Oregon junior racer Jacob Rathe has been in Europe with the USA Cycling Junior National Team competing in the 28th edition of the Internationale Junioren Driedaagse van Axel, a four-stage race contested May 22-24. Rathe sent Cycling Action this report.
By Jacob Rathe
The Course de la Paix may be the hardest junior stage race in the world, but Axel is the craziest. It's the Paris-Roubaix of junior stage racing. I didn’t do it last year, but U.S. riders reported it as: crazy, scary, ridiculous and made them pee themselves.
The race features small roads, cobblestones, wind and 180 riders. Even in the U.S. it would be crazy.
5:00 PM start time. We were on the start line, in the 5th row at 4:15. The race started with 8 kilometers of a nice, two-lane road. A quick left turn, through some farm fields, and we were on our first cobblestone section. If you're at the back now, the front of the race will be 1,000 meters ahead of you by the end (seriously). The first 8km was a miss-n-out. Everybody wanted to be at the front but nobody wanted to do any work, very nervous tempo.
I did ok and entered the cobbles around 30th place, in no danger of missing the split. The 180 rider field instantly went single-file, and even in 30th the front seemed very far away. We turned 90 degrees onto a paved road, I looked back and could see the shattered long line of riders still on the cobbles, a long ways back.
The next 40 km’s were somewhat chill as we weaved through the Dutch countryside on small farm roads. The wind was strong, and the front 10 riders were in an echelon, everybody else was in the gutter.
Nothing really happened until we got to the finishing circuits. Each of the three laps had a rough 500 meter cobble section, 2km from the finish. The rest of the course was pretty normal, with small roads, lots of turns and wind. I could see the pollen floating in the air during the race, and my eyes, nose, and throat burned with itch. Occasionally forcing a dry, wheezy, asthmatic cough. Am I sick?
Only Ryan and I finished in the lead group. About what I expected, Benny and Danny are track riders, and Russell is a mountain biker.
I got myself to the finish line. A group of 11 snuck away at the end, 20 seconds ahead. If I’m sick, I’ll know in the morning.
Stage two was a 7.9 km TT. Flat, fast and somewhat technical with wind. I felt better than expected. I never coughed during the TT, although I did before and after. I rolled a 10:10 for 15th place.
The winner rode it 32 seconds faster, and only four riders under 10 minutes. So I’m still within easy grasp of a top-5 GC. We did alright as a team, Ryan Eastman came in 26th, eight seconds behind me. Benny and Danny both under 10:31.
It was hot during the morning time trial, but as we readied for the road race in the evening when the race started at 5:30, it smelled like rain.
The Cobbles started 17km in. The start wasn’t so fierce, but we lined up in the back 1/2 hour early. I found my way to the front. My throat burned as my breathing escalated. “This is going to be a long day,” I thought, so I kept drinking, and half my bottle was gone in 10 minutes.
I hit the cobbles in good position when I felt something hit my leg. I looked down and my bottle is cock-eyed, barely in the cage. By the time I reach down it's gone.
Then the sky got dark and it started to sprinkle. Yes. Already I feel better. By the time we get to the finishing circuits it's pouring and my breathing is normal. I forgot about my earlier problems.
Before we started the circuits, 10 riders escaped up the road and got 30 seconds. Not again! It was a big, straight road. The peloton slowed up, I attacked up the right side, got low on the bike and didn’t look back. It took me 2.5km to reach them. Kazakhstan had two guys in it and were driving it.
We were working ok, not very smooth, but the pace stayed high and there were 50km to go. I didn’t really notice it, but riders kept coming up in twos and threes. With 14 riders, we were 35 seconds up on the peloton. It was looking good. The rain continued, and going into a corner the rider in front of me, and behind me, slid out. The cobbles were treacherous. The center ridge was the highest point of the road, and the sides were slightly off-camber.
The group grew to more than 20 riders with a gap of 35 seconds with two laps still to go. I got third in the intermediate sprint across the line and got a two-second time bonus. Then, literally three minutes after the moto tells us we have 35 seconds, we get caught.
Still feeling pretty good, I re-integrate with the main field. It didn’t get too crazy until the last 10km. It was still pouring rain, and the last time over the cobbles was treacherous. Tires were sliding out from underneath riders going straight. The only way through was in the middle or in the muddy grass. There was a huge pile up right behind me, but amidst all the noise I couldn’t hear it.
I had an ok sprint for 12th place on the stage, and I moved up to 13th on GC. Two U.S. riders went down at the end, Benny Swedberg and Ryan Eastman. But due to the 3km rule, they have the same time.
This was the last day of the race, and physically the hardest. The course went up and down the whole time and featured three king of the mountains sprints on each of the four laps, but there were many more hills than that.
The course weaved through the town, on big (relatively) roads, then off into the country on small twisty farm roads, weaving up and over the hills. There were lots of corners and lots of short punchy climbs. The KOM climbs were the hardest, all of them steep and between 500 meters and 1.2k, and with open rolling sections on top with wind.
The first lap was very nervous, but it seemed like the moment we crossed the finish line for the first time after 26.5km, it instantly calmed down.
The race leader was winning by about 30 seconds, time that could be lost very easily on this course. Riders would go up the road, and his team was there to set the tempo, keeping it manageable. As the lap board counted down, his teammates disappeared, and on the last lap he had one left.
There was a break of four up the road about a minute. It wasn’t coming back, and the yellow jersey was on the front.
My opportunity came when 4th place rider on GC (and the leader until the last day at the Peace race) Nikolas Arndt attacked at the beginning of the lap. The yellow jersey instantly responded, pulling the shattering peloton, but was unable to close down the five-second gap and sat up. Right when the slow up came, I was right in the front, and had the urge to jump, and I should have. I thought about it for one second and by then it was too late. I was pretty gassed, but so was everybody else.
I was hoping to take advantage of a GC battle to get myself the stage win. But, my chance rode away from me. I hovered near the front waiting for somebody else to make a move. It wasn’t until 8 kms when somebody jumped on a steep climb, and I followed. We got away, and the moto rolled up to tell us there was a 90-second time gap to the break. It's a big gap, but big time can be gained on steep climbs.
I was feeling really good and doing most of the work. The race was almost over, and I wanted time on the field. We caught up to a German riding by himself, he sat on.
Two kms later we got another time gap. This time it was 50 seconds. We could possibly catch them. If they started doodling around, 50 seconds would be nothing. They were in sight on the open sections, and I took a few extra risks down a narrow twisty decent with 3kms to go. The caravan behind the lead group had to pull over to let us by, we were getting close.
At 1k to go, they still weren’t close enough. My motivation faded, now I just wanted the best possible stage result. Nobody else wanted to pull, so I just set a decent tempo of the last 500 meters up to the finish. I ended up getting 7th on the stage, the German jumped around me at the end.
The peloton rolled in a good while later, possibly a minute. If the gap was over 51 seconds, I would have moved ahead on GC of everybody in the peloton, and I would be in no worse than 6th place on GC, I guessed. But, the time gap ended up only being 40 seconds, which slotted me in 9th on GC.
In hindsight, I should have ridden a lot harder in the last km to make sure I got 51 seconds and not worried about my stage result.
It was an awesome race, I actually enjoyed it. Never a dull moment.