Flèche du Sud - from high to low

This month Phinney experiences the highs and lows of European stage racing

We all come tumbling off of our high horse eventually. This seems to be a common trend not only in cycling, but in any other professional sport. Take two steps forward, and sooner or later you'll step back. As we scale the mountain of life - particularly in sport - crashing is inevitable. Especially in cycling.

Our Trek-Livestrong team arrived in Europe on Sunday, May 17, ready to begin our first European campaign as a team. We had a couple of days to get adjusted and situated before our first race - the UCI Cat. 2.2 Flèche du Sud in Luxembourg. Flèche du Sud has seen some very strong riders atop the podium including Andy Schleck, Kim Kirchen, and Bradley Wiggins.

I'll start with the prologue.

"Cycling is brutally unforgiving sometimes and all I could do at that moment was wonder, why me?" - Phinney on the crash which ruined his GC hopes.  

I was especially excited because the prologue was only 4.2 kilometers and very technical with many sharp turns. Knowing that no one in the world can beat me at a distance like that, I was very confident in not only my performance, but in the whole team. It also might've helped that I have been doing cornering clinics at my parents' bike camps since as long as I can remember.
 

I prepared for the prologue as if it were an individual pursuit. That is, after all, what I have proved to be best at. I studied the course many times in training both with the team and by myself until it was second nature. I knew that winning was the only option - it is what was expected of me by others and what I expected from myself. The distance was perfect, the course was perfect, my legs were fine. I had to win... Anything else would be a big disappointment.

It all happened very fast, and it hurt. My legs were screaming but I knew I had nailed it. The corners had gone perfectly - ok, I hit a couple of curbs because I was going fast, but my accelerations and shifting were right on schedule. It was beautiful.
 

I had the added advantage of starting late - 5th to last - and crossed the finish line three seconds under the best time. I knew I had it. The team knew I had it. Axel knew I had it.

Beautiful. There's nothing quite like winning a bike race. My teammate Ben King put it on YouTube if you want to see it yourself.

I ran to get my podium clothes on, signed my anti-doping waiver and then sprinted to the podium just in time for the ceremony. In our first race in Europe, Trek-Livestrong did not disappoint. We won and we had the leader's jersey. (Funny side note: the organizers only ordered size small leader's jerseys. I am almost 2 meters tall - I can fit into a medium but am normally...large!) Now the real work starts, I thought to myself.
 

I don't get very nervous. I didn't get nervous before my pursuits at Worlds, I wasn't even that nervous the night before the Olympics. But being in the leader's jersey at a big race like Fleche Du Sud? It scared the crap out of me. This was new territory.

My Trek-Livestrong team, consisting of Bjorn Selander, Ben King, Guy East, Jesse Sergent, and Sam Bewley (in no particular order), were ready and rode supremely to defend our jersey - the leader's jersey on my back. All I had to do was sit in and conserve energy over the climbs. In the final local laps it started to rain heavily and it got a bit sketchy, but when it is sketchy, I will always be up there.

Since the team worked so hard I definitely felt some pressure on my shoulders to deliver in the sprint and managed perfect position with about 500 meters to go, right behind the German, two-time Junior World Champion Marcel Kittel. His jump was just too strong for me in the end and I only managed third, but I was satisfied. More importantly, the team was happy. We lived to defend the leader's jersey for another day, just as we had hoped and planned.

Stage two was the "queen stage" of the tour (it means the most difficult) and had four or five 1-3km climbs before a very hilly circuit. Again, the team controlled the race beautifully and I was able to sit on. I was so proud of my guys the whole day. They rode at the front like seasoned pros and the field was taking notice. I got many compliments from other riders on our professionalism.

As we neared the circuits the race got HARD. It was splitting up everywhere and we could no longer control the bunch. As the laps counted down a break managed to get away and stay away even though a couple of the sprinters' teams were pulling pretty hard at the front. When it came down to the end, the break had over a minute, resulting in the loss of our jersey. We felt like we did everything we could have - and realized that one team can't keep tabs on the whole race - although we did try.

Stage three was another hilly one but not quite as hard as the day before. Although I lost about five places on general classification to the breakaway of the day before, I was still in the young rider's jersey and planned on keeping that for the rest of the tour.
 

The final circuits proved hard with a 2 km climb every lap but I felt strong. We were scheduled for four laps up the hill and I was safely in the bunch leading up to the climb on the last lap. Suddenly, everything got tight and somebody unexpectedly and erratically jerked to the right. I've never gone down so fast. One second I was up, the next, I was rolling on the ground. A couple riders rolled over me.

When I got up I realized that my front wheel was done for and I had to get it changed, losing precious time. I got back going but I knew it was too late. I gave everything up the climb, but never saw the pack again. I was crushed. Tucking on the descent, I found myself half sobbing, half cursing at the world.

"Why do I do this?" I thought to myself...All that work. The prologue. The team defending the jersey. Every ounce of energy I had spent to keep my GC hopes alive vanished. In a second. Cycling is brutally unforgiving sometimes and all I could do at that moment was wonder, why me?

Teammate Guy East waited for me and paced me to the line. As we crossed I kept going past the team cars and the riders. I sat alone on a desolate side street for 10 minutes by myself. I needed that time to get the pity party over with, and to 'man up' as my Kiwi teammate Sam Bewley would say. The crash cost me two minutes and my young riders jersey, but I sucked it up, picked myself up, accepted the consequences and went back to the hotel to recover for the next day.

Luckily for us, the last stage proved to be a pretty easy one until a steep 1 km climb with 10 km to go. I got gapped, but made it back, taking the corners of the descent maybe just a wee bit too fast for comfort. A top 10 on the stage and I was content. Flèche du Sud was in the record books. Team Trek-Livestrong couldn't have had a better start...in the prologue, but it all went downhill from there. C'est la vie.

Or should I say, "that is bike racing for ya."

We have the U23 Paris-Roubaix this Sunday, May 31.

It might be more suited to me - and we can't wait!

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