(Oregon's Jacob Rathe has been in Belgium with the USA Cycling Junior National Team for the four-stage Ster van Zuid-Limbug. His USA teammate Adam Leibovitz took the leader's jersey in the opening time trial and went into the final stage with a one-second overall lead. Rathe sent Cycling Action this report.)
By now the race finished two days ago, but I just got home early this morning. We finished the race Monday evening, got back to the Izegem house late and got up early to go to the airport. Twenty-four hours later, I was home.
Stage 4 was also the queen stage of the race; five King of the Mountains sprint points and hard finishing circuits. The climbs were nothing we had encountered yet in this race. They were between 1 and 1.5k, with gradients of 15-20 percent. They were hard enough to split the field in two.
We expected the overall to come down to the wire. With such small time gaps it was possible many different riders could still win. We were all tired from the time we spent on the front defending the jersey the previous days. It was already an accomplishment to keep a three-second lead for two days, but we wanted to finish it off.
The race didn't pan out as we had hoped. We lost the leader's jersey and the team classification on the last day. The break went pretty early in the race. We let it get some time, confident we could bring it back in the end. The gap was up to 1 minute 30 seconds with 60k to go when the chase started. Two other teams started the chase, and we soon joined them.
The pace was fast and steady, and I was was confident the race would come back togetther. I hopped in the rotation once we got to the finishing circuits. They were in the same town that the prologue was in, the prologue course being half of the circuit. I pulled hard, but not too hard, for the first two laps. That was when I realized the gap wasn't really coming down. It was still 50 seconds. Teams started to get a little bit desperate, and the chase was full throttle. Teams that had riders in the break would join the paceline and disrupt the rhythm. I pushed and yelled at them to make them timid about doing it, but they didn't care.
It was by far the most exciting atmosphere the race had been through. The course was a figure-eight. With two loops that didn't cross by-passed within a block of each other in the town area. A solid wall of people lined the streets of the climbs. After the start/finish line we turned right and up the climb, sprinting out of the turn each lap, feeling more like a criterium, not the bottom of a climb.
I am still surprised how the group of 6-8 riders stayed away. At the finish they had 23 seconds. We lost the overall race by 16 seconds. We just needed to go 16 seconds faster in the final 60k of chasing. Adam dropped to 3rd on GC. I went from 7th to 11th. The team went from 1st on Team GC to 2nd.
It was a bitter ending to what was a great milestone for the U.S. development team program. Junior Team Director Ben Sharp said that when he started this job only two years ago, it was a success for every rider to finish in the pack. And it wasn't unusual for them to be dropped early in the race. Now he actually had to think about how to win.
This is only the beginning for me, after doing Sea Otter and Willamette Stage Race in the states these next two weeks, I go back to Belgium for a month.
Photo courtesy of Sports Photography by Jos Aerden.