During the winter months you have your thoughts all to yourself out on the road as you train in the rain, the wind, and the cold. You begin to think of yourself as the hard-man or hard-woman of the north. The weather is the lesser of the obstacles though. The consistently hard and lonely riding is the real beast. That, and trying to starve yourself. You slog through your intervals, the five and six hour days, the long climbs all while dodging the idiot cars destroying the peace and quiet of the country side. You deal with the adversity of triple flatting and hitchhiking home, bonking with no gas station within 2o miles, and having shit legs day after day. But you get strong. You can feel it and your power meter confirms it. By late January you think of yourself as a dmigod. “I’ll kill them all come March.” Then March rolls around you re-learn the fact that everyone else has been doing the same training as you and you’re still mild-grade shit.
Maybe once in a while someone actually gets really, really fast over the winter, but for the most part the gains are moderate to none. During the winter it’s important to keep in mind that, while you think you’re training hard, you’re likely just training average. There’s no point in tricking yourself into believing you’re something you’re not. While self-confidence is vital, modesty may be even more so, especially in a sport where it pays to be lazy and sit in. If you think everyone else is stronger than you and you sit in while they all slaughter themselves in the first two hours of the race, you’ll have the advantage the third hour.
This happened yesterday (Tuesday) at one of the harder kermesses I’ve done this year in Sint-Lievens-Houtem. I’d raced Saturday and Sunday, took Monday off, then raced again on Tuesday. I was tired and my legs were pretty beat up, but I was noticing improved fitness since last week and wanted to get in as many races as I could before I leave. The course was fairly challenging, with a bit of wind, one long gradual climb, and one short steep one. I found myself off the front at the end of the first of 11 laps, chasing down the large breakaway that went from the start. We were caught less than a lap later after our cooperation faltered. One guy had been sitting on a bit too much and ruined it for the rest of us. After we were caught I spent the next seven laps holding on and wishing I had some actual fitness, only going with a handful of moves. I was in a bit of pain. The peloton split apart every lap, especially on the crosswind section right after the top of the steep climb. Each time we entered this section I thought it might be the last time the bunch was still a bunch and not just a scattering of small groups, victims of the grenade thrown by whoever was on the front. I road off the road into the grass one time and just about blew it. Each time after the descent the peloton reassembled, to my dismay, and everyone caught back on to the front group.
The early breakaway was caught long ago. The winning move went with exactly 3.5 laps to go. I had been on the very wheel of the guy who started it, heading up the low-grade longish climb. He was moving up the outside of the peloton and looked like he was going all the way to the front, so I got off his wheel still 20 guys back since I didn’t want to go that far forward. I watched as he attacked, assuming his would fail like every other million attacks that went. Others attacked there way up there and eventually formed a group of 10 that stuck it to the finish to win. Maybe more self-confidence at that one moment would have helped me, but it wouldn’t have for most of the race. For me and the way my shit form is right now it was all about survival and trying to make the front group over the steep climb. With three laps to go I began attacking again and realized I was one of the least messed up guys left in the field. The guys who were strong in the beginning had burned their last matches. I finished 27th overall after a poor job positioning in the small field sprint, so not great, but better than I would have predicted way back on lap five when I was just in it to survive. I got by today thanks to conservation due to modesty.
What made me want to write this somewhat downer of a post about humbleness was reading a few blogs lately and being disgusted by the amount of self-glorification portrayed in them. It’s as if people think of themselves as the one exceptionally strong/hard-working/toughest/most talented person and the only reason they didn’t win was because of something out of their control. “I attacked more than everyone else and they wouldn’t pull with me. I had bad legs because I was the only one who’d ridden five hours the day before the race for extra training. I was coming off a rest week. I got boxed in during the sprint (see above). I had bad luck and made every single move throughout the entire race except the last one that went.” (Yo dummy, the last move that went was the last one because it never got brought back).
These excuses and proclamations of strength probably annoy me as much as they do because they’re something I see in my own writing way too much. I certainly don’t try to sound arrogant, whiny, or completely self-involved, but whenever I read a race report that I’ve written all I see is cockiness and a laundry list of excuses. And I rarely do laundry so you can imagine my confusion. On the other hand, I don’t want to write a boring, to-the-point, four-sentence blog about a race either. No one wants to read something like that. After all, no one really cares that much about what happened (regardless of what we’re talking about); the main thing that makes people finish the sentence they’re on is the quality of writing. Content is secondary. Take this paragraph for example. You probably stopped reading a long time ago.
From now on I vow to write my race reports as honestly and as humbly as I can.
Rewind to Saturday at Dilbeek:
I took the train to Denderleuw on Saturday afternoon, which is 22km away from Dilbeek. I knew my legs were shit because I’d felt like shit for the past week, not sick or anything, just not fast. My form was terrible and since I’m usually always the same mediocre speed, being slower than that is pretty frustrating. I knew this and had come to terms with it. Was there a chance I could win today? Yes. It was a very small chance and it would involve a lot of luck. Was there a chance I’d enjoy getting my head kicked in and gain some fitness for next week’s races? Yes. A large chance at that.
My excitement grew as I approached my destination, not because I was excited about the race but because I still hadn’t been charged a train ticket yet. The conductor hadn’t spotted me and my bike. The fool. A weekend, two-way train ticket costs 6 euros. On top of that is an 8 euro two-way bike ticket. My heart rate increased with each stop we made. My cortisol levels were jacked. “I should just get off at this stop and ride the extra distance and get by without the train ticket,” I debated with myself. There was a risk to that though: getting lost. I ended up staying on the train all the way to Denderleuw and never had to pay. The day was already a success in that regard.
After making a hasty exit, I began following my hand-written directions to Dilbeek. My directions took me to a freeway. I rode on the freeway and immediately, just after the onramp, had cars honking at me, angrily persuading me to get off their private property. OOOOOW so I’m on the freeway! Big deal, cars. Why don’t you go tell it to the judge? There was a huge shoulder and I was safely separated from traffic, but they couldn’t stand me being there so I got off after 10 minutes of non stop honking.
I got lost immediately after I got off the freeway but made it to the race on time with a bit of backtracking and help from the locals. Side note: many Belgians don’t know how to get to the town 3km away from the one they grew up in. Either that or they don’t like giving directions and pretend they’ve never heard of it before.
I had enjoyed a good breakfast earlier that morning and was now just finishing a Rodeo energy drink 15 minutes before the start. Studies show that consuming 200 calories of sugar and 200 mg of caffeine right before a race will improve your V02 by 9,000%. There were 19 laps on a 6km course with two small hills and a one-kilometer section of rough pavers on a descent and one of the hills through the start/finish line.
On lap two a large group got away. I bridged to it with two other guys on the third lap. The 18 of us rotated through fairly evenly for the next half hour and our gap increased. I tried to do less work than everyone else, but I’d say there were others more successful at this. I was too afraid of getting gapped off the back to completely sit on, so I helped drive the pace and pulled through as slowly as I could. This turned out to be a stupid decision. I should have just sat on and rested as much as possible.
10 or 15 more bridged to us. Never fully looking backwards, I thought it was the entire field and stupidly helped drive a counter attack for half a lap. The ‘counter attack’ was just six of us on the front with a tiny gap to the rest of the 30 guys behind who were all pretty much just sitting on us.
With eight laps to go I realized I was in trouble. Guys had been attacking hard on the climbs for a few laps by now and our group of 30 was the only group still left on the course after everyone else had been pulled. With six to go we were split into three or four groups, with me in the third one. I managed to get across to the second group by myself, not because I was strong, but because I sat on and skipped pulls for as long as I could and then tucked away on a descent when my group sat up for a moment. None of them made it, hahahaha!
I didn’t help pull at all as my new group regained contact with the first group. My legs had nothing at all left to contribute. I got dropped HARD on the second climb and gapped off the only guy behind me with four laps remaining. He cursed the only Belgian curse word, “Godverdomme!!” when I wouldn’t help him get back on during the descent. I was so dead that I couldn’t even hold his wheel on the slightly downhill road. He made it to the group and I didn’t. I let my legs recover for a half lap and hung my head in shame and agony. When I was recovered I went as hard as I thought I needed to in order to hold off anyone behind me. As it turned out there was no one left behind me and I buried myself for the next two laps before finally being pulled with one lap to go. I was 21st and earned 10 euros.
I ate a waffle, refilled my bottles, then rode back to the train station. But I never made it back to Denderluew and the train station because I took a different way back that avoided the freeway altogether. I go really lost this time. Like, so lost that I ended up riding until it got dark and I bonked, and ended up doing 180 kilometers that day, which was more than I’d wanted to do since I had planned on racing the following day as well. I made it to the city of Aalst and coasted to the train station and bought a train ticket without even attempting to sneak on for free. I went across the street and bought a shitty Belgian hamburger made out of lymph nodes and scar tissue while I waited for the train to get there.
Energy came back to me as I sat on the train during my short journey to the connecting train. I missed the connection by approximately 13 seconds and would have to wait an hour for the next one. By now it was cold and pitch black out so I took shelter in a frite joint (Frite joints sell frites (french fries) and odd assortments of deep fried “meat.” They are possibly the only thing less healthy than McDonalds. And they’re wonderful). The tiny cupboard of a shop was packed full with eight people, all standing in line with everyone hacking and coughing from the first cold rains of the season. I ordered the smallest size of frites and I the man gave me about a square foot for $1.70. I ate them all in the warmth of the little restaurant and sat with blurringly tired red eyes until my train arrived. The train took me back to Oudenaarde and I soft pedaled the rest of the 2km back home, getting in just before 10pm. Then I stayed up until 1:15 playing Tony Hawk Pro Skater with Jake. I got to sleep at around 3. Sleep does not come quickly after late races like these.
Sunday at Erombodegem:
The following day I raced at Erombodegem. This time I went with Thomas, a big fat American lad from New Jersey. He lives close by us in Oudenaarde and helps Jake and I raid Colruyt on our rest days. Thomas is a beast on the bike, and though he dislikes hills, he absolutely smashes fools on the flats, as whitened by me at this race. We took the train to Haaltert and rode 300 meters to the race sign in, which was probably the most convenient train stop in relation to race sign-in locations I’ve ever had. I took a long warm up since my legs were trashed from the day before and decided I’d sit in until the last two and a half laps (when I figured the winning move would go). The course was 17km long with eight laps and a much easier course than the day before. It had a bit of everything though. A tiny cobbled section (with narrow strips of pavement to test one’s balance), a couple little climbs, a lot of technical turns through town, and the largest prize list of any kermess I’ve ever been to: 2000 euros.
My plan backfired immediately. This race as well as the three before it have all seen the winning moves go away in the first quarter of the race, unlike the stats I came up with in my Secret Race Strategy post the other week that told me that the winning move would go late in the race. The break this day went on the first lap. 19 guys. Race over for the rest of us. At the start of lap three I began going with some weak bridging attempts. I didn’t help that much. It was enough to just be there along for the free ride. For the most part, I now condone being lazy. One split looked promising but we were caught.
With four laps to go I decided that I might as well help real the break back in. I spent half a lap rotating on the front and brought the gap down to about 12 seconds through the technical part of the course. Behind me and the five guys that were still rotating through, the peloton was split in pieces as guys miss-judged corners and the yo-yo effect took its toll. We came through the finish with three to go and looked like we might finally catch the leaders. But a moment of apathy in the peloton saw all our hard work wasted and the gap shot up and we never saw the breakaway again.
I missed the second and third moves that went away and finished 39th, again for 10 euros. Thomas beat me and took 29th, bridging up to the third move on the road. After the race we both got deep fried meat items at an outdoor vendor next to the finish line after we collected our money. Thomas got a polish sausage and I got a “Mexican,” which was some sort of spicy sausage meat molded into the shape of baby back ribs. It came in a bun with ketchup. Then we went back to the train stop. It was cold now. Our train seemed to be late. I hopped down to the tracks and searched for goodies and found a reflecting writs band thing. We continued waiting. Thomas began shivering since he was too lazy to put on his arm and knee warmers. Our train never came. An announcement came on and an elderly man told us that the train was no longer coming and the next one would arrive in an hour. I knew exactly what the occasion called for…the warm frite shop across the street. We got the family size. Two of them.
This is a picture of Thomas, or “Tom” as he likes to be called for some reason, which is an inferior name.
This is another picture of Tom in some race that looks hard.
This is a picture of Jake, since he doesn’t want to be left out of this blog. He’s pictured here with a copious amount of oil on his legs applied by Patrick, the team soignier who’s invaluable to both the AFRA and Geofco teams.
This is a picture of me for my grandparents who don’t have facebook.