Thursday, April 17, 2014

Circuit de la Sarthe

With Volta Limburg behind us, most of our crew got to hang out in Holland for another day. Thierry was in the same boat as me, needing to get his legs going again, so we were up early the next morning to ride. We managed to get a small breakfast and were rolling by 8:15 with no small amount of self-satisfaction. It was a beautiful Sunday morning and hardly anybody was out. We had a great 2.5 hr ride that included the final 20km of the Amstel Gold Race--one that I'm not doing, but Thierry wanted to do a bit of recon.

We finished our ride and passed off the bikes to the mechanics so they could drive to France, where we would meet them a day later. The rest of the afternoon was spent watching the last few hours of De Ronde, one of the most exciting races I've seen in a long time.

The next day we were joined by Tobias. We had a versatile squad for the Circuit de la Sarthe, a 5-stages-in-4-days race that ran from Tuesday to Friday. Teams were limited to 6 riders each, which could lead to less-controlled and more exciting racing, especially with a field that didn't even reach 100 riders.

The first stage was over 200km including the neutral section. We expected the first hour to be aggressive racing as many teams would want to be in the break. The flag dropped and I tagged the first move. Then 3 riders from smaller teams went in the second move and the front of the field spread across the road and plugged it up. Within a minute of racing, the break was gone. Sometimes that's how it goes.

FDJ and Europcar wanted a field sprint and rode the front all day. It was one of those annoying days where the wind is weak and always slightly from the side. So the field just stretches out to single- or double-file and the whole day is spent by teams riding together and passive-aggressively fighting over position. Even though we all know nothing is going to happen until we reach the finish circuits, there's always the slight possibility. It's just very annoying and makes for a long day.

The course featured several KOMs, but the profile greatly exaggerated them. The bottom of the climbs were marked by '500m to KOM' signs, and they weren't steep. So we had a relatively calm day until the finish circuits.

We had underestimated the importance of position at the entry to the circuits. We still had 50km of racing to go, but as it turned out, there wasn't much moving up to be done. Thankfully Tobias and Jonas were already near the front, because Lawson and I were stuck towards the back. The teams that had control of the front were very smart about the pace they set. Where the road was wide, they went full gas and kept the field strung out. Then we turned onto a small road and they just sat up and clogged the road. So if you were outside the top 20 or 30, you really couldn't get to the front. My legs weren't helping--I didn't feel bad but I was definitely lacking.

Jonas managed 10th place, leaving us all a bit dissatisfied. I was angry at myself for failing to contribute and was determined to make up for it the following day.

Stage 2 was only 88km because we would have a time trial in the afternoon. Again we were prepared for a big fight for the break. No kidding, 3 guys slowly attacked at KM0 and the field sat up. An hour later we were nearing the circuits, and the fight for position began. We waited until late, moving up at the last moment. Success is reached one step at a time, and the first step was getting the team into the circuits at the front of the field. I was the second rider onto the circuits with the other guys behind me.

It was a good thing that we were at the front for the first lap--not because moving up was impossible again, but because the circuit was fairly dangerous and we were able to get through the first lap as the field figured it out. The circuit had several high-speed chicanes that were sharply narrowed by big plastic traffic barriers, leaving nowhere to go if things went wrong.

We did a good job of staying close as a team and keeping Tobias and Jonas at the front. I would get pushed back at times, but I always fought to stay near the others. On the final lap, the various leadouts started forming but the circuit made it very difficult for them all to stay together. With about 3k to go, Tobias and Jonas were near the front going into a wide headwind section. At the end of this stretch it wasn't as easy to move up so it was key that they reach the next turn in position. I was a bit further back, with Thierry in between. I knew from previous laps that the inside line always had some extra room for the turn onto the wider road, so I made a run into the corner and took it hot, exiting with extra speed. I yelled out to Thierry as I was coming by, so he jumped on and we rode up to join Tobias and Jonas. That uphill headwind drag was painful and used up all I had left, but the other 3 were together at the front for the next turn, so job completed.

In the final 2k, Tobias and Thierry kept Jonas in good position and he unleashed a very fast sprint and brought home his first (and the team's 16th) win of the year. We were all smiles as we headed to the hotel for a quick meal and shower between stages.

The time trial was short, at just under 7km. It used much of the finishing circuit from the morning stage. I made sure to get a couple practice laps on the course, which was good as the new corners were tricky. Then it was race time--I was super excited, as I always am for short time trials. They never feel good, but I can at least tell when I'm going fast. I left everything I had out there, but never felt like I was going fast. I ended up in 55th place, not even top half of the field. I was incredibly frustrated and confused.

We had permission to go in the break on stage 4, so I made sure to be on the commissaire's bumper when we reached KM0 in case it was the first attack that rolled away again. 20km of attacks later, it was clear that certain teams were not allowed to be in the break, and again a small break of 3 was allowed to roll away.

The stage was another 200km day, but finished on circuits that featured a tough 8-minute climb. Tobias and Jonas pulled out in the feedzone--Tobias was suffering from ankle pain from a crash at his last race and Jonas had stomach problems.

The first lap on the circuit, I was too far back on the climb after a fast downhill fight for the turn. I was really comfortable, but then the next lap we went full gas and the field exploded. I felt terrible and ended up in the grupetto. I had no problem with the endurance aspect of the long stage, nearly reaching 5000kJ, but my top end was just not there. To make me even more miserable, there were bugs all over the place on the climb. My jersey had been unzipped the first lap and now I had bugs crawling around in my jersey and biting me.

Our hotel that night was located on the famous Circuit de la Sarthe motorsport track. I have never closely followed the 24hrs of Le Mans race, but back when I was a gamer, I drove countless laps of the circuit on my Playstation. On our way to the race start the following morning, we were driving on the Mulsanne straight. Just another cool place that cycling has taken me.

The last stage started with a flurry of attacks again, once more showing that certain teams were not allowed in the break. When a group of 3 got away Garmin took to the front after taking yellow the previous day. They were riding easy to let the break get some leash, but the break knew this and were taking it easy as well. Back in the field, we were bored out of our minds. Sometimes racing at this level is unbelievably hard, and sometimes you average 180w for almost 2 hours.

The last 80km of the race were on the finishing circuit--8 laps with a tough 500m climb. Once we reached the top, there were a few minutes of speedwork as the field stayed single file through a series of turns. I didn't feel great, but I was surviving just fine. With nothing to lose, I was going to try attacking on one of the later laps when other guys had the same idea. Turns out I didn't feel have enough to go with them and decided just to stay with the front group and finish the race. I didn't want a third consecutive DNF. Just finishing the race without a result would be good for my head, so I became a passenger and made it to the finish with the main field, just behind the break that had eluded me a few laps earlier.

Once finished, I got cleaned up and packed up and settled in for a 6 hour drive to Brussels. The following morning, Lawson and I wrangled our herd of luggage to the airport, bound for America! I'm now back in Colorado, enjoying an easy week as I get acclimated to the altitude, then it's back to work for a couple of weeks. Next up: Tour of California!