Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Learning in Belgium

Being a first year U23 is difficult. You can go from being an internationally competitive Junior to trying to survive being thrust into this 4 year age category, a lot of the time racing against Professionals and adults with 20+ years of racing experience. I came into my european trip fairly confident I would be in contention right away. I had just finished Tour of Gila and was feeling strong. And in a way, I was right. Because my first race in France, was U23 and I was competive. The speeds were higher with adult gears, but I was able to finish in the chasing group after blocking for my Teammate in the breakaway. However what I didn't realize was that the rest of my races would be open category. Everyone 19+ who doesn't have a Professional contract, not just U23s. Many of the racers were former pros who still train and race hard.
The drive to the race in France was very pretty

Not only were the fields incredibly competitive, but I had to learn a completely new discipline, Kermesse racing. Kermesses are held on a 5-12k loop. Longer than a Criterium, not point to point like a road race, and to twisty and aggressive to be a circuit race. After racing these, I like to imagine the race organizers have a meeting to discuss what roads the course should consist of. “Ok everyone, give me the twistiest, thinnest, most dangerous roads in this area. Bonus points if you can find cobblestones!”. The features in the tamest Kermesse would never even be considered in an American race. 180 degree corners on bike path width roads, roundabouts, corners on cobblestones... all at 45-60kph!

I got sick after my first race in France and had to skip some of the early Kermesses. Even when I started racing again it took me two races to feel fully better. It took much longer to learn how to position myself far enough up in a 100-200 man field on tiny roads. The leaders of the race would purposefully go slow through the corners to create an accordion effect farther back. Some times, if you were too far back, you would slow down to 10kph, and then accelerate to 55kph out of the corner. This incredible rubber band effect made it so hard that typically only 20-60 people would even finish the race.

The pace in these races was relentless. The first 40 minutes to an hour was absolutely all out. There was no holding back for this first part. After this there was usually a 20 minute lull, and then, go all out for the last hour or so with everything you have left in the tank. The intensity that the Belgians race with, while terrifying, is exhilarating. You get the feeling that this is real racing. These people are not shrinking from doing work or going through pain, they want to go as fast as the possibly can.

It took me a long time to learn how to race the Kermesses. Things started clicking in the last two races. The final race before leaving I was in the breakaway the entire almost 3 hour race until being dropped back to the second group with 3 laps to go from an awful bonk.
Me in the Breakaway
Despite not getting any results, I felt like my time in was well spent in Belgium. I learned a ton about racing, learned how to suffer even more than ever before, and drastically improved one of my biggest weaknesses; Acceleration. The racing prepared me for National Championships by pushing me in a way I could never replicate through training. 

A HUGE thanks to Gregg and Holly at the chainstay for putting together such a wonderful camp and providing such a well supported environment. 

A small taste of the training in Belgium