Sunday, June 5, 2011

roubaix

Passing a World War II machine gun bunker that earned the land and the race the name "The Hell of the North", I looked up and saw the distinctive water tower and church spire that signalled the entrance to Troisvilles, France, and the begining of the first cobble sector of the 2011 Paris-Roubaix U23. Speeding through the town center, we took a quick right, then a left, and before I knew it, I was on the famed cobblestones of Paris Roubaix. I was in the breakaway of about twenty riders who had gained about a minute on the pack in the first high speed and wind torn 50 kilometers. The good news was that I wouldn't have to go through the hectic fight for position ahead of the early sectors. The bad news was that there were three Dutch National team riders, one Rabobank rider, and an Omega-Pharma Lotto davo rider there to make sure nobody got a free ride in the wind or could relax on the pave.

We hit the cobbles fast, which is a good thing since at low speed they are unbearably painful. There are two options for riding the cobbles: the center of the road which rises into a narrow spine, and the thin strip of gravel/cobblestone mix on the very side of road. In between, the car and tractor ruts create huge holes that will swallow your front wheel whole. I chose the middle, which poses less of a risk of punctures, and concentrated on holding the gyrating bars as loosely as possible while still controlling them. After several tight bends and a slight descent, we were off the stones and back onto smooth pavement. One sector down, twenty-three to go.

Our gap continued to hover at about a minute, as we slowly lost riders over the sectors. Behind, the pack was splitting on the pave and then slowing to regroup afterwords. However, the fierce wind that had been a tail wind now turned to a cross wind, which meant that everybody in the race from the front to the back was fighting to stay in the tight echelons. I was getting into a rythm on the pave, in fact it seemed easy compared to hammering in the cross-winds on 32 spoke roubaix wheels pumped to 55psi.

Finally, after about 110 kilometers, the field caught us. The field, at that point, consisted of about 25 riders with another group trying desperately to catch back on. Team USA now had 4 riders in the lead group going into the last 65 kilometers. The fatigue was catching up to me and I was having a difficult time focusing on staying at the front. A group of fifteen or twenty split off the front on a sector, with Jacob Rathe and Rob Squire in the move.

On the next sector, I again made the mistake of going in behind some other even more tired riders. Passing is next to impossible on the thin pave farm tracks, and unfortunately for me, the two riders in front of me managed to run into each other and fall over. In normal circumstances, I probably would have found a way through the mess, but in my current blurry-eyed state, I made a pitiful attempt to escape the carnage and instead found my bike lying in the ditch. I pulled it out to discover that the derailleur was mangled and nearly up side down. A neutral service vehicle was on hand quickly, and I did my best to request a spare bike in french. Apparently I need to work on my linguistics, because I got a spare wheel instead and was sent on my merry way. After getting off the cobbles, it quickly became obvious that what was left of the "field" was now out of my reach, especially with my bike in it's current state. I set about the task of riding the final 50 kilometers to make the notoriously stingy Paris-Roubaix time cut in order to be recorded as a finisher.

What was left of the race was tiny groups of hollow-eyed riders covered in blood and grime. Finishing would be no easy task. My teammate Max flatted out of one of the leading groups and was no riding with me, so at least I had some company. Unfortunately, Roubaix would not allow me to easily spin along to the finish. I was now officially cracked, and riding the cobblestones without the benefit of entering at high speed meant that I was taking a ruthless pounding. Foregoing the center (which requires more speed and power), I was now resorting to balancing along the thin smooth(er) strip on the sides. Balance had foresaken me, however, and on several occasions I found myself riding off into a farm field. After making it off of the notorious Carrefour de l'Arbre, I was on the last sector in a good group and with only 15 kilometers to go. I was home free.

Or so I thought. Riding along in the gutter, I suddenly saw a huge hole materialize through the haze of my dirtied sun glasses. Again, in my zombie-like state, I only managed a feeble attempt to jump, which utterly failed, and immediately flatted. This was a problem. All the support vehicles were in front of me, and I still had a ways to go. I set about the arduous task of getting off of the cobble sector without killing myself or having my behind shattered by the jack hammer it felt like I was riding. Eventually, I crossed the final ceremonial cobble sector and made the turn into the velodrome. After successfully keeping my wounded bike from sliding off the track, I completed the lap and a half to officially finish my first Paris Roubaix in 67th place.

Making my way back towards the team vehicles, I noticed a particularly large crowd gathered around the USA van. As I got closer I saw that Jacob was holding a trophy and learned that he had taken third in a close finish. We were all exhausted and aching, but there were smiles everywhere as Jacob passed around the trophy for us to inspect. The word "epic" gets thrown around pretty liberally in cycling, but I'd have to say this was one of those days that completely deserves the term. Surviving my first Paris-Roubaix was one of the most difficult things I've done, but soon after washing away the layers of dirt and grime in the famous Roubaix showers, I found myself thinking about how much I would like to do it again. I was happy with how I had ridden the first two thirds of the race. Getting in the break meant our team didn't have to chase, and having four in the front group with 60km to go was definitely a good thing. I regret that my lapse in attention to positioning meant that I couldn't contest the race all the way to the finish, but I think the experience was invaluable, and despite it all, I had a great time! Our director, Marcello, who is notoriously strict about what finds its way into our refrigerator, promised to reward us with ice cream sundaes after getting back to Izegem.

Besides some sore knuckles and the effects of a riding through some stinging nettles on the side of the road, I awoke the next morning with nothing worse than a huge appetite and a need to nap nearly all day. We spent the week recovering before heading to Germany for the Tour of Berlin. There we took two top three stage finishes, a day in yellow, and won the team GC. Tomorrow we are going to Luxembourg for our last Euro race of the trip, the Fleche du Sud. After that, it will be the National Championships and then a well needed break before getting ready for the second part of the season. Thanks for reading!



The breakaway forming



On the cobbles




Luck plays its part



Jacob goes for it, and takes bronze


Tired faces in the Roubaix velodrome


Winning Team GC in Berlin


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