Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Zappi's Pro Cycling team and Tools of the Trade

Belgium has one of the, if not, THE toughest amateur racing scene in the world. The tough field, harsh weather and narrow winding courses, make Belgium the perfect university for any aspiring bike racer.

Every year, several teams and riders take upon the pilgrimage to the heartland to throw themselves into the ring of fire and test their physical abilities. One of the teams who do this every year is the Oxford based Zappi's pro cycling team. An U23 elite amateur team mentored by Flavio Zappi, who once wore the green jersey at the Giro d'Italia!
In my 2nd week of my stay at Belgium, I gained valuable insights into the sport by racing and training with the Zappi's boys for a few days.

Zappi's Pro Cycling Team

15th June, 2015: Ursel

The morning of the race day, I caught up with Flavio and rode with the boys (4 that day) to the town of Ursel wherein I lined up for my 5th race.
While pinning on the numbers, I was quite taken aback by the conversation between the Zappi riders-

"I'll go in the first break and you guys cover any counters if I'm caught"

"Got it, and guys make sure someone's marking Mario all the time"

"If it comes down to a bunch sprint, I'll go for it"

 "Sarvesh, what's your plan?"

"Ummm, I don't know. It depends on how my legs feel in the race". I was too embarrassed at that point, to reveal that I'd be happy if I lasted more than 2 laps in the race.

We started the 120km race with 60 odd riders, including a rider from the U23 Lotto-Soudal development team! Unfortunately, Loki had sprained his ankle and could not line up for the race.

I took too long to register and pin on my numbers because of which I could not check out the course. Big mistake! All I knew was that each lap was 6.9kms in length and was "slightly" technical.

We started of by going flying up a 800m incline with an average gradient of 2.5%. I was in a good position at the summit in the top 20 or 25 and I even tried to bridge along with one of the attacks, but my body had not warmed up yet and I settled back into the peloton.

Right hand corner.

Sprint out of it.

200 meters later, repeat again.

I was on the right hand side of the bunch coming out of the corner and was quite horrified upon exiting to find out that the width of the road had narrowed to two-thirds of its initial width! After spending 6 scary seconds trying to balance myself on a gravel section while going at 42kmph, I jumped back onto smooth tarmac. Albeit the damage had been done. While I decelerated to 42kmph on the gravel section, the bunch had powered along at 50+kmph and I found myself in the tail end of the bunch.

Pro Amateur Tip: Check the course before the race

Panic took over my reins and I found it difficult to move up the bunch when the road was only 3 riders wide. For the next 2 kilometers, I was in an agitated state, because I knew that if I did not move up soon, I would get dropped in a corner up front.

I did not move up soon.

We took a sharp acute angled turn onto a a wider road but into a block headwind. I could see a break of about 10 riders up the road with a gap of about 12-15seconds and it included one of the Zappi's boys! Damn, these guys are strong!

Contrary to the racing scene in India, wherein everyone sits up in a headwind section, in Belgium, headwinds are used as a tool to turn the screws in a race. Since physics dictates that you save 30% drafting behind another cyclist, all the riders on the outside of the bunch move inwards in search of the ever precious slipstream. This causes a cascading effect wherein at the tail end of the bunch, a long thin line of riders struggle to hold on.

Tail end was where I had checked in to at this point and my facebook status was updated to "Struggling to hold on".  Neither had my body warmed up yet nor did I have the raw power needed to hold on and my relationship status was quickly changed to "single" as I unceremoniously got dropped soon.

A hundred metres later, the bunch took a left hand turn into the town wherein buildings on either side of the ride negated the effects of the winds. I chased as hard as I could and was just 3-4seconds behind the bunch when we crossed the finish line, but I was burnt by the time I hit the ramp and the broomwagon shot up the road ahead of me.

I was gutted at this point and rather sit around and wait till the race finishes, I took advantage of the headwinds and got in a decent training session.

Rule number 5!

Zappi's team bagged a top 10 and a few primes in the race. The post race ride back home was quite fascinating as I exchanged stories with the Zappi's team about racing and training in the subcontinent.

To be continued..

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