That was incredibly hot! Even walking to breakfast this morning I could feel it was going to be the hottest day so far. I struggled to get to the restaurant without dehydrating! I'm not really sure what the wisdom of starting the road race during the hottest part of the day was but I was sure it was going to test my heat acclimatisation to the maximum! I wasn't to confident going into the race due to the freak accident outside my house so the game plan was to have Stuart to help me for the first 2 hours (he was going to pull out then anyway to save himself for the Time Trial) then see how I felt as to whether Charly and Julian helped or rode for themselves. The only problem was I never feel good in the beginning of the race but add the intense heat I felt terrible. I just tried to save as much energy as possible, whilst trying avoid the inevitable crashes. It didn't take long for the first either. Fortunately I was sitting near the back and heard them fall from a long way off. The road was so slippery I really struggled to stop, sliding the last 50 meters with my back wheel locked up. I realised I couldn't stop so I just chose the middle of the road. I made it but I was thanking my lucky stars! With the first drama behind me I tried to settle down, Stuart helped out as much as possible, taking me to the front when needed but the tempo was quite steady. I think there were a lot of people suffering from the temperature. The race was really strange, I was waiting for the massive acceleration that normally comes in World Cup races. Germany went to the front just before the climb which sounded the first alarm bells so I got myself near the front. They did go hard up the climb, I just made it as last man in the split but I had to go deep to get across. I really suffered for the effort. The break was quickly caught but it I was left trying to recover. It took me 15 kms to recover! I took the decision there and then that I would have to stay in the bunch for as long as possible and hope for a fairly sizeable group sprint. I spent the rest of the race trying to get up the climb without going above my threshold. It was unbelievable hot hot I felt though as the race went on, I was taking 2 bidons per lap, sometimes I poured some water over my head to cool me, which felt great, but the constant thirst meant I didn't pour as much as I would have liked! With 5 laps to go Charly Wegelius crashed, we were moving up to the front of the group when Osca Freire crashed just in front of us, he fell away from us but his bike was heading our direction. Charly hit it and went straight over the handlebars. I just got passed and had time to see Charly sliding on hit front at 60km/h. Fortunately for him the roads were so dirty he slid and didn't have a scratch on him! I was once again thanking my lucky stars. I hadn't realised how small the peleton was getting, it was a race of attrition rather than off the front, until Bettini attacked that is! He was the only guy that didn't seem affected by the heat. Fortunately he went so quickly, only one guy could follow him. I was hoping the teams with a few riders left in the group would chase, but they didn't, or rather couldn't. The last five kms were really strange too, it was relatively so slow. I think it was due the small number of riders in the teams and hence a lack of lead out riders but it made the sprint really difficult, it was hard to stay at the front. It was a bit hectic but out of the last corner I got onto Robbie McEwens wheels. Stuart O'Grady was leading him out so it seemed a good wheel to follow. Once again though the freak conditions made for a strange sprint. Robbie slowed a long way from the finish, and nobody seemed to accelerate, we all seemed to stay in the same positions. I was really happy to get in the top 10, but I was really happy to stop! I was called up for doping control, but the control was in a port-a-cabin. Which meant another half an hour of cooking! I had the air conditioning going flat out when I got back to my room, butI didn't really cool down until 3 o'clock the next morning! It was well worth it though.
There has been massive rainfall in Belgium which has washed away the ground under the pavement. I was walking into the house the day before I was due to leave and fell straight through. The drop must have been about 50 cms. I knew I had injured myself straight away, just a matter of how much. I have delayed my flight out to Athens until the 11th so I have the chance to go to the chiropractor a couple of times to to get straightened out.
I feel like starting my diary the same way as yesterday, what a diff..... I felt great again today. We were at altitude again today, so I'll have to put yesterday down to a 'bad day!' I must admit though I was a bit worried about the 2nd category climb to be negotiated after only 40 km, especially after seeing the damage the climbers managed to do yesterday. The climb itself was nasty! The 'start of climb' board was chortly followed by a couple of very steep kilometers of climbing. We seemed to be heading towards a crevice between 2 peaks, so I thought that was the top. It wasn't however! I should have known as there wasn't any crowds. As we rounded the peak I could see the real climb, it had hardly begun! Fortunately there was a pleasant surprised though. I was able to ride fairly comfortably in the group over the real top. There was still a 3rd category climb to be done but once again Kelme had taken control of the race and were riding tempo on the front, so I was fairly confident of getting over it. There was a break that had formed early on but kelme seemed happy to let it stay away. Liberty Serguros had other ideas, and rode like motor bikes to bring it back. At one point we were riding constantly 70km/h on the flat. It was incredible. It was going to be a bunch sprint, with a few short sharp climbs in the last 10 km it was perfect for me. I moved to the front 15kms to go and just tried to maintain my position. There was a bit of jostling for position but the constant speed meant most people who shouldn't be there weren't! The closer the finish came, the better I felt. All of a sudden we went under the red kite, 1000 meters to go. It must take us about 50 seconds to do but it felt like just 2! Everything is happening so quickly. I had the perfect position, 3rd in line behind Usov and his Phonac team mate. Usov started his sprint 300 meters out, I stayed on his wheel then at about 200 it was time to go. As I came level with him, he flicked towards me, he didn't touch, but it was enough I had to change my line. In doing so my foot clicked out of the pedal. I was able to get it back in but I had lost a bike length on Usov and Aurelian Clercq. I came back to their front wheel but it was too late, a missed opportunity. I was happy with how I'd felt though and really felt I was sprinting quicker them.
It is funny how much difference a day can make. Yesterday the pedals seemed to turn themselves for the most part at last, whereas today I suffered from the first pedal rev to the last. There was a small blip of good form at the bottom of the last mountain, but it was very short lived! I think it is due the altitude, we started at 1000 meters today and only ever climbed from there. The last climb was 20kms long so there was 2 plans for the stage, get in the early break or just try and survive and get to the finish in the time limit. With the legs I had I decided it was better to survive. There were 3 third category climbs on the way then an hors category climb to the finish. Once again they attacked from the beginning, riding up the first climb like it was a flat road. I just couldn't find my rhythm, the big ring was too big but the small ring was too small. Somehow I survived in the bunch but the early break had formed. There must have been some dangerous riders there as Kelme decided to chase immediately. It was the best scenario for me, the tempo was fast but steady, allowing my legs to recover, a little bit at least. The second and third climb weren't too bad and I was feeling better as the stage went on so I decided to help our climbers by taking them to the front and keeping them out of the wind before the last climb. It was good to have a purpose, which helped my legs too. As it was a mountain finish we were allowed to take our helmets of. It is a bit ironic but taking our safety helmets off during the stage, I think, is the most dangerous part of the race! Anyway, I gathered all the crash helmets from our climbers and tried to stay in the group as long as possible. This was an art in itself, trying to ride uphill with 4 hard shell helmets! Eventually I was able to off load them into the commissar's car and concentrate on getting to the top. The peleton split after 10 km of climbing and I settled for the groupetto and rode my own tempo to the top. A good days training at least
Today was supposed to be my day. It was the only stage that didn't have a mountain somewhere near the finish so I really wanted to get a result. It was also a bit cooler, 'only' 29C which felt positively cool! There were 2 third category climbs in the beginning of the stage which motivated the climbers to attack. I felt much better than yesterday and found my climbing rhythm much quicker and survived both climbs in the peleton. I wonder how much was due to climbing better and how much was due to the cooler temperatures. A group had gone clear, but with general classification riders present the chase began early. It was looking very likely everything was going to come back together for a bunch sprint so I looked after myself as much as possible and moved up for the last 25kms. It was really dangerous in the front. Spanish climbers seem to think they can bunch sprint too! With 2 kms to got there was a roundabout and we were directed the long way round it to turn left. From about 20th place in the peleton they realised and took the shorter route. I went from top 10 to about 50th in one roundabout! I fought back to the front at the 1km to go flag but I knew I'd had to make too big an effort to get back in contention. I started to sprint but could only follow rather than accelerate. The result was disappointing but my legs felt much better, which was good for my moral! Tomorrow has a finish at the top of a 23km climb, need those climbing legs.
It was forecast to rain today! Typical, I came here to suffer in hot weather and they predict rain! Fortunately they get the weather wrong here too. Overnight rain cleared and it began to warm up! By the time the we started it was already reached 32 degrees C. I am still trying to get used to the heat so I didn't do anything ridiculous in the beginning of the stage, especially with a mountain top finish to the stage. I tried to follow a couple of the early attacks but it took me a really long time to recover from the effort. I assume this is a reaction to the warmth. By half way the temperatures had reached 38 degrees C. Just in time to climb the first mountain of the day. There is nothing like how hot it feels when the sun is beating down on your back and reflecting back up off the road. It seems impossible to breath. I managed to find a rhythm that I could maintain and fortunately it was enough to keep in the front. I think there were a few guys suffering as the speed dropped over the top, for a while at least. 3 Riders had escaped early on so the big Spanish teams didn't wait too long before starting to chase. The 3 leaders were caught at the beginning of the climb, so the climbers let loose. I found my own rhythm again and tried to get the top as quickly as possible without killing myself on the first day!
Wow, that was hard! We knew it was going to be hard to defend the jersey but I don't think anyone anticipated it being that hard. I was really warm again today with a little more wind than yesterday, which was a worrying sign! Once again the attacks came thick and fast from the start. We had decided to adopt the same tactic as yesterday. Have a riders in the front and try and let a group of riders go that were at 36 minutes to take the time bonuses available on the road. The first flaw in the plan was there seemed to be at least one 'dangerous rider' in every group! Hence we were giving them a small gap, then once Hilaire radioed through who was in the group we had to chase! Each time a group went we were praying collectively for the all clear to let them go, but it didn't happen, at least for about 90kms! By this time we were getting tired. Then it happened, a group went with nobody important there. It was a delicate moment for us. We had to pretend to chase, but let the group actually ride away! Unfortunately, Quick Step noticed quickly our plan and closed the gap. So once again the attacks started again. Once again we had to start chasing. I was really counting the kms down by now, only 60 to go! The unforeseen was about to happen though. Gabriel, our yellow jersey holder had an asthma attack. We dropped back to help him but he couldn't even manage 30km/h let alone the 46km/h average we had for the stage! He continued to deteriorate until he eventually had to stop and get into the ambulance! By this point we were all smashed, we all just tried to hold on to the finish. It was a pity, but we'd put all our eggs in one basket! It was a really good workout though. I will travel to Spain tonight. I will probably start in Getxo tomorrow but I don't intend to finish. I will try, instead to recover for Tour of Burgos next week.
I didn't write a diary yesterday as it turned out to be one of the most boring days I've had on a bike! We raced flat out from the gun. There was nothing spectacular about the route, except there was not one meter flat. We covered more than 50 kms in the first hour so it was clear that tempo couldn't be maintained to the finish. Eventually a group went clear, the peleton lost interest and just rode to the finish. There was still 140km of the 220 km stage to go. We lost 36 minutes! It is funny how things turn out though, my team mate Gabriel, made the front group and took the leaders yellow jersey!
So today we had to defend the jersey. We certainly didn't have it easy. Once again the first attack came within 5 kilometers of the start. We had intended to ride tempo with just 3 riders to begin with, but is was immediately apparent it wasn't enough. The attacks by riders very close on the general classification were relentless and eventually a big group got away with a rider a 40 seconds. We had to chase, really hard! Fortunately CSC also missed it so we had help to catch them. Just after we caught them a group went, with no riders closer than 36 minutes. It was perfect. We just rode tempo and let the break ride away and take all the time bonuses. There were a few attacks in the last 10kms but we were able to keep the remainder of the bunch together and defend the jersey for another day. It is the last stage tomorrow, but we are not anticipating an easy day!
Todays stage was a real let down after the excitement of yesterday. The climbs were much longer but not very steep and really wide roads, no of which helped getting up the road. 8 riders did get away on the climb up to the highest point in Belgium, Barraque Fraiture. There was still 120km to go so there was a long way to pull them back. Our team started to ride as we won the bunch sprint yesterday there was a good chance we could win today too. The last of the group was eventually reeled in with 15km to go. Jeremy and I got together and started to prepare for a bunch sprint. I wanted to lead out the sprint as I don't really like full bunch sprints anymore. All went quite well until the carnage of the last 700 meters. Jeremy lost my wheel as I started to sprint. In the end he finished 6th. Not bad but we know we can do better. Tomorrow is another day!
It was the hardest stage of the tour today so I really thought the decisive break would go today. There were several climbs from Liege Bastongne Liege to cover during the 157km stage. Once again we were completely soaked before the sun broke through. It was surprising how long the peleton stayed together given that there were several attack from the beginning. A Group of 4 riders went clear our team was represented but he was suffering, so we tried to go across in a small group. We tried for ages, eventually I got away with a small group with 2 team mates, Jeremy Hunt and Bjorn Leukemans. We rode flat out as we were in a really strong position with such a numeric advantage. With 5kms to go a small group caught us, momentarily the group stopped working so I tried to go alone, but on the last climb I was caught by the main peleton. I led the bunch sprint out for Jeremy, who won fairly comfortably. They predict good weather for tomorrow. Hopefully we can get used to some hot weather in time for Athens
My preparation for the Olympics has been going well. I have been training hard with house mates Tom, Matt and Jeremy. plus I have ridden a couple kermesse races. On Monday I won in Dentergem. It was nice to get a win, it is always good for the confidence. I'm now in the final build up to the Games. I have the region Wallon followed by Tour of Burgos then I'm off to Athens
I really wanted to win today to put the disappointment of yesterday behind me. But it wasn't to be. I felt better today, there was heavy rain last night which help keep the pollen count down so I felt I could breath a lot easier. I wanted to try and go with an early attack, with hopefully no riders from the general classification there. Giving us the chance at least to go to the finish. I managed the first part, by making the right group, the only problem was there was a riders with only 2 minutes deficit. Hence we were never given much freedom. We managed to get 2 minutes by the top of the first mountain, we held our advantage along the valley to the next mountain, which was once again up to 1100 meters. I knew it was nearly impossible for the group to survive as we were all sharing the work equally but not really gaining. Once a couple of riders stopped working it would be over. We battled on to the 3rd climb of the day (a 2km climb with an average gradient of 22%!) but shortly over the top we were caught by what was left of the peleton. There were constant attacks but none had the right combination of riders, and mostly short lived. I recovered from my earlier effort and with 30kms to go I attacked again, this time going away with Gianni Faresin (Gerolsteiner). We caught the 2 leaders fairly quickly and worked well together. We never got too far ahead as, once again, Faresin was a contender for the general classification. Still I was committed and rode flat out to stay away. I think we all did as it was up a valley into a head wind. Our maximum lead of 1 minute 10 began to diminish with 20kms to go. With 10kms to go we only had 40 seconds but Dave Bruylants (Chocolade Jaques) and Tony Brake (Landbouwkrediet) started to miss turns. I had to try on my own, so I attacked once again with 5 kms to go. However the sprinters teams had me well in their sights and I was caught 3kms to go. It had been a long hard day with not much to show for it! One more chance tomorrow, if I can recover well enough!
Today was hot! Once the sun burnt through the early morning clouds, there was uninterrupted sunshine, it was lovely until the first mountain! This was the stage I won last year so I was motivated to try and show myself again this time around. Once again the Austrian riders were super motivated in the beginning, a break went, but Saeco and Rabobank didn't hesitate to get on the front of the peleton and hold the gap to a reasonable deficit. The real fireworks started on the first mountain of the day, where Di Luca rode at a tempo high enough to catch the early break, but also good enough to see most of his team get dropped! I managed to get over the top with the front group, though I was getting very hot on the climb. Every time I looked at my computer we were riding at more than 45km/h So it was not too surprising really! In the confusion there were several attacks but none really get much of a gap. The next mountain was purgatory! There were no trees to shelter from the sun, plus the climb just seemed to go on for ever! I think I sweated a few bidons worth of water. I made it over the top though in the front once again, which was my aim. After the descent I went back for bidons so I could be ready for the last climb. In the time I was waiting for the car a break went. It was race over for me! The peleton didn't ride and we finished nearly 8 minutes down. It was a bit disappointing as I still had some strength left. Now I will have to win a stage.
I'm in Austria for the UNICA classic now. It is nice to come back to a race that I won last year. They make a bit of a fuss of you, at last for the first day! I'm not so sure of defending my title though. I have been struggling this year since the Tour of Switzerland. I was pretty apprehensive before the start but 31 degrees centigrade and a lot of sun made me feel better. 3 riders attacked early on but they never really got too far ahead. I tried to stay out of trouble and see how things went on the first climb after 45km. I started the climb too far back but surprised myself with how I felt. I moved up on the climb and just stayed with the group over the top. Over the top there was a regrouping, though there was another 3rd category climb to get over. Di Luca (Saeco) attacked from the bottom but the climb was not long enough to get a big gap. Once again there was a regrouping over the top. With a flat run in, it was looking like it would end in a bunch sprint. I felt quite good but Jeremy said he had good legs so I tried to help him. I covered a few attacks in the last 10kms, which helped get the legs going! The lead out went quite well though I did end up on the front a bit too early. As it was I left Jeremy on Hunter's (Rabobank) wheel 1km to go. I just rolled in after that and hoped for the best. Hunter won the stage and Jeremy finished 7th.
I was a lot more apprehensive for the nationals this year. Last year I came out Switzerland feeling very good, so was relishing the chance of racing over the hilly circuit around Newport. This year though, the recovery was taking a lot longer. It was only Saturday that I felt as though my legs were starting to improve. It made the whole race a lot more stressful, it also meant I had to ride the race a lot more defensively than I would have normally. The circuit was significantly easier this year as the final climb up through the hotel grounds was cut, meaning there was a fair amount of recovery between the 2 remaining climbs on the finishing lap. The pattern of the race was drawn, on the opening 3 large laps though. On the 4km Wentwood climb, the Italian based riders, Charly Wegelius and Jamie Burrow, were keen to show their climbing form, attacking on the first ascent. I really struggled on the climb, I find it hard to get going on the first climb of the day. I think it is something that I don't normally have to do in professional races. I held on but it wasn't too good for my moral. I remembered suffering early on last year so I just hoped this would be the same and I'd feel better later on. It did whittle the group down though, which made it much easier to keep an eye on my rivals! The race was frantic with not one group working well together. Hence there was a lot of attacking, but most of the time, followed shortly by a regrouping. It was quite good for me really as the finishing circuit was where the race really blew to pieces last year. I tried to save as much energy for the finishing laps but keeping in touch with the leaders, which was easier said than done. Fortunately, for the first time, I had a team mate in the race, Jeremy Hunt. As we entered the finishing laps for the first time Jeremy got away with 2 others. It was the perfect scenario for us. It meant I didn't have to chase as Jeremy was in front and Jeremy didn't have to ride flat out as I was in the chasing group. The group hovered at 30 seconds for what seemed to be an age. All the time though, the determined chase by Charly, Jamie and his Amore & Vita team mate Tom Southam, began to take its toll on our group. By the time Jeremy was caught there was only about 10 left. There was a bit of a lull as we caught them. Though that was short lived, Tom Southam attacked, I went after him. We quickly got 30 seconds. With both of having a team mate in the chasing group it was always going to be difficult for the other left in the group behind to chase. We both worked well together, the effort seemed to clear my legs a bit too, I started to feel better. Once the gap was more than 2 minutes with 2 laps to go I knew we had a good chance to win. I didn't want to wait for a sprint though as the last 500 meters were very technical. There was a short but very steep descent followed by a couple of tight corners. However, after last year though I didn't want to spend too much time in front on my own so I waited for the last climb to attack. I was able to get a gap which I held to the finish. A lot of people said it was an exciting race to watch. It was certainly a difficult race to ride. There didn't seem to be any pattern, with the result really hard to predict until the last 2kms! I am really proud to be able to wear the jersey for another year. My next race is The UNICA tour in Austria. I won there last year, though I'm not so confident of my climbing form this year!
I struggled this year to recover from The tour of Switzerland. I'm not sure what the problem was but I think it was a culmination of the 3 days of sickness and the poor weather that we had for most of the tour. Fortunately the Nationals this year was a full week after the Tour giving me several days more recovery, which is very necessary. I tried to race Brussels-Ingooigem today but it was a complete disaster. I was hoping for a fairly easy day in the peleton, just to get the kilometers in for the champs at the weekend. As somebody's law would have it, there was a storm. By 60kms the bunch was in about 5 groups, with only the heavyweights being able to stay on their bikes in the impressive wind and rain! My legs felt ok but I felt generally tired. I chased in a small group that eventually made it back to the front, but I struggled to get my heart rate above 150 bpm, which is very low, even for me! On the finishing circuit thy started attacking, even though there was still 80kms to go. I couldn't go deep and decided to call it a day before I did too much damage. The organisers then decided to shorten the race due to the extreme conditions! They could have done it a lap earlier!
Today was about survival! With 2 hors category climbs and hot weather I just wanted to get through. I was suffering last night from a bit of a stomach upset which hasn't helped. I knew both climbs from training with Mum and Dad on a family holiday a few years ago. I got over the first climb, the Susten Pass (2200m) with the main bunch. I wasn't feeling great though, my legs felt a bit empty so on the second climb, the Klausen Pass (1900m) I settled for the groupetto and climbed within myself, trying to give my stomach a rest. The climb seemed to last for ever but eventually we got to the cafe on top of the mountain where Dad and I had met Mum for a coffee on our holiday. It was pretty cold this time though, the clouds had rolled in and there was plenty of snow to keep the air temperature very fresh. No time to stop today though, from there it was a frantic descent to the finish in the valley the otherside. We were well inside the time limit, but still it was a hard day. Tomorrow is again a mountain top finish, so hopefully I will feel better!
The Tour of Switzerland has been really fast this year. I was hoping to come here to try and get a result in the first few stages but the best I could manage was 5th on the 2nd day. The first stage was supposed to be flat but turned out to be very hard (it was up and down all day) especially when Ullrich and his team mates put the hammer down on the first climb and didn't let up until the finish. The general classification was over for the majority of the peleton. I was suffering in the main peleton and was happy to see the finish. The second stage was once again super fast. A break went early though this time the race was controlled by my team Mr Bookmaker and Lotto. I actually felt good and held my position on the last 4th category climb of the day which was only 7kms from the finish. We caught the break 2km from the finish setting up the first bunch sprint of the Tour. From then on there were several attacks as the teams leading out were tiring. I tried to fight for my position, but actually ended up too close to the front. I was in 2nd position 700m with a head wind! It was too far so I hesitated, it was a mistake a wave of riders came over me and I was swamped. I finished 5th, but a bit annoyed with myself for messing up a chance.
The third stage was an entirely different prospect. With a finish as the top of a mountain the only thing I could do was to try and get in the long attack and try to get to the finish. It is incredibly hard to get in the 'lucky move'. I must have attacked 10 times, but the combination of riders/teams was never right. So I was destined to stay in the bunch for the day! On the last climb I hung on for as long as possible, then rode my own tempo to the top, trying to save as much energy for the 4th stage which was on paper the last possible stage to win for non mountain climbers!
I made an error again today, though racing is always easy in hind sight. The stage was very predictable, a long attack, chased initially by Telekom (protecting Ullrich's lead) then by the sprinters teams. I wasn't feeling my best during the stage so when I saw a climb on the finishing circuit it seemed like a perfect place to get rid of the main sprinters here, Robbie McEwen and Olaf Pollack. On the last lap I gambled everything on the attack, Paolo Bettini (Quick Step) came across with a guy from Phonak. We rode well together but we were caught 4kms from the finish. I had nothing left for the sprint. In hindsight I would have got a better placing had I saved everything for the sprint but I thought I had more chance to win by attacking.
It rained today again! Though once again it didn't slow the average. A 43 km/h average with a mountain top finish! I tried once again to get in the long break, I thought I'd made it when 10 of us got 30 seconds, but once again, 2 motivated teams were not represented and we were caught. Shortly after 3 riders went clear and they were allowed to ride, I will never understand the early break! Once again I was resigned to the bunch all day. Though this time I decided to try a bit harder up the last mountain. I got to within 4kms of the top before I had to pull over so my climbing legs are slowly getting better. I hope in time for tomorrow. We have 2 hors category climbs during the 185km stage!
Today was a rather un-eventual day. A strong tail wind and a bit of sun meant that for most of the day the group stayed together, albeit with an average of 45km/h. The general classification is so tight, we were trying to get some time bonuses on the road, which would ensure us some UCI points. The first intermediate sprint was after only 34 km so I tried to go with the early attacks. It was a bit of a mistake as, at the best of times, I am not great in the beginning. Added the fact my chest is still really tight after my cold, I really suffered. From then I just tried to recover, which took a good 50kms, for the sprint. Jeremy led out the sprint for me which finished just 800 meters from the start of Paris-Roubaix! Those who have been there the square is really badly cobbled which ensured an exciting sprint. We got it a bit wrong again today. Jeremy saw the finish an went, but it was too early. He got to 350m to go which wouldn't have been too bad if it wasn't head wind! I went as hard as I could but they came over me in the last 50 meters! Another lesson learned! Tomorrow is a long day, two 100 km stages! Going to be really fast as there is still everything to go for as far as the classification is concerned!
Wow this month is passing quickly! Only seems like yesterday the classics were still in full flow. It is time to start building up again. I was a bit worried this week as I caught a cold after Dunkirk. It has knocked me a bit, I spent 2 days at home making a menace of myself and generally taking it out on my 2 house mates Tom Barras and Matt Brindle! Fortunately I began to recover just in time for this race as I feel I need to race a lot for the moment. I wasn't 100% today but it was enough to survive and still be part of the race. The good weather helped too, plus there weren't too many riders motivated to attack. Those that did, got 15 minutes lead. I thought the sprinters teams had left it too late to chase. It was a bit close, the last survivor was caught just 2 km from the finish. It was carnage in the peleton though. The last 5 km were straight and slightly downhill! I'm sure we didn't drop below 65km/h, and everyone wanted to do the sprint! I wanted to do the sprint but I got boxed in twice in the last 2 km and wasn't able to get back to the front in time! Tom Boonen won, several riders crashed so I am pleased to have got to the finish in one piece without forcing too much.
I didn't recover very well last night. It actually felt like I had done the yesterdays stage this morning, my legs were that sore! Sometimes I go well with sore legs in a stage race so I still tried to go for the General Classification. The stage was incredibly hard both mentally and physically. We had to cover 7 laps of a very hilly circuit. Add to that, another day of rain, it was really hard to pass the nice warm camper every lap! La Boulanger controlled the race right from the beginning, riding what was quite a comfortable pace in the beginning. As the laps counted down though it got harder and harder, each lap the bunch getting smaller. I could feel I wasn't climbing, I was just forcing, which was ok in the beginning but towards the end my legs got tired and with 1 lap to go I couldn't follow the leaders anymore. I was happy to have got so far after a break in training, now I have the incentive to train hard again to get my classics legs back again. I'd like to say thanks to all the Brits who stood out in the foul weather to cheer me on. It was great to see you all there.
I felt bad today. I was feeling a bit sore even before the start. I decided to go for some time bonuses on the road to try and move up the classification, but mainly get my legs going. It didn't really work! I did get 3 seconds time bonus but my legs felt even worse. I stayed in the group hoping it would all stayed together. On the finishing circuits there were a couple of hills plus a lot of rain, again! The break that had been away from 70km out was disintegrating, which was good news for me! Only Didier Rous survived then his team mate Sylvain Chavenel jumped across on the last lap. I didn't think they would stay away as there were a couple of teams chasing but they did! The finish was on top of a 1km climb which would have been ok if I'd felt reasonable but with the legs I had I just tried not to lose the time bonuses I'd picked up on the road. I finished 14th in the end and moved up to 4th overall. There is a really hard stage tomorrow on a circuit around Boulongne Sur Mere! Not looking forward to it!
Today was a really dull stage especially after the bad weather yesterday. I think there were a lot of tired riders as there was nobody that could really make the difference. There were hundreds of attacks but I didn't go with them as my knee was really sore from yesterday and still quite swollen. Instead, I hid in the peleton and waited to see what would happen. One rider got away (Marc Streel) just before the feed and the peleton didn't seem too interested in chasing. He got a lead of 11 minutes before a few teams started riding but it was too late. We were riding for 2nd place in the peleton. My knee felt better towards the end so I went to the front to help Jeremy to do the sprint but he broke a spoke with 4 kms to go. It seemed quite a safe finish so I decided to have a go myself. With 1km to go I fought to get Baden Cook's wheel. He was taken to the front by a team mate with me in tow! The sprint started about 400 meters out, Baden seemed to hesitate so I waited too. I thought he was going to accelerate later because of the wind. I quickly realised he just wasn't on a super day so I started to come round him but it was too late to catch Nazon. I was happy to get up there in a sprint after the difficult day yesterday.
Today reminded me in many ways of Gent-Wevelgem this year. It was dry before the start but this time I noticed the black clouds looming, so I dressed accordingly! Sure enough the rain came but not before the wind had blown the peleton apart after only 25kms. Our General classification riders, Bjorn Leukemans and Johan Coenen, were caught too far back and missed the the leading group. The rest of us had to start chasing for them. The main difficulty was the Cassel climb, or rather the descent from it. At the start of the climb we had closed the gap to the front group from 2 minutes to 29 seconds, so we decided to ride flat out up the climb and try and close the last bit on the climb. We hadn't quite closed the gap by top so we still had top chase on the descent, a badly cobbled road. I made sure I started in the front as it was raining. Inevitably there were several crashes and after half the descent there were only 2 of us left, only 10 meters behind the front group. There was only 1 chicane to go on the descent but I recognized it from last year so I took it really easy. I'm not really sure what the Gerolsteiner guy with me was thinking but he thought he could go round it 20km/h faster than me on the inside. He didn't make it, taking me down in the process. I was up again quite quickly but we lost a lot of ground as it was on the descent. We were caught by another 5 riders, fortunately as it took a further 20km to close the gap again! In all I chased 60km to get back on and a lot of my energy! It was much easier in the group so I had a bit of time to recover for the finish, but 3 riders had gone on the finishing circuits and the finish was downhill in the wet so I didn't do the sprint, just kept near the front taking no risks
Paris-Roubaix starts for us as riders on Saturday with a big presentation in the cobbled square of Compiegne. It is a really relaxed affair where the riders mingle with the press and public. It helps build the atmosphere of what is a special race. From there we went back to our Hotel to make the final checks to the bikes and make sure the tyre pressures are correct. I eventually settled for a pressure of 5.2 bar in the front and 5.5 bar in the back. We then had as much pasta as we could eat followed by a team talk, which always takes about 2 hours discussing the different sectors of paves and their various attributes!
Race day is always very hectic but the later than usual start meant a good nights sleep. I could hardly sit still at breakfast due to the excitement and anticipation of the race. The most worrying thing with the race is the fact you can be super strong on the day, but with bad luck your race can be over very quickly! Even with the fantastic weather reports were coming in that the cobbles were still wet, another thing to worry about! Last year the cobbles were dry, so I had no experience of the really bad cobbles in the wet. The wind was great for me in the beginning. A strong Northerly wind made my plan to get to the first section of cobbles after 96 km, having made the least amount of effort possible, relatively easy to do! A few of the other guys from the team were told to get in the early break, if one did succeed. The strong head wind was perfect for hiding in the bunch, but not that great for long breakaways, especially as the route is fairly direct, north to Roubaix!. World cups have never been straight forward for me though! The first stress came after only 30km! I had forgotten my race food. I had several PowerGels for the race but I left them in my kit bag in the stress of getting ready! Hillaire (my manager) phoned through to the feed to get them ready. With the first sector looming it was time to move up to the front and start fighting to stay there. The problem was there were 200 hundred others trying to do the same. It is actually the most dangerous part of the race. Last year there was a massive crash, reducing the peleton to about 40 riders just before the first sector. There were crashes this year but not nearly so severe, which meant there were a lot of riders hitting the first sector in the bunch. It is really strange racing up to the cobbles not knowing what to expect, whether they are wet, dry or dusty. The speed was incredible for the last few km before the first sector. It was just like we were building up for a bunch sprint, with riders all over the road and pavements, just trying to get to the front. I was lucky, the team helped me get to the front just on time. There is nothing like hitting the first sector of cobbles. The noise from the crowd and bikes smashing over cobbles at 60km/h plus a choking dust reducing visibility to dangerous levels all adding to the chaos. The speed seemed to increase too. I was really concentrating on the surface for the whole sector, It is important not to puncture, it can take an age to get a wheel here. Once off the cobbles the speed dropped, the head wind deterring anyone to ride between the sectors, This was the style the race would take for the rest of the day. Massive accelerations on the cobbles followed by regrouping of sorts on the tarmac! It was really frustrating as it meant for every sector I had to fight to be in the front. Fortunately though the cobbles were dry so far! The first really bad sector was number 15, the infamous Forest Of Arenberg! I had made a mistake thinking there was another sector to go before we got there. I was sitting too far back and had to attack down the side of the bunch to move up in the last 500 meters before the cobbles. I was going flat out in 53*11 when I hit the lip just before the cobbles began, launching me into the air. It felt like I flew over the first 10 meters of cobbles. Fortunately they were dry at this point so I was able to stay upright when I landed. It was a risk but it moved me into the first 20 riders, which was critical. Behind me a motorbike crashed causing a crash in the peleton, ending a lot of peoples chances there and then. I didn't hear or see anything, I was just concentrating on every cobble for the entire sector. It is a difficult stretch as the cobbles are not only really bad but so random. One minute the left side is better the next the middle etc. The only problem was beyond the first 300 meters the cobbles were wet and muddy, making it like riding along a bumpy ice skating rink! Now I know why I persevered in that cyclo-cross in the snow and ice this winter! I felt comfortable with the slipping and sliding eventually finishing the sector in the first ten. It did wonders for my confidence, I wasn't afraid of wet cobbles anymore! There is a super smooth bit of road (well it feels like that anyway!) after the forest, we all took a moment to recover, both physically and mentally (the concentration needed was incredible, I don't remember anything about the surroundings..... only those stones!) It took me a few minutes to realise the group had reduced to about thirty riders. It was much more manageable now. The accelerations were restricted to the cobbles now rather than before the sectors too! It was much easier to stay at the front now, so for each sector I tried to be in the first 5. It allows you to see that little bit extra of the surface plus reduces the chance of people crashing in front of you. The next difficult sector was number 9. I could see Museeuw moving up so I followed him. I was going through one of those moments where I felt fantastic. The cobbles felt like a smooth carpet and I couldn't feel the pedals. Museeuw accelerated as soon as we hit the first cobbles. I went with him but he made a mistake on a corner and ran wide, so with a rush of sugar to the head I attacked him, he came after me so I attacked him again. It felt wonderful, this is what all that training is about! I didn't get away but I think I hurt some legs, other than my own! It wasn't the cleverest thing to do though, I suffered for the next 3 sectors, struggling to find my rhythm again on the pave. It was a good lesson learned though! Fortunately I had time to recover before Van Petegem punctured on sector 6. It was a pity for him (he was looking really strong) as this is where 'the final' really began, from there I was flat out to the Carrefore De L'Arbre. Last year I had made the mistake of sitting too far back and missing the crucial split on that sector. This time I glued myself to Museeuw's wheel, like a sprinter to his lead out man! Predictably Museeuw accelerated, this was the moment of truth, could I follow? I just concentrated on his back wheel and didn't give him a centimeter. I surprised myself, I was flying along the last serious cobbled section with Museeuw. It was an amazing experience, the crowds were really close, (too close probably) shouting and screaming, but it seemed like we were passing at warp speed! The sector seemed to last forever. Finally we got back onto tarmac, a chance to take a breath then take that dreaded look behind to asses the damage! There were only 5 of us left! Without any hesitation Museeuw drove on the front making sure the momentum of the group wasn't lost. I had to check a few times to believe we were away! All of a sudden there were cameras and helicopters everywhere. Hillaire was shouting something in my ear piece, but there was so much noise I couldn't hear a thing. I knew there was only 2 sectors to go, one with a tarmac bike path down the side, so in such a small group we wouldn't have to ride on them anyway. The last sector is better than a lot of tarmac roads in Belgium, so for the first time I wasn't worried about hitting a bad cobble! How wrong I was! On the penultimate sector I was on Museeuw's wheel (I did come off it from time to time!) when he hit a pot hole and impact punctured. With no team cars behind it was going to be difficult for him to come back, we certainly weren't going to wait for him. It was the kick I needed to get me back into full concentration, it could so easily have been me! With 4 guys who were all potential winners of the biggest bike race in the world, we put our heads down and drove it to the velodrome. Then there was 'that turn'. Even after 260km turning into the velodrome was incredible. Firstly I passed mum and Dad on the entrance to the stadium area, then you pass the showers where all the team personnel and hanging over the barriers, then finally you drop onto the track. The noise gave me goose bumps all over! Within a few seconds though, everything went deadly silent. I could hear the wind in the flags and Hoffman changing gear ready for the sprint. I thought the crowd had silenced, but people in the velodrome said it was really noisy to the finish. I wasn't in the best position for the sprint with Magnus on my wheel, but it is always a strange sprint on a track after so many kilometers. I think everyone was tired, nobody wanted to really go, eventually we started to sprint with 150 meters to go. I felt quite good so I thought I would take the safe option and go round the outside of Cancellara (he'd led the sprint out) rather than get trapped underneath. I hadn't counted on him taking me up the track and opening the door for Magnus and Hoffman to come through. As soon as I passed the line the noise of the crowd was back. I had finished 3rd in Roubaix. I didn't know whether to laugh of cry. I knew I wanted to sit down though! The first few minutes were hard to come to terms with what had happened. I had been so close, one mistake! From that moment on though, my life changed! The team was over the moon. Hillaire offered to buy everyone dinner at the Hotel after the race. He has never even bought champagne before! There wasn't much time to enjoy it though as I had to got to the VRT (Belgian TV Channel) television studios to appear on Sport Weekend. It is a live chat show where they discuss the weekends sporting events! I was more nervous for the show (all in Flemish) than for the race itself. I think it went well. Some people laughed when they should have! Eventually I got home at midnight and was able to sit down for the first time and watch the last 15 km of the race. It was painful! I tried to sleep but kept on going over the sprint, eventually I got so tired I fell asleep at 4am!
After the relative boredom of the 3-Days of De Panne the last 2 races have more than made up for it! Tour Of Flanders felt like a 100km criterium and yesterdays Gent-Wevelgem, thanks to a bit of bad luck, was just a panic from the word go! It was cold for the start in Deinze, though while we were getting ready in the camper it was, thankfully, dry. It is hard to decide what to wear, too little and you freeze, too much and it is impossible to race. I decided to go with cold but dry weather clothes, my first mistake! I hadn't noticed behind the building we had parked next to the huge black clouds were looming. It was too late to get clothes as the team cars had gone to a separate road to wait for the start. Plus there were so many people there it was impossible to move once we were in our 'start pen'. As we rolled out the skies closed in, so I called the car immediately to get my rain cape. As I did the first attack went! I was out the back struggling to put a rain cape and gloves on in cross winds, whilst trying too avoid the barrage of cars in front of me! I practiced some of my expressive Dutch to myself! I was happy I persevered though as it got very cold, during the hail storm and fortunately enough no attacks stayed away. It was very windy though, which always makes a selective Gent Wevelgem. The race is very basic, straight out to the coast where we turn left and follow the coastline for 20km then left again and head back inland, where we have to go over the Kemmelberg twice. With a head wind out to the coast nobody was too keen to attack, I think everyone was waiting for the cross winds at the coast to split the peleton. As you can imagine the bunch accelerated as we got closer to the coast people took more and more risks. I fought to stay in the front, but every mistake cost 30 places in the peleton. As we turned into the cross winds Quick Step accelerated with the whole team on the front, from then on it was hard but more organised. The bunch slit in two, I made the front echelon so could relax for awhile. Ahead there was a big black cloud looming again. Within 5 minutes it was raining/hailing but more importantly the wind dropped. The second half of the peleton came back and once again everyone wanted to be in front, this time in the wet! The inevitable happened! Just before the infamous Moeren (a really open section of flat road, where the break went in last years Gent Wevelgem) there was a crash, I saw it too late and piled into the back. De Jongh (Rabobank) piled into me and got himself entwined into my bike. It seemed to take forever to remove his leg from my front wheel, then a quick check of my bike, no damage then I set of for my long chase. I was still in the cars which was a great help as I could get a bit of shelter, but it was still hard, I was having to ride at more than 65kms per hour for 5kms. Eventually I got back on. I could see why it had been such a chase, the group was in one long line, the race was well and truly on! It took until the Kemelberg to get to the front! I had only been there 2 minutes when they fell again! this time I was able to get round them. With a bit of help from Omloop I was able to get into the front group that had formed due to the crash. It worked out well as there was a small group heading to the Kemmelberg. On the first climb we lost a few riders, but I was able to hold. I was starting to suffer from the cold though. It was still raining and my hands felt so swollen it felt like the handlebars were really thick. I couldn't grip properly, making the 24% decent on cobbled very interesting! By the time we climbed the Kemmel for the second time, Quick Step had taken control of the race with 7 riders in the front. I was suffering even more from the cold, I was shivering so much it was difficult to sit close to the wheel in front. I was starting to get worried, It was still raining and there was still 25 kms to go. I remember just wishing it would stop just for 10 minutes! The tailwind and presence of 7 riders from QuickStep ensured the run into Wevelgem was very straight forward, although I was surprised they were happy to keep everything together for a sprint, it is always risky even if they had Tom Boonen there (currently one of the fastest riders in the world! It stopped raining too, which helped me a little, though by this point my shoulders had cramped from shivering. I tried to get Tom Boonen's wheel in the sprint but there were a few other riders with the same idea! I didn't fight, I had neither the energy or enough feeling in my hands for the extra bike skills needed! With 300m to go I was sitting almost perfectly, however as the sprint started Kirsipuu came alongside me as George Hincapie was getting forced out. There was nowhere to go. My front wheel caught Kirsipuu's back wheel and for what seemed like an eternity I was fighting to stay upright! Fortunately I did but any chance of a win was left in that moment of panic! I fought back to finish 6th, 2 places better than last year and 3 better than the year before... progression!
I was already worried before the start this morning about how I would go today. I slept really badly last night. I'm not really sure why, whether I am fighting an infection or whether it was just due to pre race nerves. I have gone well on a bad nights sleep before so I just hoped for the best.... The tour of Flanders is a massive occasion there are thousands of people lining the route, however nothing beats the tension and atmosphere in the start town Bruges. Thanks to all the British people who were cheering for me today! Once again I almost missed the start. there are so many people that I haven't seen in such a long time! Once on the road, there was the usual frantic efforts to get in the early move. It used to be a small team's tactic, but more and more of the bigger teams are realising the massive exposure gained by a long break on international live television. Hence the start was really frantic. It was really hard to take it easy in the peleton. With gusts of wind up to 80km/h there always seemed to be wind! I felt rough too. My legs were sore and my heart rates were very low, a sure sign of tiredness, but there was 250km to go so a lot could change!!! Eventually 3 guys went clear which is quite nice for us in the peleton as they don't normally get too far. The problem was, a large group went across to them. All of a sudden the race was on, 2 teams were chasing and with the wind it was really hard to hide in the bunch. Normally I try to do the first 100 miles before the hill with as little effort as possible, saving everything for the hills in the second half. This year I found myself constantly fighting to stay near the front as we were traveling so fast and with countless changes in direction the race took, the peleton could have exploded due to the cross winds at any moment. The upshot was by the time we hit the hills, all 18 of them, I was already feeling tired. My legs had improved slightly but I knew I wasn't on a super day, but this was Tour Of Flanders so tried to hang on. I fought to get to the front for the first critical point, which is the Old Kwaremont which we climbed after 180km. I was able to hold my position which was good for my confidence. The Patersberg came 2 kms later, though this time there were barriers in the gutter, so we couldn't avoid the cobbles! The climb was really hard like that! The group split but nobody really rode hard over the top allowing a regrouping at the bottom of the infamous Koppenberg. My lowest gear was 39*23 but I still really struggled to get the pedals round. I felt like I was going about 2mph. The thing was nobody seemed to be riding away from me! Over the top the group split, it was a mistake I made. I was just 2 riders too far back and found myself in the second half. I couldn't risk not getting back in the front, so I bridged the gap alone, but I knew it was an effort I couldn't really afford to make. From here on it was a matter of fighting to stay in the front but each time I could feel my legs getting more and more painful. The problem was there was not enough time to eat, I managed to eat 2 Powergels in the last 100kms but I knew it wasn't sufficient but there was no choice. The lead to the front group was coming down which only made the group I was in (with all the favorites) accelerate. Van Petergem tried to accelerate on Tenbossestraat but it only served to stretch the group out. After the climb there was 5kms flat, so I tried to recover as much as I could before the Muur Van Geraardsbergen. There had been so little flat for the last 100kms this 5kms was bliss, it was just too short! I got to the bottom of the Muur, still suffering. The attacks came thick and fast, there were no accelerations left in my legs so I had just had to follow. The group split and I was in the second half. We chased over the top and rejoined a group at the foot of the last climb, the Bosberg. From the top it was all downhill so all I had to do was hang on and hope it came together over the top. I couldn't believe how painful my legs were on the climb. It really felt like I was pedaling in squares, trying to get the last bit of energy out just teetering on the edge of cramping. I managed to hang on, but only just. I had 12 kms to recover before the sprint, but after 270kms my recovery didn't work at all! In the sprint I stood up to accelerate but had to sit back down and try to follow a fast wheel to the finish! I finished 30th in the end, a bit disappointed but with the legs I had on the day, I don't think I could have expected more!
The stage seemed to take for ever to finish today, I looked at my computer after only 80 km, leaving 167 km to go! The race was really dull, the tail wind was strong enough that there wasn't too much chance for breakaways especially as Gerolsteiner were happy to sit on the front and defend the jersey they took yesterday. I was really happy though as it allowed me to hide and get the kilometers done in relative ease, which was the main objective today. It was obvious it was going to be a bunch sprint today, despite the constant attacks on the finishing circuits but I didn't really want to risk crashing so close to the Tour Of Flanders. Instead I worked for the other sprinters in the last 5 kms taking them to the front. It was actually harder than doing the sprint myself, but much safer! I am pleased with how my legs felt, now I am have to start recovering for the weekend.
Today was the first stage of the 3-days of De Panne. I have come here to get good kilometers in for the classics next week without wearing myself down too much. When I woke this morning and saw the wind blowing I thought it was going to be a really hard day. Fortunately the sun was shining, and it was mostly head wind which put most riders off racing! Most of the peleton was happy to ride along chatting and enjoying the sun. Sometimes we have pleasant days of racing! Only 1 rider pressed on and by the time we hit the finishing circuits he had 17 minutes! With the Berendries, Ledeberg and a nice long section of cobbles on each lap the peleton kicked into action. I tried to hide as much as possible hoping it would come down to a bunch sprint. It wasn't to be, a group went clear just before the last ascent of the Berendries. I moved to the front for the final climb, hoping to go across to the front group. Vandenbrouke accelerated briefly, Van Petegem countered, I went with them but the break was short lived and we were caught by what was left of the peleton. The group stayed in front and I finished in the main peleton at 41 seconds. I was pleased to have got the 200km done without running my reserves down too much. Tomorrow is the marathon stage of 237km back out to the coast. The last 55km are along the sea front so if we have the same wind as today it is going to be a long day!
The E 3 Prijs today was hard, very hard. I thought it was just a personal hatred that I had grown for this race but it seems there are a lot of people agree with me. The race has a very similar layout to Waregem on Wednesday. The start and finish is Harelbeke so there is a fairly long flat section to the hills and then again on the return to the finish. There are some small differences that make the race much harder though. On the flat section towards the hills we had to cover 2 crucial sections of cobbles from the Tour Of Flanders, then there were 4 extra hills to climb and on the return they threw in a road (if you can call it that!) that I can only compare to the forest of Arenberg! There is nothing like a section of cobbles in the beginning of a race to get the speed up in the peleton. Half of the peleton want to be off the front by the time they hit them, the other half want to be at the front! My legs were still sore from Wednesday but I think I could have survived had I not needed to change bikes! I had a new saddle on but it didn't feel right and rather than risk damaging my knee again I changed onto my spare bike. It doesn't sound much but trying to get back on to a 65km/h peleton took quite an effort, not to mention trying to pass the 200 riders in the race! I got to the front just before the first section of cobbles and was able to stay out of trouble. The acceleration to the first climb was once again incredible but I found Bettini's wheel and stayed near the front, saving the need for my pavement antics in the last race. My legs were starting to feel quite good and I was able to stay near the front on the first few climbs, which did wonders for my confidence, but also made me make mistakes. On the Eikenberg ( a cobbled climb) I felt good and was near the front so I accelerated over the top, the peleton broke but we never really got much of a lead. It was an effort I was to pay for very soon. Over the next climb (the Taaienberg, a cobbled climb with a nice smooth gutter on the right hand side!) Van Petegem attacked, so I had to go with it even though I wasn't quite recovered from the last effort. The group was reduced to 30 or so riders now. We dropped straight down to the bottom of the incredibly steep Patersberg (same climb as wednesday) where Tom Boonen exploded over the top, reducing the group by another ten riders. I could feel my recovery getting slower, it was a race against time as there was only 3kms to the foot of the Old Kwaremont. I didn't recover, my heart rate was still high at the bottom and the lactic acid in my legs was incredible. The final blow was the attack from Museeuw right at the start of the climb! For a moment I lost concentration and let my head drop. It was enough that I didn't make the front split on the climb. It was good though, it annoyed me enough that my aggression began to take over and I found my second wind. Fortunately there weren't too many in the front and we caught the group at the bottom of the penultimate climb. They attacked again but I knew if I could survive this climb there was only a small climb and one section of cobbles to go. I am sure my style on the bike wasn't very pretty, but I had to call on all my reserves to stay in the front. On the top the gaps weren't big enough and there was a regrouping on the decent. Now I was counting down, the cobbles, one of my strong points then the last climb. I went to the front for the cobbles, I remembered the section from last year, Omloop punctured there and it ended his chances in the race. It was a really bad section, much worse than I had thought, big holes and missing cobbles making the already treacherous cobbles almost impossible to ride on. Several riders punctured, falling by the wayside, then I heard the depressing noise of metal on cobbles, I had punctured. It seemed an age for the dropped riders to pass before the neutral service could get to me, I thought it was all over. Lady luck shined on me though, Tom Boonen (Quick Step) punctured 50 meters further. We were able to work together and once again I rejoined the front group at the foot of a climb though, this time it was the last of the day. A group went on the climb but with Boonen, McEwen, Freire and Kirsipuu in the group their teams didn't give them much of a lead. The run in was really fast so I just tried to hide and recover for the sprint. I was feeling tired and made some silly mistakes, Zanini (Quick Step) knocked me off McEwens wheel with 800m to go and rather than wasting energy fighting him for it, I let him in and tried to get in the line further back. It was stupid though, it was too close to the finish to lose any ground. Boonen won the sprint, I had to settle for 8th place, frustrated at having sprinted so poorly but glad I was still there after such a hard race. I am leaving for Three Days of De Panne Monday followed by the big week of Tour Of Flanders, Gent-Wevelgem and Paris-Roubaix. I am just trying to recover from each race and stay healthy! I will keep my site updated during the race.
I am really pleased with the opening classic, Dwars Door Belgie. It was the first race, in what will be a really hard 2 weeks of racing, ending with the Schelde Prijs, just after Paris-Roubaix. The structure for the race was very simple, a fairly flat opening lap of 80kms, then the hills, which for me were a selection of the hardest climbs in the Tour Of Flanders, followed by a few finishing circuits based on many of the same roads as Nokere Koers last Wednesday. With near perfect conditions for racing and live television the peleton was really agitated from the beginning. After the usual incessant attacking a group eventually got clear just before the climbs. I saw it go but with Jeremy Hunt and Erwin Thijs from my team there, we were well represented. I also wanted to wait until the climbs to see how the selection went there. The fight to the bottom of the Cote De Trieu was amazing, the acceleration was of the peleton is always a surprise. It is really important to be in the front for that climb. Over the top there is a 90km/h decent to the bottom of the famous 'Old Kwaremont' (1.5 km cobbled climb) followed very shortly by the savage 'Patersberg' (24% cobbled climb). I was a bit too far back so had to rely on some 'cross skills and bunny-hop up onto the pavement, passed most of the peleton on the footpath then dropped nicely back onto the road in the front! It set me up well for the climbs though. On the Old Kwaremont I started in 5th position and held that place though the hills. It was fantastic to climb Patersberg in Museeuws Wheel at the front of the peleton, the atmosphere was incredible, people screaming and pushing Johan. He hardly had to pedal! The rest of us struggled up the climb, riding in the gutter all the way to the top as it is much smoother than the cobbles. By the top there was only 8 of us left. We all rode well together but too many good riders had missed the move and we were caught by another group of about 30 at the top of the last climb. In the meantime Erwin had dropped from the front group, so with only Jeremy in the front Hillaire was keen to get someone else up to the front. So I attacked immediately. It didn't seem to be the cleverest idea but sometimes throwing caution to the wind can work (that's what I kept telling myself!) 3km later I was joined by Kirsipuu. I wasn't sure what to do, it was probably the only rider in the peleton that I wouldn't have wanted to join me. Hillaire told me to ride anyway! We worked really well together especially as we are both sprinters, bridging a 1 minute gap to the front group in just 7km. Once there I tried to recover as much I could, with only 25km to go there wasn't much time! Fortunately the group worked smoothly together for a while, by the time the first attack came with 10kms to go I was feeling a bit better and made the front split of 7 riders. The second attack by Dave Bruylants on the last climb of the day really hurt, I just focused on the wheel in front and didn't even dare look where the top was. My legs were screaming but with only 4 kms to the finish I knew I had to hang on. By the top there was only Kirsipuu and myself left on Dave's wheel. With 2 sprinters and a climber in the front we didn't really work well together allowing Ludovic Cappelle (Landbouwkrediet) to get back on with Franc Pencole (Octos). It was clear it wasn't going to be a sprint by the number of attacks in the last 3kms, it was just a matter of being lucky. I went with a few attacks but it was the solo attack by Ludovic that was successful. Kirsipuu came round me in the sprint for 2nd. It was a bit frustrating to be so close yet so far, but my form seems to be good, now I am looking forward to the next 2 weeks!
Well I certainly couldn't complain about the lack of wind detracting from this years GP Rudy Dhaenens! Although somewhere between, no wind and the extreme conditions of today would have been nice! Our team tactics for the race were simple, be in the front after 15km. There was a long stretch of exposed road (part of the Nokere race where last Wednesday I complained there wasn't enough wind to break up the peleton!) where there was a howling head/cross wind. It was pretty obvious, the other 20 teams in the race had had the same meeting! The last 5 kms before the cross winds, the speed increased, people took more risks, everyone fighting to be in the front. It was actually very dangerous. Although it was going to be an early selection I was relishing the idea of having less riders around. I was just hoping I was good enough to be in the front group! It was very strange, as we turned into the cross winds everyone seemed to sit up. I suppose their fight to be in the front was accomplished, but the peleton wouldn't have split at that speed, so I attacked! At least that way I was sure to be in the front! I kept to the right hand side of the road (the wind was coming from the right) allowing a good group to shelter from the wind as there was a long way to the finish! 5 kms later the peleton was in 5 groups, 20 of us in the front and 3 riders on the way to hospital! At least my effort had kept me out of the carnage behind! The group worked really well and we quickly built a 2 minute lead. There were only 2 climbs of note in this race at about 70 kms, I was surprised at how hard the front group climbed them, the front group split into 3 groups. We waited over the top for the second group but dropped the last group of 5. We battled well as a group against the winds back to the finishing circuits where the final selection took place. Omloop was his typical aggressive self and attacked first. It worked well, reducing the group to 9 with 3 form our team there, Geert Omloop, Michel Van Haecke and myself. 3 of the 6 riders dropped were from Lotto, which surprised us but we didn't hesitate to drive home our advantage. We still had work to do though as Rudi Kemna (2nd in Nokere) was still in the front and I certainly didn't want to take him to the finish! Once again Omloop attacked, Michel and I policed the chase. I made the classic counter attack as he was caught. That attack was short lived but as I was caught I could see a lot of tired faces, so I went again. The lactic acid in my legs was incredible, but the pain was worth it as I checked behind to see my gap growing quickly. It was still 10 kms of head wind to go but I was hoping for the best! With Michel and Geert blocking behind, I forged a 13 second lead but I new it wasn't going to be enough over the last 2 km section of cobbles. As it was, only Roy Sentjens (Rabobank) and Omloop came back. With 2 against one, we set about the classic tactic of taking it in turns to attack him! Omloop drew the long straw, Sentjens cracked and he rode away. I sat in his wheel forcing him to work but the chasing group was coming back fast. I was waiting as long as possible to start my sprint as it was head wind. In the end I had to go from 400 meters, but it was a long way! I died a bit and Kemna came round me in the last 10 meters, a-la Freire! The podium looked nice though, all three of us National champions! The team was pleased to have 2 riders on the podium, but most importantly a close nit team that had ridden well together.
After 10 days without racing I was keen to see what my condition was like today. Nokere isn't my favorite race, I always seem to have bad luck here, or just perform badly! 2 years ago I was caught with 50 meters to go by the peleton after having been away for the last 10 km with another rider. I can never get the sprint right here either. It is hard to get right as the road descends for 1.5km to the foot of the hill which is 300 meters long with fairly bad cobbles. I always seem to get baulked at the bottom of the climb. This year I decided I would put everything on getting away. Nokere is usually fairly hectic as the opening loop is only 45 kms before we hit the finishing circuits (10 laps 14.5km). With 2 climbs and a long section of cobbled in the opening loop the race usually goes from the gun. This year was no exception. After only 10 kms I found myself groveling in the gutter behind someone riding far too close to the edge of the road! Once again, there wasn't very much wind and the fantastic weather seemed to keep the peleton together. As the laps counted down I felt better, getting used to racing again. With 4 laps to go I decided it was time to attack, It felt great! I was really pleased with how I felt flat out, my knee didn't feel any worse which was a relief. By the top of the climb there was only 15 of us left. I thought the selection had been made, most of the teams represented, but the group didn't work very well and 15 kms later there was a regrouping. I tried a few more times to go but none were successful. Jo Plankaert and Jeremy Hunt had rejoined the peleton and were keen to do the sprint, so I was free to have another try on the last climb. It didn't work again and the inevitable bunch sprint happened! Jo finished 3rd, Jeremy 8th and myself 12th.
We heard today that we are allowed to ride Paris-Roubaix again this year. It is really great news as it is such a special race. I hope now that we have a bit of warning we can make sure the equipment is in place and set a bit of time aside to look at the cobbles! We have also been invited back to the tour of Switzerland. Which is really good as it will be a good build up race for the Olympics. Finally the program is coming in, so I will update it during the next few days.
In a way we were fortunate but the relatively good weather really detracted from the characteristics of this race. After the bunch sprint yesterday and the control Rabobank held on the race we were looking forward to a bit more excitement today, especially as we had to go over the Kemmelberg. The problem was there was no wind for the second day on the trot! There were the obligatory attacks in the beginning but Rabobank made it clear of their intentions to control the race again today, by chasing everything. It was hard for them, as the whole peleton was within 1.5 minutes of the leader, thus every chance of winning given a half decent break. From the Kemmelberg the race followed the same route as Gent Wevelgem (one of my favorite races). I gambled on waiting until then and the 5 kms of really narrow roads that follow the climb. Last year the front group was reduced from 40 riders to just 15 due to small roads and a howling cross wind! It was really frantic riding to the bottom of the kemmelberg. I had to fight for 15 km to stay in the front. As we all dived into the last corner my front wheel got caught on the rear stays of the bike in front, ripping a spoke out. There was no time to change though, I just had to make do! On the top, the peleton had split into several groups but the small roads didn't do any more damage this year and most of the groups came back. Once again Rabobank sat on the front and kept everything together. There were several attacks in the last 30 km but even after being on the front for 250km over last 2 days they were really strong! It was going to come down to a bunch sprint, again. I found Kirsipuu's wheel with 1 km to go, after yesterday it was the perfect place to be. We were sitting 4th & 5th in line going to the last corner (about 250 meters to go) when we were both baulked. I tried to re-launch in the 53*11, but it took a while to get the gear going. Kirsipuu however, went like a rocket. It was impressive how quickly he accelerated the huge gear, on his way to winning his second stage by several lengths. I had to settle for 4th, which I was pleased with as it was the first real bunch sprint where I have gone for it myself this year.
I was lucky today! I had really 'heavy' legs. It was the same feeling as Wednesday in Fayt-Le Franc, I didn't worry too much, just hoped I got better before we turned into the cross winds. I think everyone was waiting for that point anyway, as there was very little enthusiasm to race. It was suprising really as the weather was quite good, the forecast wintry showers just threatened until after the finish! It was a boring race really. 3 guys went early, Rabobank didn't hesitate to defend the jersey Bartko had won in the time-trial yesterday. They sat on the front riding a tempo all day. There were a few attempts at breaking the peleton in the cross winds but they weren't successful. I started to worry when after 150kms I still felt rough. I had taken all my excess clothes off, but that had only helped marginally. The three finishing circuits were really dangerous, very small roads with lots of traffic islands, I am sure they were not expecting 200 hundred of us hurtling round. There were several crashes, giving me the incentive to move up to the front. I even started to feel ok, not great! It was clearly going to be a bunch sprint, but I wasn't feeling good enough to take risks in the last chicane 500m from the line. I just made sure I was near the front so as not to lose any time if the peleton split. So I live to fight another day tomorrow. We have several hills, including the Kemmelberg, plus plenty of opportunities in the cross winds. Going to be a very hard day. Three year ago this was my first big win with the professionals. Would be nice to repeat it!
Today was the first stage of the 3 days of West Flanders. It was a time trial over 7.5 km. Once again it was sloshing with rain all day. The circuit was the same as last year, very open with quite a few corners. I didn't want to take any risks, especially as it was the first time I had ridden my time trial bike. I only warmed up on the turbo trainer, for which I paid for in the first km! I settled in soon after that but felt like I was almost walking round the corners. After 3km I could see the team cars of the rider in front! I thought I must have been going faster than I thought! Actually my minute man had crashed. That was enough for me to go even slower in the corners! I tried to accelerate as hard as I could to make sure i didn't lose too much time. I was happy I didn't crash and I wasn't one of the 17 riders outside the time limit! Tomorrow the forecast is for winter showers.....again! The stage is 200km taking in most of the Belgian coastline. Although there are no major difficulties, this stage is renowned for being made difficult by the wind!
I was really worried today. I felt awful in the beginning. My bike felt too big, I was cold but had too many clothes! I am hoping it was the after effects of a hard race at the weekend. Fortunately after about 130km, just before the finish circuits (5 laps of 9km) I started too feel a little bit better. It was just in time as I had already started to think about using the race for training and stay at the back of the peleton just to get the kms done! I was fortunate too that the racing didn't really begin until then. Three guys had got away very early on but Lotto were not represented. After a bad Kuurne Brussels Kuurne at the weekend Lotto were super motivated today, beginning a to chase very early on. The rest of us just waited for the fireworks on the finishing circuits. It didn't really ever materialise though. There were several half attempts to go clear but the extraordinarily good weather this year (it is the first time I have raced Fayt Le Franc where it hasn't snowed!) and lack of wind made it hard to break the peleton. A break of 5 riders went clear on the last climb, I felt strong and went across to it but the group didn't work well together and we were quickly caught. It was obvious it would be a bunch sprint of sorts, so I tried to recover and find Robbie McEwen's wheel! With 1 km to go I was sitting perfectly, on the back of the Lotto train, but there was a lot of pushing and shoving. Eventually Jan Koerts forced in the line in front of me but I thought it was better to let him in than waste energy fighting him so close to the finish. Then the final straw came 300 meters to go when a team mate came over me and boxed me in. I had to brake, which was effectively the end of my sprint. I tried to get going again, but it was for a minor placing. McEwen won, repaying his team for riding on the front all day. I finished 6th, but happy with how I felt. At least in the second half of the race! I have a day at home then I am off to the 3 Days of West Flanders
After an auspicious start, we finally got some racing done today! Once again I stayed overnight with the team in Parijke, near Brakel, Belgium. I woke up to frozen fog and ice covered roads so it felt a little bit like deja-vu! Though this time I knew we were going to race. The organiser said after yesterdays disappointment they would hold a race, come what may, even if it meant holding the whole race on the finishing circuits! By the time the race started the sun had burnt through most of the fog and the temperatures had risen into positive territory, so the full race was on! Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne is a simple race, flat to Brussels then on the way back they take us over as many of the famous climbs as possible! With the cold temperatures the peleton seemed keen to get going with the first attack coming 2 km after the start! I wasn't sure about my form, so I hid in the peleton and gambled on being strong enough on the climbs to go with the front group. As the climbs approached the speed in the peleton got higher and higher until it was a full speed sprint into the corner at the bottom of the first climb. It was really important to be in front there as there were 5 climbs in quick succession, with very little scope to move up between them on the narrow twisting roads. I surprised myself by turning in about 5th place and not completely in oxygen debt! I felt quite good really and held my place over the next 3 climbs, however on the Old Kwaremont (a 2km long cobbled climb) I struggled on the cobbles, I held on to the front group though which was just enough! I think I had too much pressure in my tyres because I felt great on the next tarmac climb. The front group was 38 strong after the hills, with 3 of us from MrBookmaker.com. The group worked well until the finishing circuits where there were loads of attacks, which we took in turns to cover. Eventually, the group split in the last 10kms and with both Omloop and Plankaert from my team in a group of 8, I was left to police the second group. I thought Quick Step might chase as they only had Bettini in the front and 5 in my group! They didn't! I was 13th in the end, which I am pleased with, considering the lack of racing over the last few weeks. I just need to work a bit on my speed now. I am racing Wednesday in Fayt La Franc, and the forecast is for good weather!
This season is not starting well! Het Volk became the 3rd race the team was meant to start but has been cancelled! We all had to be in the hotel yesterday, (to be available for medical controls) but as I left it was snowing hard. This morning was no better, but we still prepared as if we were going to race. The organisation said they were going to make a decision about the race at 10.45 am, about three-quarters-of-an-hour before the start. As we left the hotel it started to snow again, with quite a lot settling on the road. There was no way the race could have been ridden. The nearer we got to the start in the center of Gent, the better the weather got, though there was still a lot of snow on the ground. We were all sat in the camper waiting for the decision to be made. Eventually we started making the final preparations (putting on our rain clothes, embrocation on the legs etc) when our team manager came back with the news the race was cancelled. We had mixed emotions, some riders really didn't want to race, but Omloop Het Volk is really a classic for the Belgians, hence a big race for our team. With all the new sponsors there to see the first race of the year, it was disappointing for them. There were also some Brits at the start that had made a day trip to Belgium to see the race, I felt really sorry for them. It seemed hard to justify too, as the sun began to break through in Gent! It was still snowing at our hotel in Brakel (where all the famous cobbled climbs are) was our best excuse. It was a real pity, by the time we got back to the hotel, the clouds had cleared and most of the snow had melted. We rode for two hours, to keep the legs supple and have spent the rest of the day waiting for tomorrow! Hopefully it will be better, but the forecast is again for snow in the morning.....
So much for the good weather on the Cote D'Azur. Once again it rained all day! The start was in Uzes, with the finish 200kms later in the centre of Marseille. There was a lot less climbing today so I was able to hang on in the beginning and hope things got better. The cold wind and rain was really miserable for the second day on the trot, especially after I was spoiled with sun everyday in Benidorm last week! I was really beginning to wonder whether I had over done the training last week in Spain. Towards the end though I got the feeling I had just lost a bit of freshness combined with the cold weather, just made me feel rough. It took me 150km to get going though. Fortunately the constant attacks all day were all short lived and the bunch regrouped ready for a bunch sprint. With my new found power I wanted to get up there today, but lady luck had the last word. 30km to go something went wrong with my bike. The front end seemed to get very soft, causing the front wheel to wobble around the corners. I think it could have been some spokes loosening but I will have to ask the mechanic next week. Anyway, I took no risks and changed onto my spare bike immediately. That was a disaster too! The mechanics changed all the chains for the classics on Friday but didn't check whether they still ran on the old sprockets! I eventually found a gear that worked 53*14 which was good enough to get back on to the speeding peleton, but I could have never contested the finish, even if it was not as sinuous as it was! So once again I had to be content to finish in the bunch. However on the last corner I was thanking my lucky stars as an over optimistic Robbie McEwen over shot the last corner and bought the first 15 riders down! Thor Hushvod got through and won the race. It is the second time he has had that luck this year! I hope my luck will improve for the classics!
I am in Marseille now, I have just ridden Tour De Haut Var, but more about that in a moment. Last week went really well in Altea. I stayed a week with Graham Baxter Sporting Tours and trained with the guys down there. It was a really nice change, good road surfaces and hilly landscape helped pass the hours on the road. I did about 950kms in a week which should help for the classics! It didn't help today though! I'm not sure as to what it was due but I was really weak today! I never really got going, I suffered to get to the feed before abandoning. I arrived late last night, which meant I didn't get to ride after the traveling (I always feel rough after flying) to loosen my muscles, plus it was too late for massage which can make up for the loss of a ride to a certain extent. So the only chance I had was for warm day, plus a easy start, to get warmed up! Unfortunately it rained all day and the first attack was from the first kilometer! I am sure it was more of a 'trying to keep warm attack' than a super motivated rider trying to ride the whole day in the front! Tomorrow is Classic Haribo so hope fully I can make amends there. I will try to update tomorrow evening. Mark Lotz won today, our best placed rider was Johan Coenen in the 14th place
The first stage race for the year is done! I feel happier now as I felt better each day which is always a good sign. There was no quarter given again today, even the clear blue skies and warm temperatures didn't slow the Euscatel riders down! The first attack was at the kilometer 0 sign, which was thoughtfully placed at the bottom of a 4 km climb! By the top I was definitely warm! The problem was 14 riders had gone clear with nobody from our team there. AG2r chased initially as they had the race leader in Laurent Brochard, but it was apparent they couldn't close the gap. So once again we rode on the front, in the hope Jo could convert some of his 2nd places into a win. The group was caught with 10kms to go setting up nicely for a bunch sprint. I led out Jo but apparently he lost my wheel with 300 meters to go after Baldato (Allesio) forced him off. We both ended up in the wind, far too far out and both died a little. Kisipuu went on to win the stage. It has been a good week really, the team has had a chance to gel a little and Jo's results have set us off in the right direction. Hopefully we can keep the ball rolling. Unfortunately I was supposed to rode in Liguria next week but the team isn't going anymore, due to financial problems with the race organisation. So now I will have to go on a training camp. Baxter tours have kindly offered to put me up in Benidorm, so hopefully I will be able to do the last training miles in the warm. I will let you know how it is going.
The bubble burst for the team today. Until now Jo Plankaert has been in the first 10, ensuring great publicity for the team. Today we didn't have anyone in the break which has decided the overall classification. It was a strange stage today. The organisers have made the stage much harder this year, taking the peleton over a 700meter high mountain twice with two smaller hills on the finishing circuit. I think the idea was to make the racing more aggressive but the result was the opposite! At this time of year most of the riders are unsure of their form or just not ready to race. On the first climb 8 riders attacked and that was it! The peleton let them go and rode tempo, finishing more than 15 minutes behind! I was happy to get the miles in, in relative peace. If I'd have been in the front it would have been a hard day! Tomorrow is the last day, then it's back to Belgium for a while.
Well today was a bit more exciting! Especially for the last 40kms. There is something about a finishing circuit that guarantees to liven up a race. Today was no exception. Until then the race followed very much the same story as yesterday, several attacks but nobody really putting any daylight between themselves and the peleton. Landbouw Credit seemed very keen to keep everything together for Tom Steels. They were let off lightly as a mid race crash seemed to calm the peleton, everyone riding a brisk tempo to the finishing circuit. It was mainly to keep warm as the mist has still not lifted, with temperatures around a fresh 6 degrees only! Much to the amusement of the Belgians. For once they can boast the weather is better at home than on the Mediterranean coast! The last 40 kms were flat out though, making up for lost time but it was obvious it was all going to come together for a bunch sprint. I felt much better today and Jo was happy to look after himself so I decided to have a go. I got myself into a great position, about 5th into the last corner with 500 meters to go when disaster struck! 3rd place touched his brake in the corner, lost his front wheel and fell! The guy in front of me hit him, I was near enough the limit on the damp roads that I had no choice about whether to hit them or not, it was a matter of how hard!!! I slowed as much as I could and fortunately the impact was not too bad but it was enough that I was able to get my foot out and not hit the ground! However the sprint for me was over. Just unlucky! Tomorrows stage definitely won't be dull. Several mountains and with a motivated Euscatel team, I think it will be a long day!
Finally we had a fairly easy day! The stage was much flatter today anyway so it was always going to be easier. Added to that a sprinter won the stage yesterday so his team controlled the race from the beginning. Actually it got to the point of being quite boring. They let 2 riders go clear, who were both at more than 7 minutes on the classification, to take all the bonus seconds on the road. Then with 50 kms to go they started to reel them in. They left it a bit late though, so once again, a couple of our riders got on the front to help. Eventually they were caught with 5kms to go setting up what turned out to be a really dangerous finish. 200m from the finish there was a 90 degree corner with a speed bump just after it, Causing chaos in the bunch. Jo was a bit boxed in and ended 4th. It was actually quite a good recovery day today, so hopefully I will feel better tomorrow.
Today's stage was hard, very hard. From the first kilometer it went uphill, not giving us much time to warm up given that it was only 4 degrees due to a heavy mist. I am not sure who attacked first but within 500 meters of the KM 0 sign, the first rider went. That seemed to set the pattern for the next 90km! It was strange though, nobody seemed to be able to make the difference and stay away for an important amount of time. I think there are a lot of riders finding a lot out about how hard they have trained during the winter! On a personal note I was suffering more today than yesterday. I don't think it was such a good idea to ride so hard for the first time on a new bike yesterday. My legs were really stiff and quite sore. I had a good, deep massage this evening, so hopefully they will improve as the week goes on! As for the race, I was called into service again for Jo Plankaert on the last climb. A group of 9 riders managed to get clear, so a few of us got on the front and rode tempo to the top making sure it all came together for a bunch sprint. Unfortunately Jo was beaten by Tom Steels, but that is no disgrace as Steels is looking fitter and leaner than I have ever seen him. Watch out for him in Het Volk at the end of the month! Hopefully Jo will have some luck and get a win to get the team on a roll for the season
I had a horrendous journey from the worlds 'cross champs to Marseille. I tried to get an internal flight from Nantes to Marseille but Air France had cancelled 2 of the 4 flights of the day. So I took a short bus journey to the train station to catch a super fast Train a Grande Vitesse (TGV). The next departure was only a 40 minute wait, but the journey time was a massive 7 hours! I wanted to keep myself amused with my laptop (writing my race report for the worlds and replying to a few emails) but I only had 3.5 hours battery life so I began to get bored. Eventually I went on a plug search! The only plugs I could find were in the toilets, so I installed myself in one and continued with my mail writing! So much for the glamorous life I lead! Anyway the upshot was I arrived very late in Marseille, meaning no time to check my new road bike before this mornings race. It was strange to put my road shoes on again, the first time since 12th October last year! I always train and race on my cross bikes during the winter. I can feel it is going to take a couple of days to get used to the new position! We started quite leisurely today, which gave me a bit of time to get used to being the peleton again, plus the high speeds (compared to cross we were going quite quickly! My problems only really started once the racing began! My saddle wouldn't stay up, so I kept on dropping back to the team car to have the bolt tightened but the mechanic was scared of it snapping. Eventually it was 3rd time lucky and my position was set. Although I still didn't feel comfortable, so in a quiet moment in the racing I stopped to change shoes, which seemed to do the trick, I was ready to race! There were only a couple of climbs today, one of 4km and one of 2km. The bunch split quite a lot but I was able to stay in the front which I was really pleased with. However on the descent to the finish, a small group managed to get clear , so my team mate (Thijs) and I were called into service to help close the gap for our in form sprinter Jo Plankaert. Jo very nearly succeeded, only being passed in the last 50 meters by Baden Cooke. All in all it was a good day, I felt like the form was good, just got to get used to riding on the road again.......Until tomorrow!
There have been many mixed emotions over the weekend! I arrived in Pontchateau on Thursday night, not knowing what to expect really having never ridden on the circuit before. There seemed to be so many conflicting rumours going around as to the state of the circuit. Until last weekend everyone had said it was a very fast flowing circuit, suited to a road rider like...... me! However in Hoogestraten I started to hear whispers of mud and lots of running...... Just to be sure I had a special pair of Dugast tubulars (with extra grip treads) made last week to give me the best possible chances in any conditions. We went to the circuit for the first time last Friday. To my immense satisfaction the circuit resembled more of a criterium than a cross. The Belgians were all grumbling about how non-technical the circuit was. I just couldn't help smiling, it was right up my street, fast and very few risky corners. I slept badly Friday night, partly due to the nerves starting to kick in but mostly due to the torrential rain! It continued to rain Saturday and by the time we got to the circuit to have a last reconnoiter, the circuit was a quagmire! Those extra grip tyres were going to come in handy! Riding back to the hotel I was really disappointed, it had changed from a dream circuit to a nightmare overnight. Fortunately mum and dad had come over to keep my moral up, reminding me all the time that it could change back.....if it stopped raining. My prayers were answered, the wind picked up and the sun came up and set about drying the ground! By the time our race started, Sunday afternoon it was almost back to Fridays conditions. I was called up on the fourth row again for the start, but with a howling head wind in the start straight, I knew there was going to be plenty of opportunity to get to the front, if I had the legs! I felt great, right from the first pedal rev. By the end of the start straight I had got near enough to the front to make the first group, so I tried to maintain my position without getting too carried away by the fantastic atmosphere, which seems to be reserved for world championships. The first lap was a blur, there is so much to concentrate on. It is essential to get round the first lap without making a mistake (at this point a crash could loose you 20 places at best effectively ending any chances of a good result) but also following the fasted riders in the world! I made it and for once I really felt as though I was holding myself back a bit!!! I even found myself overtaking Wellens a few times on the climbs, much to his annoyance. He kept on taking risks in the descents to get past me again, then was upset when I didn't give up the racing line for him! What did he expect? After all it is the world championships! The group seemed to settle down a little bit on the second lap. Stretching out on the off road sections, bunching back up again on the tarmac. I was quite happy sitting back and staying out of trouble. or so I thought! On a technically easy section someone made a mistake and crashed, catching first Groenendaal out and then myself. In the process of trying to avoid the pile up I rolled my tub, although it didn't quite come off the rim I had to take it very gingerly round the corners until the next run up where I could centralise the tyre on the rim again and struggle round to the pits. From that point on, my race was a process of playing catch up. In a split second, my race had gone from under control, to panic and chaos! Once I was back on my spare bike I set about getting back onto the group I had been with. Over the next couple of laps the front group split into 2 with the second half dangling just in front of me for what seemed like ages. I just couldn't close that last 100 meters! Even with the help of the Dutch train (Groenendaal, De Knegt, Van Gils) we never quite got back on. A few guys were dropped which gave me the incentive to keep pushing right to the finish and by the end I clawed myself back to 11th place. I was really pleased with my form, I was just left wondering what could have been if I hadn't crashed, but then again, that is part and parcel with cyclo-cross!
Hoogstraten should be a good race for me, it is a really fast circuit, very little running, virtually no mud, but I just can't race well there! I am not sure whether it is because there are too many corners, or simply because each year, I am still trying to recover from the post nationals training. There were some encouraging signs this year though. As I haven't ridden the world cup series this year my grid position is always from the 3rd row at best so the first lap is always very important for me. I have to get to the front quickly, but without going into oxygen debt. Whatever happened in Hoogestraten I wanted to practice getting to the front for the world champs next weekend. I got a good start, my shoe clicked into he pedal first time and by the end of the start straight I was in 4th position. It was perfect, except for a small detail, I could feel my legs weren't fully recovered! Wellens did his usual first lap attack, instantly I knew it was a speed I couldn't maintain but I just wanted to see how far I could get, plus I couldn't let a gap open in the single file section! I didn't realise how dearly I would pay for the effort later though. By the end of the 2nd lap I was really struggling, taking a further 2 laps to get back into a decent rhythm. From then on it was just a matter of trying to hold onto the group I was in and push as hard as I could. It ended up being a really hard race, with very little recovery and although the result was not that great I can feel the form is headed in the right direction for next weekend.
The race was a disaster! The week after the nationals I had a very heavy week training, so I always new the weekend was going to be difficult. I was hoping the circuit would be fast and I could get through without looking too bad! The weekend started badly, the journey was horrendous, torrential rain most of the way then just for good measure it snowed for the last 100kms! The weather took its toll on the circuit too. Based mostly on rolling farm fields, the rain had turned the circuit into a quagmire. I actually think most of the lap I would have been faster without a bike! Right from the start I felt weak and the long running sections really made me suffer. I never really felt as if I got going but just tried to get a good training session and not get lapped by Bart Wellens! It was so muddy we were changing bikes at least once a lap sometimes twice. It has been a while since that was the case! The frustrating thing is it was a long weekend for very little reward. But that is the beauty of cyclo-cross, no two races are the same!
I had a great weekend. Everything seemed to fall into place on Sunday. I felt the best I have all winter, which is always nice when it comes on a championship day. The circuit was completely different that the last few editions at Sutton Park. After the initial confusion (some sections of the old course were used but in reverse!) I felt the new lap - even after the torrential overnight rain made it hard going- suited me with several sections resembling my training circuit. The weather looked very threatening with half an hour to the start but fortunately we were spared the storms from the previous night and it stayed dry for the whole race. It was strange to be called to the start line first, so far this year my best has been the third row but it did mean I had a good start. Jody Crawford went off like a rocket, getting to the first narrow muddy climb first, Matt Ellis close behind. I sat in 5th place, waiting to see how the others were going to ride the first lap. The plan didn't last long as Matt struggled to hold Jodi's wheel, who began to build a small but dangerous lead. I had to chase for half a lap to catch Jody again but there was a lot of damage done to the rest of the group. Jody and I had gone clear from the others and worked well together to increase the advantage. On the second lap Jody started to pay for his lightening start and I opened a small gap on a long off-road drag. It was very early but I thought it was as-good-a-chance as any to get away so I put in a hard lap to try and increase the advantage. The circuit was really well laid out for lone attacks, there were several small loops, which meant I could check on the progress of the chasing riders. 40 Minutes into the race I felt sluggish and began to wonder if I had gone too early, especially as Matt and Jody had been joined by Nick Craig. I just concentrated on keeping a good rhythm and tried not to make any mistakes. In the mean time I heard Matt had punctured reducing the 2nd group to just Nick and Jody. Going into the final lap I had more than a minute advantage so I eased on all the technical sections, several corners had been getting more and more slippery, I just wanted to make sure I didn't crash. There were no hic-ups and I turning into the finishing straight I was suprised to see how many spectators there were. I think I had been concentrating on the ground, choosing my line, so hard for the last hour I hadn't dared look up to see how many people were there! Now the hard work can begin for the world champs in Pont-Chateau on the 1st February!
The snow was still on the ground today, with the air temperatures hovering around freezing. When it started to rain/sleet on the way to Hoogerheide, I really thought we were going to be in for a freezing day! As any rider knows sleet is the worst conditions, any colder and it snows, which isn't to bad as snow can be brushed off before it melts, any warmer and it rains, those extra few degrees seem to be critical though. Fortunately the sleet eased as we arrived and the sun even began to peek through! Once again Adri Van Der Poel (race organiser) had designed quite a fast flowing course which suited me well, so I was quite motivated to get in with the front group and upset some cross specialists! Once again the weather caused me some problems! The temperature dropped by the time we started racing, causing the morning rain to freeze on the circuit making the corners treacherous. I crashed at the start of the second lap, ruining any chances of making the front group. I didn't fall very heavily but it shook my confidence in the corners. From then on I was destined to be in the second group with Groenendaal amongst others. I was pleased to see I wasn't the only one having problems. Maxime Lefebre (France) had one of the most spectacular crashes I have seen in a long time. There was a long straight descent, not very steep, but very slippery. He slipped on the ice and crashed at the top but could not stop. He was sliding on his back (most of the time) down the course in front of me. I was in the big ring at the time, so that gives you an idea of how quickly he was traveling! After about 100m like that he eventually came to a rest but his bike had tangled in the barriers at the top on the hill! The last I saw was Maxime running back up the hill to retrieve his bike! After seeing that I didn't take any risks in the corners any more which made for a really hard race. I had to chase back onto the group after nearly every corner, which began to take its toll by the end of the hour. On the last lap I was still in with a chance of 11 place, but with Maximes infamous section just before the final climb, I left a too big-a-gap to close in the uphill sprint to the line. I was fairly pleased with my ride though as I am never happy in the ice. Mario De clerq looked really strong to win, silencing his critics (one of whom was Adri Van Der Poel!) who were quoted as saying last week, Mario is passed his best and can only follow in the wheels any more. Mario has always been really good on icy circuits though. I remember seeing him ride in the last lap in the World championships he won in Poprad, he seemed to be the only rider not to slip at all. Sven Nijs was a disappointing 5th making it difficult to predict a winner for next weeks Belgian Champs in Lille (Belgium).
I wasn't sure what to expect in St Nicklaas as I have never raced there, plus it was my 3rd race of the week. I was pleasantly surprised, the course was based around a lake in a park. With the recent cold weather, the ground was frozen solid making for a super fast race. It really suited me except for one section! Organisers over here seem obsessed with sand for the moment! St Nicklaas was no exception, there was a 500 meter stretch of deep sand, about 3/4 was rideable but the rest was had to be run. I thought I would be able to survive though. I am not really sure why but I never really got going in the race though. I pulled my foot out on the start straight, which was fairly crucial in such a fast race, as I lost valuable places into the first bottle neck. Even so there were plenty of chances to get the power down, but I just didn't seem to have it. I struggled round in the 3rd group ending a disappointing 14th The only thing I can look back on really was, it was exceptionally cold. The air temperature was -3 degrees C then the wind whipping across the lake make it feel even colder.... Anyway it was good training!