Thursday, May 26, 2011

Return to Europe

"Ummm.... we don't actually race up these, do we?" I wanted to ask. Our team mechanic, Aaron, was precariously edging our large National Team sprinter van through impossibly steep and narrow mountain switchbacks. Acrid smoke was billowing out of the brakes. On our way to recon the second stage of the Ronde de l'Isard stage race, I was getting to enjoy my first taste of the French pyrenees. Our director, Marcello Albasini, waved for us to pull over by a large monument on one of the switchbacks. He told us that this was the monument of where Fabio Casartelli had died in the '95 Tour de France. Great, that was just the thing to get me psyched for the race.

For our pre-race opener ride, we rode up the finishing climb of stage 2, called Superbagneires. I've since come to believe that recon rides are actually a terrible idea, as an 18km climb really isn't something you want to experience more often than is necessary. Any way, recon or no recon, I would need to do some racing, and before I knew it, it was the start of Stage 1, my first european race of 2011, and first U23 race ever. Stage 1 was the "flat" day; so like only 4,000 feet of climbing instead of 10,000. The hills gave plenty of opportunities for breakaways, and a 12 man group was quickly established. We were in a good position with two USA riders in the move, so the rest of us watched out for potential counter attacks. I covered one attack on the second climb by a Russian that got about half way across before fading, but nothing else got particularly close. In the final kilometers, AG2R U23 and Trek-Livestrong had brought the gap back down, so I hung out near the front to see if any attacks would be launched following the catch. The break ended up holding off the field, with Jacob Rathe getting 6th.

Stage 2 was my introduction to mountain racing. I'd never raced up anything like these; they were the real deal: steep, long, and narrow. The first half of the stage was rolling, so I took advantage of the terrain to go for the early break. After about 35 kilometers of repeated attacking, I finally got in the day's move. It was a good group, but we hit the first climb with only about two minutes on the pack. The break was caught with several kilometers still to go to the top, and I found myself cracking and fighting just to reach the top in my 25 tooth cog. After the descent, we had only the long climb up to Superbagneires to finish. I had found a good group to ride with, and we fought through a booming thunderstorm to make it to the top, after more than four and a half hours of racing.

That day gave me new understanding of what it's like to be in the gruppetto in a mountain stage of a grand tour. I had always thought that it was a realitively leisurely task to make time cut, but this day taught me otherwise. Starting an 18 kilometer climb when already badly cracked just to be able to start the next day is one of the hardest things I've had to do on a bike. Fortunately for us, Rob Squire had ridden a great climb to take 4th place on the stage.

Stage 3 wasn't any easier, in fact it was 20 kilometers longer and rained from start to finish. The first part of the race was battered by crosswinds, so I kept our gc/climber Rob Squire near the front and in front of the splits until the first big climb. Then the race shattered on the climb and for the next several hours I rode in small groups up huge climbs and down narrow, slick descents in the fog to the finish. After all that, the hardest was still to come, as we had a 1,000 kilometer drive back to Belgium to complete. It's hard to describe the kind of stifness that my legs had after that!

Thankfully, I didn't have much time to reflect on what I had been through. On wednesday, we drove down to Troisvilles, France, to recon the route of this Sunday's Paris-Roubaix U23. Again, I'm not sure if reconning is such a good idea, as now I have an idea of what I'm in for. I've ridden plenty of Belgium cobbles, but these were another breed altogether; rougher, bigger and badder than anything I've ridden on. On one occasion, I was brought to a near standstill after hitting a particularly nasty series of holes and cobbles, despite riding as hard as I could. After four hours of that, I came out with nothing worse than an ache in my knuckles and wrists, but also a healthy amount of respect for the race and anyone who can accell at it. I don't really know how to describe it other than to state the obvious fact that it's a lot harder than Fabian Cancellara makes it look on TV. I guess I'll find out for certain just how nervous I should be come this Sunday. Hopefully, I'll still be alive and have some stories and a good team result to talk about next time I sign on (providing I can still type!).

Thanks for reading

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Land of Enchantment

"Welcome to New Mexico, The Land of Enchantment" read the large sign as we whirred past, the wheels on the roof rack spinning crazily in the crosswind. The landscape certainly had rather surreal, prehistoric feel about it; with small dust storms, the strong sun in the cloudless sky, the barren extent of the terrain, and the high altitude/ low oxygen combination no doubt all contributing to the overall feel. It seemed to me that "enchantment" might be a bit of a stretch, but I'd keep an open mind. I'd been in the team station wagon with two of my teammates, Alex Howes and Danny Summerhill, and the team's head soigneur, Rick Crawford, for most of the day as we slogged through the 12 hour drive from Boulder, CO to Silver City, NM. Following two weeks of altitude training in Boulder, I was on my way to my second NRC stage race of the year at the prestigious Tour of the Gila.

While staying with the Eckmann's in Boulder, I got to enjoy the full extent of European cuisine as well as suffering through an intense sauna/cold shower routine that I was assured would have me adapted to the altitude in no time. I had my doubts, but I coudn't disagree that by the end of my two week stay I no longer needed to stop for breath after climbing a set of stairs or weave my way up the climbs in my easiest gear. I had also learned the hard way that the inviting warm temperatures in the valley were usually belied a mountain blizzard just over the nearest peak. Leaving the house without an extra jacket had lead, on several occasions, to me stumbling into a coffee shop incoherently begging for the hottest drink available; a somewhat embarrassing situation for a native-born Vermonter like myself.

While in Boulder, I often filled in my spare time by sitting in the Pearl Street Mall watching the various street performers. The fact that some of them seemed to be doing a tidy little business made me wonder if my own talents could make me some cash. The only thing I could think of was to set up a trainer in the middle of the street next to an upturned cycling cap for donations. Unfortunately, I had to conclude that no matter how impressively fast I pedaled my bike, I would still pale in comparison to the man escaping from a straight jacket or juggling flaming torches while riding a unicycle. With such schemes dashed, I was left with no recourse but to ride my bike up the multitude of mountain roads in search of some elusive altitude adaptation.

After two weeks, I again packed up, bid farewell to my hosts, and met up with the team at the service course to begin the long drive south. And that brought me to the Land of Enchantment, where the four of us were still heading down an impossibly straight road, shimmering into the distance. Fortunately, the drive didn't seem all that long, as Alex had packed enough delicious lunch muffins to share and Rick kept us all entertained with various anecdotes mined from his years coaching on the professional circuit.

After our arrival, we got acquainted with our new surroundings and race courses. Continuing on the theme of mystifying signs, one read: "Welcome to the Gila National Forest: The Land of Many Uses". What these uses were, I wasn't quite sure, but I wondered if it had to do with enchantment of some kind. One minor hiccup in our transition involved Jacob Rathe rolling out of bed to a six foot drop one night due to the uneven ground upon which the RV that we were sleeping in was parked. After being resituated to an indoor (and more level) living situation, the stage racing was underway. This being the 25th anniversary of one of the most prestigious races in America, which last year hosted names like Levi Leipheimer and Lance Armstrong, the townspeople expected top notch aggressive racing. Opposing us would be long mountainous stages, gale-force winds, and a base altitude of 6,500 feet.

Stage 1 saw the pack remain mostly together until we hit a vicious crosswind false flat about two thirds through the race. I was sitting comfortably in the second echelon when my chain popped off and refused to be coaxed back on to the chain ring. After dismounting to fix the rebellious piece of equipment, I got myself going again in the last group on the road. After we got out of the worst of the crosswind 10 or 15 kilometers later, the back of the caravan was still in sight, as the main pack had regrouped. This led us to chase all out for kilometers on end, the false hope of the caravan seemingly just out of reach. Finally, it disappeared and we gave up; just in time for the five mile finishing climb. I was already completely cracked from the all out chase at altitude, and that climb was probably the most miserable, demoralizing, pointless, stretch of vertical pavement I have ever ridden up. After weaving my way up for what felt like forever in order to cross the line inside of the time cut, I reached the finish only to immediately turn around and ride back down to get to the team van waiting at the bottom. I couldn't help but rue the necessessity for an out of contention rider like myself to have to carry my carcass up that climb just to start the next day.

After collecting myself, I learned that the day had actually gone well for us, as we'd had Alex and Lachlan Morton finish in the top 10, giving us two legitimite GC threats. The next day, I again tried to cover early moves, but the team of race leader Francisco Mancebo again refused to let any real breaks be established. With the pack pretty much together throughout the stage, Alex took another top result with a sprint to 4th place that day. After riding a decent time trial (29th) and an uneventful criterium; it was time for the famed Gila Monster final stage. After again doing my best to keep Alex protected from the wind and topped off with food and water through the day's first climbs, we hit the Gila monster climb. The climbers and GC favorites took off and I found a group to ride in with to finish somewhere in the fifties. More importantly, I found out that Alex and Lachlan had again been lighting it up on the climbs to finish up 4th and 3rd on GC.

Reflecting on my race, I was moderately happy with how I had performed. In each stage I was able to contribute to the team by helping to cover moves and protect our two GC men. I seemed to handle the altitude okay and was able to climb somewhere around the top third. I also had a decent TT, which surprised me as I hadn't been able to train on a tt bike more than a couple times since 2010. All of this was not insignificant in giving my confidence a much needed boost since my Redlands disaster. I had also been selected to do a slate of races in Europe for the National Team in May and June that I was very excited for. After arriving home for some R&R, Paul Lynch, my 2010 national teammate was able to join me for a week of hammering out big rides in the hills of Vermont.

I am now back in Belgium, battling sleep deprivation and jet lag as I try to stay awake until the required 9pm. Boarding yesterday's transatlantic flight in Washington Dulles airport, I saw a man being hand-cuffed and hauled off of the plane just as I was walking through the gate to the aircraft. Had I been supersticious, that combined with the Friday the 13th (and heightened possibility of terrorism) may have been cause for some concern. As it turned out, the flight was rather uneventful, and I even managed to snag a few extra dinner rolls from the food cart. Any way, my first race over here will be the Ronde l'Isard in the Pyranees of France next weekend, followed by U23 Paris-Roubaix. I'm both nervous and excited, but regardless I can't wait to race! Take care,