Monday, September 25, 2006

Journo World's - the full catastrophe

In the beginning...

Friday, September 8: There was a pre-6:00am start for an hour on bike followed by frantic packing of my trusty Flandria complete with Zipp-zip-zip wheels. The taxi was late, but then so was the train, so there was a net cancelling out. I had an 11:40am flight from Brussels to München and a 15:30 connection to Graz. It was to be my first trip to Austria that I could actually remember and also didn't involve the smoky hell that is Vienna airport.

München is a pleasant airport, and I had a pleasant salmon and an even pleasanter neck/back massage while waiting. My synchronicity was off so I missed getting the pleasant girl to do it, but the guy was pleasant enough and did a good job. It's a damn good idea to have a massage parlour table at an airport, as you pretty much ruin everything in your body when you pick up your suitcase/backpack/overstuffed bike bag from the floor of your house.

The mastermind: Primoz Kalisnik
© Robert Hajdinjak

I was met at Graz by the excellent Primoz Kalisnik, who last year promised me a lift to Deutschlandsberg. I had problems finding accommodation this year and he sorted that out too. He lives in Ljubljana, Slovenia, and is the boss of Polet magazine, which has a huge circulation in Slovenia: over 100,000 in a country of 2 million people. He had a friend with him, Dule, who formed part of the Slovenian's impressive all-male cheer squad. They drove me to our place of lodging - Leibenfelderstubn - in Deutschlandsberg in the heart of Styria. And so I fell in with the Slovenians...

The Slovenians

I have never had the opportunity to really get to know many people from this particular bit of Europe, and I was delighted to make my acquaintance with the Slovenians. They had a group of 20 all up and had booked out the Leibenfelderstubn guest house, which is perched halfway up one of the hills outside D-Berg. Unfortunately, the rooms were double booked and Primoz had to make many phone calls to find another place for his cheer squad. They were impatient and very thirsty, but beds were found.

The view from the Leibenfelderstubn
© Jeff Jones

Very neat
© Jeff Jones

I ended up in the Leibenfelderstubn with Miroslav Cveticanin as my roommate. He's my age, married to a lovely wife with a lovely three year old son. A former elite rider, he was persuaded to get back into it by Primoz and had 4000 km in his legs this year - about a quarter of my training - and a modest 'beer baby'. He's an encyclopedia too. Once we were settled in, he, Primoz and the rest of the cheer squad proceeded to drink the Leibenfelderstubn dry of Puntigamer bier, the local specialty. It's very easy to drink, and not too heavy - only 5 percent alcohol or so. Primoz had seven 0.5L beers as he was riding the TT the next day and had to look after his own beer baby, while Miroslav restricted himself to three or four. I only had one small one, and felt a lot of peer pressure!

Saturday, September 9: The next morning, we woke up and the first thing Miroslav said in his Slavic accent was "Bad night. Too much beer." He rode the TT on his normal bike (a Sunn with Corima deep rim carbon wheels, but no other aero equipment) and finished fourth by a few seconds. Classy.

I missed the TT as I wanted to ride a lap of the road course. I wanted to at least see the race but I was up too late. The road course was a 35 km loop and I figured I'd get 50km in after I got lost a few times. It was a really nice course, starting on the flat for 5 km before gradually climbing up to Bad Gams for another 5 km, finishing with half a kilometre at maybe 5%. Then there was a beautiful sweeping downhill through the trees to Stainz, where I lost myself for a few kilometres before realising that I had taken the right direction to begin with. The next 6-7 km or so were flat and potentially fast if you'd managed to get a break happening on the first hill.

On the course, after the descent into Stainz
© Jeff Jones

The course turned right at Mettersdorf for the final climb, which I was looking forward to, as on the profile it had said it was about 2 km at 5%. I'd planned all my tactics around this climb. But it was only 600m long at maybe 7-8%, and just a tad too short to make a real difference. There was a short flat part at the top, then a descent, and I figured it would probably all come back there unless you were very, very strong.

Another right turn with 10 km to go took us back towards Frauental and D-Berg via an undulating road that was gradually uphill. But there was a tailwind blowing and I could see the possibility for more places to attack. It was a fast section, despite climbing slightly, but there were two bits of road works that were puncture territory. I rethought my tactics as I got lost coming back into town.

I returned just a bit too late to make it out to the TT, so I took it easy and had lunch at the guest house instead. I ordered a Steierischer schnitzel, which hung off both sides of the plate and came with potatoes and a lot of salad. At least one pig gave its life for that schnitzel. The locals also do a special kind of cream/butter that stays solid at high temperatures, e.g. when placed on a hot steak. That cannot be good for you. I saw many enormous Austrians during my stay in Styria.

I wandered into town and enjoyed the little river flowing under the bridges, but there wasn't much else to see in Deutschlandsberg so I wandered back. I noted the Slovenians had returned and had already started drinking. They had some success, with Lucija Bosnik and Nada Kozjek finishing 3rd and 5th in the women's TT; Miroslav, Bostjan Svete and Robert Hajdinjak 4th, 5th and 8th in the U35 men's TT; Robert Baumann, Primoz and Stane Petavs 8th, 11th and 17th in the U50s TT; and Stojan Zitko 11th in the O50s TT.

The beer was flowing and we enjoyed a pleasant afternoon in the sun. I was learning a bit about Slovenian culture too. They have not had it easy, but have developed a hard sense of humour. Primoz was constantly teasing Miroslav about his fourth place, 'cos he didn't bother with a proper bike. If he did, he might have won.

Tracing Operacion Puerto to its source
© Jeff Jones

My best Van Gogh impression
© Jeff Jones

A mighty cataract
© Jeff Jones

Primoz and Miroslav and the Others getting stuck into the Puntigamers after the TT
© Jeff Jones

I was interested to know that two Belgians won the U35 men's TT. I'd heard of Frederik (2nd), but didn't know Dieter Roman, who was actually staying where we were and only lives 15 km from me in Aalter.

Unfortunately, all was not good with Primoz, who was a bit stressed because his daughter had had an asthma attack in the morning and had to go to hospital. She'd lost two thirds of her breathing capacity, and the doctors were working hard to keep her alive. Primoz told me that the last time this happened was in 2002 at the journo world's in Zolder. It's just not his luck.

Funkyzeit mit Bruno

That evening, we had a solid dose of Styrian culture up at the Schloss, near the Stoeklpeter hotel where most of the journos were staying. I did not envy them, as it was at the top of a ridiculously steep hill that climbed 400m in not very long. It was an outdoors event, very traditional and very bloody cold under the clear blue sky. There were Austrian whip crackers and flag wavers, which were slightly disturbing. There was also a dudelsack band of some sort playing non-stop muzik with traditional dancing. The muzik was possibly even more disturbing than the flag waving. I guess this is why Lebensraum started. More of that later.

Luckily, we were not staying up here at the Stoeklpeter
© Jeff Jones

Austrian haus muzik is a riot
© Jeff Jones

Most of the Slovenian camp stayed outside and drank Puntigamer to keep warm, but some of us found an inside table and digested lots of meat and strudel that was laid on for the evening repast. I caught up with the Dutch crew, including Peter de Groot again who was going for his third straight title. He was having knee problems, but had booked a physio for 9am Sunday morning to help him get right. I had confidence in him, as he has the killer instinct that you need as a bike racer. I also chatted to Philipp from Tour magazine (Germany) and Robert Hajdinjak, one of the cheer squad Slovenians from last year, now here to race. Not a bad evening, but so cold. So cold.

I got the call to go, and I realised most of the Slovenian contingent had already left, presumably back to the guesthouse. Team mechanic Andrej [who has been drug tested twice - as a mechanic], drove three of us back and after a nightcap of schnapps from a bottle they had stashed in the van, I thought we were calling it a night. No way, it was only 10pm! We passed by the guesthouse and saw that none of the team were there, so we went looking for them. They were all holed up in another place in Ulrichsberg, drinking Puntigamer, playing cards, eating and generally having a good time.

This is why they called it Ulrichsberg
© Jeff Jones

We stayed there a while and enjoyed the atmos, and I was hard pressed not to get stuck into the Puntigamer and healthy plate of doughnuts that arrived at the table. It was all good and a great way to take one's mind of the big race tomorrow. Miroslav was taking it seriously and only had two more grosse beers. We finally made it back to base.

Sunday, at last

Sunday, September 10: I had toyed with the idea of getting up ridiculously early to eat two breakfasts, but in the end I couldn't be bothered. I managed to get down two bowls of muesli and a cup of coffee, and that was a good sign. The hunger was there! And then a few more muesli bars a bit later on, another good sign. I was nervous, but not sick to my stomach.

Then it was a matter of routine. I had to pick up my number and schwag from the race office, and ended up with a second backpack full of Styrian goodies. A jersey, t-shirt, bottle of rosé (which I somehow left in Primoz's car), some oil, a lot of tourist stuff, a glass map of Austria that doesn't stand up no matter which way you put it, and my race numbers. Excess baggage, here we come!

Getting ready on Sunday
© Robert Hajdinjak

The Slovenian camp set up in the car park next to the finish line, and were organised as usual. They all looked good in their Slovenian national jerseys, and the cheer squad was ready. Primoz opted not to race because of his daughter, who was still in hospital. She stabilised, which was a great relief. Hopefully things will go in his favour next year.

It was quite a warm day with little wind, so I rubbed my special "strong warm up oil against rain and cold" on my legs because you can never be too careful. It burned a lot. I kept the actual riding warm up to a minimum, as 10 km of very easy pedaling was more than enough. No way they were going to attack out of the blocks, and I've never found a hard warm up to be beneficial anyway. For refuelling purposes, I stuffed four Powergels into my pocketses and had a small bidon with fresh lemon flavoured Powerdrink in it, plus a larger bidon with water. That was more than enough for a 65 km race.Finally we got the call up to start, and I counted only 19 of us, which can make things tricky because you have to cover everything.

We had a moment's silence for Valerio Riparbelli, who was unfortunately killed by a car whilst out training earlier this year. I feel very sorry for poor Valerio and his family, especially as I also had a run in with a car at around the same time. Be careful out there.

And we're off!
© Kasimir den Hertog

We set off at a very steady pace, rolling along at not much above 32 km/h for the first five kilometres. Everyone was a little nervous, but we could talk to each other while things were still quiet. I made my intentions clear by telling anyone who cared to listen that we needed to push the pace on the first climb. We held it at 32 as the road started to climb gradually towards Bad Gams, then with about 500m to the top I went to the front and put my foot on the gas. It felt good hitting that last bit at 40 km/h, and it had the desired effect of putting six or seven in difficulty.

Frederik Backelandt came around me at the top and I swapped off with him on the first part of the descent to make sure we kept the speed up. I did a few turns and dropped back to see how things were going. Quite good, it seemed, with the dozen or so survivors quite happy to sit on. No-one else was really prepared to do much up front, much to the frustration of Fred, who really wanted to stop the rest from chasing back on. I didn't really care if they did, because that was only the first effort, not a proper attack. Eventually he was advised to take it easier and did so, but not before he, Dieter and Kasimir tried to escape on the flat towards Mettersdorf. I saw everyone chase immediately, and realised it wouldn't be good to attack just yet.

The second climb came quickly enough. We turned right off the main road onto a narrow, winding road that reminded me of the approach to the Kwaremont. I attacked right out of the corner to string it out and kept the pace up until Frederik took over just before the climb. I didn't bother changing out of the big ring as he set a fast tempo, which I hoped would hurt a few people. Just as we got to the top, I went a bit harder and opened up a gap on my own. That was mainly to keep riders from getting back, but I also hoped that I could get five or six with me. Nothing doing, as the bunch caught me at the bottom.

I went to the back and watched a few counter attacks go. Kasimir (who I didn't know was an elite rider), Tobias Krug (who I remember from last year, but wasn't that strong), and a few of the others went away, and things got interesting for a second as we turned right onto the tailwind section. But there were enough chasers, and it all came together. With about 10 km to go to the end of the lap, I found a nice downhill/uphill to launch a proper attack and did so. Dieter chased me, and I would have happily worked with him but the bunch came back to us. Dieter sat up, and I just rode off again and finally got a gap.

I looked back after a bit and couldn't see the bunch, so I had around 20-30 seconds, and that was sufficient to persuade me to continue. I knew it'd probably not work, but it could open up the race, so I sat at 42 clicks just on my threshold. It was a risk, because I would be using more energy than everyone else, but nothing ventured, nothing gained. After a few more kilometres, I went through a few sections of roadworks and hoped I wouldn't puncture. I started to dream of a long range solo win, but I could see the bunch a bit closer now.

Eventually, just before we turned right to start the second lap, the bunch came back, led by Dieter and Frederik, who had been doing all the chasing. After a bit, Dieter told me "it was too early to let you go, but on the next lap..." Strange way of forming an alliance, I thought, but I kept it in mind. I figured once we got to the finish, everyone would go for their own chances, but if you can get people to cooperate in a break, then at least you have a chance.

We were only 35 km in, but I was definitely in need of a gel, because I could already feel that effort as we started the false flat on the last lap. Normally in a kermis I'd wait up to 50 km, but in those races you have the advantage of having lunch as well as brekky beforehand. No-one had counter-attacked after me, and the pace was pretty steady on the false flat, as Bostjan led the bunch, doing a great job (I thought) for his teammate Miroslav.

I half-thought of another attack near the top of the climb, but I knew I couldn't make it hard enough to get a gap on the descent, so I stuck at the back. Still, no-one else attacked. We did the descent and then the flat part between Stainz and Mettersdorf, with Bostjan doing most of the work. We weren't going that hard though, and a cyclo-tourist joined on when we passed him, so I chatted to him for a bit and explained with a smile that this was a world championship for journalists.

Everyone was waiting for the second climb with 15 km to go, and I figured I would too. There's nothing like predictability. All the Belgians and Dutch were down the back with me, while Bostjan continued to do most of the work and the Germans sat right behind him. He sometimes pulled off, but then a bunch would slow right down until someone thought about attacking. Then Bostjan would get back on the front.

The 'Kwaremont turn' came again, although positioning in a 12 man group ain't that difficult. We crossed over the train tracks, and afterwards I learned that the police had actually stopped a train for us, as well as the Under 50s behind us. That didn't even happen in Paris-Roubaix!!

I was on Dieter's wheel when he attacked at the bottom of the hill. Halfway up, I still had it in the 53x17 and I went as hard as possible to the top. Primoz was standing there with some of the Slovenian cheer squad, and he gave me a big shout. Over the top, it was flat for a few hundred metres, and I saw I had Frederik, Kasimir and Miroslav with me, so I kept going. They worked, which was good, but I could feel that the speed wasn't quite enough. I did another hard turn on the descent but gradually, the rest of the group came back, minus one I think.

Hmm, so much for Cunning Plan B.

No-one countered though, and we turned into the tailwind section on the way back to the finish with 13 km to go. I knew my next attack would be chased down, so I found another roller but didn't give it everything. Sure enough, Bostjan led the bunch back to me, although I thought he should have made someone else do the work. Then again, he'd just chased down a break with his compatriot in it, so he was clearly going for his own chances, as I confirmed later.

At last, someone counter-attacked: Tobias Krug, from Tour Magazine. We'd lapped him last year, so he'd obviously picked up a bit of fitness. He flew away, but the group wasn't slowing down either. We hit the last little uphill and I followed Frederik up to the front before putting in my totally premeditated do-or-die attack in over the top, maybe 8-9 km to go. That spelled the end for Tobias, and he finished four minutes down.

We had a small downhill so I could use the 12 to good effect, and got a small gap. I was doing 3 km/h faster than on the previous lap, and definitely not staying on my threshold! I made it through the roadworks, but whenever I looked back, I could see the red jersey of Dutch rider Mark Koghee chasing. Bugger. I knew I was going to have to work for this and I tried, but again at 5 km to go, they caught me. That, I figured, was my last chance, as I had really given it full gas. No way were they going to let me go again. How many left in the group? 10? Damn - for me that usually means sixth or seventh in a sprint.

I gave up and went to last wheel again, as Frederik counter-attacked. I hoped he'd stay away, and it did look like a good move. There were a couple of corners where he could maximise his advantage. Miroslav was just ahead of me, and mustn't have been concentrating, because he suddenly locked up and went into the bushes on the side of the road. He didn't crash, but I thought he may have punctured. Bugger again, as it would have been cool if I could have helped him in the sprint.

Four kilometres to go, and Frederik had about 10 seconds on a bunch unwilling to chase. I was still at the back with Mark K, thinking maybe there was one last chance... The others did start to roll over, and as we came up to a corner with about 3 km to go, I attacked in a totally non-premeditated way. Wanton spontaneity! Kasimir was right on my wheel, but we got around the corner with a small gap, and Frederik was coming back fast. We were nearly up to him, and I asked Kasimir, by way of an elbow flick, to do a turn. He did, and we came up to the Belgian with what I incorrectly guessed as 1.5 km to go.

Frederik had sat up as he saw us coming, and Kasimir was slowing as we caught him. No time to look back, no time to think, except perhaps for Roy & H.G.'s maxim, "Go hard, early, and often, just win!" I didn't have enough for a big attack and I was still pretty sure that we would be caught, but I did it anyway. After getting up to speed, I saw the sign saying 2 km to go, and was somewhat disheartened, as it's hard to go full on for that long.

The road turned into the main drag leading into town, and it was a headwind now. Argh! I was only doing 40 km/h and trying to save enough for the 700m finishing straight. I could see the final roundabout a long way in the distance, and just tried to keep some sort of rhythm without overcooking it. If I could make it to the straight, I'd have more of a tailwind. But 40 km/h wasn't enough, surely? I glanced back and saw I had maybe 10 seconds, but it was hard to tell through the haze. I put my head down and extracted another 2 km/h, wishing that I'd thought of that earlier. I had reached the roundabout!

The straight was ever so gently uphill, and I got out of the saddle, tried to find another gear, but didn't have anything left. I looked back as I sat down again, and I was quite heartened to see no sign of the bunch at the roundabout. One more dig. No more speed. 300 metres to go and I had another look back, and could see they weren't close enough. Fantastic! Finally!!

Then it was a matter of maintaining speed for a bit longer, but that was easy. I didn't have to go into vomit mode. 100 metres to go, one more look back. Yes!! 50 metres to go, and I think I did my first ever two armed victory salute. And once again for good measure across the line, with a very loud "YEAH!". Unbelievable, I had finally done it! So happy. It was such a big relief (Results).

Everyone knew it too, because they had seen me last year and the year before, and they were all happy for me. The Slovenians en masse, including the impressive Miroslav, who came back to the bunch and finished third, Peter de Groot (who had won his third title in a row!), everyone from Cyclingews (via sms), the guys from Procycling, Robert Kuehnen from Tour, the two Belgians, the Italians I'd met in 2004. Argh, only Riparbelli was sadly missing.

I don't think anyone remembered my aborted attempt in Zolder in 2002 when I missed the start, sat on the Over 45s race, very frustrated, then rode 30 km to a train station in the rain. That was what I would class as a low point. In 2004, I was beaten soundly by the better rider in Agostini - no issues with that - but last year in San Marino I was gutted when Mr Rossi came around me in the last 50m.

I checked my heart rate data, and was a bit surprised to see that I'd only averaged 154, with a max. of 188 and 38.2 km/h for the 66 km. The race I did in Erpe the previous Monday was 172 average, but that was in the afternoon. I did spend a lot of the race sitting on, and it wasn't hard unless I was attacking. 15,000 km in the legs probably helped too: despite the lack of racing and breaking my wrist this year, I've felt in better condition than last year.

Everyone had just about gone by the time I picked up my gear from Miroslav's car. We rode slowly back with a portion of the Slovenian contingent, and found a bar in the middle of town. Time for a big Puntigamer I think. And another for the road, because it was 1 km with a 10% climb back to the guest house. In fact, we were quite prepared to stay there for the duration. But the 3 pm presentation beckoned, so at 2:55pm, we thought we'd better make a move and get a shower in. Chamois time is highly overrated.

Fortunately, there was enough protocol and all the TT presentations were done before we had our turn. I was very impressed, because for the first time ever, we were getting 'real' rainbow jerseys. In the first few years, the jerseys were all green with rainbow stripes, then last year they were just green. Now they were all white with all the stripes, and AIJC and UCI printed on the top. The top three got medals and the top eight(!) all got trophies of varying enormity. To top it off, they even had a flag ceremony and played the bloody national anthem! That was cool, even if it was only in front of an estimated crowd.

Congratulating Miroslav on the podium with the mini-Mafiosi looking on
© Jeff Jones

They're playing our song
© Robert Hajdinjak

How much does one of these things hold?
© Robert Hajdinjak

© Robert Hajdinjak

Miroslav was quite happy, although he really wanted the silver so our room could have had the top two placings. Still, it wasn't a bad effort for a guy with 4000 km in his legs and a near wipe-out with 4 km to go. He filled his cup up with a lot of Puntigamer and we drank it as the afternoon wore down. I think I even had a small bite to eat at one point. Then another beer for the road, as there weren't many people left. At the end, only myself, Primoz, Peter, Arian Kuil and Henricus Verdonschot (the hard core Dutchies).

I thought we were going back, but oh no, we found another cafe down the road which happened to be serving Puntigamer beer. It is common in these parts. Several more followed and I don't quite recall all of the details of our conversation. It was now dark, and the others were hungry, so we found a pizzeria up the road and managed to order some sustenance, together with a bottle of bubbly. And more beer.

It was very good to share a glass of prosecco with Peter after last year in San Marino, where we also had one under slightly different circumstances. Arian was very entertaining with his Northern Irish lilt (he lived there for a while), and Henricus and Primoz were in fine form. We only erred when we tried to put some chili oil on the pizza. Oh dear, that was hot. I remember trying to cure Peter of hiccups and failing. Fortunately, we had sufficient liquids at hand.

We finally bid farewell to each other after what I would class as a fairly solid and most enjoyable session. Primoz and I then had to find the Lebensraum hotel, and we wandered through the back streets of Deutschlandsberg looking for the road that would take us up the hill. Somewhere along the way, we took a wrong turn and ended up at the cemetery. Wilhelm Müller and Schubert would have been proud of us. "This isn't the Lebensraum hotel," I remarked. "This is a dead end."

And lo! I was right. We had come too far, but managed to find the steep climb that led us back to the guest house. It wasn't too late, and the manager was still up, so we thought that we should have a beer with him. Only out of politeness, you understand. That was good, and he even laughed at my highly inappropriate joke, but he had lived in Australia for 20-odd years, so he probably understood our sense of humour more than most Austrians.

Somehow, I packed the bike the right way up at 1:00am
© Jeff Jones

That took me up to approx. midnight in Central European Summer Time, and I still had to pack my bike. That took me up to 2:30am CEST, and I'm amazed that I managed to get everything to fit. The cup suffered a bit on the return journey, but I got it back to Gent. I did get some sleep, but had to get up again at 4:00am to make the plane from Graz. Primoz drove me, we had a coffee and swore to meet again soon. He was obviously looking after my best interests when he reminded me that it was September 11 just as I was going to step on the plane. Thanks Primoz, you're a brick! Looking forward to the Croatian experience in a few weeks...

More pics

Looking across to the D-Berg Schloss
© Jeff Jones

Very pictureskew
© Jeff Jones

Downtown Deutschlandsberg
© Jeff Jones

Everyone is jolly.
© Jeff Jones

Austrian flag wavers...
© Jeff Jones

Happy this time
© Robert Hajdinjak

This is going to add weight
© Robert Hajdinjak


lucy (power, not sister) said...

Excellent story Jeff. Well done. Will you get mucho respect on the canal run with that jersey?

Jeff Jones said...

Thanks Lucy. Warning: it's the Schelde, not the canal ;-) I haven't done much bunch riding of late due to end of season work madness, but hopefully this weekend...

Ron said...

Congratulations Jeff - some great memories there.

Rosa said...

Right Jeff, de Schelde, not the canal – a good point, you can return!

The man in rest

Rosa said...

And what about the Schelde-memories...
We gaan je missen!

De Scheldeterrorist