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Driving it home: The Team DFL-Cyclingnews-Litespeed diary, 2006
Cameron Jennings and some of the 2005 Team Cyclingnews riders made the move to the new DFL-Cyclingnews-Litespeed Continental team. Based in Belgium, they'll teach us about Belgian weather, beer and bike racing in 2006.
Check out the adventures of Cam and the crew - a group of Aussies, Brits (English, Welsh, Scottish), the odd New Zealander and remarkably, even a Belgian - as they tackle a hectic race schedule on three continents this year.
The Netherlands, May 6-7, 2006
A weekend of Dutch Hell
Ronde van Overijssel and Omloop der Kempen
By Jeremy Vennell
Before starting this story of these two races I will just try and explain how unique racing in Holland really is from every other country.
Firstly, and possibly the most important factor in racing in the Netherlands is that there is always wind! As soon as you drive over the border, the trees start to sway. It doesn't matter if you are at the back or the front of the peloton, everyone gets it and everyone has to battle with it all day. Wind is fine if it is straight in your face or up your butt but the wind in Holland is the devil wind straight out of hell, and will always be trying its best to make it tough. When riders finally crack under the strain, they let go of the rider's wheel in front and then the other riders behind also get left behind with him. This normally happens when the wind is coming from the side.
When the wind is coming from that direction, there is no shelter at all except a tiny bit behind the rider in front. But the lucky ones will be in the front in a diagonal line across the road, this means for a short time you will get a rest from the wind as you rotate to the front and then back along the line to the back. This way you only get a short spell in the wind and then a respite from the effort (this is called an echelon). The problem is the road is only so wide and the smaller the road, the fewer riders can fit in the rotating line. The doomed riders that are out of the line cannot sustain the effort of the other riders working together and thus crack and fall off the back.
This is called riding in the gutter, and you are normally trying to ride about an inch or less on the side of the road to get as much shelter as possible from the rider in front who is also trying to do the same. Things can get worse if you're really unlucky you can be behind a little Italian rider that barely come up to your knees and gives about half the slipstream as a big Dutchy. But being behind a Dutch rider can also be tough because they have been riding in the gutter before they can talk, making them very good at riding stupidly close to the edge of the road.
There is also the fact that when you are riding in the gutter you can only see the wheel in front of you and there might be an obstacle such as a rider coming backwards; a curb in the road; and the worst of all a parked car. You can also just ride off the edge of the road for trying to ride too close.
All these things mean that there is a high risk factor at riding so close to the edge at your limit at stupid speeds. That means that the only place that you can guarantee that you won't have any trouble is at the front.
Since you have to be at the front it brings another very unique characteristic of racing in Holland and that is crashing! To describe how nervous 200 bike riders can get when everyone wants to be at the front on a road only wide enough for one car is difficult. The tension can be felt building even before the starting gun has gone. I am even nervous about these races a week before and they are the only races I get nerves over. Everyone knows what is about to happen and it is simple physics; only so much mass can fit into a certain area until it reaches critical mass.
The normal tactic in the race is to send the riders following a lead car for a few kilometres to show the race to spectators in the town, before the flag goes down for a running start. That means there is no actual racing going on for the first 10 minutes or so and is thus called neutralized zone. Neutralized is a very stupid word to use for this part of the race as my record in one neutralized zone is four crashes. That is at a controlled 35-40 km/h so when the flag drops and we start racing at over 50km/h the crashes start getting more spectacular.
The Dutch are also very good at finding the most dangerous courses they can think of coursing through all the towns and villages that have designed their roads to stop traffic flow. This means that they will have 200 riders face some exceptional challenges: some equal to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, but without the poison arrows. Obstacles such as roads that all of sudden become 3m wide; have curbs that are stuck out into the middle of the road and then another one 10m further on the other side creating an effective crash zone; poles sticking out of the road; road works; speed humps times a hundred; corners times a thousand; and cobbles of all descriptions.
The Dutch course designers might be a little bit crazy but the Dutch bike riders are absolutely insane! Be it their willingness to put their life on the line to make the front or just be it the lack of thought of the consequences of trying to fit where there is no space. They are the maddest bike riders in the world. It is no wonder that the race has extra ambulances following.
If you are lucky enough to make it to the front and stay out of the carnage that ensues behind, then you will be one of the very few that actually make it to the finish. I have developed some good tactics to make it too the finish. One is screaming abuse this often stops crazy Dutchman from doing something stupid in front of you. Another is to get angry and very aggressive in how you ride, letting no-one push you around. It's like when you go to jail, you should find the biggest baddest guy and knock his arse out. Racing in the Netherlands is by far the most hazardous thing I have done in my life and I always have a quite prayer before the start and say thanks to God for letting me get through in one piece.
But sometimes I find myself really enjoying it; I think I just love how hard it is. The race on Saturday (Ronde van Overijssel) was hard and I did enjoy it a lot mainly because I had really great legs. With over 200km in the wind and dust I was enjoying the challenge. The race wasn't a typical Dutch race because it had some hills and rolling terrain and not flat as a pancake. The race route went on small roads that wound their way through fields and woods which sometimes turned into cobbles and then back onto the main roads. But for the most part the race was typical with crashes, wind, dangerous roads and crazy Dutchmen.
Having a good day I managed to have two near crashes in the first hour, I destroyed my front wheel when I was rammed from the side and had to stop and get a new one. I then had someone crash into my rear wheel, which put a big buckle in it. I took the back brake off and it was good to go. I didn't stop and get a new wheel because I found myself in the front group of 15 riders. When another group was just about to catch our group I launched an attack and one other rider came with me. I wasn't too sure if it was a great idea, because I still had 70km to the finish. Still I always really love riding in a breakaway because you get all the attention and no stress on worrying about getting taken out by some stupid rider. I had also worked bloody hard to get in the first group and I wasn't about to waste it.
My team director Daniel was yelling at me through the car window (I didn't have my radio) but he can't yell in English for some reason, so it was quite funny to see him trying to get his words out. But he did manage to let me know the time checks and give me a few bidons.
About 40km later I knew it wasn't the best idea to attack so early, the legs fell off and I was suffering. Over the next ten kilometres, 11 other riders jumped across from the chasing group. We hit the finishing circuits with about 10km to go and I was knackered. I managed to hang on and finish 13th which I was really happy about since I had been the most aggressive rider there but maybe not the smartest, which I wasn't so happy about.
Omloop der Kempen
The next day, my legs where still aching from the effort yesterday and I travelled back up to Holland to race the Omloop der Kempen, another 200km of Dutch Hell. Starting out with bad legs I found by about two hrs into the race they started coming right. I hit the third section of cobbles in the first group of 15 or so riders and punctured! ...crap! The tube came straight out and wrapped around the wheel locking the wheel and making me skid all over the cobbles nearly taking everyone out. I just managed to miss a big oak tree and stop.
I stood standing on the side of the road until everyone had gone past, and then just about all the following cars also until my team car arrived and gave me a new wheel. Daniel my team director was driving and since he is quite possibly the craziest driver I know, I knew I was in for an interesting ride getting towed back to the convoy. We hit about 70km/h on the cobbles and that is probably the fastest anyone has ridden over them, and I can tell you there is a good reason for that. When you are drafting the car at warp speed, you cannot see anything in front of you as you are only a foot off the back of the bumper. So all I could do was clench my teeth and hope that I didn't hit one of the many holes or really rough patches in the cobbles. I survived and got into the convoy of team cars and started to make my way to the peloton.
Being in the convoy is also a dangerous place to be. It is organized chaos with team cars riding up one side to service riders and the other cars riding on the right this only gives you a small space to ride in. Then the cars stop for riders getting wheel changes and all the cars on one side will scream to a halt. When cars hit the brakes you have to make sure you are not riding right up the butt because you will end up in the rear passenger seat like one rider did in our team car. There were also lots of corners making it even harder to move up, because all the cars stop for the corners and then accelerate too fast for you to draft behind.
When I finally wove my way through over 30 cars and finally reached the peloton it was a big relief. Unfortunately for me, the peloton had split and I reached the back group and had to keep going past them with no cars in between to help me get to the front anymore. After nearly 30 minutes off riding at my max I managed to get back to the main group...phew!
Cameron my teammate wasn't so lucky in the race, when after an hour or so of racing a rider took him out when we where motoring along. I got front row seat and watched him land horizontal on the road without even having a chance to react. He got some nasty cuts and crazes and went to hospital to get stitched up. This crash being his third one, his old wounds haven't even got scabs on them.
At the feed zone some stupid Dutch team attacked and smashed the peloton into pieces. I was in the second group and after the gap went out to over two minutes I thought I was just riding to the finish for a shower. But I found myself with four other riders trying to catch the front group. I try not to give up all hope. After another hour of riding at my max I made it to the front group. I couldn't believe it.
I had only been with the front group for a few minutes and then we hit some very bad cross winds and I was stuck at the back with 10 or so riders and found myself out of the race with 20km to go. This was just as well because I was properly wasted seeing spots in my vision.
In this situation when you are stopping racing the following commissaire normally pulls up in the car to tell you that "you are out of the race" and then speed off. But this time the commissaire had followed me all day and seen me suffer on more than one occasion to get back into the race and thought I deserved something for my efforts. He gave me a chocolate bar and said 'you did well today jongen'. This might not seem like much but for a Dutch commissaire this is a big deal, as they are normally the rudest people on earth, telling you to get your arse off the road after looking insultingly at your desperate efforts to do your best. I was thus a bit stunned but mumbled out a 'bedankt mijnheer', and then he pleasantly smiled back and sped off.
That chocolate bar tasted awesome!