As the season is being planned in the winter, everything is so clean and simple. The calendar has a logical flow with building, peak, and rest periods. You notice the 'R's on some other races, but at that point of the year don't give much attention to your reserve races. But then the season starts for real and you realise that cycling is messy—sometimes, really messy.
Some years are worse than others, but injuries and illness are a constant presence, and when this unfortunate duo arrive at a time of year where teams are running a double - or even triple – race programmes, that carefully-planned calendar quickly has more lines and arrows than one of John Madden's play diagrams.
It seems like just a few days ago that I was nervously pinning on my first number of the season at the Tour de Provence. Early-season French racing never disappoints, and it was a solid kick in the pants. I left with tired legs, pleased with my February form and impressed by the level some guys already had.
After a short couple of days at home, I found myself on an unanticipated flight to the United Arab Emirates to replace an injured teammate at the new WorldTour race. Even if my participation wasn't planned, I was in good shape and motivated to see what I could accomplish. I finished the week feeling encouraged by my performance -- that everything was going to plan, even if it wasn't quite sticking to the plan.
One thing we confirmed in the UAE Tour was that the difference between riding on the front and hiding in the bunch during four hours of stiff headwind makes for very different experiences, and I wasn't all that fatigued after the week-long race. Keen to keep building on my form, I jumped right back into training after returning from the race. It wasn't long before my phone rang with the news that I would be missing training camp, instead heading to Italy for my fourth participation in Tirreno-Adriatico, marking my third last-minute call-up to the race.
That same day, I saw the carnage that was stage 1 of Paris-Nice, which put two more teammates on the injured list. After such a string of injuries and a few last-minute call-ups already, it’s at this point that riders start checking on those previously-ignored 'R's on the schedule to anticipate calls that may be coming sooner than later.
We enjoyed great weather and hard racing in Italy, further sharpening our form and teamwork as we look forward to the Giro d'Italia in a couple of months. I enjoyed some more good training after returning from Italy, but I expected every phone call or text message to be from my coach with news that my schedule had changed yet again. Then one day he really did call, just as I returned from training.
"I guess I'm doing Catalunya now?" I pried.
"Actually, you're going to Belgium for Brugge-De Panne and E3."
The cobbled classics are always fun to watch on TV after a nice training ride, and I would even imagine what it might be like to race them, but I certainly never asked to add them to my schedule. I’ve done enough Belgian races at this point to know that they are not my strong suit. I’m not afraid of cobbles and can ride them pretty well - readers may remember my day in the breakaway during last year's Tour de France Roubaix stage - but the race in the peloton is far too hectic for my liking, and I'm woefully ignorant when it comes to knowledge of the courses.
At our tactical meeting for E3, I felt as though I’d walked into a Calculus II class with a firm grasp on Algebra. Classics riders have trained on these roads and climbs their whole lives and done multiple recons of the race route, and their discussion of the course was something like, "We're turning onto the sector from the right this year, not the left, so keep right for the bike path that opens up 400 meters before the turn. The gutter on the sector is dangerous, so stick to the crown when you can."
On the other hand, I hear something like, "A key point of the race is the [struggletopronounceitstraat] or [lotsofvowelsberg]…" and I can only wonder if that's one I did that one time a couple of years ago.
All that there was to say is that my safest bet was to be in the breakaway where there is no fighting for position. My heart rate on the start line was pushing triple digits as tales of the Classics rattled around in my head and I wondered what I was in for, and before I knew it we were rolling.
The fight for the breakaway went on for a while, and Marc Hirschi was our rider who made it in. He went on to have a stellar day and finished 10th, while in the race behind things didn't quite work out for us. I was flying by the seat of my pants, just following my more experienced teammates around to benefit from their knowledge. My task was to lead out into the first key point of the day, in which I succeeded, but was no longer in position when the race really blew up.
I did have one nice moment as I was getting dropped on the Taaienberg, though: "Hey, I recognise this one from one of those races I've seen on TV! Maybe it was this race…?"
With the race up the road, I found a group of committed guys who wanted to finish, riding a solid pace for the next hour until race officials told us they were pulling us out of the race and off the course. It was disappointing to say the least, as we were only a handful of minutes behind, but especially frustrating because they effectively told us "good luck" as we set off in search of the finish, some 30 kilometres away. Racing in perfect weather was great, but it was at this point that I became especially appreciative of the sunshine. With no phone or flat repair gear, I buddied up with Roy Goldstein of Israel Cycling Academy, who eventually snagged me a seat in one of their soigneur's cars for the drive to the finish.
One day later, I'm back at home and preparing for a big block of training, my classics campaign over for the time being. I'll be keeping my phone close by, though, in case some more of those 'R's turn into boarding passes.