The Ardennes Classics phase the Flanders Classic muscle men into vacation and the climbers and all-rounders into full swing. Throughout the week, the three races progress to longer and more gruelling terrain. Last year a violent cough took me out of contention, but to this day 2016 Amstel and Liege rank as two of the heaviest workloads of any day in my career. These races require an equal weight of experience, explosive power, stamina, and daring.
Amstel Gold Race: 265 km
“Try to be in the break, but don’t kill yourself. Not two or three guys, but eight or nine, go with it,” instructed my director. I defended a position near the front until the first climb, then burned one match. Twenty of us split away. I waited for the right mix from that group to go. One rider. One more. One more. “Not three,” I thought. I picked the wheel of a rider who looked eager to jump. We drifted back three spots and a few teams blocked the road. “Huh, I thought the break would be bigger than three, but I guess everyone is happy.” I did not even see six other riders go clear and was so frustrated with myself when I realised what had happened. “Ok, well I didn’t kill myself so at least I’m still worth something.”
In such a long race the breakaway usually gets a long leash, but after all of us had relieved ourselves and downed some food no team volunteered to sacrifice riders for the chase. The time gap grew to sixteen minutes before Sagan’s team went to work. Such a big time gap meant a fast race. In fact, as the speed accumulated fatigue in our legs the race became safer. In every Amstel I’ve raced I witnessed terrible pile-ups. This year I saw just one crash involving two riders and one other rider veer off the road into a field at 60 kph but he didn’t crash. I saw Michael Matthews jump a concrete barrier separating a bike path from traffic at over 60 kph. Although I condemn that dangerous sort of action, it was one of the most athletic things I’ve seen, and Matthews has the skill to pull it off. All that to say, it was the nicest, safest Amstel I've known.
Matthews had taken that risk because the first major selections of the race were literally just around the corner. I took the gravel shoulder of a narrow road to nudge up a few positions before the Gulperberg. After the descent the elastic snapped distancing a chunk of riders behind me. I had been dropped there in 2013 and avoided making that mistake again. On the next climb with 35 km to go the peloton exploded. I lost contact with the first group but we had Tom and Serge there. Tom dropped a few climbs later. When the race winning move took off, Serge tried to follow but got stuck in no man’s land with Bauke Mollema. He was so close. From the early breakaway, fellow American, Lawson Craddock, managed to cling on to the lead group and finished 9th. My group finished about four minutes behind.
To see that kind of fight from Serge inspires the whole team to get the most out of themselves in support of him, and whether he finishes 1st of 23rd like in Amstel, we have something positive to carry forward to the next races.
Stats: I burned 6323, calories during the 6 hour 40 minute race. That's two pounds of butter!
Flèche Wallonne: 200 km
On the Wednesday after Amstel we lined up for Flèche. I looked out for dangerous moves during the uphill start but the group that went away was ok with us and I had saved more energy. I noticed that my brake was rubbing and got that fixed. My legs felt heavy at the start but the power was there. It’s a feeling that, when fit, often fades when the race goes hard. Waiting for the first of three trips up the infamous Mur de Huy, one of the steepest finishing climbs in cycling, I focused on saving energy and sticking around Serge and Tom. As we slogged our way up Cote de la Redoute the strap of my shoe broke and my brake started rubbing again. I stopped and switched shoes while the mechanic fixed my brake. The sun warmed our backs and it felt almost too nice to suffer, but I noticed other riders beginning to show fatigue.
As we approached the circuit the speed increased, roads narrowed, and riders took greater risks. Everyone slammed the brakes in one choke point. When it seemed the danger had passed, I let off the brakes but the rider ahead of me had a delayed reaction and flipped over the handlebars. I couldn’t miss his bike, nor did I have enough time to consider jumping it. Time always pauses before hitting the ground and you have time for one thought, and mine was a conceding, “you couldn't have missed this one.” I slammed the pavement on my left side. Nothing broken. Flat tire. Twisted handle bars. I whacked my handlebars back into place. Our mechanic popped in a new wheel and as he pushed me off said, “keep the morale.” I needed to hear that. Working through the team cars back to the peloton, I told myself, “it’s just pain.”
Our momentum into Huy was enough to blow over metal traffic barriers. After crashing, that clattering noise on the asphault made me jumpy. I held onto the peloton to the top of the Mur but simply couldn’t put enough power through my bruised left leg to accelerate over the top. My disappointment hurt the worst. I rode one more lap in a group, then the commissaries forced us to abandon. On the bus I watched our neopro, Amanuel, lead the diminished peloton like a season veteran with Tom and Serge in his slipstream. Tom finished 12th and Serge 17th.
I’m hoping the swelling and pain settles for Liege on Sunday.
Liege-Bastogne-Liege: 260 km
Some fans call it a boring, predictable race, but that’s because after accumulating seven hours in the saddle and nearly half the elevation gain of Mount Everest broken into leg breaking five minute climbs, the most resilient athletes in the world are crippled and cramping. However, there is something romantic in it, like watching an Italian style highlight video with 80 % of the action in slow motion. Italians love slow motion highlights. My leg healed enough from the crash in Flèche to do my job.
We divided the team in two parts to look after Tom and Serge. The directors assigned me to Tom for the first part of the race. Jacques would take over from me after Cote de la Redoute. A breakaway took six minutes, but our pace never slowed down as teams worked to soften the competition for the final. Much of the day the peloton stretched into one long line. When the wind came from the side, I poked out of the draft to make sure Tom had protection on my wheel. We looped through Bastogne and up the first iconic climb, Cote de Saint Roche. After five hours and 80 km to go where we began our course preview two days prior, I knew I wasn’t "sitting on diamonds in my legs” as our director, Roger, would say. The pace up the Cote de Ferme Libert put me on the back foot. If I had 5% more strength I would have been able to move up with Tom, stay near the front on the climbs, and save so much energy. But missing that 5% meant swinging at the back on the climbs, taking elastic on the downhills and sprinting out of the corners, then trying to recover and move up from the back before the next climb.
The next key point was the downhill to Cote de la Redoute. My batteries were low and I saw that Tom and Serge were down to one water bottle. Wanting to contribute whatever I could, I tried to be strategic. I called the car for bottles. With a jersey full of bottles you can shout “Service!” and most riders will let you pass up the outside. It works best with a faint French accent like “Sair-Veece!” Service was the simplest ticket to reach Tom. Once I delivered the bottles, we’d be together and I could do my best to position them. I just didn’t have the legs to do an 80 kph pull into the wind. It’s funny how five minutes or less of a seven hour race make or break the levels of satisfaction. I was disappointed because I wanted to give more, knew how to give more, and on a good day could count on giving more.
Maybe taking wind for Tom early in the race cost more energy than I realised. Maybe I wasn’t back to prime after the crash. Maybe my bottle trick was a tactical error. Whatever the reason, I watched the first group power creep away from me up La Redoute like an Italian replay and hoped the boys could deliver. I found a nice group and we rode to the finish. Up the road a crash split Natu, Jacques, and Steve out of the action. Isolated, Tom and Serge, also slipped out of contention to finish 30th and 34th. My ex-teammate, Bob Jungles, won with a daring solo, and my other ex-teammate, Mike Woods, sprinted to second.
I have just a little time to bounce from the Ardennes before the next exciting challenge. "For a racer all that ever matters is the next race.” - Brad Pitt (Hitting the Apex)