Monday, February 10, 2014

Etoile de Besseges: Sacrifice and perseverance

The two days between GP Marseillaise and Etoile de Besseges were nice. We’d get a good night’s sleep, then have a solid breakfast from the hotel (enhanced by the soigneurs’ grocery runs for condiments and other miscellaneous desirables). Then we’d get out for a ride by late morning and enjoy the nice weather while it lasted. After the ride: lunch, massages, and general relaxation until dinner.  It’s a hard life, but somebody’s got to do it.

Etoile de Besseges is a 5-stage race:  4 road races, each in the neighborhood of 154km/95mi, capped off by an 11km time trial that finishes with a tough climb. The road races traditionally finished in reduced field sprints because the courses were challenging. In our arsenal, we had John Degenkolb and Tobias Ludvigsson, dangerous in reduced field sprints and climbs/TT’s, respectively. So we had a legitimate chance of winning every stage and the GC. The rest of the crew was well-rounded with me, Tom Stamsnijder, Dries Devenys, Albert Timmer, Jonas Ahlstrand, and team captain Roy Curvers.

I was much less anxious before the race start than just a few days earlier. It’s surprising what just getting the first race out of the way will do for your mentality. It had rained overnight and there was still standing water on the roads, but we were unsure if we would get more rain. That question was answered while waiting at the start line. The spectators were amused that we were crowding under the protection of their umbrellas while waiting for the start, considering what we were about to do.

Shortly after the race started, Tobias had a small crash during a sidewalk adventure, but escaped with some minor scrapes and bruises.  The break of the day escaped early, and we all relaxed for a bit as we continued to get soaked through. We weren’t cold while racing, but the coast-off to give the break some leash changed things quickly. We all went back to the car to get our rain jackets—we were already soaked, but the jackets would at least help us retain heat.

The stage was rather uninteresting, aside from puddles so large that we were joking at the dinner table that some of the smaller riders needed snorkels. There was one ‘climb’ that we did twice for KOM points. It was about 2 minutes at 15% grade. The first time we climbed it, I wondered if we were racing up somebody’s driveway, it was so narrow and potholed. The field strung out along the top and especially down the backside.  The second time over the top, we made doubly sure to be close to the front. Sure enough, the field split into multiple groups on the backside, and we managed to get our whole team in the front group.

Then things turned sour for us. John realized that his rear tire was going soft. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem, but the field was spread out into multiple groups and the cars were all behind the rearmost group, not even in sight. We waited as long as possible to see if the cars would get to us, but after about 10 minutes (only 40km remained in the race), it was clear that we would have to settle this ourselves. I was chosen to bite the bullet for John, as I was the least experienced with the leadouts. So I pulled him to the front of the field, where we immediately swung off and came to a quick stop. I gave him my rear wheel and a push, and then a few of the guys paced him back up to the group. I picked up my bike and waited for a new wheel, then did a bit of motorpacing to get to the chase group that had been holding the cars up. The group didn’t have the legs or motivation to get back to the leaders, so we cruised into the finish. Up ahead, the break had managed to stay away by just 20 seconds, with John winning the field sprint for 7th. It was hard not to think how things might have been had John not flatted, as I would have been able to help with the chase.

The sun came out for stage 2 and we enjoyed a nice ride once the break got away. Before that happened, though, things were chaotic. We didn’t want to be in the break, but we had to make sure that other teams with sprinters weren’t in it, either. Constant attacks went for half an hour before the right combination of riders finally got clear. Tom joined in the pace-setting at the front, as the leader’s team was obviously not very experienced. Rather than set a steady pace all day, they would go hard on the climbs and take it easy on the downhills. Under Tom’s guidance, things were better.

The race would end with laps of a 7k finishing circuit that featured a 5-minute power climb. The break still had a couple of minutes at this point, so John asked me to give Tom some backup. Over those laps, our pace continued to accelerate as the time gaps started falling. On the penultimate lap, the break was finally within shouting distance, and a few riders from the field attacked. We couldn’t risk letting fresh legs get far up the road, so we increased our pace further.  I had the satisfaction of ending the chase with a downhill pull over 70kph towards the end of the lap. Then the front was swarmed with leadout trains fighting for position going into the hill for the final time. I sat up and rode to the finish. John was barely outkicked at the line, finishing second.

The rain came back for stage 3, which would be very similar in nature to the GP Marseillaise…tough all day. We would do 3 laps of a big loop that included 1 big climb and 3 smaller climbs. The big climb started just a couple of minutes into the race. We didn’t even go hard for the first portion of it, and I still averaged 400 watts for 12 minutes—those last 5 minutes at 460 is where the race really exploded. Then we stayed strung out down the twisting, wet descent and through the next town, all the way to the next climb, where the pace never relented until finally a small group got away.

By the time we bottomed out on the next descent, the time gaps were quickly going up. We didn’t have the luxury of playing the poker game of seeing which team would work on the front all day, as the breakaway was not the usual tactical composition—it was one filled with really strong riders who could very well go all the way to the line if we weren’t careful. Roy made the call to start riding quickly so that we could limit the damage. Albert and Tom were selected to set the pace, while the rest of us saved our energy for later in the race. Those two were absolute motors, I was thoroughly impressed. On lap 2, Lotto-Belisol contributed a rider to the chase, and the gaps stayed steady at a few minutes.

The feed zone was just before the final lap started, and I took a musette so that Tom and Albert could continue setting the pace undisturbed. I pulled everything out as quickly as I could, while getting pushed back in the group as everyone fought for position. With my pockets stuffed, I made my way back to the front where I refueled the workers. When we reached the steep part, the attacks started flying and I quickly learned that my legs were nowhere to be found. I fought as hard as I could and managed to get over the top just off the tail end of the main group. Good thing I’m comfortable with wet descents by this point! I was on the back of the lead group by the bottom, and enjoyed the more calm pace set on the next climb after the team had regained control of the front. By the bottom of the next descent, I was back to the front.

Tom had been dropped on the big climb, so now I was in the rotation at the front as we slowly reeled in the break.  On the final climb of the day, I had to sag climb while attacks were going, and hang on to the back of the group again. Then on the descent I once again made my way back to the front and jumped back in the rotation.

We got to the finishing circuits just a couple of minutes behind the break, and the pace was ratched up to 50+kph on the flats. More teams had pitched in with the chase, and now we had about 8 guys on the front going full gas. With about 8k remaining, I finally ran out of steam. I thought that was the end for me, but I managed to hang on to the tail end until an easier section of the circuit. “I’ve got one more effort in me” was the phrase of the day, so I took the hot route around the outside in the double left turn after the finish line and ended up next to Roy and John. With the field strung out, I kept them out of the wind, then on command hauled them back up to the front before the fight for position began. With that, I was truly done. John got 3rd. We were so close every day, we knew that eventually it had to all come together for us.

Stage 4 would be our last chance for a field sprint, and of course it was raining. I was ready to go when the flag dropped and jumped on the first move of the day when several riders from big teams were in it. We immediately got the gap up to 30 seconds on the gradual climb, but it was obvious that somebody was giving chase behind, and it wasn’t Giant-Shimano. So that was good. We continued to push the pace up the climb, but the gaps weren’t growing much. That was partly to do with the poor rotation in our group. One rider in particular was feeling good and would accelerate hard every time he reached the front, and the rest of us spent our energy closing gaps that he caused (rather than driving the group ourselves). We reached the top of the climb after averaging over 400W for 14 minutes, and I willingly took the front on the descent. It’s just so much fun. We reached the bottom, and once again our rotation was spoiled by Mr. Fresh-legs.  Our time gap started to drop after another hard 15 minutes, and finally he surged so hard on a small climb that he split the group while I was at the back. My legs were zapped, and I ended up going back to the field with a couple other riders. This put our team in a bad position, but FDJ had already taken up the chase and were getting help from the Colombian team, so we didn’t have to help.

The finish circuits featured a steep 500m climb that ruined what was left of my legs. I managed to get to the front when it was a bit calmer and help keep our leadout train in position, but as soon as the pace picked up I was more help by getting out of the way. John took 2nd in the brutal uphill sprint. Having racked up several 2nd places myself at the start of last season, I could definitely feel for him. But I know he’s going to be ripping legs off soon and the wins will start coming in. I’ll be glad to be a part of it!

The time trial would be held under beautiful weather, and we were all looking forward to finishing the race strong. There was absolutely no pressure on me, but the course suited me perfectly. The question was: were my legs up to it? I gave it my best, but that was only good enough for 37th on the day. After taking a thorough beating this week, my legs just need a bit of rest and I’ll be flying later this spring.

The real news was with Tobias and John. Tobias, who had laid low for the most part through all of the other stages while staying close on GC, was finally being let out of his cage for the time trial. And boy did he shred it! He won the stage by enough of a margin to also take the GC, and in the process put an end to all of the ‘almosts’ we’d experienced in the first 4 stages. John, to his credit, put in an equally impressive ride to take 6th on the stage and 3rd in GC. To cap it off, he also took the Sprint Jersey, and we won the Team GC. 

After a week of hearing about the Dubai squad winning every sprint, and the incredibly dominant women’s squad in Qatar, we could not be happier than to have our hard work and sacrifices pay off with a big win for the Besseges squad!

It’s shaping up to be a very good year for Team Giant-Shimano—I can’t wait for the next race!

Monday, February 3, 2014

School is in session

Well, I've got my first race with Giant-Shimano under my belt! It's been a while since I gave a blow-by-blow report of a race, but I think such a landmark in my career is deserving of just such a thing.

My travel day started bright and early, but I arrived in Marseille without incident, met a few teammates, and we were shortly picked up by the giant Giant-Shimano team bus. Seeing that beast come around the corner to pick us up, I thought, "Welcome to The Show!"

We were greeted at the hotel by a large box of new kits, a welcome sight after training the last month in my worn out Optum clothing. With the eleventh-hour sponsor shuffle, they've been working on making our new kits. They made everybody one kit for the pictures, then started on small batches in the order of who raced first. So we don't yet have all our clothing, but it's a good start, and enough to fill up my luggage for the return trip. And it's all so comfortable and well-fitting!

The race, a UCI 1.1, featured a mix of ProTour, Pro-Continental, and Continental teams. The race is the European season opener, so everyone, especially the French racers, would be excited and revved up for the race. With a start in the early afternoon, I made sure to have a big breakfast, but in the excitement of preparing for the race, failed to have a small snack closer to the race.

We got dressed in the comfort of the bus, then headed for sign-in where there was no shortage of spectators looking for autographs. One guy came up to me with my Optum trading card from last year, which was cool. We didn't race in France last year, which means this guy has done some traveling to races!

The race wouldn't be very warm to start, and we would do a lot of climbing, so I had to dress warmly. Thankfully the rain was done for the day, at least. The race was 140km, and was never really flat. We would either be climbing or descending the whole day.

At the start line, I was pretty cold, but I think nerves were contributing to the shivers. As is always the case, I just wanted to get started. Then all my nervous energy goes away as it is channeled into the bike. We had a 9k neutral rollout, but it wasn't slow. I worked my way to the front to be ready for the attacks to start, and it didn't take long for me to applaud my return to 42cm bars after 3 years of 44s. They're just so much easier to wiggle through the pack!

The race started at the bottom of a gradual climb, and I was at the front. 4 guys immediately attacked and I was wishing so hard that a few ProTour riders would jump on so I could join. We would be playing conservatively, only following the moves that were really dangerous. After they got some leash, the real attacks started. The climb wasn't very steep, but we were going so fast that we couldn't pedal through some turns. After averaging 420W for the first 6 minutes of the race, we finally settled down.

I was feeling pretty good, so I settled in, ate a bar, and reviewed the tape on my stem for the next climb. The first bit of the race went smoothly. I drifted back on the first descent, as it was wet and I was still getting a feel for the tires and the brakes with the Shimano carbon rims. I also had to get used to the flow of the field as we navigated the innumerable roundabouts and other various road furniture.

Everything was going smoothly until we reached the first categorized climb of the day (but really the fourth or fifth climb), at which point I found myself out of position. As it turned out, this would affect the rest of my race. There were a few contributing factors: first, I didn't realize that we were so close to the climb. I had drifted back during another wet descent through a town (during which I checked off the list: hop a curb and ride on the sidewalk), and lost track of how many kilometers we'd already ridden because this is my first race with an SRM PowerControl. Its default screen does not show distance, and I'd failed to reset it when the flag dropped, so I had to take my hands off the bars and press a button to see the wrong distance, then do mental math to determine where we were on the course. Complicated, right? So I didn't know we were almost to the climb.

When I did realize it, the road had narrowed significantly and I simply couldn't move up. I stayed with the main field on the climb, although guys were getting dropped behind (I averaged 380W for 15min). The descent, though, was just as narrow as the climb, and the road was just as rough. We strung out single file as we navigated the myriad switchbacks. We finally bottomed out on a straight road and saw that the field had split in half, and I was in the wrong half along with Dries and Warren. We joined in the rotation, trying to catch the field in the few kilometers before the next climb started, but weren't really making up ground.

We were about 30 seconds behind at the base of the biggest climb of the day, at which point Warren (winner of two stages of the Vuelta last year) torched it, with Dries helping. I was just trying to hang on, as I averaged 400W for the first 15 minutes before falling off the pace just before we caught the field. So I worked in the chase group just dangling behind the main field, averaging 350 for the next 15 minutes as the climb flattened out and the speed increased.

By the top of the climb, we were cold and wet. There was snow lining the edges of the road, which was covered with runoff and making my feet very cold. We crested the climb about 45 seconds behind the tail end of the field, I took on the only fresh bottle of the day (there was no official feed zone in the whole race), and prepared myself for the descent. Soaking wet roads, a technical descent, cold, and a field that's not getting any closer. Leroy Jenkins, let's do this! I dropped the rest of my chase group in the first 3 corners and set off on my own.

Here is where I insert a plug for Vittoria tires and Shimano brakes and wheels. The tires didn't slip once through dozens of switchbacks and hard turns, and the brakes had great feeling, were smooth, and quickly cleaned the rims of moisture. I just had to focus on good lines and proper braking technique, and how much fun I was having beneath it all. I pushed hard the whole descent, and by the bottom 15 minutes later was halfway through the caravan, which was very stretched out as riders were spread all over the place and the officials were diligently barraging us from the back of the field.

I reached the front of the caravan and joined a group of about a dozen just as the final categorized climb was beginning. We had just 15 or 20 seconds left to close on the group, and I could see that my team was setting the pace on the front. After 15 minutes at 360W, we caught the field as we passed beneath the KOM banner. I immediately rode to the front to join my team, and Roy instructed me to use what remained of my energy (I was starting to drag by this point) by rotating with Dries at the front. There was one rider away solo with a bit over a minute gap, so we were simply riding a hard tempo to keep the field subdued and keep things together for John, who stood a great chance in the field sprint after one smaller remaining climb.

Another 15 minutes of working at the front, and then we hit the final climb. I fought for 5 minutes before finally sitting up and riding in to the finish, where I learned that John had gotten 4th in a tricky field sprint on a slight downhill with a headwind.

I knew going in that this would be a learning year, and my first race has already proven it. Let's go through the race again hypothetically, had I done everything right. By being in the right position on the earlier climb, I would have been in the front split and not had to chase to the bottom of the big climb. I could have climbed at the lead group's pace, instead of the faster pace in the chase group. I could have rested on the descent in the group, and done the next climb at the pace of the leaders. Then I would have been fresher for my work at the front and held on over the final climb and been able to contribute in the field sprint. It's a ripple effect, for sure! I've already figured out how to configure my SRM screen to show distance automatically, so that's one problem down.

I finished the day with a 280W average for 4 hours (including the neutral section), and a normalized power of 325. By the numbers, I actually had a pretty good day, but I was using my energy in the wrong place--off the back of the group! I'm also excited that these numbers come from the first race of the season, because I improve quickly with a bit of racing in my legs. In 2 days, we start the 5-day Etoile de Besseges, and the weather promises more rain. C'est la vie, right?

Also, here's a video recap of the race. You can see in the sprint finish why you should just focus on the sprint and not go looking around...ouch!