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