So it all comes down to today. After four days of hotly contested bike racing, there is one last stage to decide it all. My teammate Greg Van Avermaet was in the yellow jersey but still tied with Joost Van Leijen from Vacansoleil, only leading by default because of his high placings in each stage. The last stage was another one of medium length, only 155km, but on paper appeared very hilly. I had learned over the past few days that when the race profile indicates that a race is flat it is most likely hilly, and when the profile actually hints that the stage might be up and down, it is never going to be flat, and it is going to be very difficult. That was the case with Stage 5. From the gun we were either going up or down, not for very long (this is Belgium after all), but enough to sting my tired ole legs. I’m not going to lie, I felt like crap for the first half of the stage. I couldn’t follow attacks and I could barely stay at the front while guys were jumping left and right knowing that if they got away, today was a day that they could STAY away. The peloton was a mess, at different times there would be groups of 20-30 riders of the front, everybody feeling the hills, feeling the efforts of the days prior. After an hour and a half of riding flat out, a break was FINALLY established. About half of the pack stopped for a nature break, as you do, and I was one of them. When I got up and running again, however, I noticed a team lined up at the front stringing the pack out. This seriously annoyed me, as my teammate, in the yellow jersey had stopped, as well as a good 50+ riders. Whatever you do in a bike race, you do not under any circumstance attack the yellow jersey when he is stopped and you sure as hell don’t ride when half the peloton stops, AND when there are 90km left in the stage! You just don’t do it.
I won’t name any names, but when I chased back on and rushed to the front I gave the team in question quite the ear full. They just put there heads down and drove onwards. To be fair to them, they were only riding because their sport director told them too. Their team leader even came up to them to yell at them and ask them what they were up to. Oh racing with no radios… How helpless you make some teams! Anyways, after about 10km of pissing the pack off, the team in question gave it a rest, and we slowed again.
When the break reached the 3 minute mark it was up to us, BMC, to control the bike race. Murphy, Kohler, and Frank hit the front, keeping the break in check. I was still feeling quite terrible, the legs just feeling empty. Everyone who races bikes has a ‘hump day’ (I prefer to call it a ‘curve day’ because hump day sounds like something else entirely), and my curve or hump or whatever you wanna call it DAY is day 5. Day 5 in a tour is usually my worst, but after that, it would seem that my body comes around and gets better and better. I had it happen in California, and Austria. And it seemed that it was happening here at Tour de Wallonie. I was not so stoked, however, on the fact that I felt like crap because we had a race to win and I had an integral role to play at the end of this race.
You see, I am a classics man, a man of the short cobbled climbs, a man of long cobbled roads. Stage 5 featured an ascent of the Mur du Thuin, a 500m 9% cobbled climb that we would tackle three times, all in the last 25km of the bike race. So naturally, it would be up to guys like myself and Alessandro Ballan (a Tour of Flanders winner–the ultimate cobbled climb race) to take care of Greg in the finale.
So like I mentioned before, I felt crappy, and was not looking forward to my duties. I wasn’t even sure I would make it to the Mur du Thuin. Even when we were just cruising along there were times I desperately wanted to quit, I felt that bad. To top it all off, Katusha had taken control of the front and were driving the pace up as the kms counted down. The gap to the break was coming down quicker than we wanted so we stopped pulling, letting Katusha do all the work. The roads heading in to Thuin were terrible, those concrete slab roads they love so much in Belg, with the giant crack down the middle…potholes everywhere. This was not helping my current state, let me tell you. The pack began to buzz, the nervousness rose as riders began to move to the front, taking risks, swerving left and right over the center crack as to not get stuck. Every corner we plowed into smelled powerfully of brakes. We must be getting close to the Mur, I thought.
With 10 or so km until the first time up the Mur du Thuin, the pack was strung out. I was tired, somewhere in the middle, not keen on making a big effort to get to the front. We whizzed by, going from a big road to a tiny road, then back to a big road. From bad pavement, back to good. Hopping train tracks and fighting to hold the wheel in front.
The lead up to the Mur is a bit blurry, but I was not in great position as we descended down into a valley. I saw a 25km to go sign and knew it was only a matter of 500m or so to the bottom of the climb. Something clicked in my head and suddenly I was surging up the left side of the road. I saw in front of me as the road tipped upwards and a large crowd and what appeared to be a u-turn on…what is that…cobbles! Then I was there, I was second wheel as we made the turn. I was on cobbles and I was climbing at the front of the pack. I though to myself: This is what I do! Finally!
Ben Hermans laid in an attack and I followed, along with a couple others. As we crested the top of the climb and passed through the finish I was all the sudden off the front with a select group of riders including Stijn Devolder and my teammate Alessandro Ballan, TWO former Tour of Flanders winners. Huh, I thought, maybe I feel good! Greg was not far behind and I followed attacks, never pulling through as not to distance ourselves from the man I was to be protecting.
The pack had exploded. Riders were everywhere and I was at the front! What!? AND I suddenly felt good! It was as if the cobbles awoke this new set of legs I wasn’t aware that I had. It feels good, to feel good, that is for sure. As riders would jump off the front, Ballan and I would follow. The front group slowly formed into about 40 riders and I quickly understood what I needed to do. If a team didn’t take control of this bike race a group could go, maybe without Greg, and we could lose it all. Ballan had already gotten the hint, and was keeping the pace high. I joined him, told him he needed to save his legs for the finale and took up the pace making. On the front, again, and it felt good.
At this point in the bike race we had about 15km to go, with two more passings over the Mur, one coming up at 12km to go, and the last one with 1km to go. Kristoff came up to the front to work with me and we rolled up to the base of the climb for the second time. As we hit the cobbles a Vacansoleil rider put in a big attack. We let him get a bit of a gap, and as we crested the top I took over again, now with a rider in my sights. Passing through the finish with one lap remaining I settled into a nice rhythm. I still felt good and was confident I could hold a solid pace for these last 10km. We caught the lone rider out front on a small downhill and Kristoff and I just put our heads down, each taking big pulls, making sure no one could pass us. A few riders would attack but we still had the legs to shut them down. The kms ticked down, my legs burning, but still producing the power I needed to keep the pace where I wanted. I was happy knowing Greg and Ballan were safely tucked in behind me. Before the little downhill into the valley prior to the final ascent of the Mur du Thuin, both Kristoff and I were at max. The pace we had been setting was very high, and at the end of a thoroughly difficult race. After reeling in one last attack from a Europcar rider, we were toast. 2km to go, we pulled off and Ballan took over with Greg on his wheel. Out the back of the group that we had whittled down to 25 or so we went, legs on fire. I gave Kristoff a big pat on the back and could tell he was equally as relieved as I was that our big effort was now over and that we had done a very good days work.
We coasted down the hill leading up to our final Mur du Thuin ascent, and soft pedaled the climb as much as we could (it was still a cobbled climb after all so ‘soft-pedaling’ equalled about 430 watts–not easy). As we got to the top, our team car rolled by with Rik Verbrugghe, our team director, yelling at us that Greg won the stage, meaning he won the overall by a solid margin. What a great feeling it is to work so hard for someone who is going to deliver. Already happy with our efforts, Kristoff and I rejoiced at the success we had had in this Tour de Wallonie. The finish line approached and passed. The race was over, we had won. The team had performed above and beyond anyone’s expectations.
I found Greg among the scrum, and gave him a huge hug. He thanked me profusely for the efforts over the week. I let him know that he is the man and that I am always going to help a guy who not only delivers more often than not, but who is a great guy to work with.
I made it back to the bus and finally had time to sit down an reflect on the week. I took a quick shower, got dressed and when Greg came back from the podium we popped some champagne and toasted to the week.
On to the next one…