Oregon racer Jacob Rathe (Hammer/CMG Racing) is currently in Belgium with the USA Cycling Junior National Team, which is competing in the four-day Ster Van Zuid-Limburg near the border of Belgium and the Netherlands. Rathe sent Cycling Action this report about stages 2 & 3.
(UPDATED BELOW: Monday, 3:25 p.m.)
Stage 2: Tactical Games
Yesterday was stage 2, and it turned out to be a very interesting day tactically. The race was 112k. We rode 77k to a town and then did five loops on a 7k finishing circuit. It wasn't very hilly, but it was hillier than I expected.
The first hour of the race was aggressive and nervous, breaks tried to establish themselves but enough teams were active that nothing stuck. Later in the race it became more dangerous for us. Our goal was to bring the pack in together for a bunch sprint and hope that the winner wasn't one of the few riders within five seconds of our race leader Adam Leibovitz. The winner gets a five-second time bonus.
A few small groups would establish time gaps but we were quick to plop 3 guys, including myself, on the front to bring it back. Things got really interesting on the finishing circuits. On the second lap Nate and I found ourselves in a breakaway group of 10 guys. Most of the good teams were represented, it was looking good. Since we have the leader's jersey, we didn't have to help with the pacemaking. We could get a free ride at the back because we didn't want to help a high-placed rider gain time on Adam, and possibly take the lead from us.
As expected, the other members of the break weren't happy we were there. They yelled at us to help but it was in our best interest that the break didn't succeed. For me though, it was a perfect situation. I was the highest-placed rider in the front group, and I could sit at the back and not do any work. At one point we had 33 seconds and I was the leader of the race on course.
But, the organization of the group fell apart, they were all tired. Had I pulled it had a better chance of succeeding, but I didn't know who was in the break, and if a higher-placed rider than I had beaten me at the finish, we would lose the jersey altogether.
With two laps to go another group of 10 bridged up to us. Adam was not there, but the third-placed rider was. At that point, the main field wasn't far back. We were somewhat relieved to bring it all back together and make sure Adam was in the front group.
Then the real work started to keep it together. No big moves went until the last lap, when the second-placed rider from Great Britain launched off the climb. It took myself and two other U.S. riders more than half a lap to bring him back. It was scary, but the USA train brought the race back together, holding onto the yellow jersey one more day. We have a stage this afternoon, and the last one tomorrow. I moved up to sixth place on GC, still seven seconds back.
Stage 3: A Tough Day For Team USA
We started the stage still in the leader's jersey by three seconds. It was a 112k race, ending again with five finishing circuits. The course was rolling and technical. It was a relatively mellow race the first 30k (for Euro standards), and enough teams were active that nothing stuck.
A group of three eventually sneaked away and gained a one-minute advantage. It was time for Team USA to go to the front. Four of us set tempo on the front, leading the now 175-rider field through the windy countryside and into the technical narrow streets of the small Belgian towns. We brought it back without too much trouble -- probably too soon.
I made a tactical mistake when I let a group go 5k before an intermediate sprint. I assumed the team with the red (points) jersey would want to keep it together. But I was wrong, and another group, this time of eight, got away and the gap rose to a minute. We entered the finishing circuits with eight riders storming away from the field and about 40k to go. Three of us went to the front again, setting the tempo high. It took us about 1.5 laps to bring it back without much of a problem.
That was when we got into big trouble. With two laps to go, less than 20k, we were all tired. We continued to be bombarded by attacks. With 1.5 laps to go another group got away. I was the only one left at the front, and no other teams were motivated to chase. I got on the front and gave all that I had left. I led the first half of the last lap until the escapees were in sight. That's when the sprinters' teams got excited and swarmed me. The break never did get caught, but they had less than 10 seconds at the finish.
Unfortunately, The Belgian who won gained enough time on the field, plus the time bonuses, to come one second behind Adam on GC. Toooo close...
We've got one more stage this afternoon, and we've got the top spot on the podium ... by one second.
(UPDATE: VeloNews.com reports that during Monday's final stage, Adam Leibovitz slipped to third overall when he finished in the pack behind a six-rider breakaway. Jacob Rathe was 11th on the final GC.)