onsdag 11 maj 2011

Success in Belgium!

Chauner wins kermesse in Brugge-Dudzele
 För knappt ett år sedan inledde jag ett samarbete med den amerikanske cyklisten Michael Chauner, som jag skrivit om vid tidigare tillfälle. Han har genom kontakt med Aike, redan kört en del med Cykelcity och varit över här i Sverige. Träningen har varit lyckad och han avslutade förra säsongen starkt, och har i år radat upp flera toppplaceringar och några segrar!

Här följer en berättelse av honom själv från helgens Kermesse lopp i Belgien! Den är skriven till kompisar i USA men jag frågade om det var okej att publicera den, då den var så välskriven. Varsågoda!

Welcome to cycling heaven
With a rigorous phase of base training and early season racing under my belt in the US, I am now back overseas and finally ready to roll up to the start line with the top riders from around the world in the lion’s den of cycling – West Flanders, Belgium. Greeted by unusually sunny skies for this time of year, I arrived in a petite village outside Waregem at the house of Team Cykelcity’s soigneur, Joost Debrouwere.

Entrenched amidst a labyrinth of roads you might have seen on TV in races such as Paris Roubaix and Tour of Flanders, Joost’s house is located in the planet’s heart of cycling. Within fifty kilometers of my first day’s training, riders from the Belgian national team, continental squads followed by team cars, and an assortment of amateur racers whizzed by along the small, ripped up wagon-trails they call roads in these parts. I was able to find my way down to the Roubaix velodrome and experience the well manicured “holy ground” that has seen some of the world’s greatest cycling battles for over 100 years of consummating the Hell of the North.

Joost and his wife Marlene have been housing riders for 30 years. They have taken care of athletes from Great Britain, Australia, Bulgaria, Lithuania, New Zealand, and now America with my recent arrival. Their household walls are plastered with pictures and memorabilia from cycling’s biggest races and the place even has a faint scent of bike racing from the “Souplesse” brand massage oils and liniments Joost insists on using for massage.

An American Surprise
Belgium as a country is strewn with hundreds of small villages that can best be described as rural sprawl. Beaconed by a church steeple, the center of each town is only four or five kilometers from the next one, separated by cow fields containing capillaries of farm roads no more than eight feet wide. Historically, each of these small villages hosted its own festival, or kermesse, throughout the warm months characterized by a carnival, music, and a bike race. Over the years, the weekend’s festivities became overshadowed by the competitions as cycling continued to grow dubbing the races “kermesses”.

All approximately 120km in length, the elite kermesses are open to amateur riders and start and finish in the town center before meandering through the narrow back roads and returning after a 5-10km lap. With the amount of racing available, riders from around the world come to compete in the renowned circuit.

As a junior and espoir 2004 and 2005, I came to Belgium and was fed to the lions in the kermesse scene and never finished better than 49th. A victim of the “kermesse lords”, or sandbagging pros who work the circuit collecting bets and coercing others out of victory, I was usually spit out the back within 20 kilometers as the races all begin at blistering speed and whittle down to a breakaway of hustlers I never thought I could be a part of.

Today’s race had 158 starters and I rolled off the line in about 130th. A more docile start than expected allowed me to weave through the gigantic bunch and nestle myself in a front row seat by the end of the first 8km lap. Powerful gusty wind hit us in the face as we left town each of 15 times into the maze of narrow cow paths that connected us to the wide avenue that shot us to the finish with the wind at our backs.

On the third lap, small attacks from one to two riders at a time did little to dent the armor of the massive field, but when combined, a small but powerful group appeared to be forming just in front of the pack. In the tailwind, I followed a rider out of the bunch whose open mouth, bent and swaggering elbows, and thickly greased legs, told me that he was either on a mission to cross the gap to the leaders or desperately outrunning a tornado behind him. It was in fact lightning behind him, PA Lightning to be exact,  and I muscled the rest of the way across to the now ten man group alone and began rotating with the leaders.

The laps were ticking off steadily and after we were comfortably out of sight from the peloton, I began sizing up the competition in the breakaway. A former Belgian champion who had the look of a sprinter by the size of his tree trunk legs and massive pulls and a 37 year old British pro rider, Hamish Haynes, who was driving the break appeared to be the strongest. Starting with three laps to go, Joost screamed to me from the side of the road, “Number 19!! Number 19!!” tipping the British pro for the win. Taking the hint, I slid onto his wheel as we entered the last lap to the unforgettable ringing of the bell and “Laste ronde! Laste ronde! Laste ronde!” bellowing from the Flemish announcer in front of the town’s populous of cycling enthusiasts.

The speed decreased on the final lap and I kept my cool without saying a word or holding any sort of revealing expression on my face. The less information you give to the others, the bigger a question mark you become to the ringers who ride these races on a daily basis.

My legs felt powerful and I stayed alert and glued to #19’s wheel as we rounded the final corner with 3km to go into the tailwind. A wiry Johan van Summeren lookalike made the first move and jumped away as cat and mouse began with the remaining nine. Hamish was on the front and moved to the right side with the cheeky American clung to his wheel. Out of frustration and understanding he smirked at me and at the same moment three others launched from the left side of the road. Now off the back, I won the battle of patience as Hamish finally put his head down and started riding towards the four leaders. As he made motion for me to come through now halfway to the first chase, I came through hard and noticed his front wheel was disappearing as I looked down with 2km to go.

I quickly closed the gap on the next three riders and knew I was committed. They missed the train as I took to the opposite side of the road with my sights locked on the wavering leader. He was the ideal springboard to launch me into the final minute of the race.

Now alone in front, I had an opportunity to do something I could only dream of before this. Racing in Europe has had a mystical allure to me that I always wanted to do successfully but never had until this moment. “Holy shit!” was what it translated to in my head. My elbows were bent, the pain was unbearable, and my eyes were longing to see the barricaded stretch of road that signified 200 meters to go. When it came, I did a final shoulder check but already knew there was no speed high enough for the break to catch me.

I had time to salute the crowd along the entire home straight, with shock as my biggest emotional companion. Winning a sprint feels great, but riding home alone in front of a silhouette of a fighting mass was the best way to earn my first international victory.
Joost was amazed as he greeted me with open arms after the finish line. Not expecting a win to come so soon, or at all, he had not prepared the towels and clean jersey to wear to the podium. Still in utter astonishment, I rolled back towards the announcer’s stage to be overwhelmed by congratulatory handshakes from the Flemish townspeople who were curious to see who the new American in town was. Flowers, a large glass trophy, more handshakes, and three kisses from the hefty Belgian podium girl summed up the awards ceremony.

The moment of the day came in the parking lot when an aged Belgian hobbled over to our car and uttered a few quiet words to Joost in Flemish before shaking my hand. With 12 laps to go, the old man wagered an undisclosed sum of Euros on the American and was grateful that he was a winner as well.

Next report coming soon. From Belgium,
Michael Chauner

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