As I am writing this post, I am listening to this song…so maybe hit Play while you read:
The third day here in Wallonie was the longest stage of the Tour, covering a total of 224 kilometers. With only one or two ‘mountains’ (we are after all, in Belgium), and a handful of sprints, on paper it was pretty much flat. For 224km. With Greg Van Avermaet in the leader’s jersey, it was up to us to defend and ride the front. The plan was simple, let a small breakaway go, hold them at 5 minutes and try to reel them back in by the last bonus sprint at 208km where we would try to launch Greg and get him some bonus seconds. In each stage, there are sprints which count for both time (3, 2, 1 seconds respectively) and points (5, 3, 1). We could care less about the points, but since Greg going into this stage 3 was TIED on time with second place, the plan was to try and take some extra seconds by leading him out to that final bonus sprint.
That may or may not have confused you. You might ask, why not just go for all the sprints if there are a handful of them along the way? Why just go for the last one? Or you might ask, why go for the sprints at all if you are leading anyways?
Well, if we chose to go for ALL of them, we, as a team, would have to control the race the entire day which would mean riding much harder to make sure no breakaway would get away. The sprint at the end was close enough to the finish (16km to go) that it made sense to let a break take all the time bonuses, then reel them in on the last one and play our cards there. We were also confident in Greg’s ability to out-sprint second place and gain some more time.
Back to the race report. The break got away easily, and was made up of only 3 guys which made for a perfect scenario for us. The less guys in the break, the easier it is to control. It was decided that Ballan, Frank, Kohler and Murphy would ride the front with Kristoff and obviously Greg, saving the legs for the final. My job was to get bottles and be there for Kristoff in the finale, or help on the front if the boys were unable to bring the break back in time.
Time passed slowly, the kms just counting down all day. The boys did a great job controlling the front and I made my journeys back to the car for bottles whenever they needed more to drink. It is odd how my legs seem to feel more pain when we are all just cruising along at a medium, boring pace. Many people don’t realize on TV how long it actually takes us to get to the finish line some days. The dull pain of just steadily riding along is, for me, much more exhausting than if we were constantly attacking each other all day. So there I sat, behind the guys doing the work, in front of the guys I needed to protect, just waiting. Mind wandering. ’100km done. Ok, 120km to go…that’s what like 3 hours? Hmm. Think of it more like 2 and a half since you’ll be doing something of interest the last 30 minutes. 120km done. If this were the first day we would only have 30km left. Don’t think about that, you still have 100km. 100km. Blehh. I wouldn’t mind having my phone right now, I could be the first person to tweet from the front of a bike race. Dude, that is ridiculous, focus on the road.’ And on and on like this. Then a song would pop into my head and I would sing the chorus to myself over, and over. And over. For the next hours.
Then, just like that we had 30km left. I went back for my final load of bottles, and got ready to do some real work. After a Coke, and the past 190km of nothingness, my legs were itching to get to the front and do some big ole watts. As we got closer to the front, it appeared more and more that we might not get the break back in time for the sprint so with 10km left until the sprint I went up and gave the boys a hand. Finally, I thought to myself, something to do! SPEED! With 1:30 to make up on the break in 10km we had to ride pretty hard and fast. Jason McCartney from Radioshack joined Ballan, Kohler and I as we rode upwards of 65km/h, making great headway into the slowing pace of the 3 out front who had been off the front all day. As we neared the intermediate sprint, the clock was ticking down. Would we catch them? It was going to come down to the wire that is for sure. With 1km to the sprint we could see what was left of the breakaway. One man had already been dropped and the other two were just in sight. With Kristoff and Greg on my wheel I told Kohler to gun it, and gun it he did. We were blitzing along now, the blow-up banner above the sprint just coming into view. Kohler pulled off at 500m to go, and it was my turn to lay the smack down. I ramped up the speed until 300m to go when Kristoff came flying by with Greg on the wheel. Just behind him though was second overall. This was going to be a close one. Not to mention the two out front were still there but barely. From my view it looked like Greg just caught them on the line, but in the end, one man from the breakaway managed to collect first, with Greg just getting edged out for second by the guy we were trying to get a leg up on.
I had sufficiently gassed myself chasing the break back and leading Greg out so I spent the final kilometers of the race bringing Kristoff and Greg to the front. With 5km to go I was done and hung at the back, just barely hanging on. Kristoff, with no help, managed to get 3rd in the finale, a respectable result.
We returned to the bus defeated, down but not out. Our plan backfired, but we are motivated to get that second back.
Still two stages left.