I’ve been thinking super hard for nearly two weeks about how to properly write about my first foray into the European peloton. Every time I think I’ve got it nailed in my brain, I panic and I can’t even write. Fortunately I have a bunch of other stuff that I want to procrastinate on even more right now so I’m making myself sit down and write.
I started my trip super early in the morning of April 1 with an uneventful flight to Washington D.C. followed by a scary flight to Brussels when I realized that United, in an attempt to save money, had foregone getting a second wing on all of its airplanes.
Upon arriving in Brussels I was greeted by our Soigneur Andrew. Neat! I’ve never had a Soigneur before! F**k having to make my own sandwiches or do my own laundry! I’ve hit the big time!
That afternoon while the rest of the national team ladies raced Grand Prix de Dottignies I rode backwards on the course in my awesome new USA National Team kit and got totally scared by how huge the peloton was and how narrow some the roads were (sidewalk, yo).
My third day in Europe and it was time to race. We were racing Energiewacht Tour in northern Holland. A 5-day six stage race totaling over 500k and with a monster total of 12m of climbing throughout the tour (we went over a few highway overpasses).
I was told by several people going into my first race to stay in the front and hide behind a tall Dutch girl. Seriously, the women in Holland are super tall! and fast! Just to put it in perspective I took a picture of Niels next to one of their bikes. Despite their height I would soon discover that holding the wheel of a strong Dutch racer, no matter how tall, was about as easy as walking a tightrope blindfolded or trying to draft a hummingbird.
Tall girls aside, going into the first race I kept hearing people talk about “road furniture” on the course and kept thinking, “those silly Dutch, why are they leaving their sofas in the road.” Well I learned really quickly that road furniture is actually just medians and obstructions in the middle of the road (“obstakels” in Dutch which made me feel like I was in a CX race) usually with a dude with a whistle and a flag standing on top of them hoping that no one rides straight into him.
I had also heard about how narrow the roads were and how much the wind could rip the peloton apart but really nothing could prepare me for these roads. The roads would go from three lane highways down to roads that were barely wide enough for a small car in the blink of an eye and once the front of the race would start to echelon in the crosswinds I would watch helplessly from somewhere in the back 50% of the race as the 700m long peloton would shatter in front of me. If you weren’t in the front, moving up even 1 or 2 wheels was a near herculean effort and once the girls on the front started to hit the gas you would be dropped before you knew what happened.
The first two days of Energiewacht I finished in the back group which left me close to the bottom of the general classification going into the TT. For the TT, I got to do something I’ve never gotten to do before, I got to roll it! My only job in the TT was to not get time cut and to not expend too much energy.
Since it was the first race where I wasn’t going cross-eyed trying to hang on to the tail end of the peloton or suffering so far into the gutter that I could only focus on the wheels in front of me, I finally got a chance to look around at the Dutch countryside. I even almost managed to crash myself out when I was watching some pretty horses run alongside me!
The same day as the TT was a crazy circuit race that was run back and forth along a canal. This was the first race I managed not to get dropped but I still couldn’t figure out moving more than halfway up the peloton. This was also the first race that I saw girls crash off of a dyke into a canal. cool. Ruth finished 15th on the day which was fantastic!
The next day was another flat circuit race on narrow roads. It was the queen stage totaling 130k and I was in the groupetto almost immediately. I felt terrible, I couldn’t get my heart rate up and I felt like I wasn’t able to turn my pedals over. After 2 of 4 laps, I was barely holding onto the groupetto and I did what I’ve pretty much never done before, I pulled out of the race. I felt terrible, I should have kept riding but at the time I was just suffering so badly that I wasn’t even thinking straight. I especially wish I would have stayed in the race because the next day was straight up American style crit racing on a 14k circuit with wide roads, lots of turns, and a lot more room to move up. Ruth managed to initiate and drive the break of the day finishing 6th and taking the Most Aggressive jersey for the entire tour! I was so proud of her that my heart felt like it was going to burst. I was just sad that I wasn’t there to contribute to her awesome day.
After Energiewacht we had a week off to train and recover at our home base in Sittard. We spent some time team-building, drinking coffee, and posing for the paparazzi. Niels flew in this week so I was able to spend some time with him exploring Sittard and Liege. We did recon on the Fleche Wallonne course and … I was so happy! There were hills! 6 of them! I spent the day happily chasing Kristin McGrath up all of the climbs and totally looking forward to my first world cup!
However before Fleche we had to get through Ronde van Gelderland. I was actually fairly excited for this race because there were 6 short climbs in rapid succession before dropping into another race full of flat, narrow, windy Dutch roads.
This was the first race where I felt like I was getting the hang of things. During the neutral I was pushy and even sprinted into oncoming traffic to get to the front. Unfortunately though just as I was moving up on the first climb, I got tangled up in a crash where I mostly rode up onto another downed rider and tipped ungracefully over into the dirt. I untangled my bike and worked hard to get back on. I was covered in dirt. It was in my hair, on my face, and all over my embro soaked legs, and I still had 130k to race. I worked my butt off over the climbs and managed to stay with the third group on the road which then caught the second group on the road which then (with a huge crescendo of crashing that unfortunately took out two of my teammates) caught the lead group. I hung onto the lead group for another 15 or so kilometers when I once again found myself out of position on a narrow road and watched a gap open up in front of me. I finished the race in the last group of riders to not get pulled. There were over 170 starters and about 100 finishers. Our mechanic made fun of me for being so dirty. C’est la vie.
Two days later it was time for La Fleche Wallonne. I was so excited because I’d seen the course, I loved the climbs, and I was getting the chance to race one of the most epic races of all time. We started out in the front (if you think U.S. women line up early, do a Euro race, we would camp out on the line for 30 minutes minimum) and as we rolled out I found myself right next to Marianne Vos! OMG! I concentrated really hard on not crashing her out and looking cool and casual.
Over the first few climbs I was really finding my rhythm although I was still way too timid on the descents. My poor descending bit me in the butt when I allowed myself to drift backwards through the peloton on the last descent and get gapped off on the flat run-in to the Mur. I was in the caravan inhaling all of the burning clutch fumes the first time up the Mur and I somehow managed to catch a group of women who chased onto the second group on the road and eventually back up to the lead group just before the first climb on the second lap. As I was getting dropped on the second climb, I heard our director say into the radio “okay I need you all to move to the front on this climb.” Too late. I found myself in a group of 6 riders and with 20k to go the broom wagon offered us a ride. I was tired and crabby and something on my bike was feeling rough and making noise but dammit I was going to finish. The other riders and I decided not to get in the wagon and keep riding. I finished the race about 14 minutes down but all of the women who finished more than 10 minutes down were not placed. Kristin did awesome finishing 21st and Lauren was in the top 40. Ruth killed herself on the front of the race in the first lap while I was mostly useless, not able to find my way past the middle of the peloton.
I went into the last race, Omloop van Borsele, feeling both demoralized and desperate to just once be able to do my job in a race. Borsele is notoriously flat, windy, narrow, and filled with crashes. It starts off on a wide road before making a nearly 180 degree turn on to what was essentially a bike path. My job was to do an all out pursuit leadout effort for my teammates in the first 3k before the turn. I started in the front and went as hard as I could I didn’t stay in the front the whole time but dammit I was up there. My bike was still squeaking and I still felt like I was fighting my rig but for the first time in the whole trip I felt like I did my job. The beauty of it was that because I did my job, I found myself close to the front going into the narrow technical part of the race.
I stayed with the lead group for most of the first lap. I was in the second group when there was a HUGE crash in the first group and as I was getting around it I saw my teammate Kristin struggling to get off the ground and get her bike working. I turned around, gave her my bike, and dutifully waited for the team car which was stuck with the rest of the caravan behind 2 or 3 other groups on the road. The first spare bike that I got was approximately 3 inches too tall for me, the next one was the proper size, and then the next one was my bike. By this time I was so far out the ass of the race that I knew I was going to get pulled. I caught Kristin who had taken too hard of a hit in the crash to continue on and rode in with her to help her treat her wounds.
I left Europe feeling sad that I was mostly terrible at Dutch racing but motivated to learn better bike handling, get fitter, and train harder. I didn’t have the results or performance to make me think I’ll be invited back soon but I am determined to go back and do better and be more useful to my team.
A quick post-script. As any of my readers know, I really don’t have much patience for people’s excuses when it comes to bike racing. As Sue Butler once told me, “excuses are like a**holes, everyone has one and they all stink.” I hope what I’m going to share next doesn’t come across as an excuse, it’s not, it’s just another fact. When I got home I had Niels go over my bike and try to figure out what was feeling so weird and making so much noise when I pedaled. Niels pulled the bottom bracket bearings out of my bike and discovered that one was dragging quite a bit and the other was frozen solid. I don’t know how or when or why this happened so I don’t blame my performance at all of the races on frozen bearings but it did make me feel better that some of my struggles may have been, in part, due to trying spin a frozen bottom bracket bearing.
Last Saturday I raced Olympic View Road Race with the Cat 1/2 men. OVRR is a 144k flat, windy, narrow, and rainy race. It was time to put my Dutch skills to the test. The race itself ended up being fairly slow when the winning break went from the gun but I felt approximately 100x more comfortable than I ever have in a men’s race. I was able to steal wheels, attack, bridge, chase, and be comfortable bumping and moving around. I even anticipated and avoided the dude that swept my front wheel sprinting for … 20th.
So I don’t really know how to end this. There’s no appropriate epilogue except to say I am so unbelievably grateful for the opportunity afforded to me by USA Cycling and even though I’m disappointed with myself in countless ways, I know that I gained more than I can even begin to quantify. It’s strange that it’s May and I haven’t yet done a U.S. domestic pro race but I don’t feel like that’s a disadvantage. My next big race will be U.S. Pro Nationals with a couple of my Vanderkitten teammates and I can’t wait.
Thank you so much to USA Cycling, Vanderkitten, and most of all Niels for helping me live my dream of getting to Europe. I only hope I can live it at least one more time.
Jessica, I very much enjoyed reading your report! For the time being, you may be better as a writer than as a biker-ess… If you catch up on your racing skills, you will end up winning. It’s inevitable… Congrats!
I don’t think Jess has much “catching up” to do as she races professionally for Vanderkitten and has had much success! This European racing block experience with Team USA was the big time, competing against the worlds best women. She knew going into it there would be a lot to learn and the racing would be extremely challenging. Jessica did her best, as always, and came out of it an even more skilled racer! And yes, the writing is great too, but the racing is where her passion lies.
HER words, not mine, that it was an exercise ‘in being humbled’! Other than that, I totally agree!