28 April 2007

La Fleche Wallonne

I always love heading to the south of Holland, after looking at nothing on the horizon for miles and seeing nothing poking up you finally see some sort of terrain. The hills start about an hour from the southern border, here we have the start of all the good riding, some nice hills and some awesome scenery. Here is where we meet up with Germany and Belgium as well, but to confuse things even more, it’s the French speaking Belgium’s, and the Dutch speaking Germans. The good thing for me is that I speak nothing but English, so I am never confused with what language I am supposed to speak. Racing starts not far from the Dutch/Belgium border, in the area that Eddy made famous for all cyclists. We are starting the race today from a small town called Huy, in the area of Liege, one of the more fabulous regions that Belgium has. Riding around brings you through old towns that look like they have been there for centuries, and some of the buildings will just astound you how big they are.

The lovely town of Huy, now across the river, and up the hill, and we are almost at the start.

We had stayed the night, just over the border in Holland so the drive to the start was a small one for us, but finding parking for the truck and vehicles is always hard here, with the start/finish for the Women, sharing the finish with the men’s teams, fighting for your spots is always fun. The sun was up, the day was still, and it was already about 25’c, so it was going to be a stinker of a day out there. We had our usual bunch of World Cup riders, Susanne, Madi, Luise, Annette, Amber and our reserve for the day, riding, Susanne VanVeen. All the gang was feeling good, looking forward to a smaller hilly race for a change, only 104km today, using the last half of the men’s race, who were chasing behind the girls. Hey we even had the Kiwi team parking up behind us, which was nice to go and chat in my own language for a change. I missed seeing the team, as they were out warming up, but I’m sure I would see them soon enough in the race, hopefully they do better than last

Hey it's team New Zealand, for their Second World cup for the season, Geelong was the first.

The racing started pretty hard and fast, with some serious attacking coming from T-Mobile with in the first half an hour. They sent out rider after rider, in some questionable tactics for the first half of the race, achieving nothing, from what we could see, except tiring their team before the half way point. With multiple other attacks from Team USA, Australia, and Menkini, the race started to
split the peloton within the first few climbs. So far we were looking pretty sweet, with all our riders still in the race, and no problems, our luck was about to run out. At the 60km mark, we enter a small road, here the cars have trouble getting past the little groups of dropped riders, and we all hope to hell there will be no punctures to attend to. Then, out of the blue, we hear the call on the radio from Amber, she’s crashed and her bike has the derailleur bent, and she can’t ride. Time for a bike swap, and try not to loose contact to the peloton for her (one of our better climbers, needed for the finish). We were car No.8 for the day, but with all the small roads, Jean-Paul had to do some particularly imaginative driving to reach Amber. We already put the call out to Luise and Susanne VV to stop and help pull her back to the bunch, we swapped the bike, made sure that Amber was ok, looks like a smallish crash, only a few holes in her knee and her shorts were a bit grazed up. Back with the smashed bike on the roof, and we hit the road to direct her back to the bunch.

Luise and Susanne, did a great job getting her back safe, we look so good as a team with moves like this, the mechanics, the driver and the other team members work together like clockwork. Only exception is my heart is not beating like a second hand, it’s pumping at about 200bpm’s by the time I get back in the car. Amber loves the 12-27 combo on the back of her bike, and for the race everyone else was on them as well, leaving us to make the decision to have a 25t on the back of her spare bike This we had to change if we were to have a shot on the finish, so we made the decision to stop and fix the broken bike, then swap it out asap back under Amber. The car skidded to a stop, I grabbed the tools, Klass got the bike, JP held it up so I could work on it. Derailleur off, alignment tool on and straighten the hanger, derailleur back on, tune the bike, make sure bars and all other possible damage from the crash is sweet, back on the roof and away we go. By this time we are well behind the rolling block, amongst regular traffic. We fly around blind corners at breakneck speeds, hoping to hell that nothing is coming the other way. Navigating our way through small back streets till we see the ambulance and broom wagon, finally we are back, relax for a minute or so, now to swap bikes again.

Susanne, taking a few minutes to check out the course, just in case she missed something.

So back on the radio, saying we are ready, and we are looking for a wide enough road to make the swap safely, and not steep, and not to flat. We found a spot, so we get the team ready, a couple on the front of the group trying to slow the bunch down a bit. Our little helpers, Luise and Susanne standing by ready for the pull back, and Amber hanging off the end of the bunch waiting for he call. Right, were ready, Amber stops, we pull up to a halt, I leap off, grab the bike off the roof (it’s on the other side of the car, always) and pop her on, push her on her way. Klass locks the spare on the roof and the girls work with Amber, pulling her to the back of the bunch, another successful swap, and as little energy spent by Amber. The rest of us are sweating, the heat is killing us, even the air con is working overtime. We relax for a short while, then we hear the last thing we needed to hear, my chains getting stuck, it’s catching on something bad, shit is all I can say. We wait for a good time, now we have to stop and change wheels on the spare, make sure the 27t is on the spare bike, tune it and check the brakes, back on the roof, and away to the bunch again. Swap number three and fifth time out of the car and off the roof with the bikes again. Swap went well, Luise and Sus looking not as fresh as the first time, as you can imagine, Amber back on, a quick run with the push off and she is back on the road, hopefully this is the last time we see her. Not too far from this, our two workers get dropped, their job is done for the day, time to relax, now the rest is up to the remaining girls and Amber, if she can use the adrenaline to her advantage. I sink back into the back of the car as we fly back to out spot in the caravan. A busy day for me for a change, soon the heart gets back to a healthy 110bpm, and a nice cold coke.

A great shot of the rolling countryside, and some of the caravan, see any of our team in the bunch?

Most of the other bigger teams had troubles as well, with their top riders swapping bikes for some crazy reasons, Nicole Brandli (Bigla) with two bike swaps, Marianne Vos (DSB, and current World Champ), one swap, Adrie Visser (DSB, and winner of the last WC race) 1 swap, 2 mechanicals, Mio Oki (menkini) 1 bike swap. And we took the record, with an unbelievable 3 swaps for Amber Neban (Flexpoint). By the 70km mark, we saw the first Kiwi's off the back, but by this stage, we had lost almost a third of the field. By the 85km mark we saw some pretty big names falling off the back with the speed increasing on the climbs. With a lack of good feeding spots, and the carnage in the caravan, most teams had serious problems getting water to their riders, dehydration playing a major factor with the non-finishers. Also, with the smaller peloton (138), there was no hiding mid-pack all day like most of the field try to do.

A nice shot of Madi, making her way up to the bunch again.

By the 10km to go mark, T-mobile played their last cards, by send out Chantele Beltman, this we think, was a play to drag out Nicole Cooke's (current WC leader) team to chase her down, and wear them down a little before the finish. With the biggest gap reaching only 30 secs, this was slowly caught back by the peloton, Raleigh Lifeforce and Flexpoint doing a little bit or work on the front. With three Km's to go, the bunch was together, the second to last climb was done. A quick run through the town of Huy, up to the Mur de Huy (the Wall of Huy), only about 900m long, but a gradient of 18% in places, most of the action came on. Vos attacked (with most of her team being dropped by this stage), in almost her signature move, a long, hard sprint to the finish, on her wheel was Cooke, Arnt and Neban, good tries from Eva Lutz, Susanne Ljunskog and a few others,
failed. With Vos winning, Cooke and then Arnt, it was a very predictable finish. Arnt was visibly disappointed with missing the win, as was our own Neban, who, with out the bike changes and crash, could have easily been on the podium.

Last Km to go, thank god it's over, and the wall just around the corner.

The crowd was fantastic during the whole day, awaiting the men's race finish behind us, the Mur was packed, with the usual alcohol fueled Belgium fanatics, giving the women the support they needed. With the Swiss World Cup in Bern in a couple of weeks, the race should be interesting, with most of the major players trying to knock Cooke (sorry Jo) off her number one spot.

Next up is a small Dutch National TT race, this we have four of our girls racing, the we leave early next week for the Chezh Republic for the first stage race of the season, Gracia Orlova. Hope it’s a little bit more fun than last (2)(3) year.

And you can check out some photos from the last two races here as well.