Tuesday, April 27, 2010

GP Affligem Race Report

Grote Prijs Affligem: 147km (102km loop plus 3x15km circuits) with eight classified climbs and more cobbles than I bargained for. All in all the parcours was hard; constantly rolling hills with mediocre road conditions, enough wind to be annoying, and those damn cobbles. Over 200 riders lined up to start...and only 90 finished.
Team USA started five riders: Max Durtschi, Travis Burandt, Iggy Silva, Connor O'leary, and yours truly. Gavin Mannion stayed home sick. Our director (Christ Lefevre) predicted there to be an early break but that the rest of the field would remain intact for the most part. He was certainly right about the early break and 5km in to the race, I found myself in a group six riders riding away from the field at warp speed. 140km in a breakaway of six riders would have been near impossible, so we eased up a bit and allowed another group of six or seven riders (including Travis Burandt) to catch us. Now with a dozen riders and a decent gap over the main field, everyone started rotating and we stayed about 30 seconds ahead of the chasing field. At this point, we still had 135km to ride. Although our break was rotating, each rider was trying to conserve energy by pulling through the paceline rather slowly. I foolishly took it upon myself to keep the pace high by taking slightly harder pulls, but relief soon came as another group of 15 riders bridged up to us, doubling the size of our breakaway. Now that we had a rather large group off the front, the pace picked up and our gap over the main field swelled to one and a half minutes. For 40km, our break rolled quickly but smoothly, and then we entered the town of Geraardsbergen. If you are a cycling enthusiast, the Muur de Geraardsbergen should ring a few bells. It's the penultimate climb in the Tour of Flanders. Although our race did not go over Kapelmuur – the final steep cobbled pitch where Cancellara dropped Boonen in this year's Tour of Flanders – the climb was tough nonetheless. It was the first classified KOM (intermediate mountain sprint) of the day, and I rather effortlessly won the sprint which gave me a jolt of excitement. Our break lost one or two riders but it wasn't long before all 25 of us were back together and rolling towards the next KOM, the Bosberg. The Bosberg is always the final challenge in the Tour of Flanders and although it is not considered to be the hardest climb in the race, it is cobbled and tips upward at over 10% which is enough to bring even strong riders to their knees. Cobbles and I don't quite get along, but I stayed in the main group over the climb, which shrunk to 16 riders. Burandt fell off pace on the Bosberg so I was now all alone in the break. The next 50km remain a blur to me. The break rotated, then we would hit climbs, both cobbled and paved, where the group would split and then come back together. The climbs all ran together, but I do remember constantly seeking the sidewalk in order to avoid the cobblestones and sprinting for whatever KOMs I could see (they were not very well marked: advantage locals). Just before entering the finishing laps, the group was still around 16 and we hit a cobbled section that just barely tipped upward whilst pointing in the direction of a driving headwind. Worst of all though, it had no sidewalk and lasted for nearly 2km. My respect for Paris-Roubaix finishers went through the roof because I felt like I was coming to a standstill. But on cobbles I think everyone feels like that and the effort of 100km off the front was showing in the legs of my breakaway companions as we crawled over the pavĂ©. The next time check we got after this section revealed that our lead had been nearly halved down to the 38 second mark. Panic ensued and we started to hammer in a paceline yet again. The finishing circuits were rolling with a 2km gradually uphill finish. Our group remained intact and our lead over the peloton ballooned back out to over a minute until 1.5 laps to go. At 1.5 laps, a small group bridged up to us from the main field (don't ask where they came from or how the managed to bridge so quickly because I do not know) and all of a sudden the break was again 25 guys with solid representation from all the big teams (Eijssen, Davo Lotto, and some neon green team that had 5 guys in the break). As we passed through the finish line with one lap to go, the attacks started to fly. By this time I was cramping and pretty tired, so I followed whatever moves I could. The attacks were rather furious, but we were all pretty gassed and finally five riders got a gap that stuck. I remained in the second group on the road which had about a dozen riders in it (a handful of riders were dropped during the attacks). The lead group dangled in front of us by only 15 seconds, but we could not close the gap. I did not have much left in my legs for a sprint and ended up in ninth in my group for 14th place. As I waited for my teammates, only small groups came across the line. The largest group was around 30 riders that contained O'Leary (who finished 56th). All the other USA riders were pulled as they entered the finishing circuits and received DNFs. The race blew to pieces far more than any of us expected. My early aggressiveness paid off as it put me in position for a result, but I may have been too aggressive and blown too much energy early on working in the break and then chasing some KOM points. I ended up 2nd in the KOM competition, which is like being a "Commended Student" on the PSAT: no one cares. However I did get 75 euros for the KOM and another 30 euros for 14th, so as a percentage of my monthly salary it was a great day. The real value, however, came in the experience gained whilst being in the lead group and contesting a result. More specifically, the day's lesson was set a more specific goal: result or KOM. Blew too much energy going for the KOM, but didn't go hard enough for them to win it resulting in a mediocre placing in both the KOM's and the race itself.
Wow sorry that was longer than I expected. I'm writing this while laying in my bed once again sick with whatever illness is passing through the house. Next race this weekend is Hoboken, a UCI 1.2 race near Antwerp. 185km on flat, twisty urban roads. Oh, and Els Dejonckheere, who runs the USA U23 house and usually cooks us dinner every night, has transferred the responsibility of cooking to the riders for tomorrow night. Stay tuned because that should be rather interesting...I think I'm gonna whip out my newly learned Indian culinary skills...

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