Friday, 22 April 2011

Living in America

A month in Europe gave me an outsider perspective on the US, and this what mine eyes see, and what mine ears hear:

Italians:


Danes:


Reality:

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Decompression

Back home from Europe, nearly one month to the day. It's no coincidence I stopped writing at De Panne, that was my low point for the trip. I woke up the first morning and could barely stand straight because of some mystery back ailment. After about 150k I couldn't pedal and that was it. From there out it was slow improvement.

The racing was tough; a couple days none of us finished. Almost every race was 200k, and typically arranged with one big loop of around 100-130k then a few finishing circuits for the finale. The roads were as you'd expect; the widest was maybe four lanes, the narrowest could fit two guys shoulder to shoulder, of course excluding the two others riding in the grass along side. 

To say "positioning is important" is as much of an understatement as saying "drafting is important." With 200 guys riding on a road the size of a bike path--through small towns, roundabouts, over 20% climbs, cobblestones, etc--the race eventually becomes a miss and out. Too far back and you start wishing you were going faster, as you see the front of the field sprinting over the top of the climb that you're standing unclipped on, or already guttered on the road you're waiting to turn onto.

Most of the time I felt like I was racing a crit with amnesia. The speed and race dynamics are the same, except you don't know what's around the corner in front of you, though they all look familiar. If you feel comfortable "just sitting" then about 30 seconds later you're "just sitting" on the back. The races are long enough you can't really fight the whole time, the key is knowing when you have to. A few times when I knew a climb or cobble sector was approaching I made a big effort to get on the front, only to see thirty guys pass me on someone's lawn in the preceding turn. 

Needless to say, the racing is super fun. It's pretty much anything-goes bike gladiators. Rubbing's racing and as long as you're not being malicious no one says a word. When it does get malicious, some chaps just settle it with a rolling hockey fight. In two different races we saw little brawls that played out the same: two guys start shouting, one gives the other a push, then the peloton crowds around in a little bubble and starts cheering, egging on the two--who clearly would have stopped otherwise--until a few jabs are thrown, and if they stop too soon they're met with a chorus of boooos until they finish it off proper. Then we start racing again.

All that aside, I really don't have a big European sob story to report. Sure, the races were hard, but we knew that going in and quite a lot went our way. The weather was spectacular, and I can't even imagine how much harder those races would have been in the rain and wind we were expecting. The equipment was also incredible; we eventually settled on the 25c Columbiere as our tire of choice, and had no problems on clinchers and carbon wheels in fields dominated by tubulars on low-profile alloy rims. These races truly showcase any weaknesses, and a few teams clearly were suffering in the equipment department with rider after rider pulling over with punctures or broken wheels.

All the pragmatic stuff was also phenomenal. We spent most of the trip at the same B&B in Waregem with a big lecherous Belgian mama looking after us. Thankfully we also had a rental RV for most of the races--pretty much essential equipment in those parts. The race starts tend to be in downtown areas and don't usually provide any facilities for changing or relieving oneself. And as soon as you step out of the car/RV there's a swarm of awkward, gawking fans asking for autographs and freebies. There are a few who even stalk the parking lots DURING the racing, waiting to snipe the water bottles of any DNFs. Jake even had someone pull the bottles off his bike right after he crossed the finish line. Below are a few pictures of "the life."

Daily schedules:

Highly stressful transfers:



Learning to check the oil in the big rig:

Dirty roads and cobbles:

First class schwag: race-branded waffle cookies and easter eggs

So the first Euro adventure of the year is in the books. It was great to go back, this was my first time out of North American in more than three years, and it's quite a bit different in the company of a bunch of gringos. And this is probably the first time I've come back in better health and spirits than when I left. We're all going to be racing in the States quite a bit the next few months, and I look forward to seeing how the new fitness and savvy will transfer. I'll leave you with a little glimpse of our off-bike entertainment, a folk interpretation of Lady Gaga courtesy of Andrew Pinfold. 

video

At the rate he's going I think he's a prime candidate for one of these shows. Celine Dion is even a Canuck, right?

Monday, 28 March 2011

De Panne Prepa

Tomorrow starts the racing big time here in Belgium. The first stage of De Panne is 200k starting from the coast and coming inland. It's mostly flat the first half, then we finish with three circuits with lots of hills and a 2.5k stretch of cobbles.

We rode the circuits a few times the last two days and it's about as you'd imagine: rolling hills, super narrow, twisting roads, and of course, short, steep climbs. Many of the roads are shared with other big races. There are city signs showing the Tour of Flanders route, and race signs still up from Saturday's E3 Harelbeke. We're staying not 10k from the Koppenberg and the Kwaremont, and will go over the Kemmelberg on stage 2.

I have to say I was surprised how hard it is to ride the cobbles. The closest thing I can compare it to is riding on the rumble strips along some highways. Basically, like riding through mud with square wheels. I honed the technique a bit and it got better, but still you basically just have to go flat stick the whole time and let the bike do it's thing underneath you. And it's unbelievably better just hopping onto the dirt path next to the road.

The cobbles we do aren't all that bad though, it's a wide road, just gently rolling, and in pretty good shape. The weather is also supposed to be nice and sunny tomorrow, so that will greatly improve our quality of life.

On the equipment side things are pretty standard. We're all riding the standard Boardman AiR 9.8 aero bike, minus Jonny who's too cool for school and went for the SLR bike. Normal gearing, 45mm Enve carbon wheels and Maxxis clinchers. Most of us have either double-wrapped tape or the new Evo Curve bars from Ritchey with a 31.8 cross section all the way to the hoods, and we're using 25c tires (Re Fuse rear and Colombiere front) instead of our normal 23c Cormets.













Everything else is picking up fast. We have two mechanics (Bernard and Jorge) who just drove in last night from Italy, and three Sougnieurs also straight in from Coppi e Bartali (Benny, Jeremy, and Miha). We were also reunited with our helmets, very welcome now that we're doing race-pace practice runs on the cobbles. And we just met our euro box truck, which our ass of a neighbor can't stop loitering around.





































So think good thoughts tomorrow, we're expecting a baptism by fire but feeling good about it. You can also most likely watch a live stream of the last 50k or so from either Steephill.tv or cyclingfans.com. One day at a time...

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Ciao Italia

Our brief sojourn here in Bergamo ends tomorrow morning. We flew in no dramas, visited the service course to pick up equipment, and for the last three days have been putzing on the push bikes all around the foothills of the alps.











Unfortunately our Europe helmets are away at another race (Coppi e Bartali), so we've been slumming it with the caps on and covering our brakes on the descents. I did, however, suffer one bizarre and inexplicable incident in which I rode straight into (then over) a red and white striped boom gate, but the gate took the brunt of it, and we took off before being presented with a bill.

Otherwise everything's quite low key. Have a spot of Cappuccino and bread in the morning, get our ride on, have a feast of a lunch then try to stay awake until dinner. Post-dinner entertainment has been track worlds live from Holland, last night was the women's pursuit, sprint finals, and the men's elimination.





















We're trying our best to keep relaxed and not shoot off too many mental bullets just stressing about the races coming up. I've tried to suspend thinking about racing altogether since it brings up the heart rate about 10 beats straight away. Instead there's lots of important stuff to do like google translate the menu and practice my CBF face (to use when passing oncoming riders, very important here).

In a few weeks this time will seem pretty insignificant as we head into three weeks in Belgium and Holland. So it's "ciao" and "ciao" and in 24hrs we'll be skittering across cobbles and eating frites.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

I'm on a plane!

Just looking out on the sun-lit, snow-capped Pyrenees on the way to Italy. Which means we're on the way to Belgium, which means we're racing, which means it's time to start blogging again!

This trip is full of romance: landing in the fashion capital of the most fashionista country, going to race on cobbles and narrow climbs, and slowly sipping classy cappuccinos on the days between. But let me briefly share with you the dark side of this trip:







See it's not all fun and games, it's fun and (one) game: "Guess Which Meat." Mind you this is a game without winners and only one sacred rule: if you don't 100% know the answer to the question, go with the pasta.