I knew, the last days of racing before my three-week break would be intense. First of all, because I wanted to give it a last good nudge but also because this 2.2 stage race is a favourite in the lead up to the Tour de France; the guys already selected by their team are doing some last fine-tuning and the ones who aren't sure of selection yet ride their hearts out to prove they should make the final squad. It is always a hard race.
The Tour of Luxembourg, the 61st edition actually, covers a surprisingly large amount of territory of the tiny country, nestled between Belgium, France and Germany. The start list is always extensive and some big names signed on for the first stage on June the 14th. Zabel and Aldag for Team Telekom. Vainsteins, Rodriguez and Museeuw for Domo. Petacchi, Baldato for Fassa Bortolo. Cofidis with Mattan, Mercury with Van Petegem and Koerts, Lampre-Daikin with Serpellini; etc.
Stage 1 - June 14: Echternach to Dippach, 182 km
Team meeting in the morning before the start
Kim Andersen knows this area very well as he lived in Luxembourg during his professional career; it proved very beneficial to us during the whole race. He knew every corner, every climb of the parcours; it was nice to have an idea of what was coming.
This was my third start in the Tour of Luxembourg. Every time I have ridden it, this first stage had a breakaway of 15 to 20 riders at the start. Kim confirmed this and he alerted the guys they had to be in the front from the word go. If a break went without one of us, we'd have to chase it.
Sure enough, on the first climb, about halfway, Stephen Kjaergaard from US Postal opened up the gas with his teammate Benoît Joachim. We went over the top of the climb, with Jens Heppner and myself noticing that the group had split up. My teammate Jorgen Bo was following close by with a few other riders. I saw this as an ideal opportunity to get a small group going. The peloton chased us for a while but after 25 km they saw themselves unable to catch us back, and we went into the finishing circuit with a 5 minute lead.
Plenty of attacks followed, but none succeeded. Renewed National US Champion, Fred Rodriguez (Domo-Farm Frites) took the win and leader's jersey after a very impressive sprint. Lembo took 2nd place, Heppner 3rd. I crossed the line in 9th position.
A friend told me afterwards that one of the Belgian newspapers did an interview with Domo's assistant director Hendrick Redant and that he told his team to watch Rolf Aldag and me; as according to him we were the two riders in form there. Telekom and Batavus were constantly on my tail too; they must have had the same idea...they weren't going to let me go at all.
Stage 2 - June 15: Wormeldange to Beckerich, 214 km
Domo-Farm Frites took control from the start, with the whole team there to protect the leader's jersey on the shoulders of Fred Rodriguez. There were some attacks but to no avail. On the Cote de Steinsel, a steep, hard climb the peloton strung out.
But, the dark rain clouds were coming over us and the wind picked up. Everybody had put on light clothing as we started in beautiful sunny weather. The temperature dropped 10 degrees and the rain made us all cold. As the whole peloton had to take time to put on more clothes and rain jackets, the group became more solid again and we were all happy just to roll to the finish.
Kirsipuu went away on the last lap, with 17 kilometres to go. Taking his rival sprinters by surprise he won solo, before Petacchi (Fassa Bortolo); not bad for a sprinter! I finished 25th that day.
Stage 3 - June 16: Dudelange to Luxembourg, 102 km
A 102 km, from Dudelange to Luxembourg. A hard stage, with the Cote de Clausen to be climbed 6 times. Team meeting before the first stage. We had a strategy that was as follows:
1. Someone in the front from the word go so that no group would go
away with at least one of us in it.
2. In case that group would get caught back by another group, during the last 5 laps; Jorgen Bo and/or myself would have someone there to help out.
It doesn't always go the way that it is planned but that day it did. Michael Skelde went in a break with five other riders, 10 km into the race. The breakaway went out to a three-minute lead. On the Cote de Hostert, a Fassa Bartolo rider attacked, quickly followed by my team-mate Morten Sonne. Another attack followed; I went with that one.
At this time, the Domo-Farm Frites boys were struggling severely and Fred Rodriguez had to bridge the gap himself with our Jorgen Bo in his wheel! On the top of the climb, I saw we had a small gap and I tried to widen it, but to no avail as the Domo Team was working hard to get it all back together.
After the climb, the majority of the peloton melted back into one group but the group of 6 riders managed to stay in front. Instantly a Fassa Bortolo's Kim Kirchen attacked and I alerted Morten Sonne over the radio to work with him and establish a gap, that way Team Fakta would have another rider in the front as we approached the finishing circuit.
I spoke to Jorgen Bo and advised him to attack in the first lap. He did. Jorgen Bo directly took 30 seconds and within the space of one lap he caught the group with teammates Morten Sonne and Michael Skelde. Domo worked their butts of but they didn't get anywhere. The group stayed away till the end and with a 30 second lead on the peloton, Kim Kirchen (Fassa Bortolo) took the victory. Jorgen Bo finished 4th, Morten 5th. Jorgen Bo took the leader's jersey and would have to defend his 12-second lead in the time trial that afternoon.
I crossed the line in 10th position, after being pushed around a bit (see photo) by Petacchi who was probably giving it a bit too much and almost pushed me into the barriers (while going uphill by the way!). Sabine had come over to Luxembourg, hoping that the weather would put on a nice face again. She said she had to smile when she saw me putting my elbow out, trying to stay on my bike.
With a couple of friends, she had been watching part of the Rugby game, between the Australian Queensland Team and the British and Irish Lions. It was broadcasted, live via satellite TV, in an Irish Pub, somewhere on the circuit, and they had enjoyed the atmosphere in the café, filled with cheering fans, while waiting for the race to come into Luxembourg. The British Lions had won by 42-8 and had whipped the Aussies arses severely...she couldn't help but stirring me up, reckoning, if only I could have a bit more of the weight that those guys put into the game, I'd probably be a bit more assertive on the bike...but then, she complains I empty the fridge on the first day back home after a stage race as it is now.
Stage 4 - June 16: Bettembourg-Bettembourg, 14.5 km ITT
I rode a shocker of a time trial but Jorgen Bo was fantastic! He finished fourth, losing only 18sec on Raivis Belohvosciks (Lampre). Jorgen Bo put on the yellow jersey the second time that day, keeping a small 12 second lead. Back at the hotel, the spirits were high and we knew there was only one job for all of us the next day, protect Jorgen Bo's leading position.
Stage 5 - June 17: Wiltz - Diekirch, 172 km
I went down for breakfast, to hear the guys complaining about the noise during the night. A wedding party, held in the hall on the first floor, had disturbed our night's rest severely, the music played flat out till 3 o'clock.
On the way to the start, the rain came down in buckets and the pattern for the rest of the day was set. The start itself was sunny but it changed pretty quick. On a day like this, having to ride at the front to defend the jersey is probably the best thing, as you keep warm because of the effort you have to make. In the first 25 kilometre there were two climbs. This can unsettle the rhythm of the team riding in front quite quickly.
Team Fakta controlled the day and we were constantly getting information from Kim, on who were in the attacks, where their position was in GC, etc. Baldato took the stage, Jorgen Bo finished comfortably in the group, winning the race for Team Fakta. We were all stoked; the whole team had worked very organized and efficient. We were all very pleased with Jorgen Bo's win and although I was disappointed with my own time-trial I still finished 15th in GC, which means a few more points. Kim was pleased and as we shook hands he told me to enjoy my break but without losing the form; the next race is only a few weeks away...
What's up next? First of all, 7 days off the bike, I'm not even going to look at it! I'm going to enjoy the time off with my son and wife. There's plenty of things I put on hold during the last months and I think I'll be more than occupied; that's after catching up on some rest the first few days. Then, I'll start training again in preparation for the UNIQA Classic (Austria); a 2.4, from the 11th till the 14th of July. After that, the Team rides the Sachsen Tour (2.4) and the Vuelta a Castilla-Léon(2.4) leading up to the Post Danmark Rundt (2.2), a priority for our Danish formation.
Catchya some time in July!