With about 20 kilometers remaining in the Grand Prix Hoboken, the course narrowed and the smooth pavement gave way to cobblestones. The jarring straightaway suddenly bent into an abrupt 150-degree turn. Adding insult (and injury), three sets of railroad tracks crisscrossed the tight turn creating a maniacal web of steel ruts, cracked cobbles and skinny tires.
Our car was mid-pack in the race caravan, and when we hit the section, I could see three dazed riders picking themselves up off of the pavé. One was bleeding from a cut above the knee. The other two were dusty but unhurt. All three jumped on their bikes and began chasing like crazy through the parade of team cars. One guy hopped onto a sidewalk to avoid a plastic road barrier, then jumped back onto the road to narrowly miss some pedestrians.
I looked at this wide-eyed kid as he sped off and noticed the boyish cheeks and skinny legs. He was probably about 16.
Lesson learned: In Belgium, even the juniors race like madmen.
Hoboken is a ratty suburb of Antwerp, and this race was held Friday, May 1. For the USA Cycling junior development team, the race was the first of many on their weeks-long foray into the European junior racing scene. The Belgian junior races are faster, more competitive and yes, sketchier, than anything they might find stateside. They represent a huge step upward in the long, slow trajectory toward becoming a top-level professional.
Considering it was an event for juniors and U23 riders, the GP Hoboken was quite a bit larger than most events in the U.S. The rolling enclosure included sets of lead motorcycles, a publicity car, several referee cars and a caravan much larger than the one I saw at the Redlands Bicycle Classic several weeks ago. I counted 32 junior teams on the starting list, most of which fielded full six-man teams. The teams had the infrastructure of the pros: sport directors, team cars, masseurs, soigners and even high school-aged groupies. At the start line, 183 teenagers buzzed around, most of them looking more Euro’ than even the most dorked-out racer chaser on the Boulder group ride.
I hitched a ride with USA Cycling’s man-in-command with the junior squad, Barney King, who also directs the Arizona-based Waste Management development team. Before the race kicked off, King told his troops to race smart — specifically to follow any early moves of five racers or more, stay close to the front and not to panic at the speed.
More instruction came from Teejay Van Garderen, a graduate of USAC’s junior and U23 program. These days Van Garderen races with Rabobank’s pro continental squad, but the Coloradan swings by the Izegem house every few weeks.
“There’s gonna be a crosswind, so stay out of the gutter,” Van Garderen said. “I’d say get in the rotation at the front before you ride in the gutter, you’re going to end up getting more rest in the long run.”
After his words of advice, Van Garderen pulled me aside.
“Dude, junior races over here are crazy,” he said. “They’re only 120 kilometers long so everyone goes hard from the gun. Everyone is nervous. People go bouncing off of cars and jump on sidewalks.”
He wasn’t lying. UCI rules prohibit the junior field from racing with any gears larger than a 52X14, but the guys can still motor. And some of these juniors had tree-trunk legs and looked like fullbacks, not bike riders.
“That’s the thing, over here you see really diverse body types,” King told me in the car. “It’s not like in the U.S. where all of the big guys go play basketball or baseball. Over here even the big super athletic kids are riding bikes.”
And riding them fast — the juniors tore out of Hoboken in a hurry. And once out of town, they tackled a super technical road course choc-full of twists, turns, roundabouts, road islands, potholes and plastic barriers known in the pro ranks as “road furniture.” The obstacles sent plenty of kids sprawling onto the pavement.
“If this were the States even the pro guys would protest a course like this,” King said. “Here it’s just another race.”
King wasn’t able to communicate with his guys — another UCI rule bans race radios in the junior and many of the espoir races. The idea is to let the racing teach the guys how to read tactics without a director barking them into the earpiece. There are many opinions on the rule and I can understand both sides.
On such a technical course, King mentioned, it would be nice to radio to his boys to watch out for oncoming danger, including that 150-degree turn on cobblestones with the railroad tracks.
Call me a pessimist, but I half expected to see our boys get shellacked. They proved me wrong — the guys put forth an effort that was both intelligent and impressive. Andrew Barker followed an early attack to join the day’s first breakaway. Charlie Avis and Jacob Rathe followed additional moves and joined the lead group. And while none of them won, all six including Austin Arguello, Ian Boswell and Ryan Eastman finished the race in one piece, despite the endless number of chances to crash.
After the race ended, I saw the next step in the progression these juniors must take. The U23 national team tackled the Hoboken Espoir race, which was 200 kilometers of dangerous turns, sketchy racing and furious pace. Former junior riders Daniel Holloway and Austin Carroll placed fifth and 10th, respectively, in the 200-rider field.
Experience, at this level, really does pay off. Even if it comes with a crash or two.