By Michael Barry, U.S. Postal Service professional cycling team
Over the last week I have been in Belgium, at a hotel just outside of Liège. This was our base for the Ardennes classics of the spring: Amstel, Fleche and Liège. The hotel here is a bit of a bike zoo at the moment with several teams of riders cooped up in rooms, bikes and trucks filling the parking lot and fans flowing in and out of the lobby looking for a photo with their hero or a free hat or water-bottle.
This week marks the transition in the season from the flatter cobbled races to the hillier races. Some of the riders from Roubaix will push through until Amstel but few will go all the way through Liège. In Fleche the skinnier riders, the climbers and stage racers, make their first big appearances of the year: the faces that will be climbing to victory in the Giro and Tour in the next months.
It was my first time competing in these three classics and I have gained some valuable knowledge. Positioning is quite important as the climbs tend to be on smaller roads where it is hard to move up in the peloton, and if a rider sits up or can’t hold the wheel, a gap opens quickly and it is hard to get around to close it in time. Fleche and Liège are also fairly technical races with many corners, round-abouts and traffic islands. Being in front makes a huge difference as the back of the peloton often comes to a standstill when a corner is reached.
Fleche was the fastest race I have done this season, and amazingly faster then most of the criteriums I did while racing in America with an average speed of 47kph! It was hard to believe we went that quick because the race is nowhere near flat, there was not a constant tailwind and it was 200km. Needless to say we didn’t have much time to do anything other than pedal as hard and as fast as possible.
At the start of the race the field split in two on a flat bit of open road and we ended up chasing for 35km as most of our team was in the second group. In the group with us was Rebellin. I guess he owes us one, eh?
Two days prior to Liège we went towards Roubaix to preview the Tour de France stage that runs over some of the cobbled roads in the area. There are two sections that the Tour will pass over. I think the highlight for most of us was getting the chance to ride the Arenberg Forest sector of cobbles; it is perhaps one of the hardest sectors in Paris-Roubaix. We were like kids in a sandbox when we got to the forest – riding up and down the road, laughing and joking.
It was a good training ride and got us out of the hotel for the day, something we all needed.
Having never competed in Liège before, I figured it might be a good idea to ride over the last climbs of the race in training. Saturday, Floyd, Benjamin, Jurgen and I rode the last 50 km of the course, from La Redoute to the finish. It was good to see the climbs and nice to know what to expect for the next day. The climbs themselves are not that difficult but what makes them difficult in the race is that they come one after the next in the last hour of a 6.5 hr race.
The night before the race, as we were all sitting down and stuffing our faces for the coming day, Ulrich Schoberer, the engineer/designer/owner of Schoberer Rad Messtechnik, sat down to eat with us and chat. He pointed out that we shouldn’t worry about eating too much as L-B-L is the hardest one day race on the calendar as it requires the greatest kilojoule expenditure. Ulli has data files from nearly all the World Cups and Classics from the best riders. He figured Liège would be a 7000 kilojoule day. Having had stomach problems throughout the week and not having digested much of my food it didn’t really bode too well for me.
We rode Liège very similarly to how we had ridden the previous races in the week. Floyd was our leader, Jose, Triki and Chechu were free to ride their own race and the rest of us were to keep them in position and well fueled.
At the end of the long day in the saddle the outcome of the race was very similar to the previous races we had ridden that week: Rebellin was victorious again, Boogerd was second, the peloton stayed together until the last moments of the race as the speed of the race was fast but controlled for nearly the entire race and the crowds were incredible.