Team Race Clean kicked off it's European campaign with a travel weekend from Hell.
Our flight into Brussels was redirected to Paris, after hearing of the attacks, moments before we were about to land. Had our flight leaving Montreal not been delayed, we would have been in the Arrivals terminal right as the explosions went off. Life's crazy man.
So, after leaving Edmonton on March 20th, I made it into my bed in Spain the evening of the 23rd ready to crush out some final hard training before the racing campaign in Belgium.
Oh man is racing in Europe fun!
My first race of the season was the Scheldeprijs Interclub, which was a flat cobbled race near Antwerp to get us ready for the U23 Tour of Flanders. You're constantly making contact with people in the pack and it's a constant struggle for position and there's always some dusty Belgian yelling at you in Flemish that sounds like absolute alien gibberish. "QHrq efheyu fh Canada Move! uhfrhgus rgf uih!" is how it usually goes.
Another thing that's different about Belgium is the dreadful road conditions. When you're not riding on the roads made of concrete slabs with a huge line of death (just the right width for a tire) straight down the middle of the road, you're dealing with traffic furniture, potholes, or cobbles! Some guys don't like how sketchy it is, but I've just always assumed that bike racing is inherently sketchy - so I love it.
Flanders was pretty cool to race. I was riding in a support role for Adam and Sean who were both looking for a solid result, but the day was just not to be for us.
Adam crashed 60km in, at the bottom of a 4km climb, right as Great Britain hit the front to hammer over the top and then stretch the field out through the crosswinds.
I stopped to help Adam back up, and we had to absolutely haul ourselves over the hill and navigate the death gaps in No-Man's Land of guys going backwards through the crosswinds, to barely make it onto the back of the peloton.
That effort to help Adam mangled me pretty hard, but I stuck around to give absolutely everything I had and deliver him up to like maybe ~30th position in the peloton. From there on, I was just hanging on for as long as I could. My race ended when I gave Sean a wheel with 35km to go - after somebody put his foot in Sean's spoke - while he was up the road in a stacked move. Just not our day I guess.
The next week after Flanders sucked pretty hard. My achilles tendons were giving me some troubles, but I down played it in my head because I was hungry for that open Flanders spot on the team. I didn't ride for 4 days after Flanders because of my achilles and I came down with a cold that I kept quiet about - but honestly I think I'd make the same decision to race again. Flanders only comes once a year man. Especially as a first year U23 - how could I turn that opportunity down because of some stupid ankle pain?
Next weekend Will, Aidan, and I went to the Ardennes Challenge. What a joke. That was the most ridiculous race I've ever been in.
It's a 4 stage race, but you don't have to race every single day - and it's an omnium instead of a GC! So what happens is that you race 200 people the first day; and then the next day, the 150 people that DNF'd are back again the next stage fresh as a daisy (plus another 50 guys who didn't even race the day before).
By the time Sunday rolled around, it felt like I had raced against every single Belgian with a road bike and a pair of bibs! And since it's an omnium, and not a GC, even if you're not in the lead group, you can't just switch off and roll into the line; you have to fight for every placing that's still up for grabs! it's total chaos the whole time.
Stage 1 was insane; I was still dusting off the cobwebs from my legs and trying to get my head back into race mode, so I was too far back when the selection was made - and missed the lead split, but luckily Will made it and cracked 7th on the day.
Stage 2 in the Jungle rolls around and I was adamant about not missing the selection. Anytime a group rolled off the front, I was eager to bridge across. Finally, we hit the circuits all together and I'm 4th over the climb - and then I attack over the top, but don't get much of a gap, so I sit up. Seconds later, a train of 6 guys on the same team come flying past me hammering through the crosswinds. That's probably one of the most important things I've learned so far about racing in Europe: ALWAYS pay attention to the wind direction. Anyway, after re accelerating, and falling probably 3 places too far back in the string of riders in the gutter, I found myself closing death gaps left by riders in front of me - only to bridge past that rider who was trying to close his own gap of death. After dangling in No-man's land for what seemed like forever, I retreated to the main pack to battle with everyone else for another seemingly irrelevant position in the sprint. Try again tomorrow.
Another stage (3) of absolute madness in the Jungle Challenge; pouring rain all day with a 5km and 10km climb on the menu. That's before hitting an absolutely savage finishing circuit of 6 laps of 8km, with a 2.5km climb in it - and the finish line halfway up. I made it 2 laps in, with the lead group of 30 riders, before my legs blew up. And that's when my DS Joel pointed out to me in his broken English that most of the guys ahead of me were either pros (continental) or hadn't raced the days before. A glimmer of hope I guess.
After how hard I cracked on stage 3, I knew I was in for a rough one in stage 4 with an even harder course. Even after all the struggle, I was somehow in a half way decent position in the omnium and was our team's protected rider. There was an absolute wall of 2km at 15% 45km in, and my teammate Will did everything he could to keep me in, but I was so mangled I was utterly useless. He was giving me pushes and Madison slings up the hills - trying to keep me in the front group - it's actually kind of tragic and hilarious how futile it must have felt to be Will, and see me after all this help he's giving me still just going backwards. I remember Will looking at me struggling up this climb, and he just shakes his head, gives me a big madison toss up over the top of the hill and yells, "Come on Burtnik!!!" and then heroically claws his way back onto our group, only to see me dangling on the back. It didn't matter when it came down to it; I was so deep in the box that as soon as we hit the bottom of the wall, my legs just buckled and the 2 minute lead I had over the peloton just evaporated.
After surviving my first Jungle Challenge I finished 16th overall and 4th in the U23 category so not too bad at the end of the day I guess. of the 300 guys I raced all weekend only 31 finished every stage!
It's a little depressing racing in Belgium. Back home you get built up with all this confidence only for the Belgian Hammer to come and whack you down a notch. All I could think when I was getting dropped going up those climbs was, "Where do these bastards come from!?!?"! If I couldn't manage a result in this nothing amateur race, how could I ever expect to sign a pro contract one day? It feels like I'm bashing my head against the wall sometimes for these seemingly petty results, but hopefully, eventually, there will be a breakthrough. Nonetheless, the coaches are giving me compliments, and are satisfied with how I'm progressing. The hitters on Race Clean are asking that I come to the big races because they like the work I'm able to do for them. So that feels pretty good.
I just got back from Escborn-Frankfurt U23 - which was probably the coolest race I've ever done. It had the finishing circuit right in downtown Frankfurt. My job was to hunt the early break, so I ended up riding myself into the ground trying to get into it. I was dropped 60km in, just before the crest of the first major climb, after getting my teammates' bottles, as my last huzzah for the guys. Our goal was top 5 and we fell just short of that, with Ed leading out Alec round the final corner with 250m to go; he managed to snag 6th, so we'll take that.
Coming up in a few days, our Month of stage racing starts - with Fleche du Sud, in Luxembourg, Tour de Berlin, Paris-Arras, and Tour de la Manche. All except La Manche are UCI 2.2 level races (the same level as Saguenay and Beauce), and La Manche is a D1 which is the highest level of amateur racing in France. I'm pretty pumped to get back to trying to tear myself apart trying to grind a result out for the team.
If you want to follow me through the jungle of bike racing at a non-monthly interval, @teamraceclean is very active on twitter and instagram.