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….