Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Canal

Today I awoke to a sufficiently Belgian
day, with the sound of rain on the rooftop and puddles of water being
splashed against the side of the house by morning commuters. I
rolled towards the edge of the bed and attempted to get up. Instead,
I felt the results of a week's worth of sickness, crashing, and hard
and demoralizing racing permeating my legs, body, and soul; and
contented myself instead with simply pulling the covers higher. I
won't go into all the gritty details, but suffice to say that 50+
kilometers off the back alone in the rain to crawl to the finish in
last place doesn't do a lot for morale or general well-being.
Neither does riding a bike when you have no skin left on the palm of
your hand.

So today it took the thought of fresh
croissants being prepared at the nearby bakery to get me out of bed.
I spent the following hours trying to figure out class registration
for fall semester, which frustrated me to the point that I finally
decided to go for a short bike ride instead. Here at the US National
Team house in Izegem, Belgium, my go-to route for short and easy
rides is the path along the canal, which carries a cocktail of
industrial waste and farm runoff. Not that this backdrop is
particularly awe-inspiring, but it does offer a perfectly flat ride
with no traffic to contend with or navigation skills required (many a
recovery ride has turned into a much longer ordeal when I try to
navigate the maze of roads here). Also, the canal is the perfect
place to play the “Can I Get a Reaction” game.

The canal is trafficked by many
pedestrians, cyclo-commuters, racers, wanna-be racers, and fishermen
(I can only pray that they don't attempt to eat the radioactive
three-eyed creatures that live in this toxic body of water). But
mostly the canal is frequented by 70 year old men in Quick-Step kits
riding atop old Merckx bikes. All of these travelers on the canal
path present the same challenge. While approaching from opposite
directions, they will invariably stare at me. I will then wave, nod,
smile, shout “hello” and “goedmorgen”, and do everything in
my power to elicit a response. This task is unbelievably difficult,
and the vast majority simply pass by with no response other than a
steady stare. I then keep score with the successes: one point for a
grunt, two for a nod, three for a small wave, four for a verbal
response of some sort, and five for a smile.

The fishermen, perhaps weakened by
their contact with the toxic water and creatures that come from it,
seem to be the most likely to raise my tally. The elderly Tom
Boonens slowly pedaling along are nearly impossible to gain points

Today I tried my best but was
completely shut out. The rain kept falling as I came up with nothing
more than blank stares again and again. It was just one of those
days. Or weeks, I guess. Dejected, I was about to take the turn
back off the canal and into Izegem. And then, suddenly, an elderly
man walking down the path with a cane, gave me a big wave and a
smile, apparently undeterred by the inclement weather. Maybe my luck
is turning, I certainly hope so; especially with a Nations Cup race
coming up on Saturday.

Maybe the canal has a lesson or two to
teach me; like the importance of a smile, even when its raining out.
Either that or I should give up cycling and start fishing for
three-eyed canal creatures full time.
Hope you all had a great Easter!

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Season Begins!

The beginning of the race season is an interesting time in the mind of most bike racers. Months of hard work and dedicated preparation throughout the offseason is about to be put to the test, and the cyclist will usually harbor a mix of quiet hopefulness and bit of terror as he awaits the outcome of the first races to either put his mind at ease or confirm his worst fears.
I was enduring a bit of my own pre-season jitters, and was anxious for the season to get underway. Before I could begin these season
opening races, I had to first get to where the races were at. This
year, that happens to be Europe, a prospect I am very excited
about. That meant moving out of the apartment in Greenville, SC that
had been a winter training home for myself and some of my racing
buddies. Before leaving, I took some photos of my apartment
furnishings, so you can get an idea of what the glorious lifestyle of
a young wanna-be pro looks like. My Dad says it looks pretty
similiar to what his first appartments all looked like, so that's
somewhat reassuring.
Team Type 1 Cyclist Paul Lynch uses our Wal-mart fold out table and chair set.

The storage pod from the roof of the car doubles as an ottoman, table, and work-bench all in one.
We always seem to be about one quarter short of being able to do a load in the drier.
Cardboard boxes have all sorts of uses: Night stand, bed-extender, and trash can.
As much as I enjoyed my time in Greenville, I was quite excited to be moving to the team house in Toulouse, France, where I would enjoy sleeping on a real bed and some real furniture. I took one last ride over Paris Mountain, repacked my essential belongings (air mattress and panini press) into the car, and bid farewell to my winter home. After spending the night with some relatives in Charlotte, NC, I boarded my first european flight of the year. I slept off some jet lag, took in the surroundings at my new european home base. Perched on top of a hill, our large house has a view of the Pyrennees to the south, and surrounding hills and valleys in all directions. Downtown Toulouse is a good coffee shop ride distance to our north. With endless rolling climbs, narrow roads, and mild weather, this seems like the perfect place for a cycling team. I only had a few days to practice my (very insufficient) French skills, before the team loaded up into the vans and made the long journey to cycling's heartland of Flanders for our first races of the year.

The first race, a 180 kilometer race just south of the French-Belgian border was a suffer-fest of relentless crosswinds and rain, made worse by the Cofidis, Saur-Sojasun, and Landbeowcredit teams who were coming into their classics peak. I spent most of the race hanging on for dear life, watching the riders around me crack in the crosswinds as I patiently awaited my turn to suffer the same fate. My turn arrived with about 20 kilometers to go, and I rode in with a teammate to the finish my first european race of the year.

A few days later we did my first pro kermesse race in Wanzele, Belgium. As the start gun was fired, the light drizzle turned to a downpour and the temperature dropped to less than 40 degrees fahrenheit. After 130 kilometers, the weather had continued to worsen and only 30-some riders of the original 200 were still in the race. Somehow, I made it to the finish of the race, despite being unable to feel my hands or feet or see through my mud clogged eye lashes for the final 30 km. I spent the next hour sitting in a bucket of hot water trying to regain feeling. Mud came out of my ears and nose for days afterwords.

After this lovely welcome back to the world of northern european spring racing, I was glad to be off to warmer climates to join the US National Team at the Istrian Spring Trophy stage race in Croatia. There we stayedd in a beach side resort hotel, and enjoyed sunshine, mild temperatures, and the occasional dip in the Adriatic. The race meandered through rolling climbs and beach front roads. I was happy to feel the legs coming around and I was able to be more aggressive as the race went on. After the race was over, we stayed for another week-long training camp. Then it was back to my French home with the Chipotle team. I've been training hard for the past week with my teammates and am excited to be off to my next race tomorrow, the Circuit Ardennes in northern France. Happily, I've survived the pre-season nervous time and am looking forward to getting into the rythm of racing and traveling over the next couple months. Thanks for reading!

Croatia: the view from the finish of stage 1, and from our beachside hotel
Some successful crawfish hunting with my teammate Andrei, and a view inside the Capitole building in Toulouse