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A day in the Belgian trenches with the U.S. Women’s National Team

  • By Mark Johnson
  • Published Apr. 2, 2012
  • Updated Apr. 3, 2012 at 12:17 PM EDT

IZEGEM, Belgium (VN) — The six women of the U.S. National Team’s Tour of Flanders squad filter out of the warmth of their hotel, a multi-storied box of a structure down the road from the house USA Cycling maintains for development riders. It’s 10 a.m. on March 31, the day before Flanders.

Clenching her arms against the cutting Belgian wind, Kristin Armstrong sits on the curb next to Andrea Dvorak. Along with Tayler Wiles, Kristin McGrath, Kasey Clark and Carmen Small, the women are heading out for a spin on the eve of the third round of the UCI World Cup. De Ronde van Vlaanderen, as it’s known in the native tongue, is a race Armstrong calls the most difficult on the calendar, and where she placed second to German Judith Arndt in 2008.

“I need this race to top off my fitness,” says Armstrong, an Olympic time trial gold medalist and two-time time-trial world champion.

Halfway through their 90-minute ride, the team stops beside a pasture. It’s colder now, maybe below 50F with the wind chill. But, with a herd of llamas craning their necks for a look from the field, the team still sheds some clothes and tosses them into the team car driven by director Jackson Stewart, an ex-BMC Racing pro.

Stewart points out that the llamas seem to like Andrea Dvorak. She crosses her arms on her bars and rests her forehead on them, laughing. After the riders spend an hour riding past rich, black dirt fields and tidy brick houses, a lumbering green tractor pulls off the one-lane road and allows the red-white-and-blue-clad group of women to pass on their way back to their hotel.

There, in the In the parking lot, soigneur Ronnie Lenzi loads rice cakes, bananas, cereal, and soy milk into a van. “Did you happen to buy chocolate or almond soy milk?” Dvorak asks. “The rice chocolate milk is off the hook!”

Before ducking out of the grey cold, the women gather in a circle, do an all-for-one high-five and shout, “Go USA!”

The next morning in Oudenaarde, the start of their Tour of Flanders, blue skies form a canopy over the scallop-roofed, red and yellow buildings of the town square. Fields outside town are coated with white frost, like powdered sugar scattered across corrugated cardboard. The team arrives at 8:30 a.m.

While the men’s squads who will later move into the square down the road in Bruges have buses and moving van-sized work trucks, the women spill out of a single passenger van. Stewart follows in a USA Cycling team station wagon with mechanic Julian Georg; his mechanical support vehicle is a tool kit in the back of the wagon.

Georg unloads the bikes from the car and the riders check their tires’ air pressure, which, according to Armstrong, “is quite a bit lower than usual” for the Ronde van Vlaanderen cobblestones. Lower tire pressure, she adds, makes a “difference between getting your teeth rattled out.”

The six women head en masse across the street and climb stairs to the entrance of the Brasserie-Hotel Cesar. As they head up the steps in their American flag-emblazoned kits, a young boy in head-to-toe BMC colors stops and watches the riders go inside. He clutches his grandfather’s hand. Ten minutes later the riders filter out in ones and twos. “We got some Peet’s coffee in us this morning,” Armstrong explains of their collective beeline for the water closet.

The riders set up folding chairs on the arch-patterned Markt square cobblestones. It looks like a campfire, only instead of leaning into a warming blaze, the riders rub their gloved hands and take turns scooping energy drink into their water bottles. Wiles selects an array of food from Ziplock bags filled with Clif and Gatorade energy bars and gels. Small clutches a pen and bends over a roll of white medical tape, carefully inscribing each climb and cobble section, along with their kilometer mark, in the 127.4-kilometer race. She tears the strip of tape off and affixes it to her top tube—an on-the-road reminder of what lies ahead.

A Frenchman in his late 60s approaches Armstrong. He says he has a time trial museum in France; he wants the gold medalist and world champ to donate a skin suit. Armstrong, a woman who radiates an intimidating force field of focus, does not have time for this, especially since he does not speak English and is trying to communicate with French charades. She firmly tells him that right now she needs to concentrate on the race.

Chagrined, the man steps back and unrolls a cloth pencil case, revealing a long parade of eye-liner pencils. He takes out one, then another and comes back to Armstrong and offers them to her. He then insists that she take three more. Even though she now possesses five eyeliner pencils, all in shades of green, Armstrong is touched. She poses for a photo with the man.

Lenzi crouches in front of McGrath, props the rider’s right leg on her thigh, squirts white lotion from a red tube of DZ Nuts embrocation into her hand and briskly rubs it into McGrath’s thigh. The smell of menthol fills the frigid morning air. This warming balm helps keep the riders’ legs warm, and will continue to do so when they later strip their leg warmers minutes before the race begins. When Lenzi gets to Dvorak, the rider pulls down her leg warmers for the soigneur, then asks Armstrong which level of embrocation is best: “What temperature did you use?” Armstrong responds, “medium.”

Wiles picks up a race radio and begins a complicated ritual of threading its wires underneath her many layers of kit. Simon Cope, the director sportif for Wiles’ trade team, Exergy-Twenty12, wraps her radio with electrical tape so the ear wire does not pull out during the race. Making that cocked-head-while-pulling-on-the-radio-microphone gesture pro cyclists do, Small tests her radio: “Can you hear me? Can you hear me?”

A man with a fistful of tiny, yellow Flanders flags approaches Wiles, who is preparing water bottles from her folding chair with the precision of a chemist. He bends down and hands her a flag.

Small takes a nail file and burrs down the tip of one of her shiny nails. Handing the file back to Lenzi, she confesses she is worried about her knees in the cold. “It was this cold at San Dimas, only rainy,” Armstrong notes of the Southern California stage race she won two weeks ago.

Thirty minutes before the stage start, the riders head for the sign-in stage, scribble their names in front of a crowd that fills half the square, then take their bikes to the start. The front row is filled with the U.S. National Team riders as well as women from the Canadian National Team and the U.S.-based Tibco-To the Top trade team. “See all the North American crit racers are at the front?” McGrath jokes. “We know!”

Fifty kilometers later, the peloton hits the Berendries climb, the second of the day’s nine hellingen. Dvorak sits comfortably at the front, while Small and Armstrong ride seven bikes back. The field is already tearing apart; riders dribble over the climb for 15 minutes after the leaders pass.

With 27 kilometers to go, Armstrong attacks with Judith Arndt at the crest of the Oude Kwaremont. Arndt is also a world time trial champion. As was the case in 2008, the field has thin odds of winning against this duo if they work together. They do, and stay away to the finish.

“I tried to jump at 300 [meters],” Armstrong says of the last kilometer. “And then once she jumped me I just kind of sat up. My legs were just going to break underneath me.”

The stage is a repeat of 2008, with Arndt winning and Armstrong taking second. You’d never know it at the finish, though. Armstrong’s teammates are as elated as if she won. Small finishes 30 seconds after Armstrong and puts a red-gloved hand around her shoulders. Armstrong is in on the verge of tears, her face a map of emotion.

“You did it, you did it!” Small exclaims.

Back at the team car, the riders sit on their camp chairs again. They discreetly change out of their wet sports bras. Armstrong does not have a second pair of U.S. team shorts with her, so Dvorak loans her a brand new pair of bibs for the podium. The riders eat sandwiches. Then all of them except Armstrong get in the van and head back to Izegem. Before doing so, they gather in a circle, do another six-hand high-five and shout “Go USA!”

Armstrong has to hang around for a 4:30 p.m. podium ceremony after the men finish. Even while merely passing time, she is in her apparently permanent state of 100-percent focus. At the moment, that fearsome concentration is directed at her bladder. Thinking she has to do a drug test, Armstrong does not visit the restroom after finishing. “I can’t focus, I have to pee,” she says. “And holding it in is even worse after you’ve had a baby.”

When Stewart confirms that second and third-place riders do not have to do drug tests, Armstrong sets out to find a restroom. She heads into a pub, but it’s a sardine-can of Flanders viewers, and she pops back into the street. A few meters away, someone knocks on the door of the Garmin-Barracuda bus and asks if Armstrong can use their facilities. The bus driver invites her in. Jonathan Vaughters is lying on a couch, watching the last 50 kilometers of the men’s race. Upon seeing Armstrong, Vaughters says “Congratulations.”

Armstrong heads to the back of the bus to sit and warm up. Her lips are blue, her legs a cactus-skin of goosebumps. Looking around at the spacious, heated bus with two showers and a bathroom, she says, “Wow, I could get used to this.” Then she spies a built-in grid-work of containers for energy bars and gels. “Oh, so that’s how they do it,” she says, impressed by the relative order and plentitude on the men’s side of pro cycling.

From the back of the bus, Armstrong reflects on the day’s Ronde, a near duplicate of 2008. She says her team softened up the field, setting the stage for her escape. When, along with fellow American Evelyn Stevens (Specialized-lululemon), Dvorak forced the pace at the base of the Kwaremont, Armstrong says she wanted her teammate to go even harder. “I went up to her and said, ‘Andrea, you have to start trying now.’ It was during that lull when everyone is tired.”

Armstrong is one of the most experienced riders in U.S. cycling, and it shows in both how she acknowledges her teammates, and isn’t afraid to push them to heights they themselves might not be aware they can reach.

After the race, in the flush of finish-line excitement and amongst clattering cameras, Dvorak tells Armstrong that attack on the lower Kwaremont “was ugly. It hurt!” But, Armstrong reflects, “That’s what it took to dig, to nudge her.”

Armstrong did not win, but she is happy with both her team and her preparations for London. The team delivered, Armstrong says, “and we saw the results.”

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