This week Team Wanty-Groupe Gobert made history with their biggest ever race victory. Our man should have been the thick end of 1,000km away, but as fate would have it he made a 9 hour journey to join the team and to fully play his part in an historic occasion that will live long in the memory of the team and their fans.
HEADLINE IN L'EQUIPE: 'THE ANGEL WAS WITH THEM'
Well it's been a busy week. When I last spoke to you I was getting ready to ride Brabantse Pijl. My job for the day was to look after our ‘Kop Man’ (Flemish for team leader) Enrico Gasparotto for as long as I could and make sure he came into the final of the race as fresh as possible. My duties were cut short as we entered the finishing circuit and I had myself a flat tyre. After a quick wheel change and a frenzied chase, up hill and down Belgian dale I made it to the back of the peloton. But just as I did so the back of the peloton began to splinter and I couldn’t close the gap back to the safety of the bunch. So I found myself making my way back to the bus for a premature shower. On the upside I got a good 186km in the legs and got to watch the Kop Man take second in a tense uphill finish.
Then the next day I did a steady two and a half hour recovery ride in the morning and afterwards I re-packed my freshly washed kit back into my suitcase and headed to France for the weekend, and the Tour du Finistère and Tro Bro Leon. It was over 900km travelling to get down to just about the furthest away South West part of France (I was closer to Old Blighty than I was to Belgium!). So we split the travel over two days in the team bus with 5hrs Thursday night and another 4hrs to finish it off on Friday. When we arrived I got booted and suited and got myself on the rollers for an hour to get the travel out of my legs. The session went well with me just about finished when my team manager came up to me and ‘gave me some bad news’. One of the boys due to ride the Amstel Gold Race on Sunday had gotten ill and so my services were needed back in Belgium. He gave me the news that I had to board a train back to Lille, followed by a transfer by car to the team Hotel in Liege the morning before the race. Safe to say in my travel weary state I didn’t take it well and I may have let my ‘Chimp Paradox’ get the better of me for an hour or two. Then it dawned on me this was my chance to ride one of the five biggest one-day races in our sport, something I had always dreamed of since I was a young lad. Then I realised I should have been more excited for the opportunity than annoyed for the nine hours of travel that lay ahead.
I woke early the next morning, grabbed a quick bit of breakfast and the all important cup of coffee, and got dropped-off at the station in Quimper to get my train at 07:40. Out of all forms of travel I find rail travel the most relaxing so actually the seven hours I spent in the train were not so bad, especially with all the modern day technologies its not hard to amuse yourself for any length of time. When I arrived in Lille it was another two hours to the team hotel by car which went off without incident.
I had a feeling of Deja Vu when I arrived at the hotel as I got booted and suited jumped on the rollers and did exactly the same one hour turbo session I’d done 24 hours before. Because I had arrived at the hotel so late in the day, after I finished my roller session I was summoned for massage and as soon as I was done I had to go to the team meeting for tomorrow's race. Here I was told my role would be the same as Wednesday and I’d have to look after Gaspa for as long as possible. (To be fair, after the day of travel I don’t think anyone expected it to be for very long). The meeting concluded with the manager stating that if we all do our jobs tomorrow our man could win the bike race, which is quite an exciting prospect in your first ever Monument. Once the meeting was done it was to one of my three favourite times of the day… Dinner Time; where I ate copious amounts of rice and a bit of Salmon with some greens for good measure.
The thing about a Classic like Amstel Gold Race is its a lot longer than the other races we do. In total it was going to be a whopping 247km, which meant the start was earlier than most races at 10:15 on a Sunday morning. This meant an even earlier start for us to get the all important pre-race breakfast in and digested before the race commenced.
The atmosphere at the start was nervous, everyone itching to get on the challenging and undulating course where we would take-on 34 short, sharp climbs. The race began and the pace was a shock to the system. We covered nearly 48km in the first hour, until a group of eleven riders escaped off the front and the peloton settled. As soon as the race settled Gaspa told me his radio wasn’t working, so we decided to swap his for mine as mine was working perfectly. Then I could drop back to the team car and change it for a spare without too much stress.
As things settled down and the big teams started to control the race, I set about my duties of pretty much making sure Gaspa didn’t waste any energy. I made sure he had somewhere to shelter from the wind and positioned him at a pinch-point, or at the bottom of a climb and just made sure he generally kept out of trouble. I can honestly say I have never learned so much about winning a bike race than I have on Sunday. Every now and then I’d get a tip on how I could save us both more energy, which would in turn pay dividends at the end.
As we came to the feed zone we got caught on the wrong side of the peloton and so couldn’t get over to our soigneurs to get our feed bags. So we missed them. Eating and drinking is vital in a race as long as Amstel, so Gaspa made the call that we should stop for a nature break and get the feed bags from the team car. I was a bit dubious about stopping myself as the race was not going easy by any rate. But we stopped, tended to our nature break, and Kenny De Haes volunteered to go and get our feed bags from the car, while we made our way back to the peloton.
Like I said before, the race was pretty much on, and if I’m completely honest I was pretty much flat-out getting back to the peloton together with a big group that had also stopped for a nature break with our Kop Man in tow. As we got back we swiftly made our way to the front of the peloton as it was the safest place to be, and once you were there it was the easiest place to ride. Then a short while later Kenny arrived proudly with the feedbags as it was no mean feat to make it back with a few kilograms of extra water and food dragging you down! He joked that the manager was worried he wouldn’t make it back and so was quite reluctant to give him the bags which added a bit of humour to the tension of the race as it hotted-up.
As we came into the last 100km of the race my job was to make sure we stayed as far forward in the peloton as possible for the second passage of the infamous Cauberg climb, and then stay near the front for the following climbs for as long as possible. Sure enough we hit the Cauberg in the top ten, then over the top and as the peloton strung out again we took our place behind the teams who were setting the pace in the peloton. On 60km from the finish line the race really started with the first attacks to try and escape before the final.
My efforts throughout the day began to tell after what seem like an endless onslaught of attacks. Off the front, a group slipped away and I slipped backwards while going up one of the countless climbs of the day. I managed to hang on to the coattails of the peloton over the top of the climb and as we shot down the descent I tried to make my way back to the front - but the pace was on. I hung on as long as possible, but at the 200km mark the heavens opened and the temperature dropped by what felt like 20 degrees. As we hit a short sharp climb I was frozen. The peloton spat myself and a fair few other riders out and left us to fend for ourselves.
Soon the broom wagon (a van and a bus that follows the race to pick up any dropped riders and take them to the finish) was upon me and asked me if I wanted a lift. I politely declined, as I thought it was only 10km back to Valkenburg… turns out I took the ‘scenic’ route and it took me 25km to reach the safety of the team bus.
I got back just in time to watch the last few KMs on the Team Bus TV. Our man Gaspa was right up there on the final climb. As we stood on the bus, all drained from our efforts from the day, the excitement began to build. Sure enough on the last climb he launched an attack, leaving all but one is his wake. His experience showed (he also won Amstel in 2012) playing it cool and calm letting his lone companion take-up the pace setting, knowing he could smell a podium. Then as the peloton breathed down his neck he waited until the last moment to launch his sprint. He won, and dedicated it to our team mate Antoine Demoitie who was tragically killed in an accident with a motorbike in Gent-Wevelgem.
It's a cliche I know but it was truly a beautiful victory for Antoine. Let's hope there are more to come to honour his memory….
Watch the final KM's of the race and historic victory here:
See Gaspa's emotional post-race interview in English here:
Follow Mark's training and racing on Strava.
Follow @MMcNallyCycling on Twitter and check out his website: markmcnallycycling.co.uk