Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Driedaagse van West-Vlaanderen

Among American bike racers, Europe is the yardstick by which you are measured. Cycling has been established here as a major sport for so long that it is widely accepted that Europe is the true test of a racer. "Well he's good in America, but I wonder how he'll handle racing in Europe." And if Europe is the yardstick, Belgium is the measurement mark at the top.

Never one to just dip a toe in the water, my first race on Belgian ground was the 3 Days of West Flanders.

The race began on Friday with a 7km prologue time trial. A very simple course: 200m off the ramp, a right turn into a solid headwind. Go out for ~3km, two quick rights, and ~3km back with a ripping tailwind. A pure power and aerodynamics course. The last time I raced a flat, fast prologue of this length in a 2.1-ranked race, I won. But the Tour of Elk Grove is not the same as a 2.1 in Belgium--the field was much deeper this time.

I would be the last to start on our team. Some guys don't like to spend the whole day waiting for an 8-minute effort, but I'd much rather get to the race 4 hours before my start than to feel rushed. I had plenty of time to get feedback from each of my teammates as they returned from their efforts. The winds had really picked up for the earlier guys, but died down a little by the time I started in the late afternoon.

I had done two practice laps of the course earlier--if there are only 3 turns in the race, I may as well know how to really rip through them! While I was warming up, I was running through the pacing in my mind. I visualize each turn, the gear shifts that I need to make while approaching each one and the points at which I brake, dive into the turn, and get on the gas at the exit. I also think about how much I should be hurting at various points in the race. I have always time-trialed by feel (without a power meter), so this is easy for me to do.

Everyone believed that I was capable of a top-10 result, so that was my minimum acceptable placing. I was racing to win.

Finishing a time trial in a headwind is simple: hold back a bit until you make the turn, then light the whole matchbook on the way to the finish. Finishing with a tailwind is tricky. There's not as much time to make up on the return leg, so you've got to burn most of the matches getting to the turnaround and hope you have enough left to get home. Having decided that I was racing to the turnaround almost as if it were the finish, I went for it.

The first 200m off the ramp were sheltered from the wind, so I picked up as much speed as possible before the first turn. I hit the turn full-gas, then sprinted out of it and immediately made myself as small as possible. My coach in the follow car said that I came out of the turn at 50kph and accelerated from there. In hindsight, doing the first kilometer over 50kph into a headwind may have been a bit much, but I was racing to the turnaround, remember?

I stayed as small as possible, fighting to maintain speed, knowing that I would get a short rest in the turns later on. I finally got there, and then the fun began. The first part of the return leg was twisty, so ripping through each turn in the 11-tooth distracted me from the quickly-growing agony in my legs. There was one crosswalk ramp that I knew to hold on extra tight for. I hit it at 60+kph and was in the air for a moment. A couple sweeping turns later and I popped onto the 1.5km finish drag. Dead straight and wide, all that was left to do was get every last bit of energy from my legs. I was starting to regret the pace of the first kilometer as I really ran out of steam, but I crossed  the line at 8:10, good enough for 10th place with an average speed of 51.4kph (31.7mph). I was satisfied, but I think if I had gone a couple of seconds slower in the first kilometer, I would have more than made them back in the last two.

Stage 1 was 183km (113mi), mostly flat but with a handful of cobblestone sections and one cobbled climb, the Kwaremont. We had a conservative gameplan, as we had only 6 guys in the race. The goal was for me to maintain my 10th in GC and for Luka to feature in the expected field sprint.

The first time I did a Pro/1 cyclocross race, I was shocked at how physical the battle for position was on the first lap, especially the holeshot. During stage 1, I frequently wondered whether I was actually in a cyclocross race. With all of the traffic furniture creating frequent bottlenecks in the road, the cyclocross holeshot fight was happening every time. A bottleneck or turn would appear up the road and everyone would just start sprinting. The guys that won the battle got to shoot through at full speed, while everyone else's penalty for losing was panic-braking, then sprinting back up to speed. Some guys would seek alternate routes around or over the obstacle.

The race became a blur of sprinting towards some unknown bottleneck that all the locals knew about but I was unaware of, slamming on the brakes, and sprinting back up to speed. The road surface and conditions changed frequently, and you have to be prepared at any moment to jump over a crack, curb, ride in the grass, on the sidewalk, and so on. It was a high-speed obstacle course.

The race got more interesting when cobbles were approaching. Suddenly the fight for position became as fierce as a sprint finish. We would be on a wide road, banging bars, pushing and shoving as the speed constantly increased, then make a turn onto a one-lane cobblestone road. In what became my pattern for the weekend, I was always at the front just 500m too soon. All the guys who have raced these roads their whole lives know the exact moment to time their surge to the front, pushing me back to mid-pack just before the turn. Very frustrating.

It was my first time to race on proper cobbles. I can be light and smooth on the bike, so I found the fast sections to be fine, even as my hands and feet quickly went numb from the overwhelming vibrations. The closest way to simulate this in the US is riding a rumble-strip on the highway, but the even spacing of a rumble-strip might make the ride too pleasant.

I was even able to move up through the field on the fast cobbled sectors. On the slow stuff, though, it was very difficult to get into a rhythm as I was bounced all over the place.

The fight for position before the Kwaremont was hilarious, a vicious battle for position before a turn onto a road that as barely the width of a small European car. Then the guys at the front slowed to a crawl as they could relax. With the road completely clogged, they were in control. So we pedaled easily to the bottom of the climb, then they took off. The road pitched up and turned to cobbles, and things went sour when the guys in front of me crossed wheels and fell over. I had to unclip, then could not get moving again. At one point I had both feet on the ground. By the time I got over the top, I was in a chase group a long way back. After 15k of chasing, the race was back together.

In a very nervous field sprint, I finished around 50th. I maintained my GC place, but there was a time gap of 4 seconds. Luka is still finding his field sprint legs and faded in the finale after hitting the front too early, but we had another chance.

Sunday's stage was basically the same, and things played out the same. Chaotic racing over an obstacle course, lots of panic-braking and sprinting, and finding myself at the front just 500m too soon before the important moments. The positioning fight was the most illuminating part of the weekend. For the main cobbled climb of the day, I needed to be at the front 15km beforehand because the roads just weren't conducive to moving up in the pack; the road was completely clogged up and I was stuck mid-pack.

The race exploded over the final cobbled sector, and our group didn't rejoin the leaders until we entered the finishing circuits at 30k to go. The circuits were brutal, with many turns on narrow roads--we were single file almost the whole time.  I finally made it to the front at the start of the last lap, getting Luka into position for the sprint, but my legs were fading fast and I drifted back. When the field split in the last few K, my group finished 8 seconds behind the leaders.

In the end I dropped to 14th in GC, which is a good result for my first Belgian race, no doubt. But with better positioning, I would have finished 5th or 6th in GC simply by not losing time in the field sprints. Part of the problem was legs, as I have not done a race like this in a long time. I've been doing races with steady hard efforts, not repeated sprints, so it was a shock to the system.

Just to give you an idea, I had Teun, the team's data guru, analyse my power data from the last stage. The number of times I did a 5-second effort over 800 watts? 39. 39! 21 times it was 10 seconds over 700 watts.  Add to that the dozens of times I did a 500w effort for 20-30 seconds in the gutter, and you have a tiring day. All that in a 4.5hour race in which I averaged 283 watts (330w normalized). I spent 72 minutes (27% of the race) over 400 watts.

In summary: I can only imagine the chaos that would have transpired had it also been raining. Don't worry, though, I have another chance of experiencing a 'real' Belgian race on the 19th, with Nokere Koerse.