Sunday, June 29, 2014

A Day in Lucca and a tangent

Things are going well here in Lucca. It’s not hard to enjoy a break from racing when it coincides with summertime in Tuscany! I’m riding a handful of times a week, but always less than 2 hours, as was the case yesterday. Ben and I went for a spin with motorcycle-racing star Andrew Pitt and Tim, a transplant from the UK who moved here a few years ago, learned the language, and is now a cyclo-tourism guide. We call Tim the Mayor of Lucca because he knows everybody in this little city.

After a relaxing afternoon, we walked into the city center to meet Tim and Andrew’s family for dinner. The evening weather here is incredible, and every restaurant is empty because everyone is dining outside. Andrew’s wife is from Lucca, and we were captivated by her accent—Italian with a blend of Australian that she picked up from Andrew. It was a trip to listen to, for sure.

After dinner we walked over to a bike show, where a local frame-builder had a line-up of bikes on display. I got to ride a fatbike for the first time. I’ve got to get one of those for the snowy days in Colorado. As a bonus, the thing is a wheelie machine. You wouldn’t think so with tires bigger than my legs, but the geometry just works!

This bike show was the hipster hangout for the evening, with the piazza riddled with fixies. Everyone was passing bikes around, so I got to play a bit, showing off my backwards circles. Eventually I found myself atop a brakeless fixie bmx, definitely a first for me. Unfortunately there wasn’t much that I could do without a freewheel, but I still managed to come pretty close to a tailwhip. It was for the best that I couldn’t do much, because it kept me from trying things that could just get me hurt.

We then wandered up to the wall to see the spectacle that was a world-record attempt for the longest dinner table. As a celebration of the wall’s 500th anniversary of its construction, there were thousands of people dining at a 2km-long table. They were setting the records of longest dinner table and longest table atop a national monument. The only way to cap off the evening, of course, was with a cup of gelato.

That short time on the bmx got me thinking about my own back at home—the story behind it and how much it means to me.

As kids, Shane and I had two ways of getting the toys that we wanted. Wait for our birthday or Christmas to roll around, or earn and save the money to buy it ourselves. We certainly wished there were easier ways to get cool stuff, but it taught us to work for what we wanted and to take care of our stuff.

I wanted a PlayStation when I was 10, so I spent a day laying sod in a neighbor’s yard to earn the $100 I needed. I would go on to mow thousands of yards and work two summers at an engineering internship to pay for the truck I wanted.

When I wasn’t mowing yards as a young teen, I was roaming the neighborhood streets on my bmx. I was on a chrome Mongoose that I’d bought for $150 at Wal-Mart. It got the job done, but I wanted a nice bike that was unlike anybody else’s. So I started buying parts. I spent hours scouring ebay for the best deals, picking the parts one at a time to make the best-looking bike the world had ever seen. It took months, and the bike slowly came together.

There was a learning curve, though, as my mechanic skills and knowledge were as yet under-developed. I had a handful of minor parts that were the wrong size, which set me back a little money and time. Finally, just before spring break of my sophomore year of high school, I had all the last few parts. I had spent over $600—more than twice what I had budgeted, but that’s how custom builds go.

The result was everything I could have hoped for. The Frankenstein build was not perfect, as it was my first time to build a bike, but it was perfect to me. Over the remaining years of high school, I would go on to spend innumerable hours learning and perfecting tricks while accumulating a collection of scars on my legs.

That bike was my escape, my refuge. Of all the things I own in this world, I would consider my bmx to be one of a handful of prized possessions. I actually considered selling it when I ran out of money in 2011, but knew that the price I would get for it wouldn’t even approach what it was worth to me. Instead, I converted it from a bmx park/flatland bike to a dirt-jumper.

These days, I only pull it out once a year, and only for a short spin. After about half an hour I start to get too comfortable and start trying tricks that inevitably put me on the pavement, and it’s best that I avoid that.

This view is like a time machine for me
Nowadays, I just ride it for the feelings and memories that it brings back. Of all the bikes in my stable that come and go, the dust-covered one with flat tires in the corner, whose valuation pales in comparison to even the most trivial component on my race bike, well, that one is my favorite.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Criterium du Dauphine

With the Belgium Tour completed, I had just one race left in the first half of my season. I had the best form of the whole season so far and was really excited for my second WorldTour race, the Criterium du Dauphine. Used as preparation for many of the Tour de France contenders, it would definitely be a tough race. We were taking a young team to hunt stage wins primarily, but Daan and I would also have the opportunity to give the GC a shot.

I was under no delusions, however, that I would be a true GC contender like Froome or Contador, but I was hopeful that I could perhaps make a top-15 or top-20 result.  It all depended on which legs I brought to the race—whether my good form would continue to build after California and Belgium.

The first stage was a 10km TT that featured a short climb and very technical descent in the middle. The beginning and end were flat with a handful of fast corners. Seeing as my best TT results are in short time trials, I was especially excited for this one. I was able to get 2 laps in before my race and planned my pacing around the climb in the middle. Basically, the top of the climb was nearly a finish line in itself, as the descent would provide at least a minute of recovery. I started off just as planned, averaging 450W for the first 6 minutes to the top of the climb (including 2 minutes on the climb at 500W). I was pretty well gassed at the top but knew that recovery was on the way, and was only 8 seconds behind Nibali at the time check.

I took the descent as fast as I could, but I’m just not very comfortable descending on the TT bike. I never understood, while watching races on TV, when the commentators said that handling these bikes at speed can be awkward. I told myself that when I became a pro, I would show everybody how to rail corners with a TT bike. Now that I’m here…let me say that I can corner very well on flat ground, but when pointed downhill, things become awkward. The forward position on the bike, the very low handlebars, and brakes that behave differently than on my road bike all combine to make for an awkward descent.

All that to say that I was only average on the descent. To go really fast you had to take real risks, so I’m sure I lost a little time to some, but I made it to the bottom safely and ready to put the power down to the finish. But it seems I left my legs at the top of the hill, as I struggled to make it to the finish. I wasn’t helped by the headwind that had been building all day, which was much stronger for the final riders than those who started in the morning. But even without the headwind, I failed to average even 400W for the final 6 minutes. 

It seems that I had not done quite enough in the way of openers before the race and my legs didn’t want to make a second effort. I had taken a pretty easy week after Belgium, and at this point in the season my body thought that meant it was time to go into recovery mode. My effort in the TT was good enough for top-50, 30 seconds behind Froome’s winning time. Had my legs performed as expected, I would have been 15 seconds faster in that last 6 minutes. Oh well, nothing to do but move forward onto the next stage.

Not much of interest happened on stage 2 until the final climb. The breakaway got clear immediately, as the field wanted a relaxed stage until the end, when they knew that Sky would bring it back so the GC riders could have it out. The day was really hot, though. I was going through bottles faster than all of my teammates but still felt like I was playing catch-up with hydration the whole day. I was comfortable on all the climbs throughout the stage, so I was hopeful for a good finish. I was proud of myself for how well I was holding position at the front before the climb, but then it fell apart for me right at the most crucial moment, and I entered the climb mid-pack.

I was immediately in difficulty, and trying to decide how long to hold on. I know that I can’t climb with the big guys all the way up, so it’s always a question of when to drop off the pace. If I fight for too long, I could do more harm than good if I have to back off to recover. But dropping off immediately, if it’s a fast climb, means I’m wasting energy in the wind. I ended up holding on to the leaders’ pace for 9 minutes at 400W, still going a bit too deep and having to slow down and recover in the middle of the climb. Again, my legs were disappointing as I went on to finish nearly 5 minutes down from Froome after averaging just 360W for the 40-minute climb. The heat may have contributed, as Daan also fell apart. Once again, nothing to do but look towards the remaining stages.

Stage 3 looked to be the most likely stage for a sprint finish, so we were all-in for Nikias and Reinardt. Just as the day before, a break of 3 rolled away immediately. It was another hot day, and we would have a headwind all-day. The break was struggling the whole day, so we were going excruciatingly slow behind. By the 3 hour point, we had only covered 90km of the nearly 200km day. Sky was riding the front easily and the gap was barely increasing. Eventually Trek and FDJ contributed riders to the chase, as they wanted a field sprint, but they were going too fast. The gap plummeted to 3 minutes with 90km still left to race. We were asked to contribute a rider to the chase, but there was simply no reason with a gap so small.

We wound our way through a valley with rolling climbs and descents on small roads that were literally melting in the sun. They were freshly chip-sealed and the tar was sticky, causing us to fling gravel everywhere with our tires. With the last climb of the day nearing, we wanted to get the team together so Nikias and Reini could start it at the front. On one fast downhill section, there was a hole in the road on the slick melted tarmac. The rider in front of me panicked to avoid the hole and got into the rider next to him, coming back 
into me. I had to slam on the brakes while I bounced off of them, and was consequently slammed by the rider behind me. I got tossed forward but managed to stay on my bike, but I heard the unmistakable sound a huge pileup behind me. We knew that Reinardt had at least been held up by the crash, but weren’t certain that he’d gone down. We later found out that on the melted road surface, his front wheel washed out as soon as he touched the brakes. Thankfully he only suffered some road rash and was able to chase back after the final climb with the help of Dries and Thierry.

Up ahead, we were doing our only real effort of the day on the last climb. I averaged 380W for 11 minutes, but it was hot enough that it felt like a lot more. After the descent, the last 40km were dead flat and straight, so the field regrouped. The original break was nearly caught, and while teams decided who should control the front, more riders attacked. At one point there were 8 riders getting away, with less than 20km remaining. We put Thomas and Daan in the chase while the rest of us stayed together further back and waited for the right moment.

Since we didn’t have a team for a proper leadout, our plan would be to take control around 3km to go. Ideally, we would stay in control until 1km to go, at which point there were several corners. Then, Nikias and Reini could move onto another team’s leadout. We just had to keep them in front until that point. Once the break had been pulled back, we started moving up on the right side. The road had periodic roundabouts that we had to navigate, but was fairly wide and straight. We stayed patient, and always hard right on the road so that we only had to defend our position from one side. Finally we arrived at the front with 7 riders, taking control at 4k to go. A bit earlier than planned, but not a bad decision it turned out. I knew that I was to get them inside 2k to go, so Dries and I traded pulls for a bit until it was time to start winding it up. Dries had an awesome pull to get to 2k, so I just had to keep the pace high as long as I could manage. We reached a narrow section with road construction that made us glad to be on the front, as there had been no mention of it in the race manual. I finally swung off at 1.5k to go. Thierry and then Johannes kept the guys in position until 1k as planned, where they entered the final turn in 10th position. In the long sprint, it ended up being  Nikias who came out fastest and held on to win by inches with Reinardt rounding out the podium for 3rd. We were all incredibly excited to have taken a stage—we now had a result to hang our hats on for the week! Although it was a long stage and was fast at the end, I averaged only 195W for 5.5 hours.

Stage 4 would finish with the famous descent into Gap—you know, the one where Lance rode across the field after Beloki’s crash. The stage was set up perfectly for a breakaway to survive. Sky would let a break that didn’t pose a GC threat get away, then they could ride at a comfortable pace and not take risks on the descent to the finish. With that in mind, I wanted to be in the break. There’s only one way to win with that finish, and it’s solo. Attack over the top of the climb, rail the descent, post up. That’s what I had in mind…me and 160 other guys.

Even though we expected a big fight for the breakaway, I was still hopeful that it would get away quickly, so I made sure to be at the front following moves from KM0. That’s when I learned that a ‘big fight’ for the breakaway in a WorldTour Race is a very different thing than at other races like Tour of California. It seems that when you remove the Continental Teams and add in a dozen more ProTour teams, the effort required to make the break goes up as well. Who knew?

I averaged 425W for the first 5 minutes, jumping into several moves. Then I did my best to recover for a few minutes before we reached a low-grade, uncategorized climb. Certain that the field would not want to chase full-gas on the climb, I started jumping in moves again… With 2K still to go on the climb, I was just trying to hang on, averaging 417W for 11min. We got over the top and the attacks continued. By the time I was recovered and able to get back to the front 10 minutes later, a large break had finally gotten away without any of us in it. The highest-placed rider in the move was only a couple of minutes down, so Sky started riding immediately to keep the gap small.

Nothing else happened until the final climb, where I decided to see if I could stay with the leaders over the top. The gap was still small and there was a chance that the break would come back, so I wanted to be there. The other guys would save their energy for the coming stages, but agreed to help me start the climb at the front. The fight was on a really fast, wide downhill, a high-speed washing machine. Reinardt and I were doing a good job of staying together at the front, but got screwed by a rider that chose the long way around a key roundabout. We had already slowed down to take the short way through when he suddenly swung left, pushing us out. At that point we were nearly at the climb and the road had narrowed, so I was forced to start the climb pretty far back. As soon as the road pitched up, dozens of guys sat up for the grupetto and I as faced with a 50m gap to the main field. Unsure if I should pull the plug, I decided to calmly give chase and see what happened. I rode a hard pace for a couple of minutes and managed to regain the field. They were climbing at a hard pace, but I was even comfortable at times. It was here that I wished I had some of my matches back from earlier in the stage—Hesjedal and Van Garderen attacked and I didn’t quite have the legs to follow. Most of the breakaway stayed away, and the winner was solo, of course. Even though the leaders didn’t go full gas over the climb, it was good for my head to make the front group.

I wanted to be in the break again on stage 5. But the break had succeeded the day before, so now the fight was even harder now that guys really believed in it. Ever the optimist, I still burned matches following moves in the first 5 minutes, averaging 445W before I had to ease off. After recovering a bit, I was trying to get back to the front when the huge pileup occurred, blocking the road. In my effort to avoid piling on top, I ended up riding off the road along with many other guys. While I was hiking back to the pavement, Reinardt, Johannes, and Thierry were assessing their injuries. Thankfully all were able to continue.

With so many guys down and the break still not gone, the field self-neutralized for a while. Then the attacks started again. I knew I needed to be up there, but my legs were feeling a bit empty after the previous day’s efforts. Nikias and Dries were doing a ton of work to be in the move and couldn’t last forever. I finally was able to cover one big move before Dries was able to escape with several others. At this point we were 50km into the race and were running out of water quickly. The field eased up until Europcar, who had missed the move, put their team on the front and chased full gas up the category 2 climb, causing the field to explode into several groups. We finally eased up once we reached the bottom on the other side. The break was now close to 20 riders, and again Sky had to keep it on a short leash. In the end, Nikias was our top finisher on the day after Dries cracked after a really tough day out front. The rest of us cruised in ready to fight another day.

Stage 6 was another perfect stage for a breakaway. This time I tried to be a bit smarter about which moves I was following. My legs felt better but I didn’t want to waste a bunch of energy needlessly. I still averaged 420W for 8 minutes at one point. We were doing a really good job as a team of making sure to have somebody in every move, and finally Thomas got away with another big group and the field relaxed. The race went by quickly as Sky couldn’t give the break much time. Thomas would go on to finish 13th when the break made it to the finish while the rest of us enjoyed a stress-free ride to the finish.

Not that morale was hurting, but it certainly received a boost when I found a piano waiting for me at our hotel.  I finally had a chance to show my new team what I can do!

Stage 7 was going to be a kick in the pants no matter which way you sliced it. The stage had over 4000m of climbing (14000 feet) on 5 tough climbs. I gambled that, with such a tough stage, the break would go before the first climb. So I was in just about every move before that first climb, averaging 390W (417NP) for the first 20 minutes of the race. Then we reached the climb and the attacks continued—my gamble had backfired.

What I also didn’t anticipate is that my left Achilles was sore from the start. It’s a problem I used to have frequently years ago, but now it usually pops up once a year and I can predict the type of race that will cause it. With massage, stretching, and tape, I’ll be fine, but that’s not possible during the stage. This time, it caught me by surprise. After going so hard at the start, it became really sore on the climb. I was gassed and in pain, and getting dropped. I pushed to average 340W for the 30-minute climb and then had some chasing to do.
I was really struggling mentally at that point. I was intimidated by the thought of all the climbs still to come if I was already in pain, and learned that Thierry had crashed and abandoned the race along with Reini, who had finally pulled the plug after 2 hard crashes earlier in the week. I really wanted to quit, but thanks to Christian for the encouragement and a bit of motorpacing, I was back to the field when they stopped for a pee break. After a visit to the medic’s car for some numbing spray and ibuprofen, I decided to push on and see how the rest of the stage went.

Thankfully the stage was relaxed over the next two climbs and I was able to sit in without too much discomfort. Then on the penultimate HC climb I immediately joined the grupetto and took it as easy as possible to the finish. As my reward for finishing, we got to descend the final climb, which was a lot of fun. As an added bonus, I had finally cracked 5000kJ for the first time all year after coming so close many times.

This time, I did need a morale boost, and I found it in another piano at our last hotel. With the late start of the final stage, I was able to get in nice practice session after dinner and breakfast, which put me in  good mood for sure.

The final stage was a short one at only 130km, but it was not going to be a parade. Thanks to massage, stretching, and some tape, my Achilles felt great. I was excited to finish the race strong, wearing myself out before my summer break.

 We got started with a 10k descent, straight into a cat 2 climb. Johannes managed to slip away with the group that split off on the descent, but I was biding my time. As the descent flattened out, I worked my way to the front. When we reached the base, I was in the top 10 and ready to go. Things went crazy immediately with a lot of big names attacking. I felt good but still did not have the legs to go on the attack there. I just wanted to hang on and save my matches for later, so I slotted in behind the TInkoff team, expecting that they would pull things back together. I averaged 410W for 12 minutes just to stay in the front group as the field exploded, so it was clear that the break was filled with really strong riders.

By the time the road flattened out at the top, there was a big group off the front with the likes of Talansky and Van Garderen, etc.

Then I made the tragic mistake of failing to consider that it was the last stage and that it was a war out there. I didn’t even try to be at the front for the next climb, expecting that Tinkoff would just set a fast pace until the base of the penultimate climb, at which point everybody would go as fast as they could. So I was nowhere near a position to follow when Sky attacked at the base of the climb, taking Contador with them.

I got to the front as quickly as I could. I still felt really good and was climbing comfortably. My only hope was that Contador’s team (most of whom were back in the main field) would be able to chase back the attacking group so that they could help him. They chased for a long time, but it would never come back together and we just cruised to the finish. It was a really exciting race--made even more so when the rain started—and I felt good, but I wasted my opportunity with a moment of inattentiveness.

So while I left the week without a result personally, we did win a stage. And while my legs were never quite what I was hoping for, I felt best on the last day, which is a long way from how Catalunya went for me. On top of that, Dauphine was harder than Catalunya by the numbers. All things considered, I’m very encouraged with the form I was able to carry through California, Belgium, and Dauphine, and I think it bodes well for the rest of my season that I was able to reach my summer break without being physically ruined, something that has never happened before.

Now I get to kick back and relax for a few weeks. I sure hope I can find a way to enjoy Tuscany in the summer.... 

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Baloise Belgium Tour

After the Tour of California, I was immediately headed back to Italy in recovery mode for my next race, the Baloise Belgium Tour. Even after a hard 8 days of racing, I wasn’t feeling very tired, which bodes well for the rest of my season. I got in a handful of great rides around Lucca, with a lot of exploring, then I was off to Belgium.

Our squad was centered around Jonas for the sprint stages and Tom Dumoulin for the GC, but I would be allowed to see what I could do in the GC as well. We had a lot of experience on the team with Roy, Koen, and Dries, which brings me to my second objective for the race—to get better at positioning in the races by learning how these guys do it.

The first stage started under gloomy skies and an intermittent light mist. We wanted a field sprint but didn’t want to ride the front all day, so we were just making sure that nobody from Lotto or Omega managed to slip into the break as we completed the starting circuits.

With a small break gone, we headed out of town and enjoyed a fast cruise with a tailwind to the finishing circuits. At one point, the field had to stop for a train, giving the break a bonus 90 seconds, so we sent Cheng to the front to contribute to the chase. Soon enough things were back under control and it was apparent that the break would come back before the finish after all.

On our first lap of the finish circuits, it was quite clear that the last lap could be a real mess. On the 20km lap, there were several places where we made a hard turn from a wide road onto a very narrow road. Sure enough, on the final lap, we learned that there were quite a few ‘cowboys’ in the race. Remember how I once likened Belgian races to cyclocross? Well that analogy was even more true, as the race included a couple of Belgian cyclocross teams who pretty much did whatever they wanted and fought like every turn was the holeshot. I was sent to the race to learn the positioning battle, but the intensity of the fighting had been turned up!

With about 10km to go we had the team assembled near the front, but that was also the source of the trouble. On a difficult and sketchy circuit, it is always easiest when you have control of the front, but our team lacked the horsepower to take over from Omega, who had a very deep roster. So instead we were in the scrum behind, getting chopped and late-breaked at every turn.

Around 5k to go, some guys stacked it up at one of the hard turns. I was certain that I was going down, but you just have to fight it all the way. After bouncing off a couple of guys while in a nose-wheelie, I was through, and sprinting to close the gap that had opened. Koen had also been held up by the crash. By this point it was too late to get back to the front, as Omega was already doing 50kph, winding up their leadout. 

We just had to stay in the wheels and hang on to the finish. Jonas managed 4th place after sprinting from a long way back, so we knew he had good legs if we could just get the leadout right.

Stage 2 was quite similar to the first, with a couple of start circuits, a long ride on big roads across Belgium, and then local laps at the finish. It was a very easy day for most of the race, only getting difficult in the last 40km. The last 7km were technical with a lot of turns, so we used the early laps as practice at assembling our train. On the last lap, the fight for position at the front began with 20km remaining. We got the team together and got to the front, pulling up next to Omega. That only lasted for a short while, though, before a big wave came over and pinched me and Cheng off from the rest of them. Cheng managed to get back up there later, but I never did. It was extremely frustrating for me, as I had the legs to stay up there, if only a hole would open up. Just as in rush-hour traffic, the other lane is always going faster. It seemed I was on the wrong side of the field every time an opportunity came, and I was just getting further from my teammates. 

Eventually time ran out and I was stuck mid-pack during the chaotic last few kilometers. Just as with stage 1, there were just too many cowboys to keep a train together unless you had control of the front, which is why Omega won their second stage. There were fewer crashes this time, but it was just as hectic a finish.

Stage 3 was a flat time trial, nearly 17km long. After my performance in California and my improving form, I was very excited for this race. It would be my first time to race against Tony Martin, the world TT champion, and also my first time to time trial while using a power meter for pacing. I always have the numbers on my SRM covered during road races, but a time trial is a very different event. Being able to control my pace at the start is crucial.

We got to ride a practice lap of the course, which is always a huge benefit. The course was narrow for the first several kilometers, including several turns before a long stretch into a block headwind. Thankfully the headwind stretch was a straight, smooth, and striped road where I could keep my head down and steer by looking at the lines.

As I don’t have data from previous time trials, I had to make my best guess as to the appropriate pacing. I was predicting an average power of 430w, so in my mind I had the course laid out as follows: 400w for the first few minutes, then cruise at 420 until the turns started. Get back up to speed quickly after each turn, then cruise at 430 until the next turn. Once reaching the headwind section, 460 until tailwind again. By that point, it was 3k to go and I would use up whatever was left.

And that’s exactly what I did. I had covered up my heart rate, so I was focused only on the power numbers. As a bonus, looking at the numbers puts my head in the perfect aero position…. With 3k to go, I was really suffering, which is when Aike started to really yell in my ear. I finished with drool hanging off my chin, completely gassed from the effort, which was good enough for 9th by the end of the day. I was 53 seconds off Martin’s pace, but Tom had an awesome ride to finish just 16 seconds behind. On the drive back, I downloaded the data—I just had to know…. 425w average, and the highest heart rate I’ve seen all year.

Stages 4 and 5 were in the hilly region of Belgium, and would be more decisive than the opening two stages. Our primary focus was the GC with Tom, and our secondary goal was the stage win. At the start, we were actively policing the attacks to make sure that a select few teams did not slip anybody into the moves. With the big rolling hills, things were very difficult for a while. My normalized power for the first 10 minutes of the race was 476w…ouch! Once the break got away, we stopped for a pee break and saw that there were already guys back in the cars.

We then settled in as we completed the big loop back to the finish circuits, which featured two main climbs. They were only 500m and 1km long, respectively, but they were narrow and twisty, and to attack or follow attacks, you had to be in the top 15 at the least.

The big fight for position was before the first of the climbs, after which the field was too strung out to move up much. Looking at the numbers, though, the fight for position (which was on another hill) was as tough as the climbs themselves!

We made 4 trips over the climbs, and my legs were fading. For the past month, I’ve been training for time trials and longer climbs, but these climbs were all about repeated efforts of 500+w for 1-2 minutes.

On the final lap, the fight for position at the front had me averaging 415w for 5 minutes. I was with the rest of the team on the right side of the road, ready to make our big move. That move, however, requires sprinting over the top of the hill, and I found that I couldn’t make that acceleration anymore. As a result, I was separated from the others and entered the key climb near the middle of the field. Of course, the field split in half on that climb and I was on the wrong half.

As testament that my legs were good, after getting dropped on the first climb, I chased solo for the few kilometers to the next climb, catching the back of the field at the bottom. I rode my own pace up the climb after all that chasing and still managed to nearly get over the top with the big group.

Once over the top, I had just 5km to chase back on before the finish. Our chase group picked up Jonas, and I was giving it everything I had to make it back, closing to about 15 seconds, but then the leadouts started up ahead.

Even with my fading legs, I could have made the front split if I’d been positioned correctly. Once again, my race was ruined by the positioning battle. That’s extremely frustrating. I had one stage left to do it right.
Stage 5 consisted of two laps of a huge loop that featured 6 climbs of varying length and pitch. The first climb was the famed Mur de Huy, just 30km into the race. The opening kilometers of the race were lively but not as hard as the previous day. It took 20km for the break to get away, which left no time for a pee break, as the fight for position would begin well beforehand. As it turned out, the first lap would be completed at a comfortable pace, but it gave us good practice at the fight going into each climb. I had adopted a more aggressive mentality for these fights—I was tired of having to explain why I wasn’t in position at the post-race meetings.

I say that I was more aggressive, but I still screwed up on the run-in to the Mur on the second lap. I needed to begin the fight about 5k earlier than I did. The run in is on a fast downhill…I’m getting better at the fight on flat ground when we’re going 50kph, but downhill fighting at 80+kph makes me nervous and I was too far back again. There was nothing to be done at that point except make it over the top and wait for an opportunity to return to my teammates. The run-in and the Mur averaged 450w for 6 minutes.

After botching the first climb, I was determined to do it right for the rest. That determination paid off, and we entered the next climb in the top-15. Silvain Chavanel and his IAM teammates were attacking, and to relieve some pressure from Tom, I followed them, averaging 500w for 3:30. My legs were definitely fading, but I still had more to give.

The fight going into the third climb was another hectic one in which I was pinched off from the others yet again. Staying patient, though, I was able to get back to them in time for our big move just before the turn, putting us again in the top 15. On this climb I averaged 430w for 5:30, and I could definitely feel that I was running out of matches. I recovered the best I could over the top and then got ready for the push into the next climb. The field was getting smaller, and with just 3 climbs remaining we knew that the dangerous attacks would begin soon—getting Tom to the climbs at the very front was more important than ever.

We kept Tom in the top 10 on the downhill to the next climb, delivering him to the turn at the front. I could manage 445w for 4 minutes, which was good enough to get over the top behind the lead group of about 40 riders. Our chase group would never return to the leaders, so it was up to Tom and Dries from that point. Both had a really strong ride, going on the attack, but Martin and his Omega team were just too strong for Tom to take time out of him.

We didn’t get any stage wins, but Tom took 2nd on GC and the best young rider competition, so it was still a successful race for us. I finished on a high note—my legs let me down a bit, but it was a type of racing that I had not been training for, but I had mustered the courage to do my job well on the final few climbs. I’m improving, which is as much as I can ask for! Next up is the Criterium du Dauphine, a race which should seem downright civil after the barroom brawl in Belgium….