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."
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.
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?