Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Tour de L'Abitibi -- Stages

My 17-year-old son, Nathan, of NCVC, Squadra Coppi's Kevin Gottleib, and four other 17-18 year old young men were selected to ride for the Northeast Regional Team at the Tour de L'Abitibi, a prestigious international (UCI-sanctioned) Juniors stage race in northwestern Quebec, Canada.  The tour consists of a Prologue and five stages over five days.  This blog describes (progressively) each stage, with some creative license.  Pictures are posted here.  Stage maps are downloadable here.

Also, see Phil Young's blog and pictures at http://labitibi.wordpress.com/ ... Another DC-area race father, Phil's son Kevin is racing with the Borah cohort.  Nathan's account is here -- probably the most accurate telling.

Stage 0 -- Getting There ... (Tuesday, 7/22 - Friday, 7/25/2008)

The travel stage was chaotic and difficult (with some compensation).  Nate and Kevin drove to Mike Fraysse's Sports Camp in Glen Spey, New York, on Tuesday -- about a six hour drive from Washington, DC.  Former USCF President and cycling legend (from a legendary cycling family) Fraysse runs a series of cycling camps and events, including preparations and qualifications for the NE regional team, headed by Marka Wise.  Both the NE team van -- driven by Rich Foley, another team father and squad mechanic, -- and Team Director Marka's vehicles had flats during the trip north to L'Abitibi, turning a 10-12 hour drive into a 15-24+ hour ordeal.  I left DC at 2 PM on Thursday and power drove north on US 81, and across the Saint Lawrence to Ottawa (with a lengthy dinner stop in Binghamton, at Station 5 -- a place to remember, old firehouse converted to haute cuisine).  I arrived at Chateau Laurier about 2 AM, having filtered through rain and hail in Pennsylvania-New York and again really-really heavy rain in Ontario.  I cracked the mini bar for some red wine and slept like a baby.  Ottawa is an incredibly beautiful city in very bike friendly Canada.  In the morning, I rolled out of the Chateau, which sits across from Parliament on the Rideau Canal and the Ottawa River.  I did an hour or two of zone two work along river and canal bike paths, before packing-up and driving north to Val D'Or -- base for the Tour.  All was well -- the rolling hills, lakes and mountains were beautiful.  (Though less beautiful the farther north one travels in Canada.  Things get 'straggily' -- I think the biome north of Val D'Or is tundra.)  I got into Val D'Or about 5 pm, clicking over 900 miles on the trip computer.

Prologue -- 400 meter sprint (Friday, July 25)

The Tour de L'Abitibi is the junior (17-18 year old racer) equivalent of the Tour de France.  A prologue and five or more stages, with competition among about 27 international teams -- U.S. and Canadian teams, of course, but also teams from Japan, France, Kazakhstan, Australia, Dominican Republic, New Zealand and Ukraine.  It is a wonderful polyglot mix of youthful riders.  All the teams are given a classroom in the local high school, with mattresses on the floor and -- fine, fine -- cafeteria meals.  It works very well.

The Prologue was held Friday night, starting about 7:30 PM.  It consisted in a 400 meter drag race, with two riders launching in parallel off of high-incline start ramps down the cordoned center of a Val D'Or city street.  It was very cool.  Crowds packed the barricades to cheer on the riders. Only glitch was that at about 8:15 PM it started to rain -- light at first then hard.  The launch ramps and road course got pretty slimy and slippery.  One rider (French, I think) crashed pretty spectacularly, after catching his handle bar in a barrier -- he summersaulted and his bike flew across the opposing rider's lane.  He seemed okay.  All the NE team guys finished fine.  The sprint isn't a substantive event -- it lasts only about a half-minute, so the time gaps are minimal.  However, the results determine the position of the team cars in the race caravan, which is important when a rider needs to get a replacement bike or water/food during one of the three lengthy road stages.

Signing off for now.  Tomorrow it's a 95 KM road race from tiny Preissac (NNW of Val D'Or) back to the race city.  Hope it's dry and all goes well!

Stage 1 -- Road Race, Preissac - Val D'Or -- 95.4 Km -- Saturday, July 26

Wet, rainy morning.  Up at 6:00 AM.  Off to Tim Horton's (doughnut shop), then on to racer's school lodgings to be "helpful" -- clean bikes, run uniforms through laundry ... whatever.  The racers start the RR at 6 PM.  (Something about the northern latitude, I guess.  All races start pretty late in the day.)  TD Marka gave me the day off -- Rich will do most of the work today, ride in the race caravan.  Tomorrow's 91 Km race from St.-Mathieu - Val D'Or will be a workday for me.

Liberated,  I rode out in the country on various trails, some part of Route Verte, Quebec's several thousand kilometer trail network (2004 trip notes here).  Midday was pretty pleasant, partly sunny.  Some of my ridings took me along the lakes and on woodland trails -- a nice break.  The wind picked-up later in the day and thunderstorms headed in.  I'm heading over (6:00 pm) to Centre Ville to have supper and catch the road race's finishing laps -- pictures if not raining or too dark.  Nathan said that if he finishes in the pack that by itself will move him up into a pretty good position (general classification -- scored by total race time).  (With the wind so strong, I think sitting in is a good strategy.  Two more road races will provide time to surge and attack towards higher GC.  One of our coaches says that winning big stage races is sometimes more a matter of what you do off the bike -- staying fresh and rested as the days advance ... we'll see; L'Abitibi is a great learning opportunity.)

Extraordinary exciting finish. 85+ hard kilometers on the road, followed by three laps on a 3.5 Km city circuit.  This city -- Val D'Or -- loves bike races.  I've never seen a more enthusiastic crowd.  Near the finish line, packed with many hundreds of folks, the noise was overwhelming -- cheering, people pounding on the barriers.  Every rider, even the lone ones and twos off the back, got thunderous cheers.  The Northeast team did great, with about three of our folks finishing in top 50.  The game was won by a breakaway of about seven, followed by several chase groups, with 50, 20 or so folks in each.  Nathan crashed with about 20 miles to go.  He said it was the most intense road race he'd been in; gripping the bars, staying steady in the front-middle of a boiling 150-rider pack, spinning out in his 14 tooth gear (about 40 mph).  At about the 20 mile-to-go point, the police had pulled over a 16-wheeler truck so the race could pass.  This squeezed the road.  Four guys went down hard, including one who slid under the (motionless) wheels and got carted away in a EMT unit.  This occurred about 15 yards in front of Nate; he went over top the downed riders, banged his legs and broke a wheel spoke.  Nate waited for the team car to get a new wheel, and rode into the finish under the time cut.  Another race tomorrow, from St.-Mathieu; similar format -- about 80 Km of road racing, followed by three laps in the town circuit.  We'll see.

Stage 2 -- St. Mathieu-Val D'Or, 91 Km road race, Sunday, July 27

I love bicycle racing -- mostly because it's good to see the kids involved and all the enthusiastic, giving senior racers, coaches and parents.  My experience has been mostly local regional races.  Good stuff.  Today's venue took it to a much higher level.  Intensive race caravan, tens of referees on motos, medical units, motorcycle photographers, helicopter shadowing, live news coverage, cheering country-folk roadside.  From St. Mathieu, the pack started the 91 Km race in a sprint, crushing 40-50 Kph.  About 2 km down the road, the pack turned hard right.  At about 5 km, the road narrowed to a single lane over a bridge under construction.  The TDs and racers were all briefed about this perilous spot: the race pack owned the full width of the highway -- two lanes plus paved shoulders, -- and needed to thin itself to less than 15 feet.  Everyone made it across the bridge without incident.   After the bridge, Nathan led a breakaway out for a couple Km, opening a 15-20 second gap.  (Race radio fed live updates of Nathan's progress.) No major GC contenders were in the 3-person break, so Nathan thought the folks would work together and the break might stick.  The USA National team sent a rider forward, not a GC contender, and he refused to work, so everyone but Nathan decided not to work, and the break was reabsorbed by the pack.  About 10 Km in, first big crash.  The whole left lane of the road was shut down as about ten riders went down, stacked up together.  Team North East riders (Josh, Kevin) reported hearing much crash language ("...Oh sh*t!..." (bang)) and dodging the mess.  Nate slammed on his brakes, cut right and then sprinted to catch back on to the pack.  A few breaks tested the front from time-to-time, but were eventually reabsorbed.  The countryside was beautiful, gold and green fields, farms, ponies, etc.  About ten minutes of rain, not too much wind, and otherwise partly sunny.  About 55 Km in, second big crash.  Really big, messy crash.  Four guys went down hard.  Our guy Austin came over top the downed riders and slammed down through his carbon-fiber top tube, cutting his bike in half.  Riding as mechanic, I leapt out of the team car, and first checked Austin's health.  He was in a lot of pain -- "lower central pain syndrome" would be a polite description.  I called medics and three were on scene.  I assumed Austin was out, so I packed his two part bike in the team car and summoned transport to take him to Val D'Or.  TD Marka asked Austin if he could ride (after the inspecting medics pronounced him "not pleasant but not bad" in broken English). Austin said "yes."  So I pulled a spare bike off the roof and spun on Austin's pedals, got him on  the bike and sprinted/pushed him back down the road.  We cheered Austin's courage, counseling him that he'd make the time cut if he worked hard.  Attending Austin cost about 15 minutes, so Marka and I were way off the back of the caravan.  We drove into Val D'Or passing various stragglers -- crash survivors, folks who flatted, burnt ones.

The road race finishes with three, 3.5 Km circuits about Val D'Or.  The French nationals -- two guys from the squad -- were at the front, followed by the pack.  We were excited to see NE's Kevin Gottlieb and Josh in the pack, with Nathan just little off the back.  Connor, a strong NE 18 year-old flatted on the penultimate lap, and Kyle Foley came in a later chase group.  Courageous Austin came in a qualifying finish.  A pretty cool, exciting day.  My sense is the team moved up in GC -- we were placed 15th of 27 teams at the day's start.  Results will be posted about midnight at the school.

Back at the race hotel -- the high school classroom -- soigneurs (me and Rich) tended the wounded (ice packs, saline wash, betadyne, etc.) and helped ready bikes for tomorrow morning's mining cave time trial and evening 77 km criterium -- a very long race for the Rouyn-Noranda city crit.  The squad is doing well by Marka's leadership and soigneur-ship.  Everyone is working hard, resting sensibly and learning.

Stages 3 and 4 -- 14.5 Km Time Trial (about 8 AM - 1 PM), Val D'Or, and 77 Km Criterium, 7 PM, Rouyn-Noranda, Monday, July 28

Up early.  Rainy morning.  My last day in L'Abitibi.   Individual time trial this morning starts 800 meters down an iron ore mining cave (now a tourist attraction), somewhat dark and sketchy.  Even though riders will be racing uphill (one at a time), word is, they can't stand in their pedals so as not to hit heads on mine ceiling.  (I worry about our tall riders, some about 6' 2".)  After hitting daylight, riders cruise about 7 Km through Val D'Or, past a vast open gravel pit, then they come back the same way to finish outside the iron mine.  Time trial, the race of truth.  We'll see.

Evening (7 PM) brings us to Rouyn-Noranda for a 77 KM criterium around seven city blocks.  This (about 50 miles) is a pretty long distance for a crit.  Winners will probably take it in about two hours.  After the crit, I'll start driving south to make it home.  Will probably overnight in Mont Tremblant or Montreal, then power drive to DC Tuesday.  I'll miss Tuesday's 97 Km road race from Amos to Val D'Or, the last stage.  Nathan and Kevin should arrive back in DC about Thursday.

Off to the school to soigneur.

From Rouyn-Noranda:  Morning TT was good for Northeast team.  Riders started in reverse GC order.  Crash-afflicted Austin launched at 8:04 AM and Nathan launched about 9:00 AM, followed  by Kyle, Connor, Josh and our top GC contender Kevin at about 12:34 PM.  The guys found the 800 meter climb out of the mine challenging, dark and steep.  After picking-up regular roads at about 2 Km, lead motorcycles for each rider and a team follow vehicle (carrying wheels) launched to package the rider.  I drove team follow behind Austin, Kyle and Josh; Rich followed Nathan, Connor and Kevin.  While there were no incidents of the road (save some edgy turns hitting gravel), a couple folks had mechanicals in the mine -- Nate's wheel flatted while on the warm-up trainer; he got a fresh wheel from neutral support before his start.  A couple racers had gear slips.

The road section ran about 10 city street blocks, then south a Km on the airport road, right up past the gravel mine (the only hill on the road section) for about 2 Km, right into a residential section, around a couple residential blocks to reverse direction, then back to the starting area (short of the mine) -- 14.5 Km total.  Rich reported Nathan rode very strongly; I watched him sprint into the finish, throwing his bike left and right.  Pretty cool.  I followed Josh and was amazed how quickly he made it through corners, taking a wide arc and pedaling strong.  Josh only hit one or two sketches of gravel over his aggressive lines.  The team will see the results tonight.

(A side anecdote, my relative, Larry Warbasse, riding for the US National team, missed a turn, retraced, and still finished with the seventh fasted time.  That's a powerful young man to watch.)

Blogging from PizzaDelici in Rouyn-Noranda:  Good WiFi (and good pizza).  Weather is sunny and pleasant.  Crit course is around 7 city blocks, with a tough hill -- steeper but shorter than the Fitchburg circuit hill; rough downhill corner to unload.  55 1.4 Km laps.  Crit starts in two hours at 7 pm; should conclude about 8:45 pm.  If not called heavily to soigneur, I'll pull the camera out.  Maybe some Kodak moments.

Blogging from Scranton, PA (didn't quite make it home in one day):  As predicted, last night's crit was major intensive.  The French team (and to a lesser extent the Ukranians) are at a totally different level than the other teams -- including good old Northeast Regional. The lithe French riders would run off the front, turn on their seats to survey the pack, and whistle signals back to teammates to coordinate some action.  Even at 30 or more laps, they seemed to do this without effort.  On the other hand, it was a very tough crit for most everybody else.  NE's Kevin Gottleib, Connor and Josh muscled the whole race.  I think Kevin finished top 30, which is performing at the highest level in U19 international cycling.  Congratulations, Kevin! Nathan confided that he felt tired before the start; nonetheless, he rode with great heart and stayed in the pack through about 30 laps, before slipping back and getting reabsorbed (a lap down) several laps latter.  Basically, same situation for Kyle.  Kyle and Nathan, as programmed by the race bible, were pulled (removed) with five laps to go, and awarded deprecated times.  Austin, Sunday's bike-buster, rode the 58 Cm spare Fuji generously donated by Mike Fraysse.  Charging up the hill, he pushed too hard, dropped out of the pedal and crashed to the pavement.  The first 45 minutes of the race, I took pictures while Rich tended pit.  The balance of the race and awhile after, I performed medic duty.  Saline wash, betadyne (iodine), and Tegaderm on Austin's top shoulder, scapula, and lower flank.  A couple 1 Mm deep avulsions on the elbow (wash, iodine, Neosporin, special wrap).  Advil.  His pain dropped from 4-5/10 to 1-2/10 in 30 minutes.  Due to the crash (stage non-completion), Austin will sit out the final road race.  I hit the road from Rouyn-Noranda about 9:30 PM, dropped bikes at the school at 11 PM, and headed south.  The team members and Marka attended a great banquet put on by "the wonderful ladies of Rouyn-Noranda" -- getting back to the school about 1 AM.  I drove and drove (with cat-nap breaks), making it to Scranton about 6 PM.  Into work (DC) tomorrow morning.

Stage 5 --  Amos to Val D'Or, 97 Km, Tuesday, July 29, 3 PM 

Longest stage and final stage, starting at 3 PM.  I was coming through Albany when the race started.  Another reportier will have to fill in.  (Read Nathan's account.)

Lessons-Learned:  A lot of lessons.  A few are:
  1. This is a heck of a great race, very difficult, unlike any event I've seen in the U.S. (including USCF Nationals).  I think it's a must do for any serious aspiring U19.
  2. Participation requires an immense amount of work by the support crew -- team director, mechanic, soigneur/bike-washer/etc. -- behind the scenes and actively at races, in race cars etc.  Marka did an incredible job enabling this opportunity for the NE team, as did Mike Fraysse in the training and recruitment preceding team formation.  We could have used another soigneur or two to help with all the stuff, track splits, etc.
  3. What you do off the bike for a big stage race is important.  A night off the reservation -- grabbing drinks in the local bar, carousing and missing sleep -- can disable a racer and his team.  NE had no problems in this area.
  4. The intensity of the races is additive, every day (sometimes twice a day), the racers push their bodies to the limit.  Good warm-up, nutrition and recovery are essential.  We have exercise physiologists and coaches in our cohort who can weigh in with better authority.
  5. Teamwork matters -- a lot.  Several events in the races pointed to the importance of teammates working together -- for example, Northeast riders would drop back to assist burnt teammates and bring them back to the pack; teammates protected one another as crashes exploded; folks blocked when a teammate broke away.  Normal stuff, but not that familiar to the (small) club racing most US juniors encounter.
Many thanks.  Corrections, additions, pictures etc., doubtless forthcoming.  Results are published here (some hunting required).


Lori McL said...

Hi Jim,
Thank goodness for your blog.
My son Austin is part of the team,
and trying to find any info on the races or results are frusrating
at best. So help keep me posted.

Anonymous said...

Great story Jim; keep them coming!
Glad to hear Nate is hanging in there despite his crash.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for the color and updates...anxiously awaiting your remarkable race photos.


Lori McL said...

Hi Jim,
I could use some pictures of Austin two piece bike. We need them for insurance. Thanks for your race reports, was sad to read about Austin but proud he got back on another bike to continue. Wow.

Lori McL said...

Make sure Austin knows to bring bike back.

Jim Wilson said...

Lori, Austin will be bring his bike back. Folks were impressed that it was insured. Austin rode well in today's time trial, though he got stung by two mechanicals while climbing out of the mine. Blog notes to follow. Jim

hfang said...

Thanks for the coverage! Between you and Phil Young, it gave me a good image of what occurred. I'm sure it was a great experience.
I'm glad to see more and more MABRA juniors attending this great race.

Harry Fang
Bicycle Place Velo Club

Unknown said...

Hi Jim,
As the technical director of the race, it's quite interesting to see your vision of the event and read it in so much details.

I'm really happy to see that you describe our event with such good words. It's always nice to see that our guests liked their journey in Abitibi !

Hope to see you again next year with NE !


Bruno Gauthier
Technical Director - Tour de l'Abitibi 2008