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By Michael Barry, T-Mobile professional cycling team
Last Friday afternoon, under dark gray skies that made the moment feel as if night were about to fall, I stepped aboard our team bus, gingerly, and sat down.
The bus was empty except for one soigneur who pulled out a washcloth and lotion and began scrubbing the grime off of my tender legs. Moments later Axel and Scott stepped on the bus, neither smiling, and sat down, legs outstretched, leaning way back in the chairs waiting their turn to get cleaned up. They looked beat, and if I could have seen my own face I would imagine it was just the same. Beat, but relieved. The last road stage of a long week of racing was over.
That moment in the bus is one every cyclist relishes, whether he was first or last. When the race is over, there are no more climbs to ascend, no more gels to be squeezed and no more attacks to be followed or launched, we can sit down for a few moments and think about nothing but the essentials which, somehow, are so much better after a hard day on the bike: food and rest.
Pays Basque was not a great race for T-Mobile. Two riders, Aussies Michael Rogers and Adam Hansen, had to retire from the race and go home with injuries sustained in crashes, two others missed the time cut on the last stage due to a split in the field on a descent and the rest of us, Axel Merckx, Scott Davis and me, we finished in better shape than we started but had to survive a few tough days to get there.
Pays Basque has traditionally been a building block for the riders wishing to perform well in the Ardennes Classics—the Amstel Gold Race, Fleche Wallonne, and Liége- Bastogne- Liége — as the roads are serpentine and relentlessly undulating with climbs similar to those up in the Ardennes: they are between 1 and 8 km long and often quite steep. The race tends to also be a peak in the season for many of the Spaniards as the Basque country is the cycling hotbed in Spain and this brings the race prestige.
Rumor is that back in the old days, well the eighties, the King of the Classics, Sean Kelly, would ride the Tour of Flanders (and usually place in the top ten), jump on a flight to San Sebastian to start Pays Basque on Monday, jump on another flight on Friday night after finishing the race (he won the overall several times) and then race Paris-Roubaix on Sunday (he usually performed well there, hence the nickname). No rider in the peloton does that kind of workload these days but there were a few riders in the Basque country that were at the Tour of Flanders and one or two that pulled out early to start Paris-Roubaix.
My amateur director, Christian Rumeau was Kelly’s director during the prime of his career and his job was impressive as well as he not only directed Kelly to all those fantastic performances but also drove the car from Belgium to Spain and back in time for all the team managers meetings.
From the first day of racing, it was clear Saunier Duval was on good form and would likely win the overall classification (on a hard hilly stage no rider can hide and it is quickly evident which riders are pedaling with ease and which are suffering) at Pays Basque as they had several climbers that could attack and ride virtually anybody else in the peloton off of their wheel. With 39 categorized climbs in the week it was likely a rider that was climbing well would win the overall and a few stages.
At the end of the week, Cobo, the winner of the first stage won the second last stage dominating it and winning alone. Scott was in the breakaway with him and said that over the climbs Cobo pulled from base to peak, never relenting and never looking for help, while the other nine or so riders in the breakaway did all they could to hang on. On the last climb, a steep 4 km ascent, he rode away alone and never looked back. All week, despite making repeated tactical errors, Saunier Duval rode with confidence, never questioning whether they might lose the race as it seemed almost a certainty that they couldn’t lose with their strength in numbers and in raw climbing power.
Tough racing can only make a rider stronger and, with a little luck, we will all be moving well by the time we start the Amstel Gold Race next week. Roger Hammond, Marcus Burghart, and the cobbled Classics team’s performance during the past week was a good reminder that in cycling you need to be patient, persistent and stay positive. They struggled through the early spring races with injuries, poor form, and illness and came out with a tremendous victory in Gent Wevelgem as well as several other strong performances.