Racing between windmills in the Ladies Expert Tour

September 19, 2007

Last week, I had the honour of racing for the US National Team at the Ladies Tour of Holland. It was, to say the least, an incredible experience! Our team was a strong one, as Jim Miller (the US Team Director) uses this race as World's prep and the US has a huge pool of really strong riders this year. We sent six riders: Kristin Armstrong, Chrissy Ruiter, Kat Carroll, Lauren Franges, Meredith Miller and myself. We had a goal to this race, a simple one… to win. We had the rider in Kristin, and we had the team to do it.

Racing in Holland is fast and aggressive. The courses are mostly pretty flat, but the speeds are high and positioning is everything. Typically, there is a lot of wind that can shatter a peloton or leave riders to fend for themselves as they get strung out and suffer. Holland is about power and persistence, positioning and speed. The team has to function as a unit and be in striking distance of the front of the peloton as dangerous attacks can happen literally at any moment, but that is hard since the roads are narrow and riddled with road furniture where riders are constantly shuffled and buried into the depths of the pack. Crashes are also usually frequent, which is not unexpected given the obstacles, and they are often big.

I had heard a lot about the Tour of Holland… that it was grueling. That it was, at times, demoralizing, cold, rainy, windy, miserable and hard. Racing as a national team is an added challenge too, as riders don't typically race together very often. In our case, only a few of us had raced together (on either our domestic teams or on other National Team projects), so we don't have things dialled in as well in terms of how the team works as a unit. All that aside, we knew that with Kristin's phenomenal (to say the least) time trialing ability and with the horse-power of our squad, that we would be one of the teams that could win the race, and we were going to race to do it.

The field there was tough: DSB had Marianne Vos and their fast and powerful Dutch riders and T-Mobile sent their top riders under the leadership of World Champion Judith Arndt. Raleigh-Life Force was strong with Christiane Soeder, and Nürnberger is always tough with both Trixie Worrack and Regina Schleicher. In a nutshell, the entire field was strong. We knew that we would have a tough job.

This year the race was a bit of a different format, as the hilliest stage came first and the time trial, which would be decisive, would be last. This is also a race that comes down to seconds and there were lots of time bonus sprints that could mean a win or a loss for any GC rider. The first stage had six laps with three climbs--one of them was the Cauberg which is the short, but steep finishing climb of the Amstel Gold that some of use got to watch when we were here in the Spring to race Flèche Wallonne. The finish was on another climb and so we had to make sure that there would not be a lot of time lost. We needed to keep Kristin in contention.

I wish that I could tell you more details of how that first stage went, but given that I am a sprinter, I was not able to help out much. I also had a stomach that was acting up and spent the final two laps in a dropped group. I tired to be in good position as much as possible and watched as Kristin covered all the attacks on the climbs and always made the selections. The climbs were not that hard. But what was really hard was that it was flat and windy at the top… so after climbing, the field would be strung out and we would have to fight in the wind and have all the remaining energy sapped from our spent legs. In the end, Kristin marked all the important moves and the race came to a finish with a good sized lead group and Vos won the uphill sprint, putting a bit of time on Kristin but nothing that we were too worried about. Kristin also had scored enough QOM points to land in the stylish climber's jersey.

Although I was not able to be much help on the first day, I was looking forward to getting to ride for Kristin when we hit the flatter stages the rest of the week. I am still a very new rider and have not gotten too much of a chance to sacrifice for my team-mates. I always look up so much to the big sprinters that I watch bury themselves time and time again for their GC riders: in particular, Ina and Laura Van Gilder - I have seen those women do amazing, selfless things and I have always wanted to be able to do that, too. The biggest thing I hate is being useless and then being dropped. Sadly, on tough climbing stages, I often feel that way. There is just not much I can do to help my climbers out - those same climbers who give me lead-outs and chase down breaks. I want to give back and help them out but I don't often get a chance. I knew that this race would be my chance to give back and to help out and I have to be honest, I was really excited about it! And not to sound like such a sycophant, but riding for Kristin is an incredible experience. It does something to you to have a team-mate like that. I have complete confidence in her to be able to deliver and I wanted to help put her in a position to be able to do her job.

The second stage was pancake flat and we were expecting to finish as a bunch. Unfortunately though, bad news for us, with about four kilometres to the finish, Judith and Trixie had attacked and were going for the finish. They got a good gap and they are some of the best in the world. I was in good position since I had been starting to think about sprinting for the finish if we came in as a group, so when Jim gave the call that we had to get up there and bring it back, I got to the front and put my head down to give it every ounce of energy I had. I saw the two-kilometre to go marker and told myself that I was doing a pursuit and went as hard as I could possibly go. Unfortunately, we were not able to bring back all the time and the group ended up taking ten seconds on the finish. With her win on the stage, Judith picked up an additional ten second time bonus, putting her 38 seconds ahead of Kristin. It was a great move on behalf of Trixie and Judith and it put us in a position of really having to fight hard to keep Kristin in contention. We still believed in her and still would race our hearts out for her, but it was going to be a fight.

The next day came to a bunch finish and I got the green light to go for the sprint. We were relieved that there would be no change in the GC and so it was my turn to have a go at it. I was excited for the bunch finish, since the field was stacked with speed: some of the best sprinters in the world: Ina Teutenberg, Regina Schleicher, Kirsten Wild, Georgia Bronzini, Marianne Vos… and a whole host of other very fast and very aggressive sprinters.

The sprint turned very chaotic and it was messy trying to get up there. I was fighting hard to get position and to keep position, mostly following around the top sprinters in the last five kilometres of the race and seeing how they move through the peloton (they make it look effortless… but I can assure you that it is NOT!). It really is amazing to see how calm and poised they are as they move forward, winding their way through the chaos of a swarming pack. I was feeling good and was happy with my positioning when we came around the final corner. I had gotten shuffled at the last minute and managed to fight my way back up by weaving around some orange cones and thankfully missing a barricade. I saw an opening and saw the finish line… well, let me stop here and say that for a split second, I thought that I saw the finish line… what I saw was, in fact, a big orange banner over the road well before the finish line.

In the very split-est of seconds when I though that it was the finish, I decided to jump. Unfortunately, as soon as I jumped, I realized my mistake, knowing full well that I was probably 500-600 metres from the real finish. DOH! I kept sprinting but knew that I could not hold off that field and blew up before the finish with 13 women flying past me. I was disappointed that I could not have done a better job on my finish, but the good news was that we escaped another stage with no time changes in the GC. So that kept us happy that night.

The next stage would test our team again. We had another flat stage where the race could blow apart in the wind and breaks going up the road any minute. Sure enough, about 30 kilometres before the finish, a Flexpoint rider was off the front when I saw Ina Teutenberg from T-Mobile jump hard and bridge up to her. I flagged it as a very dangerous move and immediately got to the front and drilled it as hard as I could. The timing was critical on this move… there had already been a few hard attacks and some hard fast chasing before that final attack, so the field was already hurting. Our team had been chasing and had been doing a really good job of it, too: Lauren, Chrissy and Kat had been working really hard at the front to make sure that the last breaks came back. Meredith and I had moved up front to cover the next round of attacks when Ina bridged

There was a strong crosswind on that stretch of road and I buried myself to pull it back. I made it up to Ina, but a gap had opened in the field. Meredith was with me and at first, we had no idea what had happened behind. Linda Villumsen from T-Mobile countered and Meredith followed with me shortly behind. Right away though, we heard over the radio that there was a gap and Kristin got caught behind it. With the strong wind and tired legs, the race went single file and snapped. Right away, Meredith and I dropped back to help bring the race back together.

We were shocked to find out that the race was shattered. What had been a single peloton had broken into four groups with Vos leading the charge and bringing up a few riders to the leaders. We got back and our whole team had congregated to the front of the race and we started to drive. We were working so hard to bring it back, but T-Mobile had four riders and there were 16 (I think) that made that group. It was a highly motivated group and they were rolling fast. We were not making up as much time as we had hoped: 20 kilometres to go and they had 50 seconds. One by one, our riders were blowing up. Finally, we were done and had done the best we could. Fortunately for us, Judith had been caught out too, and gave the order for T-Mobile to work to bring the break back. She sent Ina and Chantel back from the break to drive the chase.

The time gap was coming down fast with those engines on the front and the peloton was strung out. Each of us would recover as much as possible and try to fight back to the front for one last pull… one last pull… My last pull came as I saw the one-kilometre mark… we now could see the lead group and were closing pretty fast. I knew that every second counted and that we had to put everything into it. Meredith had gotten back up to the front for one last time and I could see that she was slowing. I attacked as hard as I could (but I had almost nothing left) and then as the peloton swung onto my wheel, I just turned off that voice that reminds you that your legs hurt and drove it as hard as I could. I blew and the pack came flying around me. My momentum and the draft pulled me to the line: my legs certainly could not get me there. The gap had come down, but Vos was now in the leader's jersey again and had over 40 seconds on Kristin. We were exhausted.

The next day had a couple of hills and a bunch of bonus sprints. With three seconds on the line each time, we had to make sure that the big threats did not get them. It was, naturally, my job to go for the sprints. We did three big loops that had two hills on them. The hills were not long, but short and steep enough to hurt the legs that had been working so hard on the flats. Again, our team was making sure that nothing dangerous got away and the whole team was really doing a great job of being up front and covering everything. This is a really strong team and everyone does their job, and does it well. None of the women who I raced with ever hesitated: they did what they needed to do 100% every time.

The race stayed together until we reached the five-kilometre, highly technical loop, to be done four times. It was riddled with obstacles, corners and paving stones. We all made sure that we were up front as we reached the finishing circuits and Meredith was on the front. Kristin was behind her and realized that she had gotten a small gap on the field and radioed for Meredith to give it her all. Meredith did not hesitate and started to go full gas. Judith jumped around and made it up to that group right away and I was on her wheel. Meredith continued to drive the break and establish it until she blew up. Kristin sent me to the front and I went as hard as I could.

As we were coming in to cross the finish line as I had been on the front, there was a bonus sprint. I watched, helpless as my legs were completely spent, as Judith jumped and took time. I got dropped from that group after that first effort and was dangling off the back. I looked back and realized that we had a BIG gap and no one was behind me and now Kristin was isolated. I saw her looking back at me and I knew that I simply had to get up there. She needed me. I could see them slowing up enough that I just gave it everything I had to get up there. I dug and only had tunnel vision ahead of me. I just kept looking at Kristin, looking back at me, and I found a way to get up there.

I had just managed to catch on when I heard Jim on the radio telling me that I had to drive the break. I rested as much as I could (regained consciousness) and then moved to the front and drove. Vos had not made that break. This was our chance and it was Judith's chance to put time on her. Judith had Chantel Beltman up there setting a blistering pace and Kristin had me. I would get up there and go as hard as I could, slip back to rest a bit and do it again. Chantel was doing the same and she is phenomenally strong. It was impressive. We had 15 seconds and it was holding. My last effort was two kilometres from the finish when I emptied the tank and got dropped. I was caught by the chasing pack about 100 metres from the finish line and Kristin had made up 15 seconds on Vos.

It was not just how much time Kristin had made up on Vos, it was that our team was in control of that stage and we were charged from it. Our whole attitude and demeanour changed. It was fun to watch the transition of our attitudes as we went from a team that was being defensive to a team that was offensive. Our spirits were buoyed and we were just high.

The next day was the last and it was a double day. The race was flat and T-Mobile was in control of a small break that had spent much of the day up the road. They brought it back to set up Ina for the finish. The finish was crazy, to say the least. It had been raining and the roads were slick. There was a round-about 500 metres before the finish, too. The lead-outs never really materialized, although Nürnberger did get up there for Regina. I had been fighting hard for my positioning, I was following the wheels of the top sprinters and when they would move forward, I made sure that I moved forward, too. I was being very aggressive and coaching myself to be patient. I knew that it was a dangerous finish and was trying to be aggressive and safe at the same time.

The team had done a great job for me. Kat got up front and moved me into position at the five-kilometre mark, Lauren got up there and kept me safe. But when things wound up, it was my turn to do my job. I was right where I wanted to be and trying to be patient when the sprint went. I fought as hard as I could and moved forward, passing riders and weaving for position in the last 100 metres. In the end, I took third as Regina won and Ina took second. I have to say, it was a huge honour for me to be up there!

I was rewarded for my hard work by getting let off for the TT. I had been fighting a cold all week and was scheduled to race another stage race two days later, so Jim thought that it would be best that I not do the time trial. I did not have any time trial equipment anyway and we needed people to do time checks for Kristin. Chrissy (who had also gotten let off for the TT) and I headed out to the course to wait for Kristin. She was down 39 seconds on Judith, who is one of the top time trialists in the world. Kristin is fast, but she faced the near impossible. Beating Judith would be huge, but it would be tremendously difficult and we all knew it. We had all worked so hard for this moment. We felt like we were on the bike with her: she was racing for us and we were holding our breath for her. We believed.

Out on the course, we took two time checks and by the second one, we could see that Kristin was flying. She made it look easy. We were confident that she would win the stage, but we did not know if her ride was good enough to take the title… the one thing that we wanted more than anything. Chrissy and I hitch-hiked back to the finish and rushed to the car, where the whole team was piled in with the heater on and listening with intent to the race radio. We craned our necks and cocked our ears whenever the radio crackled to give a finishing time. Finally, we got word: Judith Arndt 27:12. We all yelled so loud--I am not sure that Jim will ever be able to hear out of his left ear again for the cry that issued from my lips! Kristin had not just won the stage, but won the overall! She did it! She won by four seconds.

It was an incredible experience: our scrappy hodge-podge National Team won the whole race. It was a team win, too. As I said before, everyone raced so hard and did their jobs so well. It is a huge honour to be part of this team and to feel that I helped with this win.

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