddenly we were going through really big mountains, small roads, and sweet castles. We dropped down from one mountain into a small town and we were at the border. Then we turned a corner and saw huge mountains covered in snow surrounding Lake Geneva, where we would be staying for the next week.

Accomidations were slightly less spectacular, as the race decided that the swiss army barracks were a good place to house two hundred racers and staff. The first night we stayed in an underground bunker with several feet of concrete above us and a formidable looking blast door at the entrance. The next night we were able to move above ground, but still were sleeping on army cots/bunks that meant all our small little beds were actually connected into one big bed. Meanwhile the swiss army was running around playing what appeared to be capture the flag. One day we went out for a ride and heard gunfire very close. Then our little country road emerged into the middle of a field, targets on our left and soldiers with guns on our right. After sprinting across the field, we were able to dodge all the bullets and make it safely back to the barracks.

In another run-in with the swiss army, I was walking between buildings at night to go get my massage when I noticed a green light in the shadows. I walked over to investigate and realized it was a soldier with his night-vision scope on. Barracks food was also somewhat meager, as even the menu candidly declared that dinner was "a small amount of pasta with a tiny sliver of beef", and a placard on the coffee machine proudly stated that it was "Celebrating coffee-making competence".

Between all of the excitement of this military lifestyle, we actually had some bike racing to do. The first day was a downtown 2km prologue along the lake. 2km city prologues definately aren't my favorite thing ever, but after crossing the line with a mid-pack time I continued rolling down the lake until I stopped for some ice cream while sitting on the lake shore. Switzerland has got to be the coolest country I've ever been to. Heck, any country where the primary means of transportation are those little push scooters that I had when I was a kid is a pretty cool country. While I was admiring the scenery and culture, Lawson won the prologue by more than two seconds.

We started stage 1 the next day with the yellow jersey, which meant a lot of time on the front. We started with Benny on the front, followed by Kristo and Nate. When a break started getting two minutes, Ryan and I joined in the rotation. Riding on the front for kilometers on end is hard, especially when we hit the long climbs and the attacks started, but its also kind of fun seeing USA stringing out the pelaton. Our work paid off and we brought back all the breaks for the finish and kept the jersey.

Stage 2 started early in the morning with a crazy little circuit through town. The team tail-gunned it through the city and then went to the front again. Almost immediately we hit the first long climb that hurt way more than anyone expected. After the pack regrouped on the descent, the team got reorganized and repeated the rotation on the front to keep the breakaway within reach. When we hit the final climb of the day we had it down to a minute gap, and Lawson took off with the leaders. I rode in with a second group about 45 seconds later and Lawson got third on the stage and kept the jersey.

Stage 3 was a 12km tt that afternoon. They way the race had been scheduling the stages, this was basically our third stage in 24 hours, with very limited sleeping time in between; so everyone was tired going into the TT. I started off at a good pace, but just fell apart half way through, finishing mid 40's. Lawson, on the other hand, crushed the tt and beat second place (bronze medalist at worlds last year) by 16 seconds to further pad his lead in the yellow jersey. We came into the final stage knowing we had our work cut out for us to try to keep yellow.

I awoke early on the morning of the final stage to dismal rain, fog, wind, and cold. The look on the faces of all the riders as they slowly moped their way through the breakfast line looked much pitiful. For some strange reason, I was actually pretty excited for the 125km race in rain. The race was epic from the beginning. Crashes started before the neutral was over, and the macho euro's who had lined up in just jersey and shorts were already blue with cold. I happily zipped up my super warm rain jacket as we headed into the cloud on the first KOM. At the base of the second climb, a break had about 50 seconds. The climb once again turned out to be much harder than anyone had anticipated, and for the first 3k of it my legs felt terrible. Lawson and another rider took off and bridged to the break. I reached the top with the second group maybe 40 seconds down (you couldn't really tell because of the fog). Climbing through the cloud, you could here cowbells all around, and every once in a while you would spot a couple cows; it was super cool despite the pain and cold.

The descent was long on slippery,and in the fog corners emerged into sight at the last second. We finally reached the bottom and our group started to come together. Ryan caught up and we tried to figure out what the heck was going on. Our team strategy had just been totally destroyed. Instead of riding on the front to protect Lawson, now we had Lawson up the road in the break. Normally that would be good, but in this case it meant that Lawson was isolated surrounded by his closest rivals. Ben had driven the car up to the break so we had no one to consult for tactical advice. Meanwhile, the weather was taking its toll on the race as more and more racers dropped out. Ryan and I finally came to the conclusion that we should try to bring the break back, so I dropped off my rain jacket in the commissaire's car and we hit the front. Not only did we start bringing down the gap, but we split away a group of maybe 8 riders from the rest of the group.

We rode hard and were about to catch the break. As we passed Ben in the car he yelled for us to stop chasing. We immediately sat up and the gap went up again. He said for Ryan and me to try to bridge without bringing anyone else with us. So we attacked again and this time got away just the two of us. We were flying with the tail wind and caught the break. Unfortunately the break split just before we got there, with Lawson in the front group. At that point, we had to just sit on our group, and the gap to Lawson's group went way up. It was frustrating to have tried that hard and still not be able to get up to help Lawson. In the final kilometers our worst fears were realized as the riders with Lawson attacked him again and again and finally dropped him. Lawson finished in 7th, and fell to 3rd overall. Ryan and I sprinted each other to go one-two in our group, giving us three riders in the top 10 for the stage.

After the finish, riders collapsed or were pushed up the hill by helpful spectators while trying to drink the scalding hot tea as fast as possible. The elements had done their work, as the attrition rate reflected. I felt like I had had good legs, especially in the second half of the stage, and was very dissapointed that the team had gotten separated from one another over the climb, crippling our ability to protect Lawson from the attacks. It was a dissapointing ending to a great race, but the team had done its absolute best and we had to be content with two stage wins, 3rd overall and all that time in yellow. As a bonus, I ended up with a decent GC of 12; which of course doesn't mean anything in the light of us losing the jersey.

After recouperating from that epic stage we moved out of our lovely barracks to the UCI center a few kilometers away where we are currently staying. Yesterday we "recovered" by playing some intense Capture the Flag on the side of one of these Swiss mountains. Tomorrow we drive to Germany where we will compete in the Tropheo Karlsberg race; which is categorized as a Nation's Cup, the highest caliber racing in the world. I am excited for another long hard stage race hopeful that this time we will finish with the yellow jersey. I know I am going to miss Switzerland, where I feel like I fell into a scene from The Sound of Music. After Germany, I will be headed home for a week or two, where the hills may not be alive with the sound of music, but I will get to say hi to my family and Molly, our springer spaniel.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Long Overdue Post Regarding First Europe Trip of 2010

Warning: I have not posted in a while, so this post is really long

As a bike racer, I have learned to deal with many discomforts, whether it be the pain associated with a long time trial or having to adjust to life on the road. The trip home from training camp, however, was another level altogether. The 18 hour drive itself was managable, but what made the ordeal truly excrutiating was being forced to listen to Toby's never ending country music radio, the notes and lyrics pounding their way into my brain. After surviving this painful experience, I returned home for a few days to get in some training hours with national team rider Paul Lynch.

Unfortunately this was also where I picked up a nasty cold just in time for my departure for Europe. After undergoing the garlic/echinacea/vitamin C treatment, I arrived in Brussels airport with the team determined to have a good trip. Cori Page picked us up at the baggage claim and drove us to where we would be staying, the Bloso Sports center in Waregem, Belgium. We stayed there for a few days while we got the jet lag out of our legs before heading off to Holland for our first race. With us was our mechanic Palmer, who had recently retired from the Katusha team. As is usual with most Belgian mechanics, we couldn't understand a word he said, but we got along great and he kept our bikes in tip-top condition.

We arrived in Holland for the two day, three stage event and moved into our new rooms. Our lodging was on a man made lake that was hosting a large rowing competition, and even our tallest rider, Austin, was dwarfed my the huge rowers walking around. The bike race, which we referred to simply as "Some Race in Holland" due to its long and confusing real name, appeared to have the usual mix of northern European six man teams. We were a man down with only five since our powerhouse Robin Eckmann had been threatened with bodily injury by his girlfriend should he even consider missing prom.

Holland is a very beautiful country if you can get used to the fact that it is entirely flat and you sort of feel like a fly on a windshield as you walk around, and that the GPS never measured our altitude at over 50 feet above sea level. The food was also good, except for the fact that breakfast consists entirely of rolls and sliced cheese and ham. Breakfast happens to be my favorite meal, and I generally look forward to cereal, eggs, toast, pancakes, fruit, orange juice and so forth. Anyways, I survived those trials and got down to racing. In the opening time trial, three of our riders placed well and Lawson won by a single second. I seemed to be riding fast until I was blown into a water-filled ditch by a gust of wind and suddenly and unintentionally became a multi-sport athlete as I was forced to do a Michael Phelps impression to exit the ditch. With that embarrassing incident behind me, we moved on to stage 2, an evening criterium.

I'm not a big fan of criterium's in general, as repeatedly sprinting and then jamming on the brakes seems a little ridiculous. The European criterium, however, doubles the accelerating quotient. The team did a good job of staying near the front with Lawson in yellow. Near the end a small group finished a few seconds off the front to take the yellow jersey by 2 seconds. After the stage finished, we realized that that day happened to be a national holiday for something or other, so there was no places open to get food. Our dinner consisted of apples and cliff shot bloks.

We started the third and final stage in what seemed to be a good position. Lawson was only two seconds from yellow and Stuey and yannick were riding top ten as well, giving us the lead in the team GC. We quickly got a lesson in how fast things can go from good to bad to terrible when Lawson crashed just 5km into the race. The team stopped to help him back in, but he had bike issues and couldn't continue. By that time we were a ways off the back. We did a 95km team time trial to the finish where we all came in behind the pack. With that less than glorious final result, we drove back to Belgium. The next day we did the Vinkt Kermesse, which I had won the year before. About 4 seconds into the race, it started down-pouring. The pig manure on the road turned the course into a skating rink, which was actually kind of fun. Four of us got into the early break of 8, and Lawson soloed off the front for the last 50km to get the win. I had been experiencing a mysterious cramping in my leg, and it struck again near the end of the race. We finished 1st, 5th, and I came in at 11th.

After spending several days trying to remove the various particles of mud and diesel fuel residue from our ears and bottom brackets, we began the drive down to the Trophee Centre Morbihan race in France. This race is considered the biggest junior stage race in France, and is the focus of the Hot Tubes European campaign. For this special occasion, we were allowed to borrow Jonathan Page's cyclo-cross rv for the trip. This made the 8 hour drive much more enjoyable, with beds and a bathroom available. For this trip we had another mechanic named Jimmy. Like Palmer, our communication was limited to "Good? Good?" as he pointed to a part on the bike, but he worked tirelessly and was quickly adopted into the team.

We arrived at Morbihan ready to do some serious damage in the Pelaton. One small problem was that my cold had never gone away, and my lungs were making mysterious sounds like a small animal was living in them. I had also passed my cold on to Stuart and Austin despite my best attempts to keep my germs to myself. After the very exciting team presentation where the announcer yells at us and the crowd in French at 125rpm, we got down to the business of racing. Unfortunately for me, the race quickly went through the tubes again in the first few kilometers.

Just after the end of the neutral start, while descending a small hill, a large pile-up began just a few riders up from me. I slammed on the brakes and managed to stop before hitting the crash. I was relieved and in the process of unattaching myself from the various wreckage and flesh lying on the ground, when I was drilled in the back by half a dozen very large riders who had not been so quick with their brakes. I was still relatively unconcerned and continued on my way, until I realized that my wheel was rubbing not because it was out of true, but because the seat stay was snapped. I tried to chase back on behind Toby's car for 15km, but the wheel was rubbing so bad that it rubbed another hole in the frame. While going as hard as I could behind the car, I looked over and saw six riders fly past me on their own power. Eventually Toby had to leave me and I found myself in front of the sag wagon. And with that, only 20km in to the race, my morbihan adventure came to an end.

Stuey, Yannick, and Lawson finished in good position, Austin got caught in a crash from which he never rejoined the group and was forced to abandon. That night I went to bed expecting to spend the next day doing feeds and watching the race. The first half of the night was spent listening to about a dozen Polish laborers drinking copious amounts of liquor, puking up their guts in the communal hotel bathroom, and then continuing to drink. The second half of the night was even worse. I woke up with very intense cramping pain in my entire left side, that got stronger and stronger until I couldn't even breathe and was shivering uncontrollably. Yannick got Toby, and eventually we decided to try to find a hospital. Strangely enough, two in the morning seemed to be the time to be out and about in France, and the streets were full of sketchy looking people. On one highway entrance ramp, we saw three guys sitting in a row on a guardrail in the pitch black. We arrived at a "hospital" which was made up of several large stone buildings. There was only one light on, with one person peering out. We looked for signs for a main entrance or emergency room, but only saw more signs for the morgue. At that point I was feeling better enough to breathe at a descent level, and I told Toby that I wasn't getting out of the car there.

We drove around looking for another hospital, but eventually gave up and headed back to the hotel. I woke up the next morning able to breathe, but with a fever, body aches, head aches, cough, and dead tired. After finally getting enough energy to Skype home, my parents decided that my planned post-morbihan national team trip was going to have to wait, and that I was coming home to see a doctor. I didn't feel like arguing, and they got me a ticket.

The team, meanwhile, did well and Lawson won the time trial and got second in the overall. We drove back to Belgium the next day, and flew home the following day. My parents got me in to see my doctor, and he said that my cold had just turned into bronchitis, which somehow caused that whole cramping/breathing issue as well as the fever. Breaking my bike may have been better luck than it seemed, since continuing to race may have made it worse. Stuart was not so lucky, as he came down with pneumonia shortly after in the Canadian National team house.

I'm feeling much better now and have a bike to ride again. I'm looking forward to returning to Europe next week to get back to the races with the national team. I'm just hoping for no more midnight hospital trips or mortuaries.