Thursday, March 20, 2014

Nokere Koerse

After taking a few days of rest following the 3 Days of West Flanders so that my legs could really soak up the racing, it was back to work. With some big racing on the horizon and limited opportunities for training, my coach and I agreed that it was best to use my next race, Nokere Koerse, as a training race to help build form. So in the week preceding the race, I slowly built up the miles. I racked up 600km in the 6 days before Nokere, but really wasn’t feeling fatigued at all.

Upon arrival at our hotel in Belgium, the first thing I noticed was the size and decoration of the dining room. Such a room must have a piano, and a quick look to my left confirmed it. You must understand that my piano radar is always running. It was a nice old baby-grand piano, and I casually walked over and found that the lid was not locked.

Before I decide to break the rules (“Please do not touch the piano” signs merely enhance the adrenaline rush), I always ask permission. Pleased to hear that I was welcome to play anytime, my excitement was dampened when I discovered that the pedal wasn’t functioning. Unable to find the cause of the malfunction because of all the decorative candles atop the lid, I had to settle for a lackluster sound. Even though I only played for a short while, you’d be surprised to know just what effect it can have on an already positive morale.

Breakfast before the race was the usual affair, except for one notable event: I had Speculoos (analagous to the American Cookie Butter) for the first time. I’d heard plenty of warnings from teammates about how dangerous this stuff is, and after having some, I must ask you all to never allow me to buy a jar. In the world of spreads, the hierarchy is as follows: peanut butter in third place, Nutella in second, and Speculoos running away with the gold medal. It’s basically spread-able toffee. Candy in paste form. Very dangerous stuff!

The race was only a few hundred meters shy of 200km(123mi). It would feature fewer climbs and cobbled sections than Driedaagse, but promised to be a tough race nonetheless. This so-called “semi-classic” race started off with 2 short climbs in the first 5km, a fast cobbles section in the middle, and concluding with 8 laps of a 15km circuit. The final 250m to the finish each lap was a cobbled climb that got steeper as you neared the line.

With only 1km neutral section and the climbs so soon after the start, I made doubly sure to be at the start line 20 minutes early. No warmup, but at least I was starting at the front!

The start was very frantic, and I just surfed the wheels waiting for the climbs. I didn’t want to kill myself following moves before it actually got hard, and this proved to be a smart choice. On reaching the bottom of the first climb, attacks started flying immediately. I wanted to wait until halfway up before following anything because we were going ridiculously hard. Patience paid off, because the guys that attacked from the bottom soon faded and I found myself tagging a strong move.

The agony filling my legs was incredible. We came over the top of the climb and traded a few pulls on the short flat section before the next kicker. When the group caught us on the next hill and more attacks started going, I finally hit the wall and had to drift back. The first 9 minutes of the race after a completely cold start were an average of 425watts (454 normalized). I set a 3-minute power record on the climb of 550w, the beginning of my 5:30 spent in the move, averaging 470w (490 normalized). For those who don’t understand the numbers, the translation: it was very very hard.

While I recovered, I drifted a bit too far back. I wish I had suffered a little bit more and fought to stay closer to the front, because by the time I was recovered again, I was stuck mid-pack and unable to help with following moves. I could see a couple of small groups had gotten away. Cheng was in one of them, which was good for us. Unfortunately, as the two groups merged into one very dangerous move, Cheng suffered some serious stomach cramps and came back to the field. Without anyone in a group of 17, we had screwed up. The good news was that other teams had missed it as well, and we “settled in” for a long day of chasing. By the time we reached the local laps the gap was holding steady in the 2-3minutes range. There were 17 strong riders up ahead, but the field had as many rotating hard on the front with plenty more available when they started to fade.

It was a windy day, but there were not many places on the lap where it was a direct crosswind. As the laps ticked by, I was learning the best places to move up easily and where I needed to be at the front. I was doing my best to keep an eye on Luka before the crosswind sections to help him move up and stay out of the wind. He was our best bet in the finish and he needed to be fresh. Up in front, Tom and Loh were wearing themselves out in the rotation to bring back the break. The gap steadily dropped. In the closing laps, a few riders started falling back to the field from the break as they cracked.

Back in the field, we started putting together our leadout plan. We would be a bit short-staffed, but we would do our best. Lawson and I needed to get Jonas and Luka in a good position before the road bottle-necked at 1.5km to go.

On the final lap, the pace continued to pick up as all the leadout trains started fighting for position. Lawson helped the 3 of us stay near the front, but was separated from us after a series of turns. As the crucial moment neared, I did my best to keep Jonas and Luka out of the wind and out of trouble as we came up over a hill. I finally cracked as we got over the top. They were in a good spot, but after the fast downhill and hectic roundabout, they were stuck too far back. With just that short rest I was ready to go again, but once again had drifted too far back and could not get back to them. The lesson that I learned for the second time yesterday was to fight just a tiny bit longer when there is a brief rest coming up. Had I managed to just stay a bit closer to them, I could have a made a difference in the outcome. Part of the problem is that I’m still adjusting to making the intense end-of-race efforts. I’m used to these efforts after 3.5 hours, but now they are an hour and 1000kJ later. It makes a big difference!

As it was, Luka and Jonas were pinned to the edge of the road on the downwind side of the field. They had plenty of draft but no ability to move up and could not contest the field sprint. It was certainly a disappointing day for us, but once again I will come out of it with better legs and some lessons learned. The race finished at just under 4.5 hours. I averaged 290w (330 normalized), for a bit over 4500kJ.

I now have a few days to recover before heading to Spain for my first WorldTour race, the Volta a Catalunya. It will be my first mass-start race with race radios, and the new experiences keep coming!