After success in Qatar and a week back in reality in Belgium, I was on the way to my next race in Laigueglia, Italy. Looking at the profiles I knew straight away it wasn’t really going to be a race for me, but we were traveling with a strong team so I wanted to be as good as I could to try and help the guys as best as I could. The race started fast; I was feeling good and jumping around quite a lot making sure we didn’t miss any big breakaways. Pretty quickly a small group went away and we rode fairly steady over the first climb. I knew pretty soon that I was going to struggle today. Llooking around the peloton at all of these half-grown malnourished human beings barely breathing going up hill didn’t quite fill me with confidence.
I looked after the guys as best as I could leading up to the climbs and then fought my way over the top. There were four major climbs that day. I made it over three in the peloton but the fourth was one too many. 3km from the top, my legs and back gave way and my day was over. We had two guys in the front group, no major result but the guys were looking strong and we had another good day’s racing under our belts. More important for me was a few climbs in the legs. After not really seeing a hill over 2km since December, it was always going to be hard but you got to start somewhere, right?
New Specialized Shivs
Originally, I had the Tour of Sardinia on my plan, but after the race was cancelled the team organised a week of training in the south of France before another one-day race at les Boucles du Sud Ardèche the following Sunday. We had a great few days riding on the Cote d’Azur in a small town called Frejus. We did a good block of training with a bit of work on our new Specialized Shivs. It’s not often you get the chance to train well on the TT bikes, especially in a team environment, so we jumped at this chance and spent at least an hour each day doing team and individual drills. The muscles you use and the sensations on the TT bike are totally different to normal, so the more time on the bike the better if you want to go fast.
So, after a good week training we headed to the next race in the Ardeche region of France. Once again it was pretty lumpy today, I was feeling pretty good early on and rode near the front looking after things for the first half of the race. Our plan was to actively encourage a small breakaway, control the peloton and then leave it to the climbers to let loose on the finishing circuit, which featured what I can only describe as the Muur De Huy’s twin!
Everything went pretty much to plan until the finish circuit. After an active first hour of racing, a small group went away. Myself and one team mate headed affairs and set a tempo for the peloton. I say things didn’t go quite to plan on the finish circuit. To cut a long story short, let’s just say a few of my team mates felt a little bit too strong, too soon and got a little too excited far too soon. The gap to the breakaway came down too quickly and the race was back on; we split the race in a crosswind and the peloton was only now 30 riders strong. The only problem wa, there was still 80km to go and we only had four riders left in the race. I was not one of them. We ended the race with our best rider in fifth place. Not a bad result, but I wasn’t really too chuffed with how we rode.
After a long stint of enjoying bad coffee and overcooked pasta, I was back at home for a few days. I’ve learned to love and really make the most out of these days at home in between races and training. We spend so much time away from our girlfriends, cats and coffee machines that when we get the rare chance to spend a bit of time there we really cherish them 100%.
Next on the menu was the Three Days of West Flanders. Last year this was one of my hardest races, I had some crazy power files and the weather is always pretty grim. The three-day race uses the same format every year: a 7km Individual Time Trial to start and then two 190km road stages, both taking in some typical Flemish roads.
The first day’s TT was something I have had my eye on for a while. I was pretty motivated to go fast. Normally 7km is far too short for me but I wanted to give it a good go. I did everything I could to go as fast as I could but messed one small thing up. One trick we use in a short TT is a Bicarbonate supplement. It has pretty strong alkaline properties and helps to neutralise the lactic acid in the muscles. If used correctly, it can give you a huge advantage in a race like this. One thing you have to make sure is you take the right amount, at the right time and stay well-hydrated. None of which I did; I rode the race 100w lower than planned and couldn’t feel my legs. I finished feeling pretty embarrassed, to say the least.
Success for OPQS
Anyway, OPQS did pretty well. We finished with most of our riders in the first 20 and, amazingly, the top two places on the podium. Happy days. As we only had 10s advantage over third place, it was always going to be tricky holding on to the lead. I was given the reins for the road stages and was put in charge of the troops. The plan was simple: follow the early attacks like crazy, don’t let a big group go and then control the race to let it finish in a bunch sprint where hopefully one of our sprinters could get up there. It was the first time I had ever been given this leadership role, so I was feeling a little nervous considering we had a hell of a lot to lose.
We started pretty full gas the first day. We had a strong headwind for the first hour so the attacking riders generally didn’t go quite far before exploding. This happened for the first 56km until a small group of three went clear. We let the gap slip out to 4-5 mins and then slowly started to control things at the front. We rode a perfect race, slowly reeling in the three riders after they had soaked up all of the available bonus seconds that were a danger to our GC chances. With half a lap of the 18km finish circuit remaining, it was ‘gruppo compatto’ and our focus shifted to the finish. My tank was empty with 5km to go and I left it to the boys to stick to the plan. It was a pretty tricky finish with a slight uphill for just over 1km. A hard finish to judge, we had to wait until the last moment to start our move. Mr [Francesco] Chicci finished the job in style and won the stage with ease and we held on to our lead in the GC.
The final stage was going to be a tough one, with some pretty grim weather and some hard climbs including the famous Kemmelberg, we had a tough day out ahead of us. The plan was again like yesterday’s; try to control things as much as we could for as long as we could. We started in much the same way, a group of seven went clear and we started to control things. We got over the climbs all together and were looking good going into the finish. We were all riding strong and riding full of confidence when disaster stuck with around 60km to go. A small group of riders crashed on a corner and I could see at least one of our riders down. With the weather so bad we were all wrapped in rain jackets so I couldn’t quite see who had crashed.
Lined out peloton
I waited at the back of a lined out peloton (not the easiest place to sit after 120km pulling on the front) until I knew what was going on. Soon enough, I got the news; both our first and second placed riders had crashed. I immediately stopped and waited for the group to come through. I rode my heart out to get them back to the peloton until my legs were empty.
Once they were back on, I drifted back to chat to the guys and check they were ok. Soon enough I found out Michal [Kwiatkowski ] (the yellow jersey) wasn’t there! Julien [Vermote] was sitting second on GC and was back in the front group. I waited for Michal and did my best to get him back, but I was pretty dead by this point and with no help from anybody in the group we were never going to come back to a peloton in full swing.
Our day was over and Michal’s jersey was gone. I felt so sorry for him; his first overall pro win had slipped away because of a stupid crash. Lucky for us, we also had second place on GC with Julien Vermote. We still had four guys left in the front group and they did a perfect job for Julien. They forgot about the stage and just rode as hard as they could, keeping the group together, until the finish. Julien finished safely in the first group and hung on to that yellow jersey for us.
A crazy day and a crazy weekend ended well for stage wins and the yellow jersey. I know it sounds cliched but it really was an awesome team effort this weekend. Each and every one of us really wanted to go home with that jersey in the team and we all finished the weekend pretty dead!
Once again, “Chapeau”, guys!