Monday, March 26, 2012

Ronde van Belgie: My first Fed Trip

In 1987, things started falling into place for me. I had for the two previous seasons been a part of our Pizza Hut/Pepsi Team Time Trial squad at the National Championships, placing second in '85 at Milwaukee and third in '86 at Boise. Along with a few other results, this got me invited to training camps at the OTC in Colorado Springs. This in turn was a stepping stone to getting "Fed trips", a chance to wear the stars and stripes in international races. The next step was to secure a ride at the Tour of Texas, which I managed in '87, riding for one of many U.S. teams, wearing various generic colored jerseys. At the Tour of Texas, I had a decent prologue, and rode aggressively if not successfully in one of the bigger road stages. For this, I was granted a go at the 'Baby Giro', the amateur Giro d'Italia, in June. This trip, however, ended up getting canceled.

Meanwhile, Frank Scioscia finagled a spot for me on the Paramount C.C. in Southern California for the Redlands Stage Race, held then around Memorial Day. On the Sunset loop I had survived the splits, and with just Dag Otto Lauretzen and Thurlow Rogers up the road, I slipped away at the bottom of the climb and was given some rope. Gervais Rioux and Doug Shapiro bridged up and we were away. I remember feeling great relief that they hadn't dropped me on the last climb of the circuit, and I got 5th in the stage and 5th overall. I went back home to Wisconsin, and the next weekend, helped by collaboration with Bob Mionski, won the Wisconsin Road Championship. Shortly after that, I got a phone call from the coaching staff in Colorado Springs, inviting me to go to the amateur Tour of Belgium the last week in June. Of course I accepted.

It was six rider teams. David Brinton and Darroll Batke had previous European racing experience. Chuck Lawrence from New Hampshire, Scott Moninger from Kansas, Greg Valenzuela from California, and I were getting our first overseas trip. We arrived with one day to get things sorted out, a second day to get out for a ride and then decide whether or not to start the 'Trofee Het Volk" (The amateur Het Volk one-day race, now the Het Nieuwsblad). I elected to ride, eager for every chance to race. 

They got us up early, and fed us big thick steaks with further options for eggs and muesli. We had a couple of hours to digest, and then they drove us out to Zottegem for the start. I think four of us rode, though I don't remember exactly who. The race consisted of three or four roughly ten kilometer laps followed by two large loops, the second of which had us climbing the famed Muur Geraardsbergen. The race then finished off with some number of laps on the shorter circuit. We were told not to finish unless we were in a position to win. 

I recall the race starting normally with a fairly calm roll out, and then after about 500 meters we hit a section of not so rough cobbles, and the attacks began. At first it didn't seem out of the ordinary, but as time went on, it looked to me that if you succeeded in the fight to reach the front, you didn't waste it by trying to hold your position there. Instead you attacked and hoped it would stick. I never got that close to the front early on, and I don't think I would have know what to do if I had gotten there. I was a racer who took things in consideration, patiently waited, and looked for situations to take advantage. That didn't seem to be a winning formula here. After a while I couldn't tell what group I was in, or how many groups were in front or back of me. Groups were constantly reforming and disintegrating from the attacks that would follow upon reforming. It really seemed to me that everyone was trying to go flat out all the time in true do or die fashion in an effort to make the front. I might have tried it if I had had any idea where the front of the race was.

Things finally settled down on the second big loop when I found myself with most of my teammates in a thirty or forty rider group where everyone seemed a bit disheartened. We were just rolling along, maybe at 40kph, went over the Muur at a civil pace, and as we approached the finish area for the final 50km or so, a British rider rolled up alongside me and asked me if we "were climbing off". I certainly didn't feel like I was in with a chance to win. "I'm climbing off, dunno about my teammates" I told him. "No sense going on" he said, and continued with the various reasons it made no sense. And so indeed, as we rolled into the finish area, about half the group pulled over and climbed off.

We were shown to a shower room. We changed, loaded up the cars, and then I saw the remnants of the race starting their final short lap as we were leaving. It was absolutely shattered. The biggest group was about four guys, and the gaps were immense. The winner was Benny Heylen, four seconds ahead of his more fancied teammate Peter De Clercq.

I was a little shocked by the experience of this race. I had expected and was prepared for it to be fast. I had expected and was prepared for it to be hard and the fight for the front to be tough. I did not however expect it to be all those thing to such an extreme degree. The fight to be up front was like nothing I had ever seen before. I simply didn't have the skill or the temperament to get to the front. To do it, you had to ride knuckle to knuckle, and push your wheel into any little crack that appeared in front of you. I was close enough to see that, as I mentioned, once you hit the front, you attacked. And most of those attacks were unsuccessful because just as one guy was attacking, two more would go at the same time, and more following. It was more like a mad scramble to be up front than attacking to form a smooth running front group. It just didn't make sense to me. I felt a little helpless, like we weren't so much looking for results, but being thrown into the lake to see if we could swim.

This also made me nervous for the stage race starting the next day. If we were going to be racing like this every day, I was in trouble. I was assured by those who knew better that not every day would be like this in the stage race. Certain stages would be similar, but on the whole it would be more controlled, with more normal breakaway/chase racing. I was relieved that these guys couldn't go flat out every single day because I knew I couldn't.

For the stage race we got some additional staff. Besides our Fed appointed trip manager, a Belgian ex-pat who lived in Boston (I think his name was Francois in spite of the fact he was Flandrian), we also got a Belgian husband/wife team who remarkably did our laundry every day, a Belgian mechanic, and two Polish guys: a masseur and the legendary Stanley Chozda, the former "Eddy Merckx of the Eastern Block" who acted as a masseur/mechanic/manager.

Our crew: Standing, from left, Polish masseur guy, Belgian host, Scott Moninger, Belgian hostess, David Brinton, Richard McClung, Greg Valenzuela, Darrol Batke, Chuck Lawrence, and our Boston Belgian ex-pat manager. Kneeling, Belgian mechanic at left, the Legendary Stanley Chozda at right.

The prologue for the Ronde van Belgie Internationale Liefhebbers (International Amateur Tour of Belgium) was on Sunday, June 21 at the atomium Park outside of Brussels covering 3.6 kilometers. Besides a host of Belgian regional teams, there were also of course the British, led by Niel Hoban, the Dutch, Brazilians, Hungarians, and the headline Soviets, who sent their World/Olympic champion team pursuit squad, led by Viatcheslav Ekimov, with one other guy, meaning their team was one guy short, plus they were riding with a 51x14 as their largest gear. At that time in Belgium, amateurs in Belgium were limited to a 52x13 gear, but the Russian track guys saw fit to further limit themselves. Here's a good look at Ekimov at the start of his prologue, in which he finished seventh.

The prologue was won by Eamon Rooney of Great Britain. Dave Brinton put in a great effort to finish third and Darroll Batke came up 9th just behind Ekimov and Hoban. Greg Valenzuela also did well to finish 12th. Time Trials were hardly my speciality, especially so when so short, so I was happy to finish as close as I did to the top in 23rd. Here I am below with the manager, having finished my prologue, and the Polish masseuse guy having a cigarette to my right. The Prologue results are to the right, down to 50th place.

Stage one started in the market center of Brugge, and it was beautiful. A Belgian rider saw me looking around at the architecture, and said, in a heavy Germanic accent "It is better than New York City". I ignored him because I knew he was just trying to get a rise from me. I had already noticed that some of the Belgians had already decided we were the Ugly Americans, and so we received a level of harassment from them that included a helping of chauvinism. To these particular Belgians, we were simply "The stupid Americans", and they couldn't imagine or suffer the idea that we might be better or even equal bike racers.
The first two stages were fairly uneventful, no really terrible cobble stretches, no big hills, and the winds were light. There were breakaways, and otherwise a field gallop. Notable, however, was the level of physical harassment we received. For instance if the field was thinning out and you needed to grab a wheel, no Belgian would give us space to take it. We had to wait for a Russian, Dutch, or British rider, and would lose a lot of position in the process. If we tried to force our way in, the Belgians would gang up on us and force us back out, or just grab our jerseys and throw us out. Retaliation was hopeless. We were outnumbered, so we had to lump it. 

This was a new situation for me. My ability to race effectively was based on knowing the competition and being able to make an educated guess of the form and flow of the racing. I needed time to observe the techniques and timing needed to hold position and then be able to act on it. It may seem obvious that I simply needed to "go for it" but making it work assumes you are among the strongest.  I knew better than to assume that. It was rare that I was the strongest rider in almost any race, but I was usually strong enough and observant enough to take advantage of situations that presented themselves. When the form and flow of a race are entirely different, however, I have to look, learn, and experiment to see what works and why. Dealing with the chauvinism was just another factor to consider. I eventually learned that the Belgians that were harassing us so much were just mid field pack fodder, and were simply insecure in their abilities. The top Belgians also displayed this chauvinism, but it was applied to everyone, not just the Americans. At least with them, if you proved your right to be there they accepted your place.  

In the meantime, I paid dearly for my patience and lack of knowledge on the third stage. Perhaps we had been warned, though I don't recall it, but this stage was particularly brutal. It contained stretch after stretch of very rough, long, and super narrow cobblestone roads. We raced on smooth, concrete roads for something like 20km when riders started fighting for the front. I tried and actually did make it close to the front at one point, but got chopped and funneled back when suddenly everyone was putting on the brakes and I could see up ahead that we were turning left. The first ten to twenty riders flew onto the cobbles at full speed, everyone else hit them at near zero. Since I was near the back, and almost had to put my foot down (and remember, this was still the days of toe clips and straps), I got onto the cobbles at about 10 mph. Among the things you learn about cobbles is that it is very hard to accelerate. You eventually pick up speed, but it takes an enormous amount of energy to do it. Under the pressure the field blew into pieces with Chuck Lawrence and me in the last group. The road was crested in the middle with tractor wheel ruts on either side of the crest, and the edges of the road were raised and sometimes jagged. Everyone was single file on the crest and the edges. Desperate to move up, I dropped into the left side wheel rut. The cobbles were rougher down there, and it was tough going. A Dutch rider came by on the left side and said to me, "American boy! do not ride down there. It is dangerous. You will puncture." It seemed good, honest advice, and, in any case, I wasn't getting anywhere. I moved back to the crest. The Dutch rider had moved several bike lengths in front of me, he had more advice to give "Russian boy....", the good Samaritan.

When we finished the first cobbled stretch, we got organized and quickly caught the group in front of us. We then in turn caught the next group until the field reformed and we eventually regained the lead group. This, however, was just in time for the next cobbled road and we had no time to even try to reach the front. Moreover, we had been chasing hard while the front bunch had been soft pedaling. The closer to the front you were the more rested you would be, and you could then fly over the cobbles while the rest had to start the cobbles slowly. I was a little better positioned for the second stretch, but I think it was the second to last group instead of the last.

This scenario repeated five or six times, the only difference being that each time we caught back fewer and fewer groups in front of us. Finally, exhausted from chasing and trying to accelerate on the cobbles, Chuck and I were in the last group for the day, destined to lose close to 30 minutes. At one point, as we were riding just to survive, the Russian team car came alongside and handed a water bottle, a pump, and a tire to the one Russian guy in the group (the one not on the team pursuit squad), and drove off. We knew then that we had no hope of catching anything back. I had never felt so sorry for someone as at that moment, I thought for sure it was back to the salt mines for that poor Russian. His bike was ancient, with re-soldered tubes, and a groupo of some indistinguishable brand, that looked as if they would snap apart if put under any pressure. He looked ashamed to be there, just like me.

We were so far behind that we were even allowed to complete the finishing circuits because we couldn't have interfered with the race ahead. It was absolutely crushing. I was completely drained and had trouble imagining that I could avoid repeating that same scenario in the coming days. I got my head together though, after eating, getting a massage, and relaxing a bit. I was able to put together what went wrong, and a talk from Stanley Chozda reinforced my thoughts. Unlike many other coach/managers I've dealt with, Stanley Chozda spoke to you about mistakes or your ability to perform individually rather than in front of the whole team. Even with his limited English, he was able to explain what was required to stay up front, sniff out the moves, and to keep improving. It bolstered my confidence, that if I kept trying, I would improve simply by trying and that good things would eventually come from it.

So I remained patient, fought to keep my position better, and targeted the later stages that were hillier and more likely to suit me better. It also bothered us a bit that we as a team lacked cohesion. We were aware of it and talked about how to improve it, but in practical terms we just weren't strong enough to apply it on the road. We would help each other when we could, but team-wide operations seemed out of the question. Still, Dave Brinton had been keeping his nose mostly out of trouble, and while the rest of us had our bad days, we started getting in moves, and into the actual racing.   The Russians meanwhile, being the seasoned veterans that they were, asserted control via a team time trial and Ekimov had the overall lead. The only highlight I can remember from the middle stages were the "Kid's Heads". 

I don't remember which stage this was, what town they were near, and no Internet search helped either. The worst cobbled stretch we encountered were called "Kid's Heads", because the stones were so large, rounded and slick that they were said to resemble the heads of children. They looked more to me like the top quarter of a bowling ball. They were on a finishing circuit and we had to go over them three times. The approach was on a narrow concrete road with swampy land on either side. It was slightly downhill so that you could hit the cobbles at high speed. Once you hit them however, it was like you had weighed anchor. Once on the cobbles, the road begin rising up to an acute right bend and continued over a hump afterwards. After the hump, accelerating was possible only because the road tilted slightly downhill again, continuing through a pine forest before giving way to pavement and the finishing town. We had already gone through a lot of cobbles that day, and I had survived in the first chasing bunch. The first time over the Kid's Heads I was dropped but was determined to get back. I chased on before the finish line with two to go, and made sure to be closer to the front for the cobbles. It cost me dearly in terms of muscle and energy, but I made it through the second pass in the wheels. The sensation was strange, instead of feeling so much like my muscles were losing power, it felt more like I was a battery, my whole body slowly draining with every effort. The third pass was for me almost transcendent. My legs, arms, fingers, back, and stomach muscles felt beyond my control. I was hanging on to the back of the bunch by a thread, and turning my legs solely by pure will. I remember getting to the pavement and feeling very dizzy. I had to concentrate hard to keep my bike riding straight and not drift off the wheel in front of me and get dropped. My hands were cramping and my arms felt like rubber. My abdominals had given out and this in turn made my back terribly sore. I also remember thinking, once I had recovered a bit from the dizzy spell, 'They can't drop me now'.

I had never felt so wasted as after this stage. I was however, riding into the race and recovered decently. A few more stages and I got my chance on the third to last stage, 115km from Torhout to Wakken, including the Kemmelberg. Though there were other hills on the route, the bunch raced as if everyone was waiting for the Kemmelberg. Indeed, I knew it was coming up when the fight for the front ensued. I did a reasonably good job of getting up front, but there were still a lot of riders in front of me as we turned left onto the hill. The Kemmelberg is surprisingly wide and it's cobbles are not so bad. I also had some good luck. The bunch pressed left for some reason, leaving reasonable space for me to thread through riders leaving gaps on the right. Staying in the saddle and pushing on a 42x22, I moved up to the front of the bunch close to the top. A large group of perhaps 30 or so riders had split midway up and I could see them disappearing from view over the cusp of the hill. I kept up the pace and got a gap.
Over the top, the cobbles end and give way to smooth asphalt. I shifted up to the big ring and gave chase, reckoning it was a 20 second gap I had to bridge, with several riders scattered in between who had gotten dropped or failed to bridge. The road rolls for a bit and then begins tilting downward. I was gaining speed when I noticed the lead bunch dropping out of view, the descent getting suddenly steeper. As I approached this spot, I then saw two Belgian riders side by side casually talking. I wondered why they weren't going all out, trying to bridge. As I flew by them and dropped into the steeper part of the descent, I saw that this side was cobbled as well. It was quite alarming.

It was too late to put on the brakes, so I had to just hold on. I was getting absolutely pummelled by the shaking, and thought for certain I would either crash and or puncture, but miraculously I did not. The final challenge was making the right turn at the bottom. My speed was checked only by the cobbles, as grabbing the brake levers was not only impossible, but probably useless anyway. I leaned in, and, having to have faith in my tires, made it. The road changed to asphalt again, and the bunch, with about thirty riders, was right there in front of me. Ten more seconds of chasing, and I was there.

I moved up in the bunch to see what was going on, and saw that what looked to be a 10 or so rider group had a sizable gap. Dave Brinton was in the group, and rode up to me and said, "Rich, I've got to get up there." I knew what this meant I had to do, and this was, after all, my speciality; making the bridge that everyone else saw as unlikely. You can't just immediately jump and expect to get away. The situation has to be right. With Dave on my wheel, I moved up the right side of the group and waited for an opportunity. there were a few weak attacks and then I saw that up ahead was small knoll, and there was a slight headwind. I jumped hard in advance of the knoll and rolling over it with good speed, we were clear. I closed about three quarters of the gap in about a minute and a half, and in this time, much to my surprise, flew right past Ekimov. My guess is that he tried to bridge but couldn't make it. Shortly after this, I was still chasing with some speed, but now having to grit my teeth. I closed to within about a ten seconds gap and began to feel that I couldn't keep up the pace anymore, "Dave, you're going to have to come through!" I shouted. Much more to my surprise, it wasn't Dave that came through, but Ekimov, with Dave on his wheel. I could not match the speed.

Few things amazed me more than that Ekimov was able to latch on to us. We went by him a good five mph faster than he was going. I know that when I've tried a bridge but failed, I'm blown, and could not have done the same. He must have been soft pedaling enough to have recovered, and caught our wheels seeing it as a second chance. It was a chance he didn't wast. Ekimov closed the final ten second gap with ease, Dave getting the free ride.

I was still back at ten seconds, struggling in the wind. I was once again lucky because when Ekimov gained the front group, they slowed, trying to decide what to do since Ekimov had bridged. When I saw that they had slowed I rallied a bit and closed the gap just as they decided to get on with business anyway. We rolled fast and smoothly. The smoothness was good for me because I was wrecked from what was essentially a three mile long tough bridging effort over difficult terrain. The speed was draining. Our lead hovered around a minute and no one was playing games, so it was clear we would stay away. The only obstacle remaining was a rough cobble stretch on the finishing circuit. We had to pass over it three times, and each time I again felt like a weak battery, slowly having the power drained away, just as on the Kid's Heads.

Our break coming into the finish area, one lap to go. I'm 2nd from left, Dave Brinton in front of me, Viatcheslav Ekimov behind. If I look destroyed, it's because I least Ekimov looks winded...and note I'm the only one without a cap over or under my hairnet. Maybe that was my problem.
 The cobbled stretch ended about three kilometers from the finish. Dave rode up and asked me to be ready to give him a lead out. He got on my wheel, and quite uncharacteristically the road was wide and straight all the way to the finish. We could see the finish banner from a very long way out. I was completely shattered already and felt like I was hanging on by a thread. I think I was near delirious because even though we had seen the finish twice already, I started the lead out way too early and ended up cracking a good 400 meters to the line, leaving Dave high and dry. A move went on the right and I fell away. The stage was won in a close sprint by Koen Vekemans, with Dave in sixth. I trailed in at 11th, 12 seconds back. The next group of 33 came in at 1:02. The next group, the one from which I started my bridging effort, was nearly eight minutes back.

I was quite pleased to have made the break but it was disappointing to have been so helpless to do anything than just survive upon bridging. Still, it gave me more confidence and felt like I had earned place in the bunch now. We stayed in Kortrijk that night, and the weather was nice. A few of us were going to have a walk 'round the town and we saw Ekimov who spoke some English. We invited him along and bought him some ice cream. We had a few laughs and I got back the room feeling refreshed. The next day was the so-called queen stage, 133km from Wakken to Geraardsbergen. The route included the Kluisberg, the Oude Kwaremont, the Kruisberg, and finally, the Muur Geraardsbergen, after which there would be 5km to ride to the first passage of the finish and then two 14km circuits.

I suddenly now found it easier to move around the bunch due both to greater confidence and having gained some amount of respect. While I was still getting flack from some of the Belgians, I could now assert myself better and usually get what I wanted. Now I could ride closer to the front and was able to fight my way to the front of the bunch over the Kwaremont, where the pace was fast but no one tried to attack. Like the day before, the bunch seemed to be waiting for the principal difficulty of the day, the Muur.

We arrived in Geraardsbergen largely together and I was able to get myself in good position for the start of the Muur. The route used the traditional Tour of Flanders approach. We crossed the bridge into town and took a left up a very steep paved street. The road then bends gradually uphill on cobbles across the town square before curving back left up to the steep part of the hill up to the church. I used the steep paved bit to get closer to front and powered my way to fifth spot or so after the town square. Scott Moninger was also up front along with Ekimov, the Russian Khemelinin, and all the top Belgians. We went fast but steady up the steep bit.

As we reached the top I recall being alongside Ekimov and on Moninger's wheel. We dove left to get on a strip of pavement before the cobbles ended. My eyes were glued to Moninger's wheel, and when I looked up again Ekimov was gone. He had attacked when we went to the left and no one had even tried to follow. After the cobbles stop, the road crests and the route can either go straight ahead back down the other side of the hill, or turn right on more cobbles to climb another 25m. They turned us to the right, and Ekimov had reached that turn before I had a chance to look up. It was like he beamed (a la Star Trek) up the road.

On the circuits the chase was flat out, but made little impression on Ekimov's lead. He won the stage with a 1:14 over the first bunch. The field sprint was won by his teammate, Alexander Krasnov, with Greg Valenzuela giving it a dig at 6th for the stage. Most of our team made the front split, so we at least we were finishing on a bit of a high note.

Ekimov takes the stage into Geraardsbergen, and puts his stamp on the overall...A whole nation of Belgians couldn't hold him back.

Top 30 of the stage into Geraardsbergen.

As in most stage races, the final stage was largely ceremonial. I had to make one more big mistake though. We were in a rolling area on normal asphalt roads, when guys fighting a bit for the front. Concerned that something was coming up, I was looking for every chance to get up front. I jumped up on the sidewalk and was flying by guys, but noticed too late that as we came to the end of this particular very small town, that the sidewalk ended, and a large raised cement curb now separated me from the bunch. There were houses to my left, and I was blazing down a dirt path looking for a way back on the road. A telephone pole ahead looked to narrow my path, but the real problem was the large orange traffic cone sitting right in between the pole and the building's wall. It came up pretty suddenly, and I hit it with great speed, sailing over the bars, and rolling down the dirt path. I jumped straight up again, ran back to my bike, straightened the bars, got myself back on the road, and commenced chasing back through the caravan.

It was about this same time that a group of 20 or so riders separated from the bunch. So my chase back took some amount of time even though I was in the cars. I did manage to get back though, and just rode wheels to the finish. The only thing left to survive was the all the cigarette smoke at the awards ceremony, held in a huge tent with a lot of really fantastic beer. After a while I couldn't survive the smoke and had to go outside, good beer or not.
Final Results, G.C. and classifications. The Soviets crushed.

For my first trip racing in Europe, this was a tough one. A few weeks later I thought that I would like another tilt at Belgium, as I would have known how to handle it better. I would in later years get to race international events in Italy, the Eastern Bloc, Great Britain, Mexico, Central and South America, but none were as downright hard as Belgium. Most of the field was made up of Belgian regional teams, unlike many of the other international races I would do. The "home court" advantage was a very real thing there, and the quality of rider and their desperation to prove themselves made racing there a genuine contest of wills almost every step of the way. It is arguable that I found later international races 'easier' because I came to them with experience. This is certainly true, but still the racing was in other countries with more international riders than regional riders.  It seemed to me to be much more 'normal', and rewarded the more 'wait and pounce' style racing that I favored.