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.

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