We are now a few weeks into our early season European campaign and between the second and third U23 Nations Cups of the trip. Owen Harrison arrived on the 6th to complete the team and everyone seems to have settled into their place and routine at the house in Tielt-Winge. The following day we previewed the course for the first Nations Cup, the U23 version of the Tour of Flanders. We were lucky enough to have Dominique Rollin of Cervelo Test Team fame showing us the ropes after having just raced the ProTour version. We found ourselves on a tough and versatile course with cobbles, steep climbs and the crazy bergs that combine the two. Dom instructed well to prepare us for what would be an incredibly tough and chaotic race.
Flanders started and we were soon on the first cobbled section. The race seemed to settle into a rhythm and much of the nervous energy of the start disappeared. I managed to get into an early breakaway for a while, but with so many strong teams there, the break had to have the perfect composition and that never happened. As the race progressed, the pace slowly ramped up with each climb proving tougher than the last. The race was sketchy on the small twisty roads and Michael was in a crash. Another crash went down beside me and a wheel caught my shifter, effectively separating the levers and making it useless. I took a spare bike, but each option available had a different set of pedals than I was riding. The rest of the team also had some misfortune with Keir’s cassette dismantling after a cobble section, Antoine flatting at a bad moment and Michael in another crash. Unfortunately no one on the team finished, but valuable lessons and experience were taken from a true Northern Classic.
The next few days consisted mainly of rest, including many hours of Eurosport and watching Dominique Rollin and Mike Barry on the front at Paris-Roubaix before Fabian Cancellara rode the bike race off his wheel. It wasn’t long, however, before Tuesday came around and we were off to France for the 2nd round of the Nation’s Cup.
La Cote Picarde takes place in the Somme region with much of the race near the coast and the English Channel. The course had many exposed sections in the beginning before a more sheltered, hilly finale. That said, the wind played a role throughout most of the race. It was controlled early on which led to extremely nervous racing as every team was fighting for the front in what was expected to be a crosswind-heavy first half of the race. Later in the race the wind picked up and with the combination of the steep hills and exposed roads, the pack dwindled. Leading into finishing circuits, Keir and Jamie were pacing Owen back up to the peloton after his vest came out from under his jersey and locked up his rear wheel. With about 4 km to the first circuit, I had a rear flat and had to wait for Vincent and our follow car 20 cars back. The Canadian trio made it back a few kilometres before the first passage and after a barrage, I was joined them shortly thereafter. We all immediately started moving up as the first climb on the finishing circuits came very quickly. Each of the riders who had just made the effort to get back on had a tough time with the climb and as the pace intensified, we each dropped off the back. I continued to push and found some strength as I crested. I ended up with a group that continued to roll at a steady pace and pick up riders, including Michael en route to the finish. Antoine rode a good race, lasting until the final climb before losing the pack. The three of us ended up between 80th and 100th with Jamie just out of classification and Keir and Owen DNF-ing. Once again, there was some misfortune, but altogether the team rode a much better race than Flanders and is continuing to make rapid gains in both fitness and experience.
Next on tap is the final round of the Nation’s Cup we will compete in this project, the ZLM Tour in The Netherlands. The small exposed roads that zig-zag across Zeeland will make for a hard race, but Team Canada is ready for it.