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Riding with the King: Three Days of West Flanders

Editor’s note: Be sure to check out Ben King’s other VeloNews.com diary entries

Without a season victory, Team RadioShack-Nissan-Trek looked to score our first win at Driedaagse van West-Vlaanderen (Three Days of West Flanders), where, in 2011, Jesse Sergent led the team in a full sweep of the podium. Before the 7km-prologue, my roommate, Jesse, said, “You can only control what you do. You can’t worry about what other people do.”

His relaxed manner indicated that he had prepared to perform at his best and left the rest to chance. I, on the other hand, aimed to muster enough grit to assist the team in a style of racing that challenges me.

Prologue: 7 km TT

Heavy artillery barrels jutted from bunkers in the dunes along the chilly coast. Streetlights flickered on at 2:00pm to cut through the fog. Steam curled off our backs as we churned our legs warming up for the individual test. One by one, each of the 192 riders lurched off the start ramp and blasted across the finish line less than nine minutes later, eyes bulging, coughing, foaming at the mouth. Our defending champion, Jesse Sergent placed 5th, but Robert Wagner bested him for 3rd. Last year’s teammate, Micheal “Kawasaki” Kwiatkowski won the event.

Stage 1: 182 km

As in GP Samyn earlier in the week, a free-for-all undercut regular cycling etiquette that respects leadership and even safety. I covered futile attacks into a headwind, but it took over 60km for a breakaway to escape. When crosswinds and crashes threatened to take us out at any moment, everybody wanted to be near the front, but nobody wanted to be on the front in the wind. This caused a constant reshuffling in the peloton on narrow roads. In addition, everyone seemed eager to sprint to the front when a chance presented itself, but few had the power to do it, and instead floundered, clogging the edges of the road. Sometimes the only option was hopping on sidewalks, on and off the road, and avoiding posts. In the end we had a bunch sprint of 90 riders.  I hate racing in Belgium for the same reasons I love to watch it: all the insanity.

Stage 2: 186 km

We watched windmills whirling through the rain-streaked windows of the bus. Reluctant to imagine my miserable condition in three, four, or even five hours later, I motivated for one kilometer at a time.

I began pulling behind a seven-man break with my teammate, Matt Busche, and team Quickstep after 20km. It felt nice to flex my legs without shoulder-butting around in the peloton. Before the second of three critical climbs, I had been forced back to around 50th position. When I tried to move up on the outside, I got shoved off the road. When I swerved back to the pavement, a lip in the road yanked my wheels out from under me. I hit the ground.

In angst, I realized that the crash had disabled my bike. Our mechanic sprung from the car, but I had lost too much time. I could feel my hip seeping blood. Regardless, I pedaled in earnest. The caravan of cars was prohibited to pass the narrow cobbled climbs. Without their shelter, I chased in vain. Jose, our director, told me to abandon in the feed-zone after 110km.

Dejected and with no alternative, I hit the showers. Of the 197 starters, only 106 finished the race. The yellow jersey also crashed out. Wagner lost his third-place overall, and Jesse moved into second.

Despite the obstacle it is to me, I always jump at the offer to race here. At the ProTour level, riders most often race their specialties, with certain expectations on them. While I came to race, not merely survive, I appreciate the chance to race for the experience and to be able to still give my best for the team. We came away with three top-10 spots and second overall. Meanwhile, Cancellara in brilliant fashion achieved the team’s first win.

At dinner, I looked at the menu, at Jose Azevedo, hesitated, then ordered the frites. I ingested so much manure off farm roads during the race, what difference does it make? I might as well get the full Belgian experience.

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