The Ardennes Classics Campaign
“The Ardennes Classics are like a backward mullet- the party is on the front.” Spencer Powlison
Brabantse Pijl: 200 km
Brabantse Pijl (The Brabant Arrow) the final showdown of the Flanders Classics phases out the blustery badlands of Northern Belgium and segues into the hilly Ardennes Classics. Four finishing circuits complete with cobblestone climbs open the door to attackers. Tasked with covering early moves, and motivated to do so, I sprinted after dozens of breakaways for thirty km. Finally five riders slipped away without me. For the next seventy km, I worked to recover from that effort as we ripped past windmills and farmland. Rain fell for about an hour adding mystique to the ornate stone church steeples. Wet roads glistened under a firm sky turning the world upside-down.
A washing machine effect at the front of the peloton made holding position a virtual impossibility as riders sprinted to the end of bike lanes and sidewalks. Give them space to jump back on the road or crash. We hit the circuits. Each climb chopped groups of riders off the back while others dangled off the front. With 65 km to go, Johnny told me to move the race. I squeezed through a small gap on one of the climbs and went for it. I spent ten km between two groups, before the peloton swallowed me up. Without anyone in front, our team assembled at the front and chased. My token contribution hardly affected the race, but it was all I had left. Tom Slagter stomped the finishing climb and placed 9th.
Amstel Gold Race: 250 km
Arguably the most dangerous race on the calendar, with a course that looks like a child's scribbling on the map, AGR is a high speed game of chicken into every corner. Who will brake last. There’s more bar and shoulder bumping, and more crashes.
Again, I raced hard for the breakaway, but Alex Howes drew that card. The first 100 km were stressful, but as each leg breaking climb drew us closer to the finish the tension increased with the speed. I spent a lot of the day frustrated with myself for losing positions and wasting energy to regain them on the uphills. Then the clouds blasted us with airsoft sized pellets of hail. Braking and cornering became even crazier not to mention numbing extremities. The group split on a downhill but I found myself with a couple of pre-race favourites. We rode straight through dropped riders on the narrow climbs, but it was too late. 40% of the peloton had already abandoned, but we pushed on to the finish.
Up front Alex held off the peloton until 10 km to go. Four years ago at this race our leader had a mechanical so I stopped to help him and was eventually ushered off-course. Today I got the finishers medal, but the fatigue wasn’t enough to dull my frustration.
Fleche Wallone: 203 km
Last year at this race, someone’s chainring slashed my quad while face down in a muddy ditch. I pulled my bib shorts over the bear claw looking scar, at the same time a tangible reminder to focus because the fear is no illusion and a testament to the innate tenacity that put it there. Fear, ferocity, and focus looks crazy in the eyes. But while, it’s intense and dramatic, we are cool, calm, and collected, nerves under control. We laugh, shake hands with ex-teammates and compatriots, and sip coffee before the start. We know what to do and how to do it. If we can, we will.
I followed every attack for the first 15 km, then paid the price. Bigger groups started threatening to split off and although I jumped and chased, I lacked the snap to latch onto them. Amstel Gold lingered in my veins. The race continued like that for 50 km until a manageable breakaway formed. We slammed into the Mur de Huy three times, sprinted around crashes, and jockeyed for position. With 15 km to go I came uhooked. Mike Woods placed 12th.
Debrief: I positioned better and used my energy to contribute to the team, but didn’t have the legs to make a major impact on the race. I feel better about Flèche that than Amstel where my energy was wasted. However, this race exposed deficiencies in my condition. I set the bar high and and am working as hard as possible, so when I fail to meet my own expectations I try to ward off disappointment by remembering that I’m still rebuilding from the broken fibula. It’s a process. Trust the process.
Liege-Bastogne-Liege: 253 km
My Flèche report was a bit dramatic. I should have reserved hyperbole for this race. At times the snow fell so thick, we couldn’t see. At times, the hailstones pelted exposed skin, and sometimes, as the temperature hovered just above freezing, rain sprayed into our faces. I wore almost every piece of Castelli winter gear I own, and it made the difference. Still, even in the dry there’s no hiding from the monumental effort of LBL. As we headed for Bastogne, I thought of the desperate winter resistance of Allied forces during the Battle of the Bulge, the bloodiest battle fought by the USA during WWII, and quit pitying myself.
My peak ten minute power came on the five km uphill start. I tagged a few moves selectively, but didn’t draw the breakaway card. The rest of the day, I followed our leaders around and shuttled rain jackets and dry gloves back and forth from the car. On the Cote de la Redoute, the fireworks began. I started the climb too far back and the effort to stay with the first group was blinding. I felt my heart in my throat.
With 25 km to go, Slagter hit the deck. I dropped back into the cars to pace him on, looking behind. “Is he coming?” No. Then Woods crashed and fractured his hand. Then Simon. On a wet high speed descent with sweeping turns, I hesitated to pass the cars on the inside, afraid to slide under one if I lost traction. The cars stopped before a right hander onto a wide road. I resolved to take the corner hot, and slingshot onto the rear of the peloton. Too hot. Fortunately, all the winter gear provided protection when I crashed. I slid thirty yards, and bounced to my feet. On the next climb, I was close to the group, but my derailleur hanger had bent in the crash and when I downshifted it went into my spokes and broke off. Our car was way behind after all the mayhem, and I stood on the side of the road for five minutes waiting for a spare bike. I got it, and joined a group of survivors to the finish. Adding insult to injury, the results confused me with another rider and listed me as a non finisher. Our race fell apart in five km. Alex Howes, our top finisher, placed 21st.
After Liege, Matthew Beaudin, our press officer and I went into Amsterdam for a burger and a little speed tourism. VA is waiting and the Tour of California is on the horizon.
A special acknowledgment to Nate Brown, who arrived with a backpack for Brabantse Pijl only and put up with me as his roommate for the entire two weeks! Also, my "buddy," Mike Woods, who is the most confident positive human alive, and not just because he's Canadian. If anyone can overcome the injuries he sustained in Liege, it's him. And to Simon Clarke. These were our first races together, and that guy is a natural born leader, meticulous, calculated killer. He can read a race like a book.