After a chaotic opening stage, which saw a positioning battle between 120 elite riders on the loose, we are now approaching the final climb of the first stage of the Rothaus Bike Giro. I tighten my shoes, take one last sip of Etixx sports drink and empty out the rest (to save weight), hoping it will give me just that little bit extra to hurt the competition on this climb.

Sprint stage

For a mountain goat like me, there was not much to gain in the first kilometres of this sprint stage (21km/600hm). Fortunately, the roles have just been reversed and it is time to put my trademark ("flying legs") into action. Because I want to set the pace uphill, I almost immediately move to the front. Juul takes my wheel and in the distance I can see Bart (Juul's loyal teammate), who is almost parked. An attempt to pass him quickly fails, because when he sees me trying to close the gap, he gives me a hard push. It is therefore immediately clear what the deal is: Bart is doing everything he can this week to prevent a 'changing of the guard' and is taking precautions, even now that his Transalp partner is in my wheel.

Blue Train

With the changing of the guard, I mean the battle for the lead in the recently born 'Blue Train' (Bart, Juul, Tibor and I). Bart - who is a little less trained than usual - is here this week to defend his place as team captain.

Back to the race. My wattage meter is fluctuating around my turning point. Behind me, there are squeaks and creaks, but Juul doesn't kick yet. In theory, I could go a bit faster, but I doubt I will be able to keep up and decide not to speed up. The distance to Bart remains the same, so I forget about the plan to ride towards him. It would be nice if I could also crack Juul, but I don't know if that will work with the current wattage (320-330watt). I think it is more likely that he will attack from my wheel, as he did earlier this year on 'the Wall' in Altenahr. (I'm still not happy about that).

Whether it was my empty water bottle that made the difference I don't know, but when I get to the top and look back I see to my great surprise that it has come off. Morale boost! There is one last puff to the top where Bart once again makes it clear who is the (provisional) leader and where I say goodbye to Juul. Even on this last stretch, he is unable to close the gap. In the descent to the finish there are a few nasty root passes where Wim de Bruin manages to pass me, but otherwise I give nothing away. I cross the finish line after 48:51 (5 minutes behind the winner) and finish in the middle of the race on place 54. I had expected something better, but for the 'Blue Train' I do good business.

Stage 2

The second stage consists of two identical 30 km loops around Todtnauberg, the same area as yesterday's sprint stage. Highlights include a long technical descent (switchback) and a long climb (10km) from the valley all the way to the top. The circuit has the same final as yesterday.

The start is again a fierce battle to win as many places as possible. It all goes very fast, but fortunately I can join a nice group and - it can't get any better - Bart and Juul are also there.

Don Joan Bruyneel

In the long descent, the group falls apart (partly due to the switchbacks), but Bart, Juul and I find each other's wheels again just before the supply post of our caregiver Joan (this week renamed Don Joan Bruyneel). Experienced as he is, he is in a good spot and the feeding (even now that we are riding close together) goes without a hitch. 

Pinhole

The three of us start the long climb. In the beginning, we have to slow down and try to save as much as possible. In the meantime, the temperature is rising (30 degrees), making it a tough climb. At three quarters of the way up we are overtaken by the leading group of the amateur category (starting 2 minutes later). I feel quite fresh at that moment (I was in the wheel a lot) and jump with Schwindling, who leads the amateur classification. This action is less appreciated by the other Blue Train members, but now that we are in a battle it is time to give the leader a little push. But it is not much more than that. On the last spurs to the top (which are less steep) they close the gap quite quickly.

On top of the ridge road, the roles are suddenly reversed. When I leave a gap and (unintentionally) allow another rider to jump between them, I find myself dangling back behind. This rider, in turn, drops a gap on a single track where I can't overtake and I lose sight of Bart and Juul. Not very handy...

Expensive mistake

This was an expensive mistake, because in the second lap I was largely on my own and Bart and Juul continued to pull away. I hope to make up some ground on the long climb up, but on the first steep part of the climb I have a hard time and I have my doubts. A bit further on, when the road flattens, the fast Belgian Bram Saeys passes by and I can catch up. We soon pick up Juul (who is completely parked) and we overtake many other riders. Eventually I have to let go of the Belgian and fight my way up. I kept chasing Bart all the way to the finish but he still managed to stay one minute ahead of me. After 2:58 am (23 minutes behind the winner) I finish in the middle (56th). I lost a little too much speed in the second lap because I lost the 'Blue Train', but I still saw good values on my powermeter so I can be satisfied. Especially when I see 'competitor' Juul cross the finish line only 10 minutes later.

Stage 3

The third stage (queen stage 75km/2000hm) winds its way over a fast first section to the ski jump in Titisee Neustadt, to then return to Rothaus, the start-finish location of the last two stages, via quite a few trails (promises to be beautiful) and a number of long climbs. Because the second part of this stage is the toughest, I have decided not to shoot off too much powder in the opening phase. Furthermore, it is raining today and 15 degrees colder than yesterday.

Not paying attention

My tactic of starting from a safe place and taking advantage of others as much as possible initially went well. I'm with Juul again and move back and forth in our group. It's not really exciting, but again just at a moment I don't expect it, the group breaks up. On a short muddy uphill section (I am in the middle), there is a sprint at the front. Juul is alert, sprints with them, continues uphill and moves up a group. I see it all too late and miss the jump.

I stick to my plan of taking advantage of the first 30 kilometres as much as possible, so I don't consider any wild plans to close the gap to Juul, even though it's just not going fast enough in my own group (partly because I don't want to take too many turns at the front).
When a bottle exchange with Don Joan also fails (we remain calm) I finally resign myself to it and go into maximum savings mode.

Serious pace

At the ski jump in Titisee (halfway), the world suddenly looks a lot better. I have just indulged myself with a delicious Etixx nougat bar and get a refreshing pat on the back from Mario Kaulard, whom I still know from last year's Rally di Romagna (I couldn't follow him then). Mario leads the amateurs (30+) accompanied by Seays and Schwindling. I don't have to think twice to realise that this is my springboard to the front and immediately take his wheel. 

The remaining 30 kilometres are tough with many single tracks up and down, which makes this stage definitely the most beautiful of the four. But it is not only the course that makes today a great day. I stay in Mario's wheel right up to the final climb. I can't remember ever having raced so hard and I am fully enjoying this serious pace. I also suddenly realise that for the time being I want to continue Hidde's intensive training schedule. Not that there were really any doubts about that, but these are the moments that you do it for and that you need from time to time to keep faith in what you're doing.

At the bottom of the last long climb (10 kilometres to the finish) the battle for the (amateur) podium erupts and I try to keep up without getting in the way. Schwindling opens the dance with an attack that nobody can answer. Belgian rider Saeys then attacks Mario and I have to leave a gap. With my eyes firmly fixed on the wattage meter I fight back until I am back on top. The three of us (the rest had already been dropped at the bottom of the climb) ride towards the very last short climb (800 metres at 11%). Saeys manages to make a gap here. Because I like the idea of helping Mario, we ride the last flat part to the finish head over head. 

Thanks to this smooth final, I am only 2.5 minutes behind Bart and Juul (who found each other after I stayed behind on the run) and I finish as 49th in a time of 3:17. The fact that I missed the start I didn't mind so much afterwards. I was especially glad that I managed to keep the serious pace in the second half until the end. And not unimportantly: as far as the 'Blue Train' is concerned, I am still in a good position.

Stage 4

The final stage of the Rothaus Bike Giro is a short but fast one. 66 kilometres and 1300 metres altitude. A few trails, but mostly gravel paths. So today calls for a different approach: go flat out. 

I was in good shape in the opening phase. I manage to get myself to the front and on the first climb I have a small lead on both Bart and Juul. At the top, Juul joins me (Bart is further back) and together we hook up with a group of hard racers. At first we thought we were in the perfect group, but these guys just keep on hitting it. At the umpteenth puff where my powermeter hits 900watt to stay in the wheel, we call it a day. A long asphalt climb follows (the longest climb of the day), which we climb in pairs. A little later, a group joins us with 'Blue Train' leader Bart in their ranks.

Dream final

It could just be the ultimate scenario for a dream final at the Rothaus Bike Giro. Almost all 'Blue Train' mates are together (@Tibor, next year you will also start at the front and then the party will be complete) and morale is high. Bart's diesel has kicked in and we even run head over head for a bit. For the first time we are riding together instead of against each other, which is not uncommon. Everything seems to be falling into place and I am preparing for a nice final fight to the finish.

Bad luck

But then it still goes wrong. I am tight on my predecessor's wheel and suddenly my front wheel hits a (I think) sharp rock. In any case, the blow was quite hard and my tyre is almost immediately deflated. The latex squirts out on several sides and I can't manage to fix it quickly. I will spare you the next forty-five minutes, but after a lot of fiddling (and perhaps making the wrong decisions) I was glad I could finish the stage and didn't have to walk to the finish. 

Time, results and classification no longer matter, but it is part of the game. Looking back, it was a nice week in which I rode very strong at times. This shows again that I am making steps in the right direction. Now I just have to wait for the moment that everything falls into place. 

Ps. The positioning in the 'Blue Train' remains unchanged for the time being. 

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