I’ve said before I really hate race reports. I find them boring and ubiquitous so its ironic that each Monday I am forgoing my usual dose of Netflix to push one down the pipeline. It’s not totally worthless though. I was nominated to do the writing by my teammates who felt that the cost buying me coffees outweighed the burden of writing. It’s a tradeoff I can live with.
Last weekend, we traveled to Serbia for two UCI 1.2 races that would start on Saturday in Belgrade, Serbia and finish on Sunday in Banja Luka, Bosnia. It was my first time in both countries and as an added bonus I got to catch up with Zeko, an old teammate from the BMC-Hincapie 2012 team.
Much to our delight, blue skies and sun greeted us on Saturday morning as we rolled out from our hotel in Belgrade, Serbia to the start of the UCI 1.2 Belgrade-Banja Luka I in the city center. The weather report had called for rain so the unexpected sunshine put us in a great mood. Our goal was a top 5 and the plan was to put Guy, Cam, or Ben in the break while myself and our newest teammate, Theo Yates saved our matched for a sprint. Expect the unexpected Tomaz told us!
When the flag dropped a stiff headwind prevented any major breakaways from establishing but that never seems to discourage any of these Euros! The parcours was flat, especially when compared to last weekend’s race in Austria, the only lumps being two short, successive climbs in the first 30 kilometers. Halfway up the second one Ben scrambled across to a move that had formed while Guy and Cam followed any attempts to bridge. None were successful and when the dust settled over the top, Ben was in a group of 11 with about 25 seconds on the field. The only Italian team in the race began chasing and were slowly reeling the break in until a crash in a corner took out two of them and the gap ballooned to a minute.
I talked with Cam. The break was down to 9 and while 1 in 9 is good, 2 in 9 would have been better. I dropped back to talk to Tomaz. Apparently he felt even stronger than I did and immediately told me to commit the team to the chase. So we did. As team cars began to pass the field on their way to the break I noticed our car was not one of them. Perplexed, I sent Cam back to Tomaz to make sure he knew Ben was in the break. He didn’t. And neither did the race officials. It took the race radio as long as it took Cam to return to the front of the peloton to figure out Ben was off the front. Tomaz roared past the group with the mechanic wildly waving and shouting at us to stop helping the Italians chase! Expect the unexpected!
The moment we stopped, the entire peloton stopped, unsure of our extremely unorthodox tactics. The gap blew up to almost two minutes. At the Bosnian border the gap was down to a minute as the Italians got more and more help from other teams without representation up the road.
4 kilometers left to race and the break was in sight and I was unsure if they would stay away. We arrived at a roundabout on the edge of the finish town and half the field went left and the other half straight. The confusion gave the breakaway the few seconds of confusion it needed to stay away to the finish and Ben took 5th in the sprint.
The rest of a us managed to stay upright after our sprint train was derailed by a parked car through a blind corner with 500 meters to go. Expect the unexpected!
After the race Tomaz treated us to some nutella and banana filled crepes before the 3 hr transfer to the race hotel. Maybe this whole expecting the unexpected thing isn’t so bad after all!
The weather forecast caught up us and the rain began early Sunday morning and refused to stop as the race start beckoned. We piled into a local cafe to talk strategy and make the last minute decisions on what to wear. The tactics were simple: be aggressive. Deciding what to wear was not. Most of the things that keep you warm in the cold do the opposite in the wet. I ended up with nothing on the legs and a clear rain jacket over a jersey with arm warmers up top. It was 4 degrees C on the start line but I was sure I racing would quickly warm me up.
I could not have been more wrong. By the time we stopped for the official start after 15 minutes of a very fast neutral, I could not stop shaking and I was not the only one. Regardless, after the flag dropped, most of the guys were eager to race hard perhaps simply to get warm. ‘Mind over matter’ I told myself. Thats all this boils down to.
It took an hour and a half before I could feel my hands or face after losing feeling in the neutral. This made drinking and eating basically impossible even though my stomach felt full from all the rain water and Bosnian road grim that was constantly being spit from the wheel in front of me. On the positive side, all pain in my legs was also numbed.
Ben flatted right before a critical hill that had brought some life back into my fingers. Guy, Theo, and Frank stopped to help him back on but the pace was high and the field was splintering under the pressure from constant attacks forcing the guys to jump from group to group. Cam was super active covering any moves with major teams and I contributed in between as the rain began to stop.
When Ben and Guy, Theo and Frank returned to the front, the race was firing on all cylinders and ended up splitting into several pieces again before reforming and resettling. In a similar situation to the day before, Ben was up the road in a group of 4 and the Italians were back on the front chasing. Another hectic climb with more attacks than a hackers convention brought the promising move back with 65 kilometers of racing remaining.
More attacks. The peloton continued to fracture and repair itself. A group of three escaped just before a town and the peloton slowed, seemingly content. We, however, were not and attacked over and over and over but no one wanted to work and no one wanted to ride. The peloton’s impetus seemed close to death. I went to the car to talk with Tomaz, shed some clothing, and grab some hot tea in a bottle. It was then that I noticed how small the field had shrunk, barely 50 riders. Tomaz said to continue to be aggressive so we did all the way to the finishing circuits.
Finally, we would see the front 3 riders. They looked ragged but still the peloton refused to do anything but follow and sit on Attaque-Gusto’s aggression. The finishing laps were on a hot dog circuit, about 5 kilometers in length. Around one of these u-turns, Cam jammed it as hard as he could and split the remaining field in two taking Guy and Ben with him. As the laps wound down, the front three split, another chase of 3 formed behind, Cam, and Ben and Guy continued to attack and attack and attack. With one lap left, the lone leader looked like he had a significant lead over his breakaway companions. A second chase had formed less than 30 seconds behind that with the field close behind.
2 k left in the race and everything had been absorbed but the leader. Cam attacked one last time about 1500 meters out while Guy positioned Ben for a sprint. The field swallowed Cam with 500 meters remaining and the last escapee with 300. This crazy race was coming down to a sprint! Ben said it was a long, slow, slog of a sprint but in the end, he crossed the line in 4th, just off the podium!
I knew on the start line it was going to be an epic race and watching it unfold in the final circuits, it really was. 5 out of our 6 starters finished, the only casualty being Theo who had just arrived from Australia the day before racing. We were all in high spirits afterwards. Maybe its the feeling that a big podium is just around the corner. Or maybe it was the warm clothes and the hot chocolate. Our next race is a local crit in Tomaz’s hometown of Sencur! The weather forecast is calling for cold and rain again but apparently that cant even put a damper on our psyche.