Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Hard Work and Big Results at Tropheo Karlsberg!

While our Pays de Vaude experience in Switzerland was exciting and fairly successful, we felt we had to make amends for losing the yellow jersey on the final stage. Our next race, the Nations Cup (the highest level of international racing)Tropheo Karlsberg stage race in Germany gave us just such an opportunity. We spent several days at the UCI world cycling center in Aigle, Switzerland between races. Predictably, everything at the UCI center was about rules. Our rooms were checked several times a day by a non-english speaking enforcer who made sure our beds were made and our clothes folded. At lunch we were warned that we were only allowed to eat three things, and that they had to be of regulation portion size. It became my mission to always pirate out an illegal sized bowl of salad at dinner. Between short recovery rides, we spent time enjoying the view of towering snow-covered mountains and lake Geneva, as well as enjoying the cafes downtown and using my prize money to obtain a much needed haircut.

Switzerland is definitely my favorite country now, and I knew I was going to miss it as we loaded into the van to make the five hour drive to Germany. After leaving the mountains behind, we arrived to the sight of green pastures, short but steep climbs, narrow roads, and medieval villages. We were informed that while the Karlsberg race did not feature the 10+ kilometer climbs of Pays de Vaude, it was no less difficult thanks to the circuits up the steep narrow climbs and the high level of competition.

We moved into our new lodging, which was a condo rented out by the hotel. The general atmosphere was definitely more welcoming than that of the UCI center, and portion sizes at meals were also more than we could have hoped for. I looked like a five year old kid on Christmas morning when I realized that breakfast was a feast featuring different kinds of cereals, yogurt, breads and so forth. I had almost grown accustomed to the usual cornflakes with a roll that is so common for European breakfast. Sharing the hotel with us were kids from countries all around the world. In addition to the usual European powerhouse cycling nations, teams representing places like Russia, Japan, Latvia, and South Africa were present. The general feeling in the town was one of great anticipation, celebration, and excitement, as the race organizer had done an excellent job of promoting the race to the general public. The fact that this also happened to be a holiday weekend added to the all around celebratory attitude that permeated the crowds surrounding the course.

While enjoying the spectacle of it and taking it all in was definitely something I was going to do (I knew just how many kids wish they were right where I was), I also knew that I had a job to do to make sure that USA got its first junior Nations Cup win of the year. The week of Karlsberg was also unseasonably hot under a baking sun, which meant that although I would get to work on my non-existent Vermonter tan, I would have to be very careful not to overheat in the races. Traditionally, heat has been my big weakness in racing, but fortunately most of the Europeans hate it even more than me, and our director Ben Sharp made sure that we were prepared for the weather.

Before starting the first stage, Ben revealed his secret weapon. When he pulled out a bag of socks, I was a bit skeptical. He then filled them with ice and tied off the ends, instructing us to put them down the back of our jerseys in the race. With these strange looking lumps in our backs dripping ice water down to our behinds, we lined up for the start. At the start line, the race organizer decided to play some song called "West Virginia" at maximum volume and speed. He seemed very excited and kept pointing at us Americans as if we were supposed to know all of the words to this great American song we had never heard before.

Stage 1 began with a 4km neutral (aka, all out mayhem) start followed by 1 kilometer of flat, immediately followed by a sharp couple of corners and an extremely steep and narrow 1.5km climb. While no climbs took more than a couple minutes to crest, the constant sprinting out of a dead stop from a corner on the bottom took its toll. Enthusiastic supporters lined the roads using whatever they could to make noise, from their own voiced to deafening airhorns. A little after half-way through the race, a group of about twenty riders split off the front with Lawson in it. Eventually, I bridged up with three other riders. Another large group came up with Nate Geoffrion a little while later. Ryan was having a terrible day and was dropped early, so we knew that we were without one of our strongest riders. We started riding tempo on the front to try and keep anyone dangerous from getting away. As we neared the final climb of the stage, I knew I was not having a good day. Rather than trying to hang on to the back of the group for dear life, I decided to take one pull as hard as I could a the bottom to help Lawson and then peel off. Nate and I cruised in a couple of minutes down while Lawson finished safely towards the front of the group.

The hardest part of stage 2 was the neutral start, where the entire team was nearly dropped. Apparently whoever was driving the car thought that neutral meant driving uphill at 40 kilometers an hour. After surviving that, the race calmed down a bit and we were able to move to the front of the group. The course for that day looped into France and then back into Germany, so we got the unusual experience of being cheered for in two languages in one race. Ben had said for me to be aggressive near the end of the race, so I bridged up to two other riders off the front. I thought we were on the last lap coming into the finish, and couldn't understand why the pack had let us go so easily. After the disappointing realization that we still had another 30km to go, I also noticed that the riders I was with were dangers to the Lawson in the overall classification. I immediately stopped helping with the pace and we slowed down and waited for a group of 15 to catch us. With no sign of Lawson or any other USA riders, I was getting pretty worried. Ryan bridged up with another large group, and still no Lawson. We were sitting on the back of the group wondering what to do, when finally Lawson made an appearance. As soon as we saw Lawson was in the group, Ryan and I immediately went to the front and started bringing back all the attacks. Coming into the final climb, Ryan and I pulled back a dangerous attack by a pair of Italians and then peeled off on the climb. Lawson accelerated and took a big stage win, giving him the yellow jersey. We were all very excited and the race had pretty much gone perfectly, with the team pulling back dangerous moves and Lawson finishing it off with a killer kick to the line.

The next morning was an 11km time trial, which for all of team USA besides Lawson meant an 11 kilometer joy ride, basically. Because we now had the yellow jersey, and Lawson was the favorite to take even more time in the time trial, it was important that the team have as much energy saved up as possible. The key was to ride it slow enough not to get tired, but not so slow that we missed the time cut and would not be allowed to start the next stage. It was kind of nice getting to enjoy the countryside, even while technically "racing". I'm sure the spectators were all very disappointed by my lack of a sprint finish, as I just shifted into my big ring across the line and rode back to the car. Lawson, meanwhile, was doing nothing of the sort, as he won his 6th international time trial of the year and padded his lead in the yellow jersey.

That afternoon's stage was 98km, and I was plenty glad that I had been able to save energy in the time trial by the end of it. Now with the yellow jersey, it was our team's responsibility to chase down all dangerous attacks. About halfway through the race, a breakaway had 2:30 on the pack; it was time to go to work. The team hit the front and we started pulling back time. By the time we reached the fast finishing circuits we had it down to 1:30. Those circuits were probably the fastest I've ever sustained in a race, as we were basically spinning out our biggest gears the entire time. Finally, Italy came to the front to help set up their big sprinter, Moser. Russia followed suit and the break was caught. Ryan and I got out of the way and tried to avoid the mayhem of the final lap. Curses flew in a plethora of languages and more than a few times hands came off the bars for swings at other riders as racers all fought for position in the sprint. Thankfully, there was no giant pile-up in the finishing sprint and we all came in safely with the pack.

Starting the 5th and final stage, we knew that we were only 122 kilometers away from getting a huge victory. The race started early, so fortunately we wouldn't have to worry about the heat for an hour at least. Standing at the start line, the song "West Virginia" was starting to grow on me, and now I could sing about half of the words, to the delight of the race organizer, who was wildly dancing along. Then, they fired a huge cannon, we caused me to nearly jump out of my shorts in fright, and we were off.

It was a long race, and Ben told us to save our energy for the first hour. The remaining two hours were some of the hardest I've done in any race. When we hit the front, there was yet another break up the road, but we only had to ride a tempo to keep the gap in check. The race was getting hotter, and the hard days of racing were beginning to take their toll on everyone. The pack continued to diminish in size from our pace on the front. I went back to the car to pick of bottles for the team over and over again, and stuffed ice filled socks down my jersey. I would ride on the front on the flats, trying to set a fast tempo, then suffer to stay in contact as they accelerated up the climbs, and then go back to the front again. As each kilometer passed by that Lawson's rivals couldn't attack, I knew we were closer to getting the win. Finally we caught the breakaway that had contained a dangerous British rider as we went into the last lap. It was just Ryan and me with Lawson now, and we knew our job was almost finished. I rode basically as hard as I could to the base of the final climb about 5 km from the finish and pulled off with Ryan. Lawson was on his own now, but I knew he could handle the last bit by himself. Ryan and I soft-pedaled in and as Ben passed us in the car he gave us a big thumbs up. At the finish we found Lawson already surrounded by a crowd of photographers and fans, and we knew that all our hard work had paid off.

Lawson is definitely one of the most dominant riders in the world this year, and I'm really glad I was able to be a part of this win. We had riders, coaches and spectators tell us how they have never seen a team ride that strong before, which made it all worth it for me. Then came all the celebration that comes with winning a major stage race in Europe.

Even better, retired cycling superstar Eric Zabel, whose son was competing against us for the German National team, gave us a all a thumbs up. I'm also impressed with his nutrition program, which I am determined to adopt as well.

After all the excitement, I had to drive 5 hours back to Belgium, pack my bikes and bags, sleep for a few hours before beginning the long travel day home. I'm now at home getting some rest and recuperation, while preparing for my next goal, Nationals, which will be held in Bend, Oregon again this year.