Thursday, May 21, 2009

Rathe Report: Peace Race the second time around

(Oregon junior racers Jacob Rathe, Austin Arguello and Ian Boswell have been in Europe competing with the USA Cycling Junior National Team. They recently finished the Peace Race in the Czech Republic against members of other junior national teams. Rathe, who finished sixth on Stage Four, sent Cycling Action this report).

By Jacob Rathe

Stage 1: Bringing Back Memories

Usually things are easier the second time … usually. I did this race last year. Mostly I remember it as blurry visions of suffering, a car’s windshield and the insides of my eyelids. But as the year progressed, I gained much more experience and somehow tricked myself into thinking the difficulty I had in the Peace Race last year was mostly due to my inexperience.

It didn’t take long to falsify that thought; about 500 meters, to be exact. The race rolled out of the town we were staying in for the whole race, Litomerice. It started slightly downhill on cobbles, through a roundabout, and then the first set of big rollers heading out of town. That was when memories proved accurate.

We had three loops to do. It started out rolling, but mostly went up, then up and up. Eight km later we crested the top and had a somewhat chill downhill and rolling section, until the next time around.

I wasn’t having a great day. The first lap I thought I would be dropped. I felt a little less bad on the second lap. The third time up the climb wasn’t looking good, though the legs were starting to come around. I started in a bad position -- very bad. I remember coming to the bottom of the last 800 meter pitch of the climb. There were 20 riders in a line in front of me with a gap to the peloton. The front was a loooong ways away…Somehow I crested the top in contact with the main group.

The peloton was all together until about 10 km to go when four riders got away. They weren’t far up the road, so I tried to bridge and ended up bringing the whole group within five seconds of break. But nobody felt like finishing it off so the break crept away again and ended up staying away, 23 seconds up on the field.

U.S. riders finished decently in the group. Ryan Eastman finished 20th, Austin Arguello, 22nd and me 25th. An Austrian won the stage and is in the Yellow Jersey.

Stage 2: Tempoless

Last year stage two was the only “easy” day of the race. It was mostly flat with a 1.5 km hill, and a 1km finishing climb. This year we had 18 km that was supposed to be flat, but it turned out to have a few climbs. Then we had the biggest climb of the whole race: 10 km at an 8% average grade that required 28 minutes of climbing. I had another bad day -- very unusual. I my legs haven’t popped open after that ear infection.

The climb really was awful. It never let up, and people kept passing me. The field blew apart into a million pieces, but eventually came together into two big groups. I was in the second group of about 60, not quite the “grupetto,” but pretty close. We finished six minutes back, ending my GC hopes.

Ian and Charlie finished in the lead group. Everybody else with me…Including the yellow jersey.

Stage 3: A+B

Last night I realized how hard this race really is. We have two stages today and two more monster stages this weekend. In the 12km time trial, Charlie, Ian, and Andrew hit it hard, Tinkles, Ryan and I “soft pedaled” it.

Nobody was really happy with their result. Andrew finished 22nd, Charlie 33rd and Ian 50th. The times were faster than last year, under what I remember to be pretty similar conditions. The winning time was faster last year, but there were many more times under 15 minutes this year.

Austin and I soft pedaled, coming in 114th, and 115th, respectively. I beat him by one second; we must ride together too much. Surprisingly, our average speed was about 41 kph, which used to be a good time trial for me.

The afternoon stage was uneventful: five circuits around a town with a few short climbs. I was a good day for me to take advantage of a tired peloton. Last year they raced it pretty hard. But, this year, Stage 2 was much harder, and Stage 4 is also harder than last year. So today most racers were content with a group sprint. I ended up in a few short-lived breaks but nothing substantial. My legs showed up today; I could actually move up on the climbs, and the burn almost felt good in my legs.

The finish was good for me. The last 400 meters were slightly uphill, but it was also somewhat technical. Since no team had an amazing sprinter (they don’t come to this race), the last couple kilometers were very unorganized. I was in good position, but I got swarmed when we turned onto a big road at a slow pace.

I ended up finishing 17th on the stage -- a good benchmark top 20 but not quite satisfying.

The German who destroyed the TT this morning also won the field sprint and is in yellow.

Stage 4: Stage from Hell

I think this is the hardest course in Junior cycling. This is the stage where you find out if you have done anything wrong. Everything you do the first three stages, with regards to fueling, hydration, rest, and where you ride in the peloton, will decide your fate. Everything you do wrong will come back and slap you.

We had about 1,000 meters until the first climb. Five kilometers. Up. First two kilometers’ average grade: 13%. Entire climb: 10%. Driving to the start you can see the mountain range, a big dark wall of mountain. After the climb it doesn’t go down, but continues to roll forever. They’re not small rollers, either; big ones that are exposed to the wind.

I made it up the first climb without much trouble. The rolling hills weren’t too bad for the next 30 km, until we had a screaming descent back down to the valley floor, with a lot of turns at 80-95 kph. Then came the next climb, only four kilometers this time. I sort of made it up in the lead group; the field split and only a 10 second gap was left to close down on top of the windy ridge. Only 10 seconds…

I was relieved to be there after the two climbs of the day. But the worst was yet to come. I remember this section to be very difficult last year, but that was when I got caught at the back, in the gutter. This year was no different. An echelon was up front, a small cluster of riders, then a long single file line in the gutter. We went up and down these big rollers, about 200 vertical feet of climbing for what really was forever. There was no rest, even on the downhill where you had to spin fast into the crosswind. All I remember is riding in the gutter, pretty much in the grass, and flipping the 100% effort switch to “on.”

A break was up the road, and six Russians (who had a guy in second place), were riding on the front. The Germans had only the yellow jersey left in the front group.

In the midst of pain and fatigue, I realized how amazing this race, and sport, really is. I would look up occasionally and could see far below to the valley and the dark mountains beyond. I’d watch the long line of colorful jerseys hammering through the small, twisty, country roads. This is more interesting than math class…

There were still four U.S. riders in the front group when we bombed back down to the valley floor. We saw 25k to go and thought we were home free. I was still slightly concerned about a short uphill I saw in the last 10k. But our elevation profile hasn’t been completely accurate. There have been climbs in the profile that never show up, while there have been many more climbs in the race that weren’t in the profile. I was optimistic.

But it came eight km from the finish. It was three km long, and steep. This is the time when the front group dismantles, and you hear grunts and moans. Again, somehow I clawed myself up and over the top in the lead group.
Four, three, two…kilometers to go. The break was caught long ago, a Nations Cup stage was up for grabs.

This was my biggest regret of this race: With 1,500 meters to go, the Jr. Paris-Roubaix winner from Belgium attacked, and I followed and bridge up to him. He sat up when I catch him. With one k to go I looked back, expecting to see the pack in a single file line. No. I stood up to re-accelerate but there was nothing left, and 1,000 meters seemed like an eternity to stay away. I waited, and all five seconds that I waited I was pissed that I hadn’t kept going. I jumped back into the front and found my way to the line for a sixth-place finish.

One of my goals for this race was to get a top-10 in a stage. But, if you can get sixth, then you can get third, or second …or first. Hindsight is 20/20.

Stage 5: The ‘Champs Elysee’

Although this is the “Tour de France of the East” or the “Junior Tour de France,” the final stage doesn’t have the same feel. In the Tour de France, the riders casually ride to the finishing circuits on the Champs Elysee in Paris, then start racing. I wouldn’t have minded something like that, but instead we had four loops through Litomerice and the surrounding hills. Only eight substantial climbs. Two climbs per lap and almost 6,000 feet of climbing separated me from the final finish line.

The climbs weren’t too bad. One was short and steep: 3k with 15 percent wall. The other was 4.5k with gradients between 5 and 10 percent.

A long story short, first lap: ughhh, maybe I won’t finish. Lap 2: I may as well. Lap 3: wait…one more lap after this?! Lap 4: 2 more climbs to go!

I rode the race boring…now that I think of it, I didn’t really do anything. Just hanging on, which wasn’t much of an issue until the last climb. I was confident I could get a top five on the stage if it came down to a field sprint or with a few riders off.

The last time up the climb was the only time it really took everything. But when I crested the climb, the wide open plains sprawled out in front of me, dark clouds loomed on the right, and a bright partly cloudy sky on the left. The long line of riders swooped down the steep, smooth, twisty decent. This really is the most amazing junior race on the planet.

It came down to the wire. Not for me, but it was fun to watch. In the flat last 5k, the race leader was on the front trying to bring back the break of five riders, including a Russian who was third on GC. The German and his teammate hammering on the front at 55 kph brought back memories from my April trip at Ster van Zuid-Limburg.

The finish didn’t come together. I got caught behind a crash with 500 meters to go. Ten riders gapped off the front and I caught back up to them at the finish line for 21st place.

The race was over. Five days before I had feared the climbs, the cobbles, the wind, the descents, the finishing sprints and the pain. But now that it is over it just seems like a bad dream…or maybe a good one.

Last week U.S. Development Team graduate Tejay Van Gardener, of the Rabobank Continental team, said that his biggest regret as a junior was not doing the Peace Race. I replied, “I think mine is doing it twice.” Surely I was wrong.

Interesting: the race finished in Terezin, I think the third deadliest concentration camp during WWII. Maybe a little weird also....