Lessons in Lessines
(Kennett Peterson of Oregon is an elite amateur cyclist who rides for the Hagens Berman cycling team. He is currently racing and training in Belgium after recovering from a broken collarbone. Peterson has been chronicling the adventure on his blog, Kennettron5000. His entry from Thursday, Aug. 18 is republished below).
LESSINES, Belgium — Today’s race took place in the Wallonie region of Flanders. A mere 21 miles south of us here in East Flanders, Wallonie is a mystically strange land populated by the French. The breeze blows a refreshing air of self-importance, reminding me of home.
Gone are the waffles and chocolates of Flanders, in their place are baguettes and cheese. The steroid cows as well as their sturdy counterparts, the Belgian draft horses, were nowhere to be seen. More flamboyant, snooty livestock lined the sides of the road as we drove to the race. Key word in that sentence was “drove.” As in I didn’t ride there on my bike.
This was the first race I didn’t ride to and I think it made a big difference. We got there late, and since we’d driven there was no warm up. This was not a good thing, but it ended up not affecting my race.
I lined up near the front of another large field. There’s rarely fewer than 100 guys at one of these races and today was no exception. I brought an extra water bottle in my back pocket because it was real hot and muggy. No chance of a cold, rainy race today. None at all.
It began pouring rain a lap into the race. The air temperature was still warm though, and for a couple laps the spray coming up off the hot pavement was almost bath temperature. A huge thunder and lighting storm had rolled through right above town with lightning striking and thunder booming one second later. It was close and very loud. The rain was the heaviest I’ve ever raced in. It was only mid day but it got so dark I had to take my sunglasses off. The danger of the lightning would have surely seen this race canceled in the States.
But before all hell broke loose in the heavens above, I’d already gotten into a large breakaway that formed before the first lap had finished. There were roughly 15-20 of us in the break and after a couple laps of hard pulls I figured we were away for good.
With so many in the break, and a few guys with multiple teammates, the cohesion was never very good. It kept splitting up with riders missing pulls and letting gaps open. I did more than my fair share of the work as half the guys just sat on the back. I just wanted the chance to at least stay away in the lead group for once. I probably wanted it too badly.
I made every split and was part of every damn attack for the next nine of the 13 laps in total. The group continued to whittle down, the storm above us booming off and on, letting up for a lap, and then hurling everything at us: gusting wind, torrential rain, HUGE chunks of hail. At one point the rain came down so hard it was impossible to see more than 20 or 30 feet in front of us.
“…I realized that this is what racing is all about. Suffering off the front in miserable conditions for hours on end, and attacking your balls off.”
I gave a holler of excitement and attacked up a hill into the darkness when the rain came down the hardest. High on adrenaline and coffee, I realized that this is what racing is all about. Suffering off the front in miserable conditions for hours on end, and attacking your balls off.
We were down to around seven or eight riders with five laps to go when the yellow jersey leader of the Belgian kermess series, one of the Lotto development riders, bridged to us, which meant the pack was not far behind.
With three and a half laps to go I started seeing new riders in our group. First just one or two. Then more and more over the next few minutes as the peloton caught us.
We were caught at last. Luckily there were only 30 guys left in the race so I still had a chance. Riding in the break all day and finally getting caught is one of the more demoralizing things in bike racing. You feel pretty hopeless sometimes, having put all your effort into staying away. When you get caught by all the comparatively “fresh” riders, it’s hard to keep your head strong.
I stayed positive though and continued chasing down moves over the next couple kilometers, finally bridging up to two guys right before the windiest and hardest part of the course. The three of us drilled it in the crosswind, past the finish line carnival, and caught the final two guys in front of us, making a strong and motivated group of five.
A lap later we were still working well together and I felt confident we’d stay away. Our gap was large and three of the riders in our group we very motivated and seemed pretty fresh. I tried to pull through weakly and skip turns since I’d done so much earlier in the day.
1.5 laps to go and one of the Lotto guys in our group flatted. This meant that team, which had three guys left in the race, would start attacking again from the pack. With one lap to go we got caught by a small group of five, with one Lotto guy of course. Shortly afterwards three guys managed to get away. The rest of us looked at each other. Two more guys got away after some attacking, the teammate of one sitting on the remnants of us. I was furious but there was nothing I could do by myself and had to resort to swapping pulls with one other guy. The teammate of the guy up the road sat on for the next half lap and the fourth guy in our group sat on for its entirety, getting dropped, catching back on, sitting on us, getting dropped again, etc.
With only a few kilometers remaining, it was obvious the winning move was gone for good.
I screwed up at the finish and ended up on the front with 600 meters to go. Should have attacked. The guy who’d been sitting on, who had been dropped a few kilometers earlier, caught us by surprise as we sat up for the finish, and he blew by us. The guy with the teammate up the road went next. I came within a foot of catching him but needed another couple meters of race to do it, coming in at 8th place in my 8th race here. My best result by far and also the most frustrating, seeing that it could have been me on the podium today if things had gone slightly differently. I went with almost every move, every split, attacked repeatedly, had the legs to continue to do so, but missed the winning move. One of the Lotto guys won. I stood in the pissing rain and spat the most venomous curse words I knew and ground my teeth for the next fifteen minutes. I don’t know enough curse words.