USA in France

USA in France

Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Race of Falling Leaves

More commonly known as Il Lombardia. This is the final World Tour race of the year, and is known for its beautiful fall weather as well as for being quite brutal!
As the 5th and final monument race of the year, Lombardia traverses the Bergamo to Lake Como region of Italy. Passing through ‘falling leaves’ while winding its way over steep climbs for 240 km. Looking to finish the season out on a high with Lotto NL Jumbo before the World Championships, I was very motivated. Robert and I flew to Italy 3 days early to check out the finale…it was a special edition of the race celebrating its 110th birthday so it was going to be an unordinary difficult parkour in this edition. I always love going to Italy. It is a special place for cycling. The traveled history of racing and famous champions is still tightly wound into the DNA that is Italy. Cycling is not an activity or a hobby there, it’s a lifestyle! After flying into Bergamo from Girona, we went for a short ride to spin out the legs post travel before beginning our stereotypical pasta carbo loading at dinner! The next day we headed out to the course to preview. We started at about 120 kilometers to go with the car and started to drive on the route at the bottom of the first big climb of the race, the Passo di Valcava. Ending at 1340m high, the Valcava climbs for 12 kilometers and has a section of 18% for over 1 kilometer near the top. Although this climb was far out from the finish, we knew it would begin the race finale.
The Valcava was the first of 5 climbs that the race traversed before finishing in Bergamo. As we drove up we quickly became tourists, stopping for pictures every corner, shortly forgetting why we were driving the route before refocusing onto the task at hand. It is always nice to preview a race course so that you know what is coming, but it is also fun to be able to see the surrounding scenery while you are relaxed. It’s much harder to enjoy the breathtaking views when you are already gasping for air! After ascending and descending the Valcava by car…we arrived in a small town between in the valley between the climbs where we parked the car to continue the rest of the parkour by bike. Part of what makes Lombardia so difficult is its lack of flat terrain. As soon as you descend a climb, within 2-3 kilometers you are at the base of the next mountain. This, combined with snake-like and mentally taxing Italian descents will drain even the toughest riders.
As we jumped on to our bikes to ride the final 80 kilometers to Bergamo, we were immediately met by the next climb. For the next 3 hours we shared a nice mix of riding, taking pictures and conversation. Italy was showing off with a gorgeous sunny day. Any direction that you pointed the camera you would find a good picture. As we finished the ride…we felt like we knew the course, but that wasn’t going to make it any easier on Sunday! The next day we woke up to rain…and it wasn’t warm, we got out for a short spin before calling it a day and heading to meet the team. The team roster for Lombardia: Robert Gesink Enrico Bataglin Bram Tankink Koen Bouwman Bert-Jan Lindeman Alexey Vermeulen Wilco Kelderman Paul Martens
We were led by Robert Gesink. After a strong Vuelta, Robert had trained hard to stay in shape and he was ready to try for another top 10. My goal for myself was to make it as far as I could with Robert to help him in the finale. I was in great form going into the World Championships and I was motivated for a result in the last monument of the year. As we drove to the start the weather was wet, but not raining. It was a long and tight drive through the small streets of Italy with all the big buses. At the start the Italian fans were lining the streets…ready for a race exciting race! We rode over through the crowded streets to the podium for team presentation. As we signed in, the pre-race jitters began to sit in as well. I rode back to the bus for a final coffee before heading to the start. The race started with a 4 km neutral…through the slick cobbled streets of Lake Como. Before the neutral had ended the slick roads had already claimed one casualty. The race started hard and fast. The way out of town was slightly up on big roads for the first 40 km which made for a hectic and chaotic fight for the breakaway. The breakaway finally went away, but they didn’t get any chance to sit up, we relaxed for maybe 15 minutes before the chase began. We went over an uncategorized climb that had a steep, technical descent. This split the field up into many pieces as the race tore down the mountain towards the first major climb of the day, the Madonna del Ghisallo. As we sprinted into the bottom of the Ghisallo, my group which had been split off the back was just making contact again. I wasn’t happy to be chasing this early in the race, but I was also surrounded by capable riders, such as Uran, Van Avermaet and Wico, so I tried to relax and conserve for the fight on the rapidly approaching Ghisallo. The Ghisallo is 8km long, steep and is the first point in the race where riders start to crack under the pressure. It is 60 km into the race, but at that point there are still over 200 km to go.
The bottom of the climb was violent. After chasing right into it, there was no chance to catch my breath. I took one big inhale and went for it. Being as far back as I was would be dangerous as riders fell off the pace in front of me, so I worked hard to move up on the climb. About 12 minutes into the climb the pace relaxed and I was able to finally breathe somewhat normally for a couple minutes. We crested the top of the Ghisallo after 8 kilometers of climbing and followed its steep and technical descent to the next valley. We then followed the valley until the final flurry of climbs would set off the finale beginning with the Passo di Valcava. After passing the first big test that Lombardia had to offer, I was motivated to try and help Robert out as much as possible. Even though I had been in bad position, I had fixed it and I knew I would need to be better on the next and longest climb of the race, the Valcava. The fight into the bottom of the Valcava was tough. Taking place on Italy’s winding roads, I focused on staying with Robert and Bert-Jan as it is always easier as a team. I got split off of their wheels a couple times, but I always found my way back and happily started the Valcava in decent position. The climb, as I said above has constant pitches of 18%. Luckily we had smaller inner chain rings to accommodate this. I rode strongly for the first bit of the climb. I was hurting, but I believed I could make it. As we entered the steep section of the climb with about 5 km to go, I got a little more confident. I was here, with the last 60 riders in a World Tour – Monument race! I just kept fighting, but started to falter with about 2 km to go on the climb.
As I started the descent, I was still in the caravan of cars behind the main peloton, so I kept hope, but alas as I entered the small valley before the next climb it became apparent that I was not coming back. I kept fighting to make it too a good group, but there weren’t many. Eventually Jens Keukeleire caught me and we rode a good pace over the next climbs. Unfortunately, at the top of the second to last climb we were forced to stop the race by the organizers and police. It was a hard moment for me. I had really worked hard and hoped to finish this beautiful, terrible, epic race…but as everyone says, there is always next year. As we got into the cars, Jens told me about his team missing the start and having to chase during the neutral start to catch on just as we began the race! Poor Robert Power, who was set to start his first ever world tour race was caught on the toilet and never even caught back to the peloton! I guess at the end of the day its all about how you see it…my day wasn’t that bad after all. As I got back to the bus and caught up with everyone, only Robert had managed to finish, but he flew the Lotto flag well, coming in 7th place. With the race in the books, Robert and I talked over the race, and the season as we flew back to Girona. Although disappointed, I immediately refocused on to the World Championships and tried to harness the poor result to motivate myself. Awesome pictures taken by Les Morales! Check him out here!

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Back in Belgium!

Racing in Belgium is like racing on an obstacle course fit for a circus. It has jumps, cones, tight turns, pot holes, and specators…what more can you ask for? So, it makes sense that cycling is a big sport in Belgium…I mean, racing is just plain entertaining! You never know what the promoters have in store for the riders! It has been quite a while since I raced in Belgium. After Canada we flew back to Paris on a chartered flight for the race. It was quite interesting boarding a flight where you knew just about everyone on board. One thing you could count with a chartered flight for cyclists, was that you were almost guaranteed not to have an overweight person next to you… From Paris, Dennis and I took the train to Holland to stay for a couple of days before racing in Belgium on the weekend. We stopped in Paris and enjoyed the chaos that is the morning commute over a nice quiche before catching our final train to Holland. We even managed to catch a car crash and a car-bike collision…I can’t imagine riding there!
I arrived in Holland quite knackered. Luckily, I was staying with friends and not at a hotel. Sometimes when you are on the road, it really takes a place that isn’t completely fresh and clean and has the ‘perfect’ bed to make you feel at home. The family I was staying with made delicious home cooked meals and we even went to the beach the first day…let me tell you, that is the perfect way to curb your jet lag! The days passed quickly and soon I was back on the train to Belgium. We were racing two UCI 1.1 one day races. Koolskamp and Impanis. Dennis and I got picked up by Michal (or Polska as he is dearly known on the team) before having dinner at all you can eat sushi. Best pre-race dinner ever. Koolskamp was a kermesse like course, consisting of 16, 12 kilometer laps. It really took me back to my first days racing in Europe with the junior national team. Frites and sausages available on each street corner, beer sponsors lining the fences and most of all…FULL GAS racing all day long! The course had a couple technical corners, lots of cross wind and a 700 meter cobble section, so… full on Belgian. I loved it. Each lap brought a new scenario, groups going up the road, peloton splits…it was quite the race. We weren’t on the correct side of each split, but that didn’t take away from the fun of hard racing. Moreno made the days’ breakaway after more than 2 hours of fighting, the race relaxed for about 6 km before Ettix and Lotto Soudal split the peloton over the cobble section and created a group of 22 riders. Unfortunately, and quite stupidly, we had no one in the group…we chased, HARD for a long time before finally bringing the groups back together with about 3 laps to go. A couple small groups went up the road at times during the final laps, but for the most part the race was just lined out until the final lap when the leadout trains began. We tried to set Tom Van Asbrock up for the sprint and did a decent job for how much we had worked, but unluckily he and Timo got boxed in for a few seconds too long and he finished 11th. Overall the race was a blast! It was the type of racing that you finish exhausted, but with a smirk on your face. The kind of racing that makes you love your teammates. The best kind.
The next day I woke up with aching fingers and bruised hands. The <10 km of cobbles had done their work on this climber. Still, more than 24 hours later, all of my knuckles and joints are swollen! I cannot imagine doing Roubaix (but I oddly still want to)! Impanis was very Belgian as well, but also quite different. The race was a point to point race of 200km. This meant that you never really knew what was coming ahead on the road. There were many points where 170 riders threaded their way through traffic islands…making it look simple in the midst of complete and utter chaos, and there were times where you catch air off of an unexpected speedbump…but that is Belgium! Today’s race had a lot of small roads and tight turns as well. There was some more climbing today with 2200 meters of elevation over the course of the race, but the day ended up being more controlled. The first 2 hours were hard as groups attempted to establish themselves and get a gap. Sometimes in this race big groups roll away so we were quite attentive. In the end after many groups tried a group of smaller teams got a gap. BMC began chasing and it was pretty controlled (still chaos) until the final 40 kilometers. As we entered the last few climbs, people were starting to suffer and gaps started to open in the field as the breakaway was caught. The last 20 kilometers was flat, and so as tough as some of the climbs had been, we came into the finale with 80+ riders. It was looking like it was going to be a field sprint. Over the final climb a group of 10 riders had gone away with Greg Van Avermaet (Olympic champion) as well as many other strong riders. We worked to pull this group back before leading out Tom for the sprint. We were tired, but we finished off a pretty solid lead out, only leaving Tom to fend for himself in the final 500 meters. Unfortunately, Mike crashed while pulling off through the field when someone clipped his bars, but he had done his job and Tom had finished a respectable 4th. Luckily Mike rode over the finish and had only lost some skin…Cyclists are damn tough! Now I am traveling back to Girona after nearly a month away…I am quite excited and motivated for the last month of the season. Next up for me is Lombardia…my second Monument race! Looking forward to riding around the iconic Lake Como!

Thursday, September 15, 2016

GP Montreal - Canada Pt.2

Sometimes it’s the journey not the destination right? I hope so. At GP Montreal all the effort was there, but the result was lacking. Sometimes that’s how it goes, like it or not. It wasn’t without an honest college try that we ended up only placing Wilco in 50th, it could have gone many other ways and I could be writing about the successful execution of a grand plan, but alas the outcome was much more lack luster.
After racing in Quebec on Friday, we piled the bikes into trucks and the riders into buses and made our way to Montreal the following morning. For the amount of moving parts that this migration included, it went over quite smoothly and by 2 pm that day we were out on our bikes too recon the GP Montreal lap. The cycling fans in Montreal were CRAZY, awesome, but completely crazy. The minute that we rolled out of the hotel, riders and enthusiast flocked toward us and rode with us for the next hour. The longer we rolled, the more people our group collected and by the end it was over 30 people riding with us! It was a bit sketchy at times…fans trying to take pictures and selfies or asking for bottles, all while riding with traffic. As we finished up our pre-ride there was an amateur race beginning around a small 2 km circuit including the final 1.5 km of our lap. We asked if we could join, but alas we were not allowed. Something about us racing tomorrow… The next morning was relatively relaxed like Quebec. The race began at 11, so we had time to get a good night’s sleep before heading off to the race. We left the hotel about an hour before the gun would go off in order to sign in and make our final preparations. After sign in and team presentation we went into the start village which had been created. This can be quite normal at high quality stage races such as the Tour de France, but you do not typically see them at one day starts. For the riders it’s a place to grab a coffee, maybe a last minute banana and/or snack. For VIP’s and other staff there is a barber shop set up, pastries as far as the eye can see and of course, beer. We enjoyed a couple espressos as we passed the time to the race before going to the start line. As much as I needed a haircut, I decided there wasn’t enough time before the start…another time 
GP montreal was 205 km, consisting of 17, 12 km laps. Each lap would climb around 250 meters (or 700 ft) and at the end of the race we would climb 3900 meters (12000 ft)...this lap was no walk in the park. There was one long steady climb of 2 km at around 8% and then another short steep climb on the backside of the course before descending back into town. The final kilometer consisted of 500 meters, U – turn, and then 500 meters uphill to the line. It was going to be a tough race any way you rode it. Our team consisted of many guys who would suffer to remain in the race in the final laps…so we decided to try to get a rider into the breakaway and then fully protect Wilco for the finish. From the gun, Mike and Moreno went for the breakaway and going into the climb the first time they were alone together, doing a team time trial (it was quite funny to watch from the peloton) …but in the end they were reeled back in before another group rolled away. After the breakaway was gone, we settled down for a lap before Tinkoff and BMC began chasing. As the race wound past the half way point and into the final laps, we were well positioned and doing a good job keeping Wilco out of the wind. The goal in the finish was to have Timo and me be there in the final lap to put Wilco in the position to win. As we crossed over the start/finish line with 4 laps (48 km to go) our team took control of the front as it was getting hectic. As the road tilted upwards on the climb the team held a good position on the front of the race.
We were lined up with Moreno-Timo-Wilco and then me behind. As we neared the final kilometer of the climb, Geraint Thomas attacked and I followed making sure that we were covered in the move. As we started to descend it was a group of around 25 riders who managed to make the split of about 30-45 seconds. The moment that I accelerated to go with Thomas, I also immediately realized that my legs were not as spectacular as I had originally believed. When the group had space, the represented teams began to push on the front. Astana and Lampre each had 3 riders and so it became their job in a group this big to keep the pace. We went around and hit 3 laps to go. As we started up the climb again, I began to suffer, but I just kept turning the pedals over and started shoving as much food as I could in my mouth. On the backside of the course with 2 laps to go we were caught and I was dropped on the 2nd to last climb. I rode in with a motivated grupetto led by Tom Boonen who was training for worlds in Qatar. As the race came to a close, Timo had blown on the top of the 2nd to last climb as well and all the other riders had done their jobs and retired from the race. Unfortunately, as I stated above, Wilco got cramps in the finale and finished in 50th, our best result of the day. As disappointing as the overall result was we really did do our best to race as a team. I think the point of writing about this race is to show that there are some races that just don’t go your way, even when you have a rider as talented as Wilco. Sometimes racing doesn’t go how you plan it, its how you deal with it that decides if it affects your next races.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

GP Quebec - Canada Pt.1

When I first found out that I wasn’t going to be racing in the Vuelta, I was a bit disappointed. My mind had been set on my grand tour debut at the Vuelta for most of the year, but this thought quickly dissipated when I realized that my new race program would consist of the Canadian races, GP Quebec and GP Montreal. These are the only world tour level races in North America and it would mark the first time that I had raced on Canadian soil in quite some time.
This is always special because of my dual citizenship, I am half a maple leaf, I could drink maple syrup and the love for hockey lives on inside of me, what more defines a Canadian?! I arrived in the Quebec City airport about an hour after the chartered flight had arrived with the rest of the European peloton. I was coming from the USA having been home for a couple weeks. In my mind, I did not see anything odd about this, but I cannot say the same for the customs guard. He found it very suspicious that my team would arrive before me… Customs: “Are you racing in Quebec this week?” Me: “Yes” Customs “Who do you race for?” Me: “Lotto NL Jumbo, a Dutch team” Customs: What are you doing in Canada?” Me: “Uhhh…racing?” Customs: “What do you do for a living?” Me: “Uhh…I race a bike?” Customs: “How long will you be here?” Me: “Six days”
Needless to say I thought I was headed for the interrogation room for sure! Luckily, I was soon free to go, he stamped my passport, I collected my bags and caught a taxi to rendezvous with my team at our hotel, the grand and beautiful Le Chateau de Frontenac. Unfortunately, we were missing one of our team. Tom. Unfortunately, Tom accidently left his bag with his ID and cycling shoes on the train to the airport in Paris…and by the time he remembered the train was on its way, going 200 MPH too fast to catch. Quebec City was gorgeous. After dinner we all went out to walk around and ended up at a coffee shop. Its these times before the races that I really enjoy with the team. Sitting on a terrace and just enjoying the place we are, where ever that may be. As the sun set we walked back to the hotel. Tomorrow we would preview the race course and make our final preparations.
As we woke up there was liquid sunshine coming from the sky…this would be a wet pre-ride…but better today than tomorrow! There was no structure to the day so we all headed out to ride at different times. Dennis and I rode together a bit later. It was raining, but luckily it was warm enough that it wasn’t dreadful. We rode two laps of the race course. The time passes quickly with a good friend although the climbs always feel harder than they are in the race because you go so much slower. As the weather started to get worse we finished up our ride and went back to the hotel to warm up and rest up. This is the boring part of professional cycling…it’s your job to do nothing! After an afternoon of doing nothing, we did as the stereotype goes with endurance sports and shoveled a couple plates of pasta in before going out for coffee again. The coffee shop had become our spot. It was away from the hotel filled with cyclists and the owner loved riders…ie. a 10% discount! That night I slept soundly as Tom arrived on a late flight from Europe after getting his passport redone in 24hrs. The next morning it was race day…the routine was pretty normal. We ate breakfast 3 hours before the start and then relaxed and pinned on numbers and got ready for the race. About an hour before the start we met in the lobby of the hotel to roll to the start line which was only about 500 meters away. The lobby in the surrounding area outside was filled with local kids and fans looking to take photos and get autographs.
The next hour passed as we signed in and went to team presentation. We made our final preparations for the race at the tent that was set up in the feed zone for the team. We put on sun screen, grabbed the food we would need and then headed off to the start…and with that, we were off. The race was relatively controlled. The break went quickly and then we settled into an easy pace in the peloton…although we still had to go the distance. The course from the start wound its way off and through a park before descending down to follow the river for a couple kilometers. The next left hand turn would be at the foot at about a 200m climb that averages about 13%, one of those climbs where if you step off the pedals for a second you will find yourself going backwards. Next the course quickly descended on to the next little climb that got steeper as you got to the top before turning right and slightly descending down a street paved with stones before a ripper of a right, left, right before passing under the 1km flag and fighting up a 4-5% grade all the way to the finish line.
The lap was 12.6 km and we would complete 16 before the finish. As the breakaway was kept at about 5 minutes the peloton rolled on behind peacefully until about 5 laps to go. As we entered the steep climb on the 11th lap the peloton never came into a big bubble, but instead stayed stretched out as we started to really race for the finish for the first time and riders began to get dropped. As the laps wore down, more riders got dropped and as we came into the final lap there was probably about 80-90 riders left from the original 168. Over the top of the steep climb the group was stretched thin and it would stay that way until it started to split apart completely in the last kilometer. I blew apart as we came into the home stretch and I just held on as the line seemed to get further away each time I looked up at it. At the end of the day Wilco rolled in a respectable 12th place, Mike finished 27th, myself 39th and Timo 49th. It had all come down to the final 3 km and whoever had some left in the tank could finish it off. Sagan won with an impressive sprint followed by Greg Van Avermaet in 2nd and Anthony Roux in 3rd. Tomorrow is GP Montreal, another 205km race consisting of 17x 12 km laps. This course has a bit more sustained climbing so I am looking forward to seeing what I can do. Check back soon!

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The Game

The ‘game’ of cycling, as funny as it sounds, is about as accurate of a description of professional cycling as I have ever heard. If you are not smiling along the journey that this sport takes you on…then you better have a heart of steel and a body of unbreakable bones to survive. Unlike many other sports where the chance of winning or losing a given match or race is 50/50, the reality of cycling is that you lose 99.9% of the time, and it is how you deal with the defeat that defines your career.
Sometimes overcoming that defeat is simple, even easy…maybe the other riders were just stronger than you and the logical reaction to that is to just train harder, train smarter. Or maybe you had an ill-timed crash, and it is just about getting back on the bike. Other times dealing with defeat can be tougher; whether you lose because of a lapse in judgement or a hesitation, or maybe you did not do your homework to study the race course; these types of losses can haunt you forever, and the regret can eat you alive. With all this being said, the name of the game is balancing lofty goals vs. reality vs. excuses. Now I know what you may be thinking, well that isn’t all that bad…but here comes the catch. The unsuspecting truth is that it is very easy to blame every bad race on something that happens during the race when the reality is that you weren’t strong enough, weren’t disciplined enough or weren’t smart enough to win the race. All of sudden the season is winding down and the opportunities to achieve those lofty goals that you set have now passed…how do you stay mentally combative then? Keeping a positive attitude is not always enough to win. Training hard on the bike isn’t always enough to win either. Everyone is training hard on the bike… it is the little things that put you in that position to win…most of all being strong and tough mentally. Enjoying your job can help you to get the most out of it. Creating a ‘game’ with of your training regimen is the only way sometimes. One of my tricks to keeping up with my core training is a competition that I have going with my brothers. I end up viewing core as something I need to do to beat them in our yearly Christmas competition, not a vital part of my cycling which it ultimately is intended to support. Sometimes it is just about finding the right motivations to put behind your duties as a professional.
I found the jump from U23 to the professional ranks to be a bigger jump than I could have imagined. This year, I have been beaten by many people, many people whom I considered to be my equals, and the more that this happens, the more you wonder if this game is worth the pain and suffering that comes with playing. There is also the aspect of being a good teammate. It can sometimes look on paper as though a race was a failure when in fact a teammate wins or succeeds because of another riders whose unseen effort created the possibility for the win. Professional cycling seems to understand this to a point in my view. I have seen of and heard of far too many riders who go without a contract because of a 'lack of results', when they had successfully executed their job each and every race. My public moto this season has constantly been that I just want to learn how to be a pro. As true as this is, I would be lying if I said that I did not have more goals that I kept a little closer to my heart, and the reality of it is that I have hardly scraped the surface of what I expected of myself. As tough as this year has been physically, I would say it’s been twice as hard mentally. Learning to use the losses and sometimes failures as motivation and not just trying to cope with more baggage has been the key. You can only carry so much no matter how strong you are. I believe that many professional cyclists who are strong enough to win, lose the love for the sport because they forget where it all began and how it felt. This was reminded to me recently when I went on a ride with someone who is much newer to the sport than I am.
We were out riding on a desolate gravel road in the middle of nowhere Michigan, the sun was shining through the trees and it was by all accounts, a gorgeous day. For the better part of the ride I found myself getting irritated whenever we went uphill and my partner would pick up the pace and just go harder. I was about to say something when I thought about it…sometimes we get so stuck in our training numbers that we forget the beauty of training. All you need to get stronger on the bike is a bike and the will to pedal it over whatever is thrown at you. There are many ways to win this game of cycling. Who am I too damper his love for this beautiful sport. Cycling is a game and I feel like we are always playing, regardless of whether it is racing, training or recovering. The races are just moves in this big overall game (our careers) that we are all playing. The training is each of us is rolling the dice or showing our hand of cards. In the end it will all add up to the work that you have put in, and your career becomes what you make of it. I have just started my piece on this big game board, but throughout this season, the one thing that has been pounded in my head over and over is ‘damn I want to win this game eventually and the suffering is all worth it. ‘

Friday, May 20, 2016

Cheating with this blog post

So we are 5 stages deep into the Tour of California and I am smoked! There have been a lot of hard (stage 5) has been one of the hardest thus far I think. We rode 135 miles (212 km) from sea level up to Lake Tahoe...climbing over 14,000 feet! Anyhow, I will look to get a full post up after this week finishes up, but in the mean time here is a nice interview from Cyclingnews. Thanks for reading!

Monday, May 2, 2016

An unplanned plan: Liege-Bastogne-Liege

Ardennes week is a busy time. It may seem stretched out to the eye of a spectator, but to a racer who competes in all three classics. It is a long and difficult seven days.
Having not raced Amstel, and just finished Fleche successfully I was ready to relax a little bit before the Tour of Romandie the next week. I was reserve for Liege, but I never thought it would come down to me. After Fleche, I was watching the weather for Liege daily to see the forecast for the weekend; as a spectator and fan, I wanted to know how gnarly and epic the race was going to be! Needless to say I was very excited to watch… Friday morning, we went to recon the last 70 kilometers of Liege. At this point I did not know that I was racing the race yet, but that point would turn out to be quite perfect. The recon of the race brought back a lot of memories as I lived in this area of Belgium while I raced on the BMC Development team, I knew a lot of the roads like the back of my hand. On the Friday before Liege, I learned that I was racing my first monument. .
My feelings were mixed, and before you make assumptions, let me explain why. It was not the weather, but the timing that had my head turning. I was actually excited for the weather! Rain, I am not a fan of, but snow…now that feels like home, a pure Michigan winter training day. I was a bit bummed because I strive, push and sometimes suffer to finish every race that I start, and as my plan to race was announced, it was also understood that I would be stopping in the second feed zone, 180 kilometers into the race, about 70 to go. Although, I did not like this idea, I could understand it. With the Tour of Romandie starting less than 48hrs after Liege ended, it was not wise to push through the entire race even if I could, 256 km is a big day to recover from for anyone. Now it was a matter of finding the correct way to mentally prepare for a race that you already knew you wouldn’t finish…this is not something that I had experienced before and it was actually quite interesting. I decided to enjoy the moment. Thoroughly enjoy my first time toeing the line for my first monument, because if I am ever contesting the win someday, I guarantee there will be less savoring and more suffering. The whole experience of a Liege-caliber race was incredible.
The team presentation is a spectacle to behold the day before the race. People wanting to take pictures with you, autographs and just the overall excitement of cycling fans wanting to meet the people partaking in the epic race the next day. I don’t intend to put us on a pedestal, but the race does and it is quite crazy! The best way I can describe it was like a red carpet at a movie premiere, the presentation is just the precursor to the movie or race that will be happening hours later. As race day came around I was still nervous, but overall, I was happy. This was the culmination of so much hard work. I used to watch Liege on the rollers as a kid, dreaming about doing this crazy thing called bike racing, and now I was actually getting the chance! I had embarrassingly explained to classmates countless times why I shaved my legs…and now I really had a good excuse.
At 8:30 we departed by bus with an entourage of team cars and trucks in tow. It started to sink in even more how big the race is. Once we arrived at the start in the middle of Liege, the weather was barely above freezing yet the fans were still out there, thousands of them, prepared for a long cold day just as we were. After many coffees on the bus, we all debated what to wear before beginning to actually start dressing. I usually like to dress from my own experiences, but I always make sure to glance at Gesink and some of the Veterans of the team… if I am drastically different, I know I should probably put more clothes on or take some off depending on the circumstance. Today Gesink chose to keep a rain jacket in his back water bottle cage instead of a bottle. I followed suit and man was I happy with that decision! After dressing, debating, changing and dressing a bit more I was finally happy with my choices. I checked that I had all of the appropriate additions in my rain bag before heading to the sign in. We signed in quickly before heading back to the bus for the final preparations. I filled my pockets with food, added a second pair of gloves to my back pocket before rolling to the start!
As the gun went off at 10:15 it was official, I had started my first Liege-Bastogne-Liege, well not yet actually, after 6.8 kilometers of neutral, more of a parade around the city before the racing ensues. As we finished off the neutral the race began…straight uphill. It was a quick reminder moment that ‘enjoying’ this liege would not be without a bit of suffering. After the breakaway went the pace settled down and I added my rain jacket to the huge amount of clothes that I already had on…it was cold! At this point I was able to do some of that ‘enjoying’. I talked with friends, mostly about how cold it was and tried to help the team out when possible. Every time that we would climb up above a certain point it would begin to snow, and when that happened I always had the biggest smile on my face and my tongue out like a kid to catch the snowflakes. As I stopped at the second feedzone that was the coolest part of the race I think. It was snowing heavily, big huge flakes and there were some epic pictures taken. As I stepped off the bike it was sad, but I told myself I would be back soon. I got some hot tea, and got in the car with the soigneurs and drove off to the watch the finish. Now that recon number comes in. In a way, I was able to actually do the whole liege as we had started the recon just after I stopped. I took a hot shower and warmed up in the bus while watching Wout Poels win liege from a four-man sprint. Our team didn’t achieve our goals, but I think we were a little bit happy that another Dutchman won. At the end of the day, it was a different kind of mental battle. A day where I focused less on the outcome and more on the passion and beauty of the sport. A day that will go down in history as one of the most epic editions of Liege-Bastogne-Liege, and a day that I was happy to be a part of, even for just the first two thirds.