I have just returned to the USA after a 7 hour freezing race in the rain followed by 25 sleepless hours of travelling, so please forgive any typos!
Fleche-Wallone: 195 km
I did not ride Amstel Gold Race, the first of the three Ardennes Classics, but in Flèche I was part of the team’s quest for redemption. I was also on a quest to redeem my personal performance, putting a lot of pressure on myself to feel some improvement from my last two stage races. My team stuck together as the early breakaway escaped and settled in for the journey to the three difficult finishing laps. Strong wind made positioning extra important. I felt good about my effort to stay in a good position around Roman and Gasparotto. Old narrow roads and concrete road fixtures have claimed many victims in this race. We blasted over the run in to the circuits, riders already showing signs of fatigue. The pace accelerated on the first climb of the circuit. I felt confident. Halfway up I felt like I was riding through sand. Then I realised I had a flat tire. I rode it until the team car arrived to change it. “Stay calm,” I told myself. I raced through the team cars trying to gain on a peloton going over 70 kph on twisty roads. On the next climb I came so close. For nearly twenty km I chased and on the Mur de Huy came close again, but my legs buckled on the steep incline. Incredibly disappointed I retired to the team bus to watch the finish on TV. Tom covered late attacks. Roman and Gasparotto looked composed. Then the camera focused on a high speed crash. Roman sat in the median, his jersey back torn open exposing bloody skin. Gaspa went deep to claim a top ten finish.
Roman’s x-rays showed no breaks. He’ll have three days to treat his road rash and swelling. The positive energy of the team for Gaspa’s result improved my spirits and we looked forward to Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
Liege-Bastogne-Liege: 265 km
No matter how often we checked the forecast, the rain insisted outside the bus and the temperature hovered around 40 degrees Fahrenheit. We went over our Assos wardrobes like high school glamour queens preparing for a first date (pro trick- Vaseline is a great water barrier, but be prepared to find dirt smeared on you for the next few days). Mustering optimism and buoyed by the commitment and strength of our leaders Gaspa and Roman who both placed top 10 here last year, we rallied for the oldest one day classic distracting ourselves with vaseline jokes.
After a fifteen km scuffle 8 riders escaped in the early break. The rest of us focused on fueling and energy savings for the next two hours as the cold soaked our bones. I fought against shivering and reflected on all of the Navy Seals training books I read over the winter. The serious race moves began very early at 150 km from the finish. Jay Thomson brought us to one of the first important climbs, Cote Sant Roch, in perfect position, a blessing because Lotto-Soudal used the wet winding descent to line out the peloton. For the next climb it was my responsibility to position the team so we were in the front when Quickstep picked up on a breath of crosswind between climbs and shredded the peloton. Tom, Roman, and I found ourselves in a group of 25 at the front. 75 riders rejoined on the following series of climbs as we absorbed the early breakaway with 80 km still remaining.
The next three climbs put me on the limit. After we passed a technical cobbled section, the course dragged up and I lost ten bike lengths to the peloton as groups attacked at the front. “Ben, come on, Ben! It would be great to have you with the guys if you pass this climb,” our director urged from the car. I leaned into the pain and dragged myself back. Twenty riders including favourites from most teams had pulled out a twenty second gap. We missed it, so I went to the front and pulled as hard as I could. I gave it everything and caught the breakaway group at the base of the next climb. On the climb I began losing ground, receiving the same encouragement from our team car, and fighting to stay close. I chased over the next two climbs with my energy tank flashing red and resigned to a group of survivors. Tom and Roman made it while longer with the leaders before slipping behind. I finished feeling like a truck ran over me.
Our team debrief was exactly that, brief. Our results didn’t meet expectations, but the mood was ok, the commitment and resolve is still there and the results will come.