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.
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.|
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.