are sometimes smooth and silky, and other times tired and tight.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

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Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Marathon Man

Last year, to much fanfare a certain seven time Tour de France winner ran the New York Marathon. By now, most of us know the story, how he ran with shin splints, his own Lance Cam
broadcasting every stride, paced by the crème de le crème of pacemakers, finishing under 3 hours with a few seconds to spare.

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Armstrong, in green, with his entourage in the 2006 NY Marathon.

This year, things seemed more subdued. As far as I could tell, there was no Lance Cam, and if there were some celebrity pacemakers, there wasn’t a pres release about it. Maybe it was for the best, because Mr. Armstrong ran a pretty impressive Marathon, even if it had nothing on Paula Radcliffe. Then again, if it was me, I'd probably still be out there.

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Armstrong, donning his familiar yellow, but with a new look - bushy hair - in the 2007 NY Marathon. If someone can let me know what the guy on the left is doing, I'd love to hear it.

Monday, October 29, 2007

One Night at the Six Day

For the past few years I’ve been wanting to attend the Amsterdam Six Days, but never managed to get organized enough to get the tickets in time. For those who are unaware, Six Day races consist of two man teams that compete on an indoor track. Historically the races lasted 24/6, although much to the amphetamine trades dismay, they switched it to a more reasonable 6 evenings.

This year, I finally managed to experience a night at the track first hand. While it was truly a treat to see the likes of Erik Zabel, Robert Bartko, and Bruno Risi, and Theo Bos in person, I must confess that the social atmosphere is almost as important as the races themselves: needless to say, a vast amount of beer is consumed.

On that note, some images.

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Patrik Bos and Theo Bos getting ready to rumble.

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Keirin race in full swing.

Near the end of the night, a friend and I tried to sneak into the VIP zone to try and get a picture with Mr. Zabel. While we had no luck getting in, we did manage to see most of the racers on their way to the changing rooms, as well as a few VIPs. To their credit, almost all of them put up with our well lubricated antics.

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The star attraction, Erik Zabel, on his way to the showers after a hard nights work on the saddle.

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Multiple Olympic Gold and World Championship winning cyclist Leontien van Moorsel, giving a few tips on how to ride on the track and maintain a tan.

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Michael Zijlaard, van Moorsels husband, as well as one of the organizers of the nights, and a Derny driver to boot.

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Dutch veteran, Aart Vierhouten - a very nice guy, and strong as an ox.

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Some cheerleaders.

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Last, but not least, the overall winner of the 2007 Amsterdam Six Days, Robert Bartko.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

The Loop of the loop of the loop (A tale of two races – part one)

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Sitting in the club house, drinking coffee, I pin on my number one last time, mystified at how quickly the season has passed. Thinking about it, I realize that apart from the weather, not much separates the various races. 2007: a loop of a loop. I’ve become a little bored with it. No matter, today is the “Sluitingsrit”, or Closing ride, the last race of the season.

I roll up to the line, and see most of the usual suspects: the Sprinter, van der Moser, Flick, van Poppel. There are also two friends, both psychologists. I’ve always wondered if racing is research or therapy for them. Maybe both?

A few words are spoken before the start, a round of applause for the organizers is given, and for the last time in 2007 I attack from the line. Actually, it’s not so much an attack, but an attempt to get the race over as soon as possible. I’m quickly reeled in.

The following 30 some odd minutes grind away without incident. There are a few attacks, but none that manage to stick. I stay near the front and notice that the psychologists have two friends with them today. They’re not wearing the same shirt, but they’re playing team tactics. It’s the only thing of interest that I note.

I find myself on the Sprinter's wheel just as he jumps from the field. I go with him. The two of us have a gap, but the Sprinter tells me that two isn’t enough. I’m not feeling very adventurous, so I agree. Meanwhile, Flick has bridged up to us. I wait us to be reeled in. The Sprinter says to continue riding, but not too hard. We share our work, setting a moderate tempo, recovering for the next wave of attacks.

I look behind, and see that we now have some company, but the field isn’t getting any closer. Once again, the usual suspects are all there: van der Moser, van Poppel… as well as one of the psychologists. It looks like the teamwork is working back in the field, because it doesn’t take long for us to pull away, safely out of sight from the peloton.

We commit to the break, more or less, and the race blurs. The collaboration slowly becomes spotty. A few riders are sitting in, while others are working hard, some words are exchanged, but that's about it. The bell rings, and we prepare for the final sprint. As expected, van der Moser, who has been sitting at the back the entire time, attacks. We catch him quickly.

The Sprinter asks me if I’m feeling strong. I’m not sure. Maybe. Why? He tells me I should try and surprise the group. I decide to do just that, but I wait until there’s about 1km to go, just before the "hill" on the course.

I’m sitting, 4th man from the front staying tight on the Sprinters wheel. There’s a half -hearted surge on the left, it’s van der Moser again. He stops before he’s even started. When I switch my gaze back to the front, the Sprinter accelerates. Someone is off the front. It’s one of the riders who had been sitting on for the previous 45 minutes.

We crest the ‘hill’, a viaduct in reality, and accelerate down the road, taking the final turn of the final lap of the final race of 2007. The Sprinter is reeling in the opportunist. I hear a gear shift behind me, and know that the game has finally begun.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Darwin Rewards

I subscribe to a theory. The theory is pretty simple: the dumber you are, the bigger an advantage you have as a bike racer. Thoughts, doubts, concerns… they don’t get in the way. You just go for it, without a care in the world.

Youth used to compensate, the whole invulnerability thing. When I was young, I found myself going to the Emergency Room at least once a year: broken leg skiing; partial finger amputation; head split open from falling out of a tree; front tooth broken from doing a face plant into the back of a van while on my city bike; etc...

That devil may care attitude helped quite a bit with my racing. I used to do completely idiotic things for no better reason than the fact that there were some upgrade points to be had. Squeezing through gaps that weren’t there, taking a turn with way too much speed, rubbing bars in a sprint. What an idiot I was.

The one memory of those bygone days that still resonates is from a race in upstate New York. I’ve forgotten almost everything about it, apart from the sprint. I had missed the initial jump, but to my surprise I was actually passing others who had gone too early. Riding in the right gutter, focusing on the finish line, I was sprinting for what would turn out to be 6th place.

I was about to squeeze past a rider on my left. He must have seen me, because the next thing I knew the gate was closing, and he ended up shoulder checking me. Let me remind you this was in the midst of a Cat 4 sprint. Even now I find myself a little irked with the guy, but that the time I was furious. Even more so, because after our first knock, he did it again, trying to force me to brake, or force me off the road. How I managed to stay up, I still don’t know.

Fortunately for me I somehow managed to find a few one last surge of speed, because just as he went to check me one more time, but I had slipped past him, crossing over the line, the sound of scraping metal behind me. My nemesis had crashed himself out.

A few minutes passed, and I heard my name being called on the PA. Was I going to be disqualified because some idiot thought he was Djamolidine Abdoujaparov? I approached the officials and discovered that they wanted to confirm who I was, because I had sprinted under their finish line cameras vantage point.

Later on, in the changing rooms, I saw the wannabe Abdoujaparov, standing under the shower, covered in road rash from knee to face, feeling sorry for himself. Priceless.

Now, after writing this anecdote, I realize that stupidity isn’t exactly an advantage after all.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

your patience is appreciated...

i am still alive.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

I'm still alive.

To quote On Kawara.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Road to redemption

Where I am, I don't know, I'll never know, in the silence you don't know, you must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on. Samuel Beckett

It began in Pau, legs tired from the previous days ascent of Col d’Aubisque. The climb done in some vain attempt to try and feel what they feel when they work their way north. The supposedly flat roads to Castelsarrasin and Angoulême were anything but. The weather was better than predicted, but far from ideal. It didn’t matter. There was no choice but to ride.

In the beginning you notice almost everything, then it starts to blur, leaving brief snapshots: the graffiti on the campaign posters, a memorial to a member of the resistance on a bridge crossing the Dordogne, pilgrims walking along one of the routes of the Camino de Santiago, a one story building on the side of the road emitting the cackle of what must have been thousands of ducks, soon-to-be fois gras.

Your sense of time is as hazy as the morning landscape. It seems as if the trip to Lourdes, where you superstitiously lit a candle for each stage that you were riding, was months ago, when it was days. By now all you notice is how your legs and lungs react to the grade and quality of the road and the direction of the wind. You are alone with your thoughts, which you try to ignore.

After only four days and a little over 400 kilometers on the bike you wonder how they do it. How do they drag themselves out of bed, eating bowl after bowl of pasta for breakfast, and climbing on a bike for 5-6 plus hours of suffering every day for 3 weeks? Perhaps the more pertinent question is why?

You wish you had an answer. The closest you have ever come to that experience – which is not close at all - was a stage race in Vermont. On the fifth and final day you did everything you could to stay with the peloton, but it was no use. You rode the last 80 kilometers alone, because there was no other choice, there was no “broom wagon” sweep you up, and your ride home was parked at the finish. It didn’t matter if you were the last, the Lanterne Rouge, because you finished.

The mountains are behind them, but the race continues. By the time they leave Pau, they have been on the road for twenty days. For some, the next two days will be their last chance to make their mark. Some will bide their time, waiting for the final time trial. Some will dream of glory on the Champs-Élysées. Some will merely hope to make it to Paris.

By now the road has taken its toll, many have been left behind due to injury, illness, or missing the time cut. The “broom wagon” follows the stragglers, nipping at their heels, while they do everything they can to make it to the finish, because, most likely, they have no choice.

Meanwhile, the rest turn their pedals, their pilgrimage of pain is nearing its conclusion.

Monday, July 9, 2007

DIY on the Fly

After the highs of the Dolomites, I felt as flat as the landscape around me. My motivation nearly gone, and with legs still heavy from the previous week, I rode off to race, more out of habit than desire. A typical Dutch summer, that’s what the Sprinter calls it. None of this Global Warming stuff to be had here. Just a week of wind, rain and temperatures more suited to late October than early July.

Sitting in the clubhouse, pinning on my number, sipping some coffee, I watch the opposition come in, one by one, and wonder what the day's race will be like. For the first time in a long while, I secretly hope that it will be an easyt start. I even make the decision not to attack on the line. Strange. Against my normal instincts, but then again my legs feel far from normal today.

As I’m wont to do, I place myself on the start line. The Sprinter rides up next to me, the wind whipping the hair, that's poking out of his helmet, into wings. He asks how it went last weekend. I tell him the tale, and how I plan on taking it easy today. As I tell him this, I actually believe it. I see a friend, a Duathlete, who’s rushing to get his number on. Knowing him, he’s just run a few laps before the race. I tell him to take it easy.

The signal is given, and for once I am not the first to attack. Someone else does. Soloflyer, with van Poppel right on his wheel. Take it easy I say to myself, as I sprint to try and grab van Poppel’s wheel, which I just manage to do. There’s someone behind me, although I don’t look to see who it is, or if there’s a gap. We’ll be reeled in. After all, it’s July and everyone is fit by now. It’s only a matter of time.

With almost the first lap completed van Poppel is still sitting on Soloflyer’s wheel, not making any effort to take over. Soloflyer doesn’t seem to mind. I look at my computer, and see that we’re going faster and faster. Meanwhile I’m in pain, doing what I have to do to hold on to the wheel in front on mine. Eventually I look and notice that it’s the Sprinter behind me. Interesting. Then I notice that the peloton seems to be sleeping, because we have a reasonable gap. Even more interesting. We start taking our turns riding into the wind.

A lap passes and we have company. I roll to the back of the group to see how many have joined us. Seven. We’re eleven. Apart from one or two, they’re all strong. My friend, the duathlete has even managed to make it. He shouts “Come on guys” in English, even though I’m the only non Dutch rider there. We work.

Time flies, and we’re puling away from the field. I can’t see them when I check on our progress. Then I hear something. A tick. My computer sensor is knocking against my spokes. Nothing that bad, but enough that it starts to irk me. Easy, I tell myself.

Another lap passes, and as I get out of the saddle I hear the tick again. Conventional wisdom dictates to leave it alone. It’s a nuisance, nothing more. I ignore it, and reach down and give it a little tap. Tick, tick, tick!!! Not the smartest thing to do, I realize. We maintain our gap on the field, and – don’t ask me why - I reach down again, and try and adjust the sensor. This time it works, the sound is gone. Unfortunately so is the signal to my computer. No problem. I don’t need it. Easy.

We continue to pull away from the field, and for some reason I grow restless. I realize that I’ve become a little addicted to keeping an eye on my cadence. As long as I can hold 100 to 110 revolutions per minute I’m happy. I roll to the back, and once again, I break from convention, and reach down to tweak my sensor. Tick, tick, tic, TAK! It went into the spokes, and snaps off. OK, doesn’t matter. I’ll get another one, back to racing. Which is what I do.

More laps pass, and I hear a tick again. Strange. I look down, and see the culprit. My sensor wasn’t broken, it had come loose, and was now swirling around the bottom of my fork. Not good. Not good at all. The kind of thing that could cause a crash. I roll to the back, once again.

The smart move would have been to pull over, fix it, and jump back on at the next lap. There's a reason to have them, after all putting your fingers in the vicinity of spokes on a wheel that's spinning in the range of 40+ kph is far from wise. Unfortunately I was unaware that that was an option, so I do exactly what I shouldn’t do: I reach down to my hub, and easy, oh so easy, pull the sensor back up the fork, until it won’t move, or cause any problems. Somehow I manage to do this. Even more surprising is that I'm limber eough to bend down and do this.

I look up, and the break is riding away. I sprint back to them and van Poppel sees me out of the corner of his eye, and says “Keurig”.

I wink, behind my sunglasses, and say “Easy”.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Maratona dles Dolomites MMVII - Sunday Morning

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Sunday morning, praise the dawning
It’s just a restless feeling by my side

Velvet Underground playing, the sun has yet to break. The sight of a Liquigas rider, straddling his bike, just outside of my hotel, talking into his mobile, reminds me that ‘I’m not in Kansas anymore’. I roll off to the start, where the music is piped out of loudspeakers set up the day before. Standing there, flicking the brakes, taking last minute nature breaks, chewing on a power bars, several thousand riders fill the road in front, behind, and beside me.

I wonder if the DJ realized how appropriate his choice of music was? For some this is just another Sunday on the bike, for others it’s what they’ve been working for since last October.

I glance over at the guys who I traveled here with. A few look pensive, lost in their thoughts. The others are joking with each other. Giddy with nerves, I’m hyperactive, trash-talking to one of the guys, who I’m fairly certain will finish well ahead of me, because he’s the natural climber of our group. Only the night before, he said that one of his goals was to reel me in on the Giau and say “Salve Prutser”. I tell him to take a good look at my number, because it was going to be the last time he’ll see it today. We laugh.

Early dawning, sunday morning
Its just the wasted years so close behind

As I wait for the official start, I think about what lies ahead. The previous two years I opted to ride a conservative Maratona. It seemed the wise choice. The first time I rode it I hadn’t done much training due to work, and apart from a map with a profile that looked like an EKG graph, I had no idea of the course. Last year I knew what to expect, but once again I took it easy, stopping at most of the feed stations, eating strudel, drinking iced tea, enjoying the views, only really putting an effort into it after the Sella Ronda. I must confess that I never saw the point in ‘racing’ the Maratona. Built the way I am, there didn’t seem much point.

This year was different. While I wasn’t going to ‘race’ it per se, I wanted to see what kind of time I was capable of. The stupid thing is that I decided to do it only because I’ve run into too many people who have also done the ride, and were surprised by my past times. I suppose I felt the need, or more specifically my ego felt the need, to provide a reply to their skeptical looks. The truth is, the only people who are actually racing are the 40 guys at the very front, the ones with the red numbers. The rest of us are merely riding a 138 km time-trial.

Watch out, the worlds behind you
There’s always someone around you who will call
It’s nothing at all

After standing around for twenty minutes, we get the signal to go. There’s no gun, no bell, just the sound of hundreds, in fact thousands, of cleats clicking into their pedals, flowing from the front to the back. We’re off.

One of my friends rides past me. We call him the KM, short for Kop Man, or team leader, which is what he is, even though we’re far from a team. He made a name for himself back in the 80s and early 90s, when he raced, which he no longer does. Out of curiosity, and a certain competitive instinct, I latch on to his wheel, to observe him in action. He effortlessly weaves his way through the group, occasionally repeating the mantra of the first 10 kms – occhio, occhio, occhio, look out, look out, look out. The riders in front of him give way, and he moves ahead. I follow his line, but find myself gently tapping a few hips, to let them know there’s another rider coming.

We hit the base of the Campolongo, and the KM moves to the left side of the road, and speeds away on the initial steep grades of the road. Occhio, occhio, occhio. I had planned on a moderate start to the day, but my curiosity gets the better of me. I reel him in, and clutch on, as best as I can. He doesn’t look around, but he knows I’m there because I’m wheezing. The climb gets easier about halfway up, once we pass the Mobile Homes parked in a hairpin. I ride alongside, and we smile at each other. “We reeled in a lot of them back there” he says, and then he moves on.

The road dips, as we pass a golf course on the left, then continues it’s upward trajectory. I look at my heart rate, it’s way too high, so I ease off. Meanwhile the KM maintains his pace. I keep an eye on him as he rides 150-200 meters ahead. Once again the road flattens, and I manage to claw my way back to him. When I catch on, he tells me to try and recover a bit. We relax, and say “Salve” or “Sao” to the riders that we pass, and “Complimenti” to the few riders that pass us.

I look down at the road and notice that it’s clean. Normally the Campolongo is littered with gels, used and unused, gloves, arm warmers, glasses, and various other things that have fallen out of people’s pockets. Maybe this is due to the fact that this year there’s an anti-litter campaign going on, or maybe it’s because I’m riding near the front, instead of the back. Who knows?

As I’m think about the clean roads, the KM reaches back and puts on his vest. We have made it to the top. I try to do the same, but with so many riders zipping about I’m feeling nervous, so I pull over and put my vest on. Better that way, less chance of a crash. Vest on, arm warmers up, and let the descending begins.

Sunday morning and I’m falling
I’ve got a feeling I don’t want to know

I can’t say I am flying down the descent, heading to Arabba, and I don’t think I'm taking any unnecessary risks, but I start to reel riders in one by one. Just as I begin to become confident, almost cocky, a rider comes past, on a straight bit of road. No problem. He swings left with the curve of the road, then hits the hairpin turn to the right. No problem. Then I see his rear wheel slip out from under him. In the mili-second that passes as I prepare to slam my brakes, and alter my line to avoid riding over him, or his bike, I see him make a last minute correction, and keep upright. I shout “well done”, then do what I have to do to get past him, even if he did manage to keep the rubber on the road.

Eventually the descent ends, and the road swings right, up the Pordoi, where I see the KM, 20 meters ahead. He’s stopped to take off his vest. I ride alongside, and manage to get my vest off (with a little assistance). The KM smiles and says “ride your tempo, and reel them in”, and he proceeds to do just that. I stay with him for a few km, but eventually decide to follow his advice, and follow my own tempo. He rides off. I start to pass riders, and get passed by a few as well. Somewhere along the way I see Connie Carpenter, for the second year in a row. I shout “Go Connie”, and she shouts “Enjoy your ride” back at me. Ten minutes later, I noticed a guy wearing an old school wool cycling shirt. As I come closer, I notice that he is wearing era specific wool shorts and shoes, topped off with a hairnet, and is riding a 50s-60s era bike, complete with bottle cages on the handlebars. Magnificent. I ride past, read his name on his number, and say “Complimenti Furio!”

I looked ahead, and the KM is still in sight, on the next switchback. It is going well, I’m making good time, but I look at my Heart Rate Monitor, and I know that I’m pushing myself way too hard, way too early. I think to myself: too late now, almost at the top.

By the time I reached the summit, the KM is long out of sight. The time trial is in full effect. Next up the Sella. That’s when I realize the error of my ways. My legs hurt. I have only completed 20 km and I am already worried that I burned myself out when I have yet to even begin. Oh well, no point in worrying about it, just ride my own tempo, and try and reel people in. Which is what I do, and which is what is done to me.

Early dawning, Sunday morning
Its all the streets you crossed, not so long ago

As I barrel down the descent of the Gardena, ignoring all of the advice I had given to others to take it easy when descending, I feel the old downhill skier instincts in me kick in. The one big difference is that you slide on snow, and you grate on gravel. Fortunately there was no sliding or grating to be had.

Finally I find myself entering Corvara, and hit the slopes of the Campolongo for a second time. By now the debris of 9,000 cyclists are scattered alongside of the road. Families and team support stand there, ready to pass a bottle, or take the extra clothes of a lucky few. Two women stand on the side of the road, shaking noise makers, cheering people on, but are obviously bored. A farmer, in a purple windbreaker and Tyrolean cap, leans on a gate, next to his cows, watching us climb by. I said “Salve”, he says “Sao”. The sensations in my legs are worrying me. I've only done 60 km, but my legs are heavy, and the Giau is still 30 km away.

I hit the top of the Campolongo, and with two empty bottles, and a long ways to go, I decide to make the first of two stops. With freshly filled bottles, and a mouthful of strudel, I hit the descent for the second time of the day. This time there are no near misses, only the sight of an old woman, who looks to be in her 80s, standing in front of her farm, watching us ride past. I shout “Bon Giornio!” I doubt she hears me, let alone understands me.

Once the road reaches Arraba, it’s time to take a left, and ride the rolling roads to the Giau. This is one of the few parts of the ride where a group comes in handy. I find myself with about 5-6 riders. Initially I decide to sit in, and “eat the off of their plates, before I eat off of my own”, as Hennie Kuiper once said, or maybe it was Knetemann. We reel in a few riders. Eventually, the universal signal for paceline is given, a twirling finger. I do what I have t do, we all do. Then one of the riders screws up the flow of the group. He has to be German: he’s wearing full tights; long sleeves; has a small backpack on; and his name was Manfred. Every time it’s his turn to ride on the front he accelerates. We let him go. Ciao Prutser.

Somewhere around Livinallongo our group swells to 20 plus riders. I settle back into the group, and do my best to prepare for the Giau. I drink some water, and eat. The road dips, and we reach the point of no return – left for the Falzarego, right for the Giau. Everyone in the group takes the right.

Watch out, the worlds behind you
There’s always someone around you who will call
It’s nothing at all

Once again the road takes an upward direction, this time for a comparatively short and sharp 2.3 km up the Colle Santa Lucia. The group strings out. I watch a few roll off, while I try my best to maintain the tempo. That’s where I start to feel some cramp. My sartorius muscles to be exact. It’s not so bad that I feet like I have to pull over, just a dull throb. Needless to say, it’s not reassuring.

At the top of Santa Lucia I pull over, once again, to off my vest and take off my arm warmers. I hear “Salve Prutser”, and there he is, the climber from our group, riding past me with an ear-to-ear grin. I quickly catch up with him. I must have looked blown, because he speaks English to me for the first time in two years. We chat for a bit, and he tells me of the progress of the others, and admonishes me for going too fast at the start. He says “I’m feeling stronger and stronger”, as we hit the initial slopes of the Giau. I try riding with him for the first 500 meters before I realize what I have to do: ride my own tempo and try and reel riders in. He rides away, and I ride on.

For the next hour there is only one thing to do: survive. Most of what happens as I grind my way up the horrible mountain is a vague memory. I see a guy wearing a Team Adidas shirt pass me. I sing “My Adidas” and he turns around and smiles. We make some idle chit chat, it turns out he knows a friend of mine, who he last saw on the Sella. He’s clearly having a good day, and I’m holding him back, so he rides off, up the Giau.

I see someone up the road in a red and white jersey, and decide to try and reel him in. He's a switchback ahead of me for almost the entire mountain. While he’s oblivious to my chase, he maintains his gap, passing a rider for every rider I pass, getting passed by a rider for every rider I pass. Despite this little game, I have to take it easy, otherwise the discomfort in my legs is going to turn into full on cramps. Finally, with about 1km to go I edge my way up to him, with the summit in sight I get out of the saddle and give everything I have to pass him, ‘sprinting’ over the line. My ‘sprint’ is most likely nothing more than going from 10.5kph to 12.5kph. It doesn’t matter. I achieve what I have to achieve, I survive the Giau, once again.

Immediately I pull over, and fill my bottles, drink some warm coke, and eat another piece of strudel. I get back on my bike, and start rolling down the initial descent. I see a man, lying on the grass, watching us, as he puffs on his cigarette. The lucky bastard.

Watch out, the worlds behind you
There’s always someone around you who will call
It’s nothing at all

From there, it’s a frighteningly fast descent down the Giau, with near perfect roads, thanks to the fact that the Giro has been here less than 5 weeks ago. Flying down the descent, I look at my clock. Time is running short if I want to reach my ‘goal’. It’s going to have be a fast ride up the Falzarego. As I reach the base of the mountain, scene of some of the bloodiest fighting in WWI, my shell-shocked legs remind me that fast was not what they are by now. Tired, stiff, stale, empty, that’s how you could better describe them.

After the constant near 10% grind of the Giau, the Falzergo should seem like child’s play. With the Giau in your legs, it’s anything but. Nothing to do, just ride my own tempo, and try and reel people in, which is what I do, and is done to me. I catch up to a couple of Italian riders, and follow their pace. I hear someone shout “Salve Girogio!” behind me, and look over my shoulder and see a man who must be in his late 50s effortlessly ride past, giving a wink to one of the guys I’m riding behind.

Every time I try to get out of the saddle my legs seize up, but I do my best to push through. Time passes, riders reeled in. In the distance I spot a guy with blue and white cheque shorts and shirt. I had gone up the Pordoi with him at one point, 3 hours before. As I reeled him in, I try to say “Salve GianniMario”, but can only mumble it. He says something back, but I’m too blown to understand. I think it was something about the Pordoi. By now I’m only looking 10-20 meters ahead, focused mainly on my top tube, sticky with sweat.

As I reach the top of the Falzarego, there’s an ‘intersection’ with riders from the medium course joining up with riders from the “Maratona” course. I pass the rest stop, and ascend the the short sharp climb up the Valporola. It’s a little over 1km, and the final climb of the day. It shouldn’t be that hard, but when I get out of the saddle to try and force the pace, every muscle in my legs seize up, like an engine with sand in it. This last bit is going to hurt. I notice some official photographers on the right side of the road, and my vanity gets the better of me. I swerve from the left, across the road, to give them a better angle. I’m not sure if they take the opportunity presented to them.

Finally, as I spot Forte Tre Sassi, the road starts to dip downhill, and the descent down to San Cassiano and La Villa begins. The combination of surprisingly open roads, a few riders ahead who know what they were doing, and a target that was marginally within reach leads me to take the descent at full throttle. In fact I bomb down that descent. Before I even realize it, I hit the bottom, and I’m on the road to San Cassiano. As I pass the hotel I had stayed in the previous two years, I recall the roads. Once again I find myself with a group, when it’s really needed. Once again I find myself working against character, and try to sit in and suck wheel.

As we hit the edge of San Cassiano the road swerves left and dips down, taking you away from the traditional center. I remember what the KM said a few days before - If you’ve got enough momentum, you can almost hit 80kph here - which is what I try to do. As the road swings back up, someone in front of me brakes, causing me to brake. I ride past him and express my feelings. “Salve” is not one of the words I use.

Up and down, the road rolls to La Villa. As I hit the final descent, twisting into a short sharp hill, I get out of the saddle, once again, and try and gun it. No go. I’m with a group of about 20. We take the left, riding past my hotel, on the way to Corvara. The group is working, more or less. It’s not helped by the fact that for the first time that day, there’s traffic on the road.

Sunday morning

Four kilometers to go, and I’ve just passed the starting place I had stood at a little over 6 hours before. There’s a false flat, which hurts, but I’m doing my best to reel riders in, as a few reel me in.

I grow impatient. There’s no point in sitting on the other riders wheels anymore. They’re either too slow, or they’re coasting to the finish. I leave them behind. The traffic is getting in the way. Most of it is Tour Motorcycles, probably on a Dolomites tour. I think of Krabbe - The emptiness of their lives shocks me. I shout at them to get out of the way. I ride past the ‘flame rouge’, only one kilometer to go.

Sunday morning

I reach Corvara, for the third and final time today. I take a right. 500 meters to go. I pass a few riders, and I see something that looks like the finish. I’m confused. Did they change it this year?

300 meters to go and I see that the finish is indeed where it should be. I take a left. As pointless as it is, I get out of the saddle and sprint to the finish. I’m not paying attention to the riders around me, I’m just trying to cross the line.

My legs burn as I cross the line, and immediately turn into Jello as I climb off the bike, to walk through the traffic jam of bikes and riders trying to get off the road.

I look left, over the gate, and spot the KM and the Climber, who seem to have only just arrived as well. I shout to them – “Salve Prutsers!”

Sunday morning

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Maratona: Part III (The United Nations of Cycling)

The official history of the Maratona dles Dolomitis states that it began in 1987, as a 175 km ride over seven mountain passes done by 166 cyclists to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Società Ciclistica Alta Badia. One would assume that the majority, if not all of those cyclists were from the area of Alta Badia, or at the very least Italy. Things have certainly grown since then.

These days, there are over 8,500 cyclists who have traveled from all over the world to the Dolomites. In fact, this year there will be representatives from 35 countries, criss-crossing the globe, from Norway to New Zealand. It’s a virtual United Nations of Cycling. Perhaps to aid in the identification of the various nationalities while on the road, the Maratona prints your name on your number.

Obviously it’s not that difficult to spot the Italians, with their smoothly shorn, lovingly lubed, perfectly tanned legs, topped off by spotless kit, riding shiny and perfectly maintained Olmos, Pinarellos, Colnagos, Giants, and even Cannondales. If that’s not enough to go by, then names like Gianfranco, Giorgio, or Gianluca should do the trick. Otherwise, the easiest way to figure out who they are is the simple fact that they're the only ones talking and laughing.

While we all suffer in comparison to the Italians, the Germans probably suffer the most. You can usually spot them by the state of their kit, bought sometime around 1997, just after a certain German cyclist won the Tour de France. Otherwise, the grim look of determination, as they plod their way uphill on their Storck, Canyon, or Cube bikes with names like Dieter, Jurgen, and Rudolf on their backs, are clues that they support the Mannschaft.

The Dutch, bless their mysterious love of all things orange, aren’t much better. Granted, some of them will be on Koga-Miyatas or even a Batavus, and a few die-hards will be on Ger’s, but the rest will be on Colnagos and Treks. While most folk will think that the Dutch are Germans, the easiest way to tell the two apart is by the fact that the Dutch riders are at least 190cm tall. If that doesn’t help, then once again consult the names on their backs. Plenty will have a “van”, "van de", “van der”, or maybe even a “ten” between their first and last names. Don’t be confused, the rider ahead of you isn’t Joep De, it’s just Joep.

The Swiss, well, it’s difficult to tell who the Swiss are. That’s what they get for being neutral for so long. Also, you can’t really go by the names, because of the whole German, French, Italian thing. Fortunately for us, all Swiss riders are required to ride BMC bikes and wear the Assos Swiss national team kit. Make sure to say “hop schweiz” if you pass one of them.

The British are actually pretty easy to spot, thanks to their milky white calves. If that doesn’t help, then the slight look of being lost and confused by being amongst so many “foreigners” - who don’t even speak English - helps. If those tell take signs aren’t readily evident, then sometimes they make it easy for you by riding a Raleigh or a Dawes, and wearing a Union Jack, Wales, or Scotland jersey.

The Americans can easily be confused for the British if you judge them solely on their look of complete disorientation, except that the Americans look even more confused and far too serious, with a slight case of jetlag. A few obvious pointers are the Treks with the Project 1 paint jobs, the Stronglight Pulsion cranks, the Zero Gravity brakes, the Nokon cable housings, the Carpenter-Phinney Bike Camp jerseys, or the shorts that go down to their kneecaps.

I wonder if the 166 cyclists from 1987 realized what they were starting back in 1987? In the end it doesn’t really matter – when we ride the Maratona we’re all cyclists. There are no nationalities going up hill, just a procession of pain, done in silence, apart from the occasional shout of “occhio”.

Yes, the United Nations of Cycling, until you get to the top at least. Then it's downhill, where things are altogether different. That’s where it becomes very easy to spot the Dutch and the Germans: they’re the kamikazes who cut you off in the corner as they fly down the wet roads of the Pordoi.

You’ve been warned.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Race Report: Rubbed the wrong way

Hot and humid. Thunderstorms in the forecast. On my way to the race, I wondered how long it would take for the skies to open up. As I swung past an exposition hall, through a park, I saw three riders up the road. I knew them, but decided not to catch up. This wasn't because I don't like them, or because I wasn't in the mood to speak Dutch. It was because I've fallen into a few superstitious habits on race day.

For whatever reason, cycling is the one time where I'm superstitious. My little 'routine' is simple: stop, just after a foot bridge, and just before going under a railway bridge, and peeing on the side of the bike path. Don't ask me why, it's just what I do. If I rode with the other riders, it would have been awkward to explain. So I let them ride on.

After doing what I had to do, I made my way to the club house, picked up my number, had a coffee, and peed on the side of the course, by the 200 meter line, then rode to the start, and planted myself in the middle of the road, on the stripe - my other rituals.

The field didn't seem huge, but what it lacked in numbers, it made up for in quality. All of the usual suspects were there (van der Moser, the sprinter, flick) as well as a few surprise packages, including a guy who must be in his mid 50s, but in the 3 races I saw him at last year, he created 2 winning breaks. There's a general classification for this race, and at this point in the season, those of us who are in the top 5-7 are starting to get a little too strategic, which if truth be told, is killing some of the racing. Regardless, I attacked from the line, as usual. As is now the norm, I rode for a lap off the front, but was promptly reeled in. I wasn't thrilled with how things felt. Perhaps I've been riding too much, perhaps I haven't been resting properly, perhaps I'm getting a little bored with the bike, perhaps it was the hot and humid weather? Anyway, this wasn't the time to dwell over my heavy legs, so I rode on.

Around the thirty minute mark, I saw someone roll off the front, just before the start/stop line. I noticed that it was soloflyer, a guy who's been strong for the past month, but clearly has no sprint. I gave a friend a 'grab my wheel' flick, and jumped. It didn't take long to catch on, but I was alone. So it goes. The two of us worked well, but not well enough, after two laps off the front, we were caught.

After that, my legs felt better, I felt better, meanwhile, the race continued. There's not much more to be said about the remaining 30 minutes plus 6 laps, apart from the fact that it was fast and boring. Painfully boring. Nothing was sticking, and almost everyone who could make things stick, realized it. So we waited for the sprint.

On the last lap the friend who I gave a tick asked me how I felt, I gave him a nod. He rode up, and blocked the wind for me. A few riders surged to our left, one of them was Flick, so I promptly latched on to his wheel. Another small surge came past, but I held Flicks wheel, until I noticed the Sprinter come past, I let a gap open, so he could move in.

Things were getting nervous, and somehow I rub the Sprinters wheel, but manage to keep upright. With one kilometer to go, two riders tried to Malachi crunch me, one of them is a guy just in front of me in the classification. I call him Rasumussen, Boogerd, or van Poppel depending on which Tour de France, or Rabobank replica jersey he's wearing. Today he was Rasmussen, but not quite as thin. I can not tell a lie - I don't have much time for him, or to be fair, I don't have much time for the way he races: you never see him on the front, or trying to attack, on the few occasions he is on the front, he disrupts the chain. All he has is his elbows and his sprint. It works for him, like it did today.

So Rasmussen squeezes me off of the Sprinters wheel, and I'm on his. I'm not happy about it, partly because the last time I was on his wheel he almost crashed himself out in the sprint when something on his bike broke. Whatever. No use complaining, and there's still some time to move up, which is what I try and do. With 500 meters to the sprint, we go up a climb that's around 23%, but it's only 25-30 meters long. I wait.

After the hill is a shallow descent, and the road turns left, goes for a short stretch, then swings left again. If you want to win, you have to be well placed before the second left. Just before the first turn, there's a small opening, so I swing past Rasmussen, and jump back in to the line. When I did this, Rasmussen and I managed to brush our bars against each other. An interesting moment, for sure.

The second turn is fast approaching, and the line shifts to the left, leaving a small enough gap for Rasmussen to jump past me. We pass the place where I peed, right before the start. The game is on, or so I think. I notice the Sprinter shift, so I jump. I swing right, trying to catch the others off guard. I drop into my 12, and nail it. I'm about to pass Rasmussen, when he gets out of his saddle and flails about to the left and the right.

It was the jerk to the right that sealed it, because he veered off of his line, and managed to put his right foot against my front wheel. Ksyrium Elites can make an interesting THWACK when a Sidi shoe gets jammed against them at over 50 kp/h. My wheel shimmied, but I managed to keep myself upright, much to the relief of my fellow racers behind me.

That was it. Game over. I freewheeled in. No placing for me today.

Looks like another trip to the bike shop to get another front wheel fixed, but better a LBS than a dentist.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Maratona: Part I (Waiting to Go-Go)

It’s a magical experience descending 8 kilometers from your hotel, at the base of the Falzarego, to the start of the Maratona. When you leave it’s around 5:00 AM, and dawn is just breaking. You’re dressed in knee and arm warmers and a vest, to fight the 10-12° C temperature. The cold air of the descent doesn’t help, but the adrenaline keeps it in check.

As you wind your way down the road to La Villa, you start seeing more and more cyclists, leaving their tents and hotels, as you weave your way through villages like San Cassiano. By the time you're within sight of La Villa, you're already in the midst of a small peloton. It’s all downhill, apart from a short incline, taking you to the intersection where you’re shepherded left or right to your assigned starting place.

Considering that the organizers have to assemble 8,500 cyclists in and around a village with a population of 1,267, things work out surprisingly well. Once you get to your assigned start area, there’s nothing more to do than wait, relieve yourself, stay warm, and patiently shove your way towards the front of the line.

A crude video, made with my phone, of one of the 5 start areas.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Maratona: Part VII (Falzarego & Valparola)

I have a photograph, of myself, taken somewhere between Passo Falzarego, and Passo Valparola, the last major climbs of the Maratona dles Dolomites. By the time the photograph was taken I had been on my bike well over 120 kilometers. The searing pain of ascending the Passo Giau 10 kilometers earlier has subsided to a dull ache.

After the slog up the Falzarego, and a break to refill my water bottles, I was lulled into the comforting thought that the hard part was behind me, my battle with gravity over, and that it was all downhill from there on. What I did not realize was that there was one more climb ahead, the Valparola. The two kilometers up that last pass were the most painful of the day, and believe me, there was plenty of pain that day.

While I can only vaguely remember the photograph being taken, I do clearly remember that there was the artillery along the side of the road. The odd thing is that I don’t recall the top of the previous climbs in the Maratona nearly as well; I even missed the Coppi monument on the Pordoi. Maybe it’s the simple fact that the Falzarego and the Valparola were the last climbs of the day, maybe it’s because it was once the site of some of the bloodiest fighting to take place at altitude.

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If Paris-Roubaix earned it’s sobriquet of the "Hell of the North” because the course passed over thousand year old cobbled roads, through what had been the front lines in World War I, then perhaps the Passo Falzarego is the “Hell of the South”. While the Western Front was bogged down in trench warfare, the Dolomites was similarly bogged down, but instead of trenches in fields, the fighting was from caves and trenches cut into the mountains and along the Dolomite summits.

From May 1915 to October 1917 the Italian Alpini fought a stalemate against the Austro-Hungarian Army in the Mountains of Cortina d'Ampezzo. The Falzarego was the Italians second line, and the headquarters of the Alpini’s Artillery, remembered today by the Museum of the Cinque Torri. On the 5th July, 1915, almost 90 years to the day that my photograph was taken, Italian batteries on the Falzarego pounded the Austrians based at the Valparola’s late 19th century Fort Tre Sassi, rendering it useless.

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Forte Tre Sassi
photograph by Stefano Zardini

So, if you find yourself riding the Maratona, and feeling sorry for yourself because you have to push yourself up one last climb, amounting to no more than a measly 2 kilometers - take a look around where you’re riding. It helps to put things into perspective.


Sunday, June 3, 2007

The road ahead leads to Beer and Brätwurst and more Beer

If all goes according to plan, then four weeks from today I will be eating an undercooked brätwurst and drinking a watered down Warsteiner.

The beer and brätwurst will be free, because I will have a couple of coupons for them, which I will have carried in my back pocket over 140 kilometers, seven climbs, with a total evelevation of 4,190 meters, since 5:00 AM.

My legs will be stiff, and my mind will be mush, but I will be happy. Happy because I will have completed my third Maratona dles Dolomites.

To be continued.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

A gift that will keep on giving

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I’ll never forget a Christmas present I was given, by a friend who – at that point – I had only known for 6 weeks. I was taken aback, if for no better reason than the fact that I didn’t have anything for him. As I unwrapped the odd shaped package, I discovered that the present was just as much for him, as it was for me: it was a set of zefal bike fenders.

There’s nothing like riding in the rain, especially when you ride with folk who don’t have fenders. While every ounce of oil is washed away from your bike, you end up with everything, and I do mean everything, splattered on you. If you’re lucky, you’ll only be covered in some grime and sand, if you’re unlucky you’ll end up being covered in “Belgian Toothpaste", road grime, grit, and to make things really special: manure. Tasty.

A small suggestion: once you’ve cleaned and re-lubed your bike; shoved newspaper into your shoes to help dry them; and put your cycling kit in the laundry - take a towel, or a few q-tips, and give your ears a good wipe down. Trust me on this one.

At least I know what I’ll be getting my training partners for Christmas this year.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

The route to Côte de la Redoute

Thursday was a national holiday in most of Europe (to mark the holy day of Hemelvaarts, or the Ascension as it's known in English), which meant that the 4th edition of the Steven Rooks Classic was on the cards.

The SRC is an organized ride, departing from Maastricht, that heads south to the hills of the Ardennes. There are two courses to choose from: 100 km or 150 km, and neither of them are flat. In fact, apart from the first 20 km out, and the last 20km coming back in, they’re anything but flat.

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The profile of the 150 km course at the 2007 Steven Rooks Classic

The plan was that we’d leave at 7:00, and get to Maastricht around 9-9:30, weather permitting. I have to say that I wasn’t very enthusiastic when I woke up at 6:00 to the sound of rain, and considering the idea of spending 5+ wet hours on the bike, I did what any sane person would do: I went back to bed.

At 6:30 I got a call, to announce that the forecast was that the rain would clear by the time we got there, so things were going according to plan. That meant that I had to: put in my contacts, get dressed, and get out of the door in 15 minutes, because I had to bike 10km to catch a ride. No breakfast, no coffee, no fun.

What really motivated me to get out the door was one of the eleven climbs of the day, the legendary Côte de la Redoute. Just in case you have never heard of la Redoute, it’s a 1.7 km climb, that has earned its place in history as the launch pad for the winning move in Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

Back in the late 90s I took a break from my break from cycling. What brought me out of my self-imposed retirement was the challenge of riding a cyclo-tourist edition of the “La Doyenne”. After several years of wine, women, and song, I managed to get myself back into some decent shape. Not the cyclist I was before, but in reasonable enough condition to ride the 240 plus kilometers of the course, or so I thought.

As luck would have it, I crashed on a training ride a few weeks before L-B-L day, and broke my finger in two places, leaving me with a cast up to my elbow. Two days before the ride, the cast came off, but I had tacoed both of my wheels in the crash, and needed to borrow some ASAP, which somehow I arranged to do at the last minute.

Everything was set, more or less. While I hadn’t managed to ride my bike since the crash, the weather that morning in Liege was warm and sunny, my riding companions were in good spirits, it was looking promising. There were only a few problems: I could only brake with my ring and pinky finger on my left hand; and I discovered, within the first 200 meters of the ride, that my fork was also bent. Meaning I had to keep my hands on the bars the entire time, or risk crashing again. If I was smart, I would have called it quits, and gone straight back to the hotel, but la Redoute was calling for me.

I did my best to answer that call, and rode over 170 kilometers until my back started giving out on me, and my left hand cramped up from the burden of braking down the technical descents of the Ardennes. Somewhere, after the Wanne, I called it a day. There would be no Redoute for me that day.

Fast forward to Thursday: I was back in Belgium, this time in flying form, on a well-maintained bike, with my own wheels, and a straight fork. Granted, the weather was horrible: in the neighborhood of 12° celcius, and despite the forecast of clearing skies, the rain grew heavier and heavier throughout the morning. I didn’t like it, but the Redoute was calling me once again.

Eighty wet kilometers, over an up and down course, and I found myself entering the town of Remouchamps. I could see the highway ahead, and knew what that meant: la Redoute was only a few minutes away. I felt a nervous pang in my stomach, and various thoughts passed through my head. Would I be able to ride up te entire climb in my 39x23? Are my legs fresh enough for it? How badly am I going to get dropped by my friends? It didn’t matter, la Redoute was ahead.

There was only one thing that seemed odd. There were a lot, I mean a lot of riders on the side of the road. Maybe they taking a break from the rain, and getting a coffee? As we passed them some shouted something at us, but I didn’t hear it, or understand it, or both. As we weaved through the side streets of Remouchamps, there were more and more cyclists, standing there in the rain, and this time I could clearly hear “gesloten” (i.e. closed), which left me somewhat confused, if not a little alarmed. It didn’t matter, la Redoute was nigh.

We shifted into our climbing gears, and rode under the highway, taking a right, to begin our ascent. That’s where the things turned surreal. I looked up the road, as I pedaled out of the saddle, and saw PHIL, PHIL, PHIL written all over the road (in honor of local hero Philippe Gilbert), with hundreds of motorcycles parked alongside, almost like quotation marks. About half a kilometer further up, was where the road came to an end: filled with a score of cyclists, standing in the rain, trying to get through, to ride the Redoute. Unsuccessfully.

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Traffic jam on la Redoute

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Only one direction to go, backwards.

Somehow, someway, permits for both the 4th Steven Rooks Classic and the 1st Belgian Moto Tour had been given, to ride la Redoute on the same day. There would be no ascending la Redoute on Ascension day.

This time there was no sag wagon, just another +/- 2.5 hours in the rain back to Maastricht. C'est la vie.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Race Report: Talking the talk while walking the walk

After a week spent riding in France, followed by a week with next to no riding due to work and weather, I found myself anticipating Saturdays race with a sense of trepidation. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that I hadn’t raced in two weeks, or perhaps it was due to the 45 km winds that were blowing.

Waiting for the race to start, I looked around to see who was there. I noticed that my old partner in crime, van der Moser was present, as well as the Sprinter. As usual, I jumped at the gun, to test the legs, although this time I had some company with me. It seems the old adage “fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me” applies over here as well. After half a lap off the front, I sat up. Today was not going to be my day, or to put it another way: my legs felt as supple as a block of wood.

I quickly made the decision to ride a bit more conservatively than normal, which meant that I’d try and follow breaks, and not try and create one. With that in mind the first twenty minutes of the race passed, with the usual accordion effect of attack, chase, catch, slow down, attack, chase, catch, slow down, etc.

Eventually the peloton grew bored, myself included. Someone rode off, and we let him go. As he dangled, out in the wind, 300 meters off the front, I moved up the field, and nodded hello to the Sprinter. I started some small talk with him, blathering away in my broken Dutch about nothing in particular.

As we chewed the fat, the apathy of the peloton revealed itself, because we found ourselves with a reasonably large gap, closer to the solo break, than to the field. Somehow we had launched a stealth attack. So stealthy, that even we weren’t aware of it. There was only one thing to do, try and exploit it, and with that in mind, we bridged up to the solo-flyer, aided by a wicked tailwind on a long, straight section of the road.

The three of us worked smoothly, sharing the work. I half expected to be caught, and after a few laps we were. I looked back, and there he was, van der Moser dragging a group of 5 riders behind him, the peloton in the distance.

I took a quick survey of whom van der Moser brought up to us: a few I knew, and a few I didn’t. What was clear was that we had a group that could stay away: apart from one or two riders back in the field, the majority of the strongmen were now in the break. There was also another sprinter, the Sprinter’s main threat, who I sometimes call Flick. He’s a nice guy, but has the irritating habit of flicking his elbow, to signal you through for the next pull as soon as he’s starting his.

So, the die was cast, and for the most part everybody committed to their fair share of work. After my experience of a few months ago, this break seemed like child's play. There was no soul searching to be had, nor any distracting motivational songs to sing to myself. No, this was a different kind of break: a few extra wheels to sit on, and unlike the last time, some self-belief was in the mix.

Ironically, or fortuitously, or both, I found myself on van der Moser’s wheel in the rotation. Not a bad place to be, seeing as he’s easily 4 inches taller than me, and because I could better anticipate his accelerations, as he’s want to do when you leas expect it. Twice he tried to pull away, and twice I found myself sucking his wheel, looking over my shoulder, and watching a gap open behind us. I took a half-hearted pull, but knew there was no point: there was no way we were going to be able to ride away from the group.

So once again, apathy set in. While I’m not sure how large of a gap we had, it must have been pretty substantial, because the Mickey-Mouse antics of attack, chase, catch, slow down, attack, chase, catch, slow down went on for the last 20 minutes, and the peloton was not to be seen.

With a lap to go the solo-flyer who started the whole break tried his best to get away, but it was a pointless endeavor. Flick caught him, and glued himself to his wheel. With Two kilometers to go, it was the solo flyer, Flick, then me. Not ideal, but Flick was still a good wheel to be on.

For the next kilometer the solo-flyer swerved, to try and shake Flick, but Flick wasn’t going anywhere. By then solo-flyer understood his lot. With 1 kilometer to go the Sprinter rode alongside me, and I let a gap open for him to grab Flicks wheel., and promptly grabbed his.

With 500 meters to go, as we crested the small “hill” on the course, I spread my elbows, and bent my knees out, to try and dissuade anyone from trying to take the Sprinters wheel from me. A friend from the break rode alongside and said “we can win this”, then moved to the front, and opened up the sprint. We strung out in a line, and with 250 meters to go he faded. I sat on the sprinters wheel, anticipating his jump, as he sat on Flicks wheel, anticipating his jump.

We slowed, momentarily, and that’s when I decided to take matters into my own hands. I jumped, and I jumped hard. 200 meters to the line, and I was clear. 150 meters to the line, and I was clear. 100 meters to the line, and I was clear. 50 meters to the line, and I could see the Sprinter and Flick in my peripheral vision. 20 meters to the line and I watched them pass me, Flick taking the win, followed by the Sprinter, with another rider on his wheel.

So, it was another 4th place for me today.

Lesson learned: the chit-chat attack works well with an apathetic peloton.

Friday, May 11, 2007

In search of Wim van Est

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Last week I was in Pau, France for a work related project. Some might find the word “work” a misnomer, because my job was to ride stages 17 and 18 of the 2007 Tour de France, but that’s another story.

While the plan was to head north, seeing as I was in the vicinity of the Pyrenees for the first time, and with my bike, and that the mountains were less than 30 kilometers away, I could not resist the urge to climb at least one of the famous cols from the Tour de France, namely Col d’Aubisque.

To bike racing aficionados, the Aubisque conjures up memories of the story of the Dutch cyclist Wim van Est. van Est wrote his name into Tour de France lore after falling 70 meters down into a ravine, while wearing the Maillot Jaune, as he misjudged a corner descending the Aubisque. Apparently it was his first time climbing a ‘proper’ mountain. The bad news was van Est lost the jersey that day, the good news was that he wasn’t seriously injured, and as an added bonus, his Pontiac watch kept on ticking.

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Wim van Est, climbing back up from the ravine he fell into.

This year the Tour de France peloton will ascend the Aubisque after already riding 200 kilometers, and climbing several mountains. I, on the other hand, chose to depart about 20 kilometers away, from the town of Arundy.

The warm up ride, in damp, overcast weather, was uneventful, although I found myself wondering if it was such a good idea to climb a mountain with legs that were stiff after sitting in a car for 12 hours the day before. I had also forgotten the specifics of the Aubisque: how long it was, and what kind of percentages the climb had, and to make matters worse I only had a 39x23, which I was afraid was a tad too heavy for what lay ahead.

Fortunately there was a sign at the base, just outside of Laruns, which provided the info I was looking for. It’s 16 kilometers to the top, with the tough stuff coming after the half way point. Considering the time of year, my fitness, my lack of ambition at achieving a good time, and most importantly my lack of climbing ability, I figured it would take me about 1:15-1:25 minutes to reach the top. With that in the back of my head, I got started.

I’d love to elaborate on what went through my head, as I ground away in my easiest – if that’s what you could call it – gear. Unfortunately, I went into a kind of trance. I remember seeing a monument to the left side of the road, somewhere in the first few kilometers. I wondered if it was for van Est, but it turned out to be a memorial for Resistance fighters killed by the Germans. I remember taking the right in Eaux-Bonnes, when I should have taken a left. I remember riding through a few tunnels, right before Gourette, and seeing some pro-Basque independence graffiti, but written in French. I remember seeing “Floyd is Innocent” scrawled next to the Basque graffiti. I remember seeing an enormous replica of the polka-dot climbers jersey from the Tour.

What I don’t remember seeing is van Est’s monument, which turns out be a plaque. Maybe I was too cross-eyed to see it? Maybe, probably, it was on the other side of the Aubisque, on the roads leading down to Argeles, which were closed.

Eventually I made my way to the top, although I can’t tell you how long it took me. What I can tell you is that as someone who lives in the flatlands, I can understand how van Est could have easily misjudged a corner descending the Aubisque, especially when you’re doing it in early May, and you lose the feelings in your fingers.

Monday, April 30, 2007

The long, and not so winding road

Cyclists are obsessed with numbers: speed, distance, gears, heart rate, watts, blah blah blah…

The one number that almost everyone can relate to is 100, aka “The Century”, aka 100 Miles. I suppose I can kind of understand, after all it’s a round number, a C-Note, which used to be worth something, awhile ago, like November 6th, 2000.

If truth be told, once you’ve been on a 100 mile ride, it’s not a big deal, it’s just another number, even if people who know nothing about cycling are always impressed when you mention, nonchalantly, that you’ve just been on a 100 mile ride.

OK, now that I’ve gone out f my way to make my feelings clear, I’d like to announce that I completed my first century of the year. I couldn’t care less that it was a century, but I’m happy that I can now say (or type as the case may be) that I rode a “Ronde Markermeer”.

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Riding towards Lelystad.

If one didn’t know better, that might almost sound exotic. Almost. The route is simple, it circles the Markermeer, a fresh water lake, that a little over 70 years ago was part of the Zuiderzee, an inlet of the North Sea. With the Zuiderzeewerken, the Dutch were protecting themselves from potential flooding from the North Sea, as well as developing additional land for farming. It’s worked a treat, even if the cities built on reclaimed land aren’t exactly the most stunning that you’d ever see (apologies to my readers in Lelystad, Almere, etcetera).

So, now that you know a little bit about the route, you'll understand why 'exotic' is not the word to describe a "Ronde Markermeer". Probably, no definitely, because half of the Ronde Markermeer is along roads that were built on reclaimed land, the word is relentless. Not necessarily relentless as in difficult, but relentlessly boring. I suppose it depends on the wind that day.

Fortunately for me, we only rode the first 70 long, straight, flat kilometers into the wind, then around 29 kilometers along the Markerwaarddijk, until you hit Enkhuizen. From there on it was tail and side winds, through towns that are older than your parents.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Race Report (April 28th)

I raced today.

The weather was fantastic.

That is all.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

It's like Vermont, but they speak French

Seeing as Flèche Wallonne takes place today, and Liège-Bastogne-Liège is on Sunday, I thought I'd share some snaps, taken last weekend.

The group that I ride with has an annual training weekend pilgrimage to the Ardennes. They more or less adopted me last year, but I was out of town for that trip, so I missed it. I made sure to be around this time.

Lucky me: the house we stayed in was a converted barn, with plenty of space; one of the group has been part of a "cook club" for 20 years, so the food was outstanding; another one of the guys is a Sommelier, so the wine was perfect; and last but not least - the weather was amazing.

On Friday, after a 4+ hour drive from Amsterdam (good ol' gridlock, I felt like I was back home on the I-95) a few of us went on a spin, to loosen then legs. Unfortunately one of the guys had his chain break on the first hill.

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Fortunately, help was close at hand - one of the guys was grocery shopping nearby and came to pick him up. Even better, it was an easy enough fix, so everything was on schedule for Saturday.

Around the Ardennes there's a variety of driving/cycling routes marked by signs. They vary in length and difficulty, and occasionally the signs are tough to follow, but it's still a great resource.

The plan for the day was to ride the "Route Buissoniere", which is +/-127km with 1,790 M of climbing. We had to ride a bit to find the route, so it was a tad longer.

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Some pics from the ride:

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Take a left to get your legs ground down to a stump.

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A light lunch.

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A faded sign marking the route for Fleche Wallonne.

And, here's some pics from the following day:

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The route de jour.

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Top of the Wanne. If you ever haul your butt up that climb, make sure you take it easy on the descent into Stavelot - it's white knuckle stuff.

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L-B-L rides over these cobbles in Stavelot. (which are nothing compared to the ones you get in Flanders).

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One of the many memorials for the US troops that fought in the Battle of the Bulge. This one was for the 82nd Airborne troops that held their ground here.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Bike Racing for Beginners: How to get started

  1. Find some group rides, fast group rides. Sit in the back.
  2. Don't get discouraged if/when you get dropped from those group rides.
  3. Go back the following week and do the fast group ride again.
  4. If you're dropped a 2nd time, repeat steps 2 & 3
  5. Once you're comfortable with the group and pace (and vice versa), take some pulls.
  6. Once you're comfortable taking pulls, try some attacks (if it's that kind of group ride).
  7. Once you're comfortable with steps 5 & 6, it's time to enter a race.
  8. At your first race, repeat steps 1-6, but substitute 'race' for 'group ride'.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Frites met pain

Today is the last of the Flemish Spring Classics takes place, the Scheldeprijs. To be honest, I find it the most boring Belgian race in April. Probably because it’s for all intents and purposes a sprinters race. The one catch with this criticism is that it’s actually the one Semi-Classic that I’ve actually raced.

Before you start thinking otherwise: obviously not as a pro, but as an amateur. Back in the beginning of 1993, while I was living in Scotland, I received a letter from Belgium, which left me a little confused. I didn’t know anyone there. It turns out that it was an indirect reply, to a letter that I sent to the Belgium Cycling Federation asking for info on racing there, which was then published in their newsletter.

Long story short, I ended up spending 3 weeks in a village outside of Antwerp. What a strange 3 weeks those were. The family that hosted me consisted of a husband and wife. Their children had moved out years before, all of the boys were, or had been racers. While Mrs V spoke some English, Mr. V didn’t speak a word, apart from “Oh Boy”.

I think they were expecting a talented racer, trying to take the next step, instead of a curious art student, who raced bikes on the side. In the beginning the drivesto the Kermesse I raced in lasted longer than my time with the peloton. A word of advice to those who want to race in Belgium: don’t spend the winter in Scotland, riding through Hills and Mountains, then racing non-technical road races if you want to survive the “Balls to the Wall” hammer-fest that is April Kermesse racing in Belgium. I felt like I was a Cat 4 all over again, what with the way I was getting dropped and crashing out (partly) thanks over-inflated tires in wet corners.

After watching me get dropped in every race that I entered, I think they gave up on me. I couldn’t really blame them. I gave up on myself a little. Then, one day I saw a sign, not a burning bush, or a ray of light, just a plain old offset print sign, with something about a race nearby. It turned out the race was in a few days, and seeing as it was close to where I was staying, I opted to ride over there by myself. No pressure from the hosts. No soul crushing looks of disappointment.

So, off I went that Wednesday, to ride what would be - if memory serves – a race of 120 km, around the circuit that the pros ride at the end of their race. While I have the tale of that day transcribed in minute detail an old training journal, said journal is packed away in a box, in an attic, on the other side of town. I remember picking up my number in a smokey café. In the back was a room where you could change, pin your number on, oil your legs, etc.

There’s not much that I can really recall about the race itself, apart from a 10-20 second period. I had learned my lesson it seemed, and managed not to get dropped at the gun. Actually, I felt pretty good that day, even as the 150+ field was stretched into one long line. Then it happened. Somewhere, about an hour in, I looked down at my computer. I saw that my average speed was something like 28 MPH. It occurred to me that I had never raced for an hour at that speed, and it dawned on me that we had at least another hour and a half to go. Just as these thoughts started spinning in my head, I realized that I had let a gap open up in front of me. Not good.

The riders behind me started shouting. I didn’t speak a word of Flemish, but I knew they were telling me to close the gap. It was obvious. Yet, for some reason I shouted back “I. Don’t. Speak. Dutch!” Not smart. Not smart at all. The next thing I knew, the guy behind me grabbed my jersey, and slungshot himself forward.

He closed the gap, and my race was over. There was no way I was ever going to catch back on. Game over.

The good news is that I was able to get back and change in time to grab myself some Belgian Frites with Tartar sauce, and watch Mario Cipollini win the pro race.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Those Stuyvesant Days of Summer

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Over this past Christmas I was rummaging through some boxes in the attic of my parents house. One of the boxes was full of old copies of bike magazines: VeloNews, Winning, Bicycling, and Cycling Weekly, from the early 90s. Wedged in-between a few magazines was an old Bottechia brochure. It was like finding a picture of an old girlfriend who you had completely forgotten.

When I first started riding in Central Park, I’d see a swarm of 40-50 cyclists fly past me, so I'd spin the one gear that I had on my rusty single speed messenger bike, with the bent frame, as fast as I could to try and catch up. I didn’t know any better, and fortunately for me, and the pack, I could never latch on. If I did I would have probably caused a crash, considering the fact that I had never ridden in a group, and only had a front brake.

After a few weeks of trying to catch the pack, I gave up. Then it dawned on me: a crappy single speed bike was probably not the best equipment to employ when you want to ride with a bunch of racers. So I started lusting after bikes, going into bike shops, staring at the wares, kicking tires, and reading magazines.

The bike that I fell in love with, that summer of 1990, was a Bottechia, the bike that Greg LeMond rode to victory on in the ’89 Tour de France. Whenever I had the chance, I found myself using any and every excuse to go over to west 14th street to Stuyvesant Bikes, to drool at the yellow and purple ADR-Agriel replica Bottechias, and the ultimate object of my desire: a red and white Bottechia SLX with full record, with those stunning, yet hopelessly inadequate Delta brakes. What a bike.

With that bike, anything was possible. Pack ride? No problem. Bike race? No problem. Who knew? Maybe I had some undiscovered talent, that had laid dormant throughout a youth spent in front of a TV, followed by many a sleepless night, sprinkled with four years of chain smoking in college. Who knew? All I knew was that I wanted it.

Well… I wish I could tell you that it eventually became mine. It didn’t. For some reason I changed my mind a few months later. I got a Pinarello instead, and I didn’t even get it at Stuyvesant.

The following summer, now that I had my fancy schmancy Italian racing bike, I decided to try the Central Park pack ride for real – kind of. I was too shy to show up at the meeting point, so I soft-pedaled a bit, somewhere between the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the reservoir. Waiting for the pack to pass.

I heard the revolutions of 50+ cranks, and 100+ wheels behind me, looked around, and saw them coming. This was it: I was finally going to ride in the Central Park pack ride!

I lasted about 2 miles. Lance Armstrong was right: it’s not about the bike.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Wuyts Watch: fun with flying water bottles

Michel and José called it, once again.

Today, on the descent of the Kemmelberg, at Gent-Wevelgem, bottles were flying out of their cages as the riders bounced down the cobbled road. Just when Michel and José were saying 'oohhhhh oi oi oi, dat is gevaarlik' (or 'ohhhhh oi oi oi, that's dangerous'), the little man in green, Jimmy Caspar, from the Bad News Bears of the Pro Tour, Unibet, rubbed wheels with a Gerolsteiner rider, and proceeded to do a face plant, with a chain reaction behind him.


One thing that strikes me as odd: the TV cameras were perfectly placed for the crashes on the descents of the Kemmelberg today. Coincidence, or planned? Hmmmmm...

Here's hoping Jimmy managed to keep a few of his teeth, and is back on the bike ASAP.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

A Holy day with Hellingen

Today is the day. No, I don’t mean Easter, and the celebration of the resurrection of our lord and savior, ol' JC. I mean today is the Ronde van Vlaanderen, aka Vlaanderen’s Mooiste, and perhaps today is the day that Tom Boonen shall have his own personal trinity, or not, as the case happened to be.

Yesterday, zapping channels, trying to find something to watch on TV, I found something worth watching for a few minutes. It was a short, public service program, called Kijk Uit (Look Out in Dutch), on the Belgian channel Sporza. The segment explained what to expect for the residents of the towns, and villages that would be affected by the Ronde van Vlaanderen: what to look for when the caravan is coming, when the race is coming, when it’s all clear, etc. They even went around and did a vox-pop session with drivers, giving them the opportunity to air their grievances. Now that’s service!

Wedstrijd, or Race, coming through...

Vox-Pop: So, what's it like having the Ronde block every road in town?

Nico Eeckhout expresses his appreciation.

After Kijk Uit, there was an hour long program, covering the tourists edition of the Ronde, with a sort of pre-game hype: live interviews by my man Michel Wuyts at Quickstep's hotel; various Flemish celebrities, waxing poetically about the race, and brief chats with the ever-day Joes, after they finished riding the course..

Moses is an Assos aficionado as well.

I think my favorite interview, was with an old Flemish guy, dubbed “Moses” by the interviewer, who instead of spending 40 years in the wilderness, had just finished his own Ronde, but had some problems along the way. Apparently Moses couldn’t part the Red Sea that is the Muur - Kapelmuur.

Hopefully Moses had a few Morte Subite’s last night, and has rised to ride another day today.