By Michael Barry, U.S. Postal Service professional cycling team
Over the past week, I have been in Northern Europe getting reacquainted with the cold weather. I have had a good schedule in the last months as I have only raced in the south of Spain and Portugal and have not had to suffer and endure the frigid temps in the rest of Europe.
In Dwaars door Vlandaaren, a one-day race in Flanders; I was initiated to the cobbles, bergs, wind and cold. All in all, it was a pretty good experience and one I would go back and fight through again. This year we have a great team for the classics, as Max, Devolder, George and Eki’ are all riding well enough to win any of the coming classics.
Racing in Belgium on the cobbled roads is slightly insane. It is not the decrepit cobbled roads that are crazy but the fighting for position before we get to them. Riders use every available bit of road, dirt, sidewalk or grass to get to the front of the peloton. A few times I found myself in front yards, dodging the fans standing on their lawns. For 200km I was completely focused, as if I was playing a video game-pedal, position, watch for obstacles, pay attention to tactics, eat, drink, pedal harder, get back to the front…
At the end of the day I was tired, but left Belgium wanting more.
On to the Ardennes
Two days after racing in Belgium I was sitting in the team truck for a short drive to France for the start of Critérium International. I arrived with the mechanics and bikes, as it was the easiest travel option. It was quite fun sitting in the cab, listening to CCR and chatting with the mechanics. It was the new truck’s virgin trip so I was able to enjoy it while it was still had the ‘new car’ smell.
It has not been much warmer in France than it was in Belgium and we started the first stage in leg warmers, thermal vests, gloves and hats. The thermometer on my bike computer read 6 degrees as we headed off for our five-hour race through the French countryside and over many of the same battlefields our ancestors fought on in the two World Wars.
Several of the climbs we crested Friday had dates on the tops of them marking the date the hill was taken back from the Germans. As the sun shined on the fields, it was hard not to think about all the lives that were lost for our freedom.
Critérium International is a short race, three stages in two days, covering a little less than 300km in total distance-less than Milan San Remo, as Floyd pointed out. Despite this, it is a complete race with a TT, a hilly stage and a sprint stage.
The first stage, the sprint stage, unfolded as expected with a solo early breakaway gaining nearly 20 minutes, a chase ensuing from behind in the peloton lead by a few of the sprinters’ teams and then a field sprint won my Nazon from AG2R. After arriving at the hotel from the race at five in the afternoon, getting a massage and eating dinner, Floyd did some quick math to figure out that with the time change we had nine hours until the race started. And, it was snowing outside. Ouch.
We woke up the next morning to clear but still dark skies, shoveled down some breakfast and watched the sun rise as we sat on the frozen seats of the team bus on the way to the race.
A cold climb to start the day
At start time the sun was nearly fully up and the temperature still below freezing. Riders had toques, leg warmers, scarves and winter gloves on to keep themselves warm. The race started at the base of a climb and as we ascended, I kept thinking that it all reminded me of western Canadian – steam rose off the peloton like a herd of cattle in a feedlot. It would have been amusing had we not been going uphill uncomfortably fast.
The Ardennes are quite ruthless to cyclists. There don’t seem to be many flat bits of road and few straight bits as well. The stage was a short one at 100km and nervous from start to finish.
Our goal was to ensure that Lance and Floyd arrived at the bottom of the final climb in the front group and as fresh as possible. All went according to plan and Chechu managed a nice fifth place finish on the stage as well.
Jens Voigt made Critérium International a major goal of his this spring and he didn’t keep it a secret. We knew he would be one to watch however we did not know he would be as strong as he turned out to be. On the climb he attacked and won convincingly over his teammate Schleck.
CSC has been rolling this spring and their winning streak was continuing….
Time for the TT
The afternoon time trial came upon us quickly and before we could even eat our last mouthful of lunch we were back in the cars on the way to the race.
The TT was a short one, just 8km, on an undulating course with a few corners. I decided to give it a good run as I have been trying to improve against the clock this year. I had lost time in the morning stage, but figured I might as well put in a good effort in the p.m.
Lance, Floyd and Chechu were all racing for the overall classification and had to race as hard as possible.
In the end it was a flying Voigt that won the race by a gnat’s whisker over Spanish TT ace Gutierrez.
After two days of racing, three stages, cold weather and some intense efforts I am ready for a siesta back in Spain and then a week of training before the next rendezvous in the Basque Country.