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

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.