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 pavé. 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...

Thursday, April 22, 2010

99% Cacao

The other day, I was wandering through the Delhaize grocery store here in Izegem searching for a delectable post-dinner treat. Chocolate is one of my favorite substances on earth, so naturally I came to a halt in the extensive aisle of cocoa delight. Of course, I would prefer chocolate from a classic chocoloterie, but being Belgium, all the local chocolate shops had closed long before dinner ended. So I found myself staring at a wall of dark chocolates, milk chocolates, chocolates with pralines, hazelnuts, almonds, orange zest, strawberries, but what caught my eye was a black and white package with gold lettering labeled "Noir Absolu". 99% Cacao. Darkest of dark chocolates. Chocolate in its most pure edible form. I didn't have to think twice about the purchase.
I knew to expect overwhelmingly bitter chocolate. I remember my mom using some extremely dark chocolate (probably 85% cacao) while cooking chili and even that was almost too bitter to eat plain. This bar, however, was meant to be eaten without accompaniment. I bit into the bar and the chocolate was uncomfortably dry and bitter; disappointment set in as I realized that this 1.89 euro dessert was inedible.
But as with art, wine, and baseball, pure dark chocolate takes a certain level of enlightenment to fully enjoy. In this case, I can thank Iggy Silva who unlocked the secret of 99% Cacao; chewing the chocolate doesn't allow the cacao flavor to settle, so to enjoy "Noir Absolu", one must let it melt in one's mouth. And it is true, when consumed correctly 99% cacao takes taste buds on an expedition of many sensations. There's even a graph on the wrapper of different tastes over time.

How cool is it that something so initially vile and bitter can become delicious and joyful with just one small piece of advice? How many more things in my daily life are out there like the 99% cacao? I felt so powerful knowing that perhaps I was overlooking a small detail that would make doing the dishes or eating fish far more enjoyable.
However, of all of life's secrets that I will surely seek out, figuring out how to win a Belgian kermesse may be my top priority. Kermesses aren't like UCI road races and forget about drawing comparisons to local NorCal races. Let me try to describe them to you: kermesses are held every Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday with the occasional race on the remaining days of the week. Usually, the race is a 5-15km loop done enough times to make a roughly 120km race. There is a population of bike racers in Belgium who make their living off of kermesses. How? Not really sure, but prize money is part of it along with the Belgian kermesse mafia. Now, it's not really the mafia but it sounds like it: there are different "families" if you will and these professional kermesse riders usually belong to one of these "families". The members of each "family" will work together during the race, much like a cycling team would, so that their rider of choice wins. Meanwhile, all the old belgians sit in a cafe drinking beers and placing bets on the rider who was pre-determined by the "family" to win. Thus, in effect, the races are rigged and us poor Americans are just getting in the way. Before the kermesse I raced last Wednesday, Daniel, team USA's kermesse expert, predicted number 104 would win. You can probably guess who won. Then there is the race itself; Belgian racers will attack until they're teeth have been ground to stubs which makes for incredibly fast, aggressive, and tactical racing. In order for an American development rider to win, I would need to know in advance who was supposed to win (and I imagine it has the ability to change over the first part of the race depending on what happens), have the legs to get in to the breakaway they end up in (kermesses always have breakaways), have the numbers so that the belgians can't gang up on me, and then have the legs to win in the finale. I have heard of Americans placing top ten and occasionally top 5, but a win is extremely rare.
But eating 99% cacao chocolate seemed impossible at first, and now look at me: I find anything less than 85% cacao diluted milky crap. Maybe after another month racing around these parts I'll figure out the secret of the kermesse. Stay tuned.

Monday, April 19, 2010

ZLM Tour

I managed to finish my first race here in Europe: the ZLM Tour in Zeeland, Holland. It was a one-day, 189km affair with 147 starters all racing for their respective national teams. With exception of climbing, ZLM had a taste of all the characteristics that make european racing hard: small roads, cross-winds, aggressive racing, road furniture, cobbles, and Russians. I placed 87th, dead last of what remained of the main peloton. Team USA's top placed rider was my Trek-Livestrong teammate and fellow 19 year old Gavin Mannion who came across in 15th. A notoriously windy race, we were surprised (and elated) to wake up on race day to no discernible wind. On the start line, a DB (that stands for Dutch Bicyclist of course) came up to us and snidely commented, "no wind today...good for you guys!" I hope he crashed. And there were plenty of crashes to go around for sure. I tipped over in the first kilometer of racing after power-sliding to a stop in order to avoid a massive pileup. Team USA had one serious casualty: Iggy Silva caught a lip on the road and hit the deck at 50km/h. If I had a dollar for every crash I narrowly avoided I would double my annual salary.
The winds did eventually pick up though and the last half of racing was strung out single file on small roads. A breakaway of nine rolled out of the feedzone and stayed away until the finish, but since Russia, France, and Belgium all missed it the chase from the field was fast. The latter half of the course included a lot of turns and tiny one lane farm roads, so the field was constantly strung out, making it difficult to move up. When the pace picked up, Team USA had a strong grip on the back of the peloton, so we all missed the first couple splits and had to work hard to regain our position in the race*. All riders made the lead group as we entered the two 10km finishing circuits. The pre-race plan was to get Cole House up in the front for the sprint. We were a bit disorganized and the finale was mostly a free for all. Since the break was still up the road and bridging attempts were flying left and right, I decided to jump in to one of them. At one point there were six of us (including last year's winner Luke Rowe of Britain) with 10km to go but we just attacked each other instead of working together. Despite being sick the two days previous, I felt really strong and look forward to improving on 87th at the coming races. Next race is Affligem UCI 1.2 in Affligem, Belgium on Sunday the 25th.

*We all agree that the most effective way to get to the front is to find the nearest Russian and wait for the inevitable monster effort they will make to get to the front.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Izegem

First couple days in Izegem, Belgium are in the books and settling in to the daily routine was hardly a chore. Today we rode a few hours in the morning, then putzed around until dinner, consistently consuming any caloric substance unfortunate enough to be within our reach. The house is very quiet now though which made finding a corner to curl up and read rather easy.

For those that have not heard of the legends of the USA Cycling U23 house in Izegem, it is in short a dormitory for the USA riders invited to race with the National Team and the European center of all things USA Cycling. If you ask the riders, some will say it is uncomfortable, some will say it is boring, and for that matter every rider has an arsenal of complaints. It is only natural: we're an ocean away from home thrashing around in some of the hardest races on earth in a crowded house with unfamiliar beds and so little to do with so much time. On top of that the room assignments are constantly changing depending on rider departures and arrivals, and we have to do (and pay for) our own laundry. But although I acknowledge all the complaints, there is an odd allurement to The House. I will be here for six more weeks (until May 26th) and am pretty excited. The riding may not be as awesome as Austria (see picture below), but the hills of flanders aren't too shabby themselves. However, despite my excitement, I cannot escape the difficulties of living in The House. For one, hygiene and cleanliness – in our rooms, the kitchen, and bathrooms – is completely the riders' responsibility to maintain. With up to two dozen tired, perpetually hungry boys, the kitchen sink quickly fills with dirty dishes, clothes and other personal items get sprawled out on the floor, and only Ganesha knows how the bathrooms remain sanitary.

And in a sport where a rider's health is his primary asset, keeping the germs at bay is a constant battle... a battle which I have so far been losing. I woke up this morning with a terrible sore throat and felt chilled and weak all day. In my defense a bug had been circulating around the house prior to my arrival, but it's still a bummer. It's an unwelcome addition to my resumé of tough luck this season. I could go on and on about the season's ups and downs and how I am going to come out of the low points stronger and more motivated but I will spare you.

Right now, though, I need to start packing for our trip to Holland to do my first race the ZLM Tour. Even though I can guarantee I won't be 100% for this race, there-in lies the beauty of The House; everyone is here to race and hell that's what we're gonna do.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Salzburg

I have been in Europe for just over a week now. Italy for five days with my dad and sister, Emily, and now Austria for three (and two more to go!) with just Emily. The family bonding has been wonderful. Emily is on spring break from her study-abroad program in Aix-en-Provence so spending ten whole days with her has been a treat. Of course, this 'vacation' is hardly the Eurotrip most American teens salivate for given the volume of training I have to keep up on as well as the anticipation for my upcoming races. It was a rest week though and I am legitimately proud to admit that I have seen more works of art in the past week than I have ridden miles on my bike... and that is a lot of art. Emily is an art history major at Williams College, my dad has a soft spot for culture, and Italy is the epicenter of the Renaissance, so put them all together and we logged some serious museum hours. A self-proclaimed art skeptic, I was surprised that with the helpful insights and explanations from my two family art historians, I developed an eye for what makes a painting emotional, beautiful, and unique. Paintings are like good songs: the first impression is always just OK, but the more one listens to the song or analyzes the painting, the more one can identify the artistic genius.
But there are a few very good reasons why a cyclist like me – and for that matter 99.99% of cyclists in the world – has little taste for art history and paintings. All those reasons, however, stem from what I imagine to be a cyclist's least favorite place in the world: a museum. Think about it: if a cyclist is not on the bike then he or she is probably eating, sleeping, or watching some form of video entertainment with his or her legs up in the air. Museums offer none of those things. In fact my legs were more uncomfortable shuffling through the maze of the Vatican museum in Rome through hordes of tourists than they were after completing the Redlands Stage Race a few weeks ago. Physiologically, standing and shuffling require stabilization muscles that cyclists notoriously lack, plus the legs pool with all the lactic junk produced during training. All bad.
Psychologically, however, I found it a nice relief from the monotony of sleep, eat, train, repeat. Museums have their own monotony – after the millionth painting or statue of an emaciated Jesus Christ, I found myself wondering what the world would be like if he had been a cyclist – but the opportunity to learn and experience something new was welcomed. Time will tell what secret psychological advantage knowing a Caravaggio from a Giotto will give me. My scholarly sister believes that it is all about the powers of observation, and she is usually right. Watch out ZLM Tour*! I might have some intellectually stimulating observational tricks up my sleeve...
*ZLM Tour is my next race

Monday, April 5, 2010

Scrivo da Roma

Welcome to my new blog! I am completely fed up with Twitter and all this micro-blogging business, so I’ve decided to try my luck at complete sentences and carefully crafted paragraphs. Plus I found myself rather dull in just 140 characters. No promises that this blog will be any more entertaining than my tweets, but it will certainly be more entertaining for me to write. In my nearly ten months away from any sort of scholastic writing obligation, this blog will represent my feeble attempt to sharpen my writing skills (so any and all critiques are welcome...but out of pride and laziness I may or may not read them). Regardless, let me help you get in to the habit of sending feedback with a simple assignment: any ideas for a stellarly-awesome blog title? Puns, clichés, onomatopoeia, they are all welcome.
However before you start firing all sorts of random, yet probably awesome titles into the blog comment box, maybe you should continue reading to find out exactly what genre of content with which I will fill the pages of my online journal.
I am primarily a cyclist who loves to travel and compete all over the United States, Europe, and now apparently Asia. As a member of the Trek-Livestrong Under 23 cycling team as well as the Under 23 USA National team, I have the unique and special opportunity to jet around the globe to race my bike. A lot of this blog will be race reports (I promise to try to maybe possibly make them fun to read) as well as general observations of my days as a teenager who neglected to attend school for a year.
Which leads me to the second point of this blog; I deferred my enrollment to Princeton University until the fall of 2010, and although the majority of my year off is behind me, blogging offers a way to document and share some of the unique things I have been able to do and see. This gap year has given me the opportunity to explore the world outside the confines of school – and on occasion outside the world of sport as well – and there are experiences and observations I want to share with the general public. What better way to share such stories than a personal blog? I truly don’t care if no one reads it, but if you have read this far into this first blog then I must be really good and you should check back every once in awhile (plus just wait until I get around to goat beheading story...yea now you’re hooked).
The bottom line is I will write in this blog whatever happens to be on my mind that day–which means 90% of the time I will be talking about cycling (and I must credit my sister Emily for being the first to theorize that 90% of what I say is cycling related)– but don’t expect the same-old race reports and training updates. No. Who said cycling has to be so mindless? I’m going to do my darndest to divulge the philosophical, comical, psychological, and yes, even intellectual side of cycling. And trust me this blog is not about how cool I think I am and how cool I think the things I’ve done are. No, it’s about the cool people I have had the privilege to work with and the amazing cultures and locations of the places where I have had the privilege to travel and work...along with some totally unbiased color commentary. I hope you find this twitter-on-steroids more informative and interesting than my failed attempt to become a successful micro-blogger.
P.S. I just did a character count of this entry: 3,090. It’s 22 times better than Twitter.