Thursday, 14 April 2016

Tour du Maroc

Tour du Maroc

Stage 1

Coming from the Coppi e Bartali I wasn't too sure what to expect in Morocco. My legs had felt like I was missing many hours of training behind the scooter, but there was no time to do that anymore. 

We all arrived safely in Casablanca, although Morten was almost arrested at the airport for taking a selfie. 
The wind was crazy the next day and the weather wasn't what I had expected either as the sky was covered with clouds and it was a fresh 12 degrees only. The pre-race ride was great anyways, it's always exciting to ride in a country you haven't been before. 

The first stage started hectic as expected and the team did a great job covering all the moves. I joined in and after 65 km we finally got successful. A group of about 13 riders got clear and we hardly went below 50km/h for the first half an hour. 
Then things settled down a little and everyone just circled at a good speed. 
I wanted to take the King of the Mountains jersey as there weren't any points the next day so you'd have the jersey for 2 straight days, but the climb wasn't as hard as expected and no one was sure where the line actually was so many guys sprinted at the wrong time and then got surprised by probably the fastest sprinter in the group who then made it across the real line first. 

Later on I was told not to work anymore as Stefan Schumacher was on his way over with a few other riders. As soon as they joined I tried to keep the group moving as good as possible, but many riders stopped working and it wasn't that easy. 

In the last 10km it was almost only a Unieuro (the strongest team on this race) rider and myself working at the front. The peloton was on our heels too but never caught us luckily. 

In the last km it was all uphill and I got dropped a little from the group due to the work I had done earlier. Stefan had a good day though and finished a strong third. I was 15th on the stage, 14 seconds down on the winner. Not a bad start to the tour at all.

Stage 1 start scenery

Team presentation. Left to right John Mandrysch, Frederik Zeuner, Stefan Schumacher, myself, Morten Gadgaard, Mathias Krigbaum

Stage 2

The second day was a little more relaxed than day one. It took a while for the break to go but once it was gone it was relatively easy. Except for one point when the Moroccans put us all in the crosswind but it didn't last long. 

With 40km to go the break still had 5'20 and I was getting scared they might actually make it. However Unieuro smashed it up a few little rises, putting a lot of riders into trouble and the speed was kept so high that we caught the escapees a few km before the finish. 

The finale was absolutely terrifying. Besides the usual fighting for position there was the occasional spot with a lot of gravel on the road and I mean a lot! I'm still wondering how everyone stayed upright there, especially through the corners. 

Stefan had another brilliant ride to finish 3rd, which moved him up to second overall due to the bonus seconds he received. John finished 12th and I moved up to 13th in the general classification. So far so good. 

Stage 3

The third stage was the first one wit a few difficult climbs. The first 30km were almost all uphill (only slightly at first) and unfortunately we had two riders with stomach problems and they were gone after 21km. Stefan had to save himself for the important moments and John was struggling a little uphill. So I was left to chase down 5 Unieuro riders on my own. After 50 km things settled down a little although we had caught the breakaway again. The calm didn't last long though as no one really knew how to control, so it was just chaos all the way. 
Once again I had to follow move after move after move but at least this time John was there to help me cover. Some sketchy descents with dogs running across the road made it even more exciting and finally with 10 km to go a few teams started controlling. 
Nothing particularly exciting happened at the end except the usual finish sprint chaos but I kept out of it as good as I could. I didn't want to crash for nothing. 

The two sick Danes luckily also made it to the finish in time to hop onto a bus for a 2h30 transfer. One thing I knew for sure was that if I had to do the same thing the next day I wouldn't be able to. 

Some interesting landscapes to be seen from the bus window

Stage 4 

The longest stage along with stage 5 at 193km started with chaos again. Attack after attack again, but it seemed like our Danes had recovered well overnight as they were a great help covering the moves. Then the break left and everything seemed to calm down. Until some ... (insert bad word here) attacked again and chaos was on once more.
Then we put Frederik onto the front just to control things a little, some teams joined and it actually worked. Until all the other teams stopped working and then so did we.

The whole stage had potential of splitting the field in the crosswind, but no one committed to doing it. Still it was super nervous because once you were at the back you didn't feel safe there and moved up, so it was a constant shoveling and shoving.
Then the inevitable. A crash. Someone at the front went down and half the field followed. We had 4 riders involved. John only dropped his chain, put it back on and he was off chasing the bunch. Frederik was soon back on his bike too. Mathias looked like he would never stand back up again and had a frontwheel that was broken in 3 places, whilst I was standing there waiting for a backwheel. When I received the backwheel, I lost a brake pad but got told to just leave it, we would fix it on the road. So I left the accident scene and had to wait a while for the car catching up with me, Mathias trailing in the slipstream. Then our brave mechanic Kuba put a new brake pad in, his fingers only millimeters away from my wheels that were turning at 60km/h.

We made it back safely, more crosswind came, more nervousness but no more big crashes, a chaotic finale as usual where I once again decided to keep out.
With Schumi second on GC I was looking forward to the Queen Stage 5 of the tour. It's good to have a mission on tough days. 

Killing time before the start

Stage 5 

The word epic is much overused these days but there's no better way to describe the 5th stage. Let me explain: 

The start was given with some dark clouds ahead of us and a light drizzle. However the roads here don't seem to be built for a lot of rain and sometimes it felt like we were riding through small rivers. The temperature was quite cold too. 

A 21 man group went off the front, we had Mathias in it, but decided to work  with the Venezuelan guys behind as they already had over 4 minutes after 35km. That said, Frederik and John did the work while I was sitting behind them together with Schumi. My legs didn't feel great at all. They worked until the start of the second climb, where a Venezuelan rider upped the tempo drastically so that they couldn't hold the wheel anymore. I took over and set a good tempo on the climb and for the first time that day my legs felt quite good. The Venezuelan took another strong but short turn at the top, but I rode the majority of the climb at the front. Imagine my surprise as I turned around and there were not more than 20 riders left. 

The downhill that followed was treacherous, wet and foggy. I don't know if it was dirt or very hard raindrops that shot into my eyes but I had my eyes more closed than open. Not that ideal going downhill...
At the bottom the group swelled up a little again and we caught some riders of the breakaway including Mathias who did some valuable work before the last climb. 
I punctured shortly before the climb, but was back quicker than expected although the pace was really high. 

Then something strange happened. I was taking a turn at the front and suddenly had no idea where to go anymore, the road just stopped and a big mudfield opened up ahead of us. Turns out that was a road which was under construction and we had to ride on it. At first I thought it might be 500m or a km long, but it turned out it was the whole climb. Almost 8km uphill of that! Everything was covered in mud in no time. My eyes and face were full of it, you couldn't see the red colour on my cycling shoes anymore and the poor white socks... The gears also stopped working occasionally or the chain slipped because it was all just full of the slimy brown mass. The frozen hands didn't help the shifting problem. 

Halfway up we caught the rest of the breakaway and from then on it got tough. Unieuro was setting the pace and I could barely hang onto Stefan's wheel anymore. When we reached the top and I looked around there were only 7 guys left, 2 of those have been in the breakaway. That filled me with a lot of pride, it's been a long time since I had done such a performance and it was exactly what I had planned to do, not leave Stefan isolated over the climb.
 Unfortunately it was still almost a 100km to the finish from there and I was broken. 
There were so many times before we hit the proper downhill that I almost got dropped. 

Then the downhill came, Schumi lead into the first corner and immediately hit the ground. A few meters later the Venezuelan... When I came around the corner I understood why. There were immense gusts of wind coming from various directions and sometimes the mountain sheltered the road from the wind and sometimes it didn't. I almost got pushed off the road too, but just managed to stay upright because I leaned with all my weight into the wind. The high profile front wheel that I had received after puncturing made matters so much worse. 
So in the course of 300 meters 4 riders out of the 7 in the lead group crashed. 

Afterwards we were super careful around every corner, but it came so unexpected sometimes that you could almost not control it and many more times someone took an off road detour. The group got a little bigger again later on, but the wind stayed almost the same. Sometimes you went 80km/h without pedaling and after the next corner you were doing 20km/h going full gas on the downhill. Staying on the riders wheels was tricky too, you wanted to be sheltered from the wind, but never knew where they would swerve when the next wind gust came so you didn't want to be too close either. 

I did my best to bring a little peace into the chaos and control things, close gaps on guys that jumped or keep the tempo up, but couldn't do it as much as I wanted to because many times I was very close to being dropped. 

The wind calmed down a little the further we descended, but now there were sandstorms and I still hadn't managed to put my glasses back on so my ability to see was reduced once again. 
With 30km to go someone tried to split the group in the crosswind and I had just taken my turn at the front trying to find shelter from the wind again. That I didn't manage and got dropped. Luckily Schumi was still in there and looking quite strong. 

Then a miracle happened, the road turned and we had a blistering tailwind. I had two companions with me of which only one was working with me, but it didn't matter because we were in our biggest gear almost all of the way and hardly going below 70km/h. The occasional crosswind still got me off guard sometimes and I had to stop pedaling for a few seconds but it didn't matter because even by not pedaling for more than 10 seconds I was still going above 70km/h. Fastest 25km of my life. 

Schumi showed his class, rode away from most of his rivals on his own and finished third on the stage, taking valuable bonus seconds and taking the yellow jersey by quite a margin too. Needless to say, the team was thrilled!
I finished about a minute and 30 seconds down which still kept me up in 14th place on GC, less than 2 minutes behind the yellow jersey. 

Unfortunately Frederik broke his bike and wasn't able to get a new one so he had to abandon the stage. Controlling a crazy peloton like this with 4 riders including the leader over 5 days will be a mission and a half, but we will give it our best. 

Looking back at this stage I can't really believe what I had lived through in a single day and reading over what I just wrote here made me realize it's not even remotely close to describing how crazy the day actually was. I think we we were more warriors than cyclists that day. 

Free mudbath

The soigneurs on top of the last climb in freezing conditions

The weather got better, the wind didn't.

The aftermath of a brutal stage. I left my socks right where I took them off, there's no saving them.

Stage 6 

After a 3 and a half hour bus transfer before the stage, we started what was supposed to be and easy stage. Almost all downhill seen from the profile and only 120km long. 
Unfortunately the break once again took a long time to go and a few penny's had been spent before we could take over the work at the front. Also John had taken a bad tumble in the first few kilometers and didn't look that fresh anymore. 

Lucky for me Stefan told me to stay behind him because he needed me for the next stage (with more climbs) and I should rest. Some teams helped us and the break was caught before the line and another bunch sprint was on the cards.

So I had a bit of a relaxed day except that I felt like I was pulling my brakes all the way while riding. Which actually turned out to be true... After the finish line I picked my bike up and tried to spin the back wheel. It didn't even go halfway around before it stopped again. Definitely not what you want to see, but I guess I could blame my bad legs on that, partly at least.

Stefan receiving another yellow jersey

Stage 7

Once again a hectic start to stage 7. We were on winding hilly roads along the coast and one dangerous break went after the other. After around 10 kilometers I was in a 12 man group but it didn't last more than 7 kilometers. 

After that I don't know how many times I covered some of the dangerous riders, because Mathias was nowhere to be seen (he punctured as it turned out later and took quite a while to get back on) and John was a little tired on the climbs and still suffering from the wounds he got from his crash the day before.

Finally another 12 man group went off the front, including the guy who was second on GC with 3 teammates alongside him. I was there too and tried to break the rhythm as good as I could but they were working quite well and unfortunately he gained another 3 valuable seconds in the intermediate sprint. We went on to the first King of the Mountain classification at 65km which many riders tried to go for, but once that was done there was not much collaboration left in the group and we got caught again by a now reduced peloton. 

Almost immediately 2 of the most dangerous riders for the GC went on the attack and since Schumi was nowhere to be seen I jumped with them. They went flat out and almost immediately build up quite a lead. Shortly afterwards more riders came over and we were now 8 in the front, almost all of the favourites represented. Still no Schumi to be seen. This was a bad sign! 

But while they went all out in the headwind I just stayed behind and tried to save as much energy as possible to go for a possible stage win later or maybe move up on GC as well. Unfortunately I got called back just as we created the second King of the Mountain at 123km to help bringing the peloton back. 

As it turned out Schumi had mechanical and had some troubles coming back too. Right in that moment all the favourites attacked, thus his absence. 

Working at the front of the peloton in the headwind was brutal, but more and more riders joined and once Stefan joined in as well with his yellow jersey the lead came down pretty quick. 
Too quick unfortunately as we caught them with more than 13km to go. 

More attacks followed and a 5 man group got a gap, one of them only 1'30 behind on the GC. So I took a big turn at the front to bring them as close as possible and then blew up. It was up a bridge and all in the crosswind so there was no chance for me to catch a passing riders wheel. Then there were no more riders. 

But then 2 dropped riders came to the rescue as they worked hard to come back on the following descend and we got back again when the peloton slowed down for a roundabout. 

Immediately I went to the front again, took a few more turns until 3km to go and then blew up again. This time I could stay in the peloton though and finish in the same time to conserve my 14th place on GC. Not that it mattered because we're going for yellow here, but it's a small victory nonetheless. 

There was some drama afterwards as supposedly Stefan got a penalty for drafting a car when he had a mechanical (which is pretty normal), which meant he wouldn't be in yellow anymore. But later it was all good, no penalty and the yellow was his. 
3 more days to go.

Still smiling...

Stage 8

Stage 8 was terrible. My legs were in a constant state of pain, even when I wasn't turning them. So were my ankles, knees, hipbones, elbows and wrists. No idea why.

Contrary to the usual non-stop attacking, there were no attacks at all today. After Morocco unsuccessfully tried to put everyone in the gutter, we rolled along and no one tried to go. Seemingly I wasn't the only one that was tired.

Finally 6 riders went and we could start doing our turns at the front. It was a terrible headwind though and we barely managed to get over 35km/h, so this was a brilliant day for anyone that didn't have to be at the front.

The day just didn't seem to end. Turn after turn was taken, but the kilometers were creeping by in slow motion. Luckily we had made some friends in the peloton that helped us pull, we would've never managed to defend with only 3 guys working!

25 km from the end there was a turn to the left and we all knew how dangerous it was. Crosswind alarm, all the way to the line!
Although we went first around the corner, there was nothing we could do when the other teams moved up. We made some big efforts to stay in front and out of the wind and seemed to succeed at first. But when you're that tired and you've been on the front for 110km in a headwind you only have to be in the wrong spot once and you're out. First John was gone and pretty soon Mathias and myself followed. So the yellow jersey was isolated with other teams still having 4 to 5 riders. Less than ideal.

I tried to stay in the second group that was close to the first one, but was soon out of that one too. I hate crosswind!
The third group that came along was going really fast and I thought I would just let it go because my GC spot was gone anyways and that would just be wasting energy, but there was still around 18km to go and I wanted this day to be done as soon as possible. So I hopped in and actually managed not to get stuck in the wind again.

To my surprise we didn't finish that far behind and I only lost one spot on GC. More importantly though Stefan managed to defend his yellow jersey for another day. I seriously thought we could've lost it there.

Stage 9 

The next stage had the same start as stage 8 ended. Which meant the first 25km crosswind. You know how I feel about that by now.
As expected it was all split at some point and I found myself in the second group as well, but only occasionally as many riders tried to make it back and I was in the front group before the crosswind ended.

Then it was the same as the day before; working into a headwind. Today was worse though, I felt empty before the stage and it didn't get better. It even got to that point that I looked at the fork of Mathias who was riding in front of me and was terrified when it started to move. Then a moment later I realized that my vision was a little blurry and other things that weren't supposed to move did the occasional wobble as well.

And I thought stage 8 was bad... At least I was forced to be at the front. If not I would be a ticking timebomb in the peloton, because my reactions weren't that fast either.
Strangely though I held through, and actually started feeling a little better when other teams joined the front and upped the tempo to catch the breakaway.

Another crazy finale came up. Maybe also crazy because at the 10 km to go sign everyone started to move up and start their leadout trains, but it took another 9 km before the 5 km to go sign arrived... Not the first time those signs were a bit misplaced by the way..

Stefan finished in the pack to get another day in yellow. So did I, although I still don't understand how. It's crazy how far you can push your body when you really have to!

After the stage I sat about 40 minutes on the hotel bed with my head in my hands and didn't move. There was just no energy left. After the shower I spent almost all of the evening in bed, with a light fever, hoping a miracle would come and I could start and finish the last stage.

Stage 10

One more stage was ahead of us before we could possibly be the overall winners of Tour du Maroc 2016 (Stefan could be for that matter, but it's a team effort). A miracle did happen overnight as the fever had disappeared and I felt rather fresh. Still hurting on the bike but at least I could see straight.

A lot of attacks were thrown at us again before a group that we were happy with left. This time we had a blistering tailwind instead of the headwind like the previous days.

All was in control...

Until someone rode up next to me and said: "Hey I think your leader has a problem". I looked back and he wasn't behind us anymore. The message spread quite quickly and the pace slowed down. Luckily no one tried to take advantage of the situation and respected the unwritten code of waiting for the yellow jersey when he has a problem. Thanks everyone for that!

Behind all hell was loose. Schumi had a plastic bag stuck in his rear derailleur which didn't took some time to get out, then he wasn't allowed to pace back by the cars and the regular traffic was opened again, so he had to jump normal cars and even horses all on his own just to get back into contention. Mathias luckily came soon to assist him with the chase back but it wasn't an easy one I can assure you that.

Back in the pack and hell started for us. Due to the lull of waiting for Stefan we had lost a lot of time on the breakaway and it's extremely difficult to gain time quickly in a tailwind. So all of the teams working for a stage win pulled their men from the front and at times we were only 3 pulling between 50 and 60km/h all the way.

Mathias cracked due to the work he had done for Schumi, John cracked.. and finally I cracked too and we hadn't even reached the final circuit yet (5x5km). We weren't given any time gaps either so we had no idea what was going on. All I knew we needed more men to ride.

As we got onto the circuit for the first lap I was dropped already, but still in the cars. Made it back somehow, recovered a little in the wheels, went to the front, did one turn and was almost straight out the back again. I tried that once more with the same effect and with the third try I didn't even manage to get to the front.

Somehow there were always enough guys to pull though and the break had a mere 45 seconds left at the end (they had more than 5 minutes as we came onto the circuit).

Schumacher finished in the peloton safely to retain the yellow jersey and thus win the race overall. We had done it! All the hours of suffering and pain were somehow forgotten when he stood up on the podium and gave us a thumbs up and a wink as we cheered and whistled for him.

Mission Accomplished!

It's a big win for the team I can assure you that and we hope there's more to come.

As for myself, I finished 14th overall, which I'm proud of as I've done a lot of work. I'm even more proud of achievements you can't see on paper. Like being among the 7 riders that made it over the top of the highest climb first, never missing an important move, being a teammate that Schumi could count on (I hope)... All in all this tour has boosted my confidence a lot and it should've given me a lot of power for the upcoming races too.
Sometimes you only see how strong you are when you work for someone else. Because You really have to give it your everything until you blow. And that blow mostly comes a lot later than expected. This is why I really enjoy having someone like Stefan Schumacher on our team.

The last meal ... uhm ... I mean breakfast

Our British friends from the Planet X team

Schumi in yellow has become quite the familiar sight for the Moroccans

2 days and a few stressful moments later (like almost missing our flight back to Frankfurt) I was properly sick. I still denied it a little, but when I took a 40 minute nap, slept from 17-18;30, then again from 20-22 o'clock and then all night through to 11 in the morning I realized I might've been worse than originally thought. The good side was the long sleep made it a lot better, but it still wasn't perfect.

So I probably won't be racing Giro del'Appenino, but there might be a few Danish races coming up for me soon and maybe even something real special (I'll only tell once I know for sure).
Until then I'll recover as well as possible and hope I took some good form off Tour du Maroc.

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