Once I arrived in Belgium I spent the better part of a week recovering from travel and getting ready for the Tour of Namur. It’s a five-day stage race with hills, crosswind, and the best field of any race I’ll do here this year.
Namur Stage 1.
Belgium: Hello, Kennett.
KP: Hello, sir. Sorry to disturb you?
Belgium: Get on your knees and do what comes natural like.
KP: Yes, sir.
Touted as one of the easier stages, stage number one was by far the hardest race I’ve done this year. I finished 52nd after a whole lot of suffering and staring at the wheel in front of me, and later the ground, and then even later my handlebars, and then later, just a few times, the backs of my eyelids as I desperately held the wheel.
I felt like a novice for the first 20K (whole race really), losing position on descents and braking hard when no brakes were needed. There’d been a large crash right in front of me during the first kilometer of the neutral roll out through town, which I’d barely escaped. But mainly my nerves were wound up from the tight roads and aggressive positioning that’s the European style. It felt like ages since I’d last raced, even though it was just 10 days ago that I finished Cascade.
One crazy guy chopped me pretty hard in a corner, taking the inside line over a patch of bad pavement, skidding his rear tire through the gravely corner and narrowly missing a metal pole. All just to gain a few places. Crazy fucking Belgians…I mean Steve Fischer, my Hagens teammate who’s racing with the US National team. He was on it today. Hagens Chop!
Finally up at the front, I put in an attack at kilometer 21. It was short lived since the other guy wasn’t very committed, but we would have been eaten up soon anyways. At least it was good for the confidence. Today was fast. 100 miles in less than four hours. Most of Belgium is pretty flat, but not the southern, French-speaking region of Wallonie, where this race is held. It was up and down all day, and windy. Like I said, the roads were tight, pot-holed and cracked, involved technical descents, and more canopy than I like (similar to the Schleck brothers, I don’t care for too much canopy during my races). The race even threw in a few short cobles through various towns, and it was crucial to be near the front, especially during the screaming fast descents leading into the towns, where there’d be 10 corners within 600 meters, the final one being a 180 degree corner straight up the next steep climb. All day er day. It never seemed to end. Basically right after the second KOM it was ON. Guys were blowing up all the time too, meaning there were constant gaps to close.
I’d made the front group of about 70 up the second big climb, which was the steepest and longest, but not the most painful. After all, I’d sprinted for the KOM, even though I sprinted way too early and missed the actual KOM by one kilometer. I felt okay for about 80% of that climb, and then I began deteriorating over the top, false flat section and went all the way to the back of the pack. From there I dangled near the rear for the next 30 kilometers, losing position on the steep descents, taking corners poorly through the towns, and making things even more difficult on myself than they needed to be by starting the climbs by sprinting to close down the gap I’d made to the wheel in front of me. I was not on it today in terms of bike handling. And today was a day that was hard enough already.
It was hot here too. “Hot.” Definitely a relative term. It might have been in the upper 80’s. Maybe. But man did I suffer, only drinking three bottles for the first three and a half hours of racing. I’d missed a lot of feed zones and one bottle even popped out of my cage in the first 10 minutes of the race. I was never comfortable enough to go back for bottles, since the course was constantly full throttle. The team car wasn’t with the front group anyways. Luckily I got two bottles right before the finish, otherwise those last 15K would have been hard…er.
I spent a good deal of the middle part of the race praying that the pace would slow down for a bit or we’d get to a flatter section. We were only 70 K in and I was dying a slow and torturous death. If it wasn’t going to slow down, maybe I could just crash in a ditch and take a long nap in the bushes. When thoughts like that enter your head, you know you’re fucked.
I even yo-yoed a couple bike lengths off the back of the group for a few minutes, just barely sprinting back on when I could see the top of the climb we were on. But eventually my legs caught their breath and I sacked up. I didn’t fly all the way over here to get ridden off the wheel in front of me.
All of a sudden I looked up from the ground and saw that a large group was just then sliding off the front on a descent. 40 of us were about to get left behind. Without any true cooperation lasting more than precisely 38 seconds, our group began to shatter to bits as small bridge attempts were made, failed, counter attacked, failed, etc. It took a while, but this strategy somehow worked and eventually we caught up with the front group again. I was feeling better at this point, I think mainly because we were going slower, but I’ll also chalk it up to good endurance. The Belgians like to blow themselves to bits in the first hour or two of a race. My lack of race food was taking its toll though. Used to Hagens bringing nutrition to the race, I only brought a few bits of food with me today. Flanders provides some stuff, but not enough for 160 kilometers of nasty. I’d already eaten most of my 800 calories for the 4000+ kj race. Poor planning.
The next bit of the race, we’ll say around kilometer 90 or 100, was pretty easy compared to the part before and I figured things would stay together here with a big, open flat road and no wind. I made sure to move up near the front though when guys started launching moves. I went with one or two. Nothing came of it.
A small break formed up the road, which all of a sudden became a dangerous looking group as 30 more guys bridged up there, mainly in small groups of three or five. I was following the attacks when this was happening, but somehow managed to miss out on all the moves that actually made it across. How’d this happen anyways? It was flat and slow and this was how I was going to miss out? I could hardly believe. Bad luck or bad race tactics? Either way I was pissed.
We waved our goodbyes to the leaders since no one wanted to cooperate, including me, since for all I knew there was a massive 15% climb just around the next bend. With over a minute gap, the lead group looked to be the winning group, which is actually the case 100% of the time. But I made one more big effort to bridge across as we came into a town and we rocketed up another steep, winding climb. Five guys and I went balls deep and dropped the 30 we were with. We got close, very close, but close doesn’t cut it and we blew ourselves to bits before we got there. The lead group slowly disappeared and the group behind us swelled to 100 before it caught us, now rejoined by other dropped groups on the road who I earlier assumed I’d never see again.
I stole a bottle in a feed zone and took a gulp before I handed it to the guy behind me, who was its rightful owner. In my defense, I didn’t really know who was feeding our team. We have a lot of help here at this race. Like six people, all of whom I’d met either today or the day before and couldn’t necessarily remember their faces while going 30 mph, blurry-eyed, trying not to get dropped in the crosswind. It’s ironic that at Gila I was so well hydrated that I was almost never even thirsty, but here in Belgium I would have paid twenty bucks for a bit of backwash.
With the real race up ahead, I decided that if I wasn’t going to win, I’d better at least be the best of the rest and win my group’s sprint for 46th place. My legs were dying, but with some good positioning it might be possible, or so I thought. The finish, like the rest of the race, was hard. Lots and lots of turns and climbs in the final 10K. I stayed near the front and followed a hard attack that got me into a group of like ten guys. I blew myself to bits for the 90th time that day to latch onto the back of it. By looking at the results, I guess we must have gotten bridged to by like 15 more guys in the last kilometer, but I never looked back. Going 100% all out, and then blowing up 40 meters before the finish line, I could only come around a couple guys. I was 52nd out of 167. 21 abandoned today already, including two guys from my team.
After the race I was super grumpy, mainly from missing the front split when I should have made it, but also from being extremely hungry and thirsty. I drank one and a half tiny cans of coke (one blew up on me) and sat on the ground a little ways past the finish line while my body and mind came back up from Hell.
On my way to the car I stopped and ate a small piece of chocolate I saw on the ground. A woman laughed. (It was still in its wrapper so it wasn’t really like I was eating it off the ground). Then I drank two liters of water. I was hungry enough that I went in search of the USA team and Steve, hoping to beg food off them. I couldn’t find them. Our bags and my food were not with the team car; they were with the van, which was still parked at the start line, many miles away. I rode around being grumpy until one of the other rider’s moms gave me some sort of delicious hand-held pie with egg in it. Then I went and lay in the grass.
We were staying just down the street at a dorm, but no one was quite sure which building it was. Two hours later when we found it and were finally let in, I headed straight for the showers so I could get into bed and sleep the rest of my hunger away. The van wasn’t going to show up for a long time. I found the showers and eventually melted down to the floor. I stayed there for half an hour as the hot water came down. I dried off with a blanket and lay in bed for an hour before the van and our clothes showed up. Then we walked to the cafeteria for dinner and ate a LOT of food. And I was happy once again.
After dinner I got a light massage with what I assume was two full cups of oil. Old folk accordion music drifted up into the open window from down below in the parking lot, where the race officials were celebrating a victorious day with beer and cigarettes. It was quite pleasant. It was already dark and well past 10pm at that point. I showered off the oil and went to bed for what I hoped would be a solid night of sleep. It was, until I woke up drenched in sweat at 1am. Sometimes when it’s warm you fall asleep quickly, but wake up an hour later when you’re way over-heated. Hot sleeping temperature is perfect for taking an hour nap, not for a full night’s sleep. I opened the windows all the way to let the mosquitoes and cooler air in. Window screens have not yet been introduced to Belgium. But what it lacks in 20th century technology, it more than makes up for in badass races. Today was simply awesome.
From left to right: Richard, me, Tim (in black), Tim (rider ), Lawrence, Arne, Bart, Ronny, and Patrick.
Missing a feed.
Namur Stage 2.
Touted again as one of the easier days, the prediction for stage two ended up being truer than yesterday’s. It was still quite hilly, and windy, but it was nothing compared to the day before, meaning I could attack a lot. The cool thing about racing here, at least for the kermesses and this particular stage race, is that there is very little control in the races. Back home in the NRCs, the leader’s team sets tempo all day and usually the hardest part of the race is at the end. Or if there’s a mountain, it’s hard there. Here it’s a free for all and hard for almost the entire race. The leader’s team didn’t do shit today in terms of protecting their guy. In fact, the yellow jersey was attacking from kilometer 0 to kilometer 60 like a bat out of heaven, because a bat would hate heaven due to all the bright lights and would therefore want to leave at a very quick rate. The leader lost his jersey.
A breakaway formed early in the race right after the first sprint at 4.5K. Their gap never went over a minute for the first two hours of the race, while we all tried our hands at bridging up there. I threw in a good number of attacks and followed a good number too. I thought that one or two of them would have stuck for sure, but nothing worked long term. At one point I bridged a large gap and gained contact with two guys up the road, and we actually got pretty close to the break. 25 seconds is what I was told anyways. But one of the guys wasn’t pulling through very hard or very often and about 20 minutes later we were caught (in defense of the guy who wasn’t pulling hard, he was on the race leader’s team).
It ended up not mattering too much since the break was caught with 50K to go (they just needed three more guys). The final 50K included some KOM point climbs that hurt like usual and a hard tailwind section that forced the peloton into a single file line in the gutter for what seemed like days and days, dropping less of the peloton than I would have expected. A crash right in front of me hit the ground hard during near the end of this section. We were going fast. Like 35 mph at least. I braked and looked for Ian to crash on top of. Not spotting Ian anywhere, I crashed on some other guy’s soft body, so I was okay. I got real angry after crashing and vowed to win or at least have a good crack at it. I took some chances going through the scattered caravan (where’s Joe Holmes when you need him?) and some more chances while moving back up in the pack to the front for the last 10K. I was taking some short cuts in the smooth part of the gutter that they have over here in some of the roads. It’s like a foot wide and concave, and a good place to move up since a lot of guys don’t want to ride in it for some reason. Possibly from the metal drains. A parked car emerged around a corner where I didn’t expect it. I swerved off the road in between it and a building and braced for impact with the mirror. Sadly, the impact never came since I managed to make my shoulders very narrow for a quarter second. I was looking forward to breaking that damn mirror right off! I mean, the nerve of that thing getting in my way and all.
The peloton had split up a bit 20 minutes earlier during the tailwind section and one guy survived to the end, so we ended up sprinting for 2nd. Stupidly (very stupidly since we’d passed under the finish banner once before about 30 minutes ago) I did not position well for the sprint. I thought we had another 1.5 K to go but in fact we had 200 meters to go–ooohh, so that’s why the pace went up so hard there! I was heaps too far back, and came in 65th. Man I suck at this whole finishing well thing. (That’s what she—yeah whatever). Yet another opportunity wasted. This is why I could never be part of the NOW—M.S. team.
Things I did better today included bringing thousands upon thousands of calories with me, and attacking like a mofo for the first 90K of the race. Unfortunately these are things that don’t necessarily warrant a good result. The first one will really only decrease your chances of getting dropped, while the second, in fact, might actually increase your chances of getting dropped. Some would say that attacking in the first half is dumb. But everyone told me the move would go early and stay away today! All in all, it was a good day. It was hard, fast, I got my adrenaline pumping at full gas multiple times…just couldn’t finish it off. Happens sometimes. Bike racing is so simple; all you need to do in a race is cross the line first. So why does it seem so complicated? My appetite for Belgian racing is continually increasing with these awesome races. It’s nuts here and I love it.
Our team and the race officials are staying at a huge school dormitory, just 200 meters down the road from the finish of the first stage. It’s located in a tiny little town without a single store, so we’re pretty much stuck here on the ‘campus,’ which includes a few odd cement buildings, an overgrown race track for remote controlled cars, and a cafeteria. There’s no internet, even though the very building we’re staying in says “Internat” on the side of it. So close. Also, I think this is a school for clowns because there’s pictures of circus stuff every where and a big poster board showing a clown performance that all the kids at the school participated in.
I got a TV working on Wednesday and flipped through the 10 or so channels it had before switching it off. TV shows of note were Jersey Shore dubbed in French, so slightly less trashy, Pee-We Herman, and a long segment about our race that day that only showed an official talking to the reporter in front of us as we lined up for the start—no actual racing. But it was still cool to see.
Now onto the important part–the food at the cafeteria where we eat all our meals.
Dinner on day 1: Rabbit leg in a brown sauce (I thought it was chicken). Tatter tots (a fancy version). Salad makings of lettuce, cucumber, tomato, and shredded carrots. Bread slices. HERRING quiche (yeah you heard me right). And for desert there was an extremely sweet pastry thing that was so sweat I could only eat the frosting, which was the least sweat part of it.
Everyone had at least two servings of the main course. I was astonished at how much my teammates, who are all smaller than me, could eat. I’ve actually been getting out-eaten here. And by the smallest guy no less.
Breakfast on day 2: Six-inch lengths of baguettes, cold cuts, cheese, kid’s sugary cereal, raw egg yolk (didn’t have any), sliced bread, butter, chocolate spread, multiple cheese spreads, and jam. I had baguette with the cold cuts and cheese and a bowl of cereal. I also had three coffees and later filled my water bottle with two espressos for my pre-race jolt of caffeine. They have a cappuccino machine, but it’s behind the counter, so unlimited refills are harder to get.
Second breakfast on day 2: This meal was consumed not less than one hour after finishing first breakfast. I was lying on my bed, feeling slightly ill from eating so much baguette and cheese, when the guys started rousing themselves for pasta. Apparently you eat pasta after breakfast here. We all went back to the cafeteria, which was now serving pasta, and they loaded up. I didn’t have any. I couldn’t.
Dinner on day 2: Beef roast, pasta with brown sauce, more baguettes, cantaloupe topped with some sort of smoked salty meat that looked like bacon, the salad fixings just like the day before, the same super sweat gigantic pastry dessert (I didn’t have any this time) and also a crepe that you could get with ice cream (I opted out of the ice cream since one of us HBers had already pulled a Phil earlier in the day—Steve forgot his bibs).
Breakfast on day 3: Same as before, including the same pasta breakfast. The pasta breakfast can be substituted with rice and white sauce. I had a small serving of this.
Dinner on day 3: Chicken, cheesy potatoes, bread, salad, green beans wrapped in a piece of bacon, and crepe for dessert. Again, not quite the ideal meal for a race, but it got the job done.
Breakfast on day 4: Same. I haven’t eaten this much bread in a long time.
Dinner on day 4: Today was a special muscles and frites (fries) dinner that, as it turned out, didn’t start until almost 9pm. I’d gotten to the cafeteria at 7:30 and had been impatiently eating salad and bread while we waited for the main course to be ready. Bart and I began banging our knives and forks on the table to speed the cooks up. The cafeteria slowly filled with a bunch of extra guests that were in some way affiliated with the race. The head race official, who has an extremely raspy ghost of a voice, from what I suspect is smoker’s throat cancer, set up a microphone to make congratulatory announcements while everyone finished their third glass of wine that night (still all buzzed from the beers they’d drank last night, that morning before the race today, and the beers after the race). The four of us racers grew hungrier and more impatient as speeches and applauses were given. I was hungry enough to reach over the sneeze-guard and grab what I thought was a large vanilla pudding. I took a big fork-full (I only had a fork) and immediately realized the warm, salty, white creamy mixture was not pudding. I spat it out and held back vomit. It dribbled down my chin and everyone around me burst out in laughter as I continued hawking it up in a napkin. It was a bowl of mayonnaise for the French fries. I stumbled over to a trashcan to spit and drink water. Who puts mayo in a fancy pudding bowl like that? In large doses mayo is nasty, but it’s pretty good when dabbed with a French fry. Some things are like that.
Breakfast on day 5: Same.
Namur Stage 3.
Touted as the easiest of all the stages, stage three was supposed to stay together with a breakaway going away somewhat early and then getting caught before the finish for a large group sprint. I’m going to stop paying attention to what people have been telling me about the stages, since they obviously don’t know shit and are just talking out their asses.
I felt pretty bad for the first 30-40 minutes of the race and was fairly far back entering the first KOM climb, which wasn’t that hard even from back where I was. My legs were coming around at that point. But some people’s legs weren’t and a gap was opened up either at the top of the climb or the fast descent and rollers through the next town. Approximately 35 riders made this front group, and drilled it over the rolling, crosswind road for the next half hour as the rest of the peloton attempted to regain contact. I would have thought that having the yellow jersey, the sprint jersey, and the young rider jersey in our group would have meant that everything was going to come back together, especially with the gap so small for so long.
When the chase was finally given up with the gap still at 1:22, we rode easier for about 30 minutes. The gap opened to over four minutes, then we began drilling it again and didn’t stop drilling it until the end. We finished three minutes down.
I’d punctured at around kilometer 100, right after a long cross/tailwind area in the open farm fields. I’d been smart and riding at the front and pulling through since I decided I didn’t have anything better to do and at least that way I wouldn’t get split off again. But the flat tire put that all to an end in an instant. I saw a big, jagged pothole right in front me as I exited a corner and knew that it would ruin my tube. It had an evil look to it and a sharp lip that was hungry for an innocent wheel to fall into.
I got a slow wheel change and the next 20 minutes of the race were the hardest and most panicky of the day. If you’ve ever gone without sex for a year, you know the desperation of a rider who’s off the back in the caravan, struggling in the crosswind and blowing up every three minutes. I came very close to not making it back on. My chase through the caravan was terrible, with me not getting quite on the bumper (I was a foot off instead of four inches) and the town we were entering for the two circuits was full of hills, technical descending corners, rough road, and wind). I’d pass cars leading into a corner and they’d rocket by me out of it leaving me back in the wind, especially the Canadian national team. They were probably the worst. I went over my limit and had just about thrown in the towel when, miraculously, the peloton was just up ahead cresting a climb. I gave it one last effort and got on with a few pushes off the last couple car mirrors.
We did one and a half more laps of the circuit and that was it; a hard day but for all the wrong reasons.
Getting ready for stage 3.
Namur Stage 4.
Touted as the hardest of the five stages, stage four wasn’t as hard as the first stage, though I’m not sure since I got dropped with 50K to go. After the break was established in the first 10K, the new leader’s team finally set tempo for much of the remaining miles. From then on until I got dropped, it was fairly easy to stay up near the front, assuming you were comfortable pushing and shoving and yelling. The climb that I got shelled on wasn’t even that steep but I just didn’t have much in my legs today, and if it hadn’t been that climb it would have been one of the next three. I spent the rest of the race in a groupetto of 15 and finished nine minutes down. After today I’m looking forward to the end of this stage race since I’m not feeling good anymore. Really my strongest days were the first two. I felt okay on the third, but today I was not myself. If I have anything at all left for tomorrow, I’m trying for the break. No sense in sitting in since the stage ends with a climb that I wouldn’t stand a chance at with the way I feel now.
Attacking to get to the feed zone first. Pro.
The finish of stage 4.
Steve. The man.
Namur Stage 5.
Touted as the final day of Namur, stage five lived up to the hype and was indeed the last day of the race. I had my worst day yet. Now that the race is over, I can admit to myself that I do have a tiny bit of a cold. I’m sure it will be gone by Wednesday, when I plan on doing my next race. Anyways, stage five started out so ridiculously hard. So hard. I’d decided to attack straight off and get away in an early move. After riding out of a little city center, the race de-neutralized and I figured the large flat road we were currently on was a fine place to get things going with some attacks. It would be a safe place for it too, since I could recover back in the pack in between attacks with such a big flat road. If we were on a tight, twisty road or going up a hill, I’d have been more careful, especially that early on in the race when I wasn’t warmed up yet (despite doing a 45 minute warm up ride). I should have known we wouldn’t be on that road for more than three kilometers.
I followed a move or two, countered, got brought back, then we immediately turned a corner and went up a hill. I plummeted back through the pack up the hill as my legs failed to recover. At the top of the hill was a long crosswind section where gaps opened up and guys were already giving up. I was near the back after the climb and in the worst place possible as we turned another corner and began a circuit through town. The two guys in front of me let a gap open. I sprinted around them and got onto the wheel. That guy let a gap open. I was done, I couldn’t close another 10 bike length gap with the wind and pace we were going. I was in the cars. I was in and out of the caravan for about five minutes, just barely off the back of the peloton through the downhill, technical section through town. I got back into the group finally. It was still single file, gaps were still opening up. It was going to be a miracle if I survived.
Long story short, after another 20K I was off the back in the cars again, I had no hope of regaining contact with the group. I was with a small bunch of like 15 riders; our race was done at 40km. The last of the caravan passed us. We worked together after that, somewhat, until the group was down to three of us with 70km to go. I decided to end my race (ride to the finish since we weren’t even going to make time cut) and start resting up for the next race, and hope that I didn’t get a full on cold after today. Following the road signs to Namur, I made my way to the finishing city and got really lost for about half an hour. I ran a red light and a moto cop had been right behind me. He rode past and scolded me with a wag of the finger, then took off. That made my day.
Overall I’m not too upset with the race. It would have been nice had I finished in the top 50 GC, which would have been doable had I sat in the pack more. I made some tactical errors the first three days, but was riding strong. The last two days of the race I felt terrible. I’m not sure if it’s from the slight head cold I have, or if it was just that I went too deep for what I was personally capable of maintaining, especially on that second day, which would have been a lot easier had I sat in. Racing five road races in a row was an eye-opener in terms of what it must be like to race a grand tour. You really have to conserve, and keep in mind that whatever you do today will affect how your legs will feel tomorrow. And tomorrow might be the hardest day. This was way more difficult than an NRC, where you might have five or six days of racing but one or two of them are TTs and one of them is a crit. The style of racing is also way different. I don’t think I’ve ever done so much sprinting and spent so much time in the box as I have this week. I’m now back in Oudenaarde, lying in bed and sipping chicken broth like a dying old man fighting off pneumonia. Seriously, at this point I’m so wrecked a cold could kill me. Maybe I won’t race next until Thursday.