Up the Road With Tom Boonen’s Leadout Man and Cipo’s Sprint Rival
The Crocodile Trophy has always attracted its share of former road professionals, due partly to the nature of the race (mostly flat on and non-technical) and mostly to its massive profile in Europe. The 2011 edition was no exception, with 7 or 8 current professionals in the field and a few former stars.
On Stage 9, the queen stage of the Croc Trophy (148kms including 25 kms of deep sand) the first rider to attack (at kilometre 2) was recently retired pro Rene Haselbacher (Austria). He was followed across by Melbourne rider Ash Hayat, and then by the strong man of the peleton Kevin Hulsmans who dragged me across a one minute gap to form a quartet.
This story is not about what happened that day, but rather the stories behind these riders and the observations about how they race.
First to Haselbacher. The Austrian was undoubtedly the patron of the peleton at this year’s Croc Trophy and incredibly popular. He had the flashiness of Cipo with a massive bracelet that must have weighed more than his wheels and mop of flowing hair. Haselbacher rode 5 grand tours, including two Tour de France. His best stage results were a couple of third places at the Tour of Italy – in both cases only Mario Cipollini and Alexandro Petacchi finished in front of him. He rode as a professional for 13 years most recently with Gerolsteiner, and only retired a year ago.
“I miss it for sure. The reason I came to the Croc Trophy is to get that feeling again. I am 10 kilos heavier than I was when I was racing but I still love the racing.”
When asked about his hardest race, he was unequivocal. “The Tour. There are basically no flat stages and every day that you are not sprinting you are in the grupetto just fighting to stay alive. At the Croc Trophy there are maybe a dozen really strong guys but in big races you are with 200 professionals. All of them are strong and physically almost the same. Just to stay in a good position is a challenge.”
Hulsmans’ story is a little different. He didn’t chase his own glory but forged his trade as a leadout man for Tom Boonen. Hulsmans was also Boonen’s best friend on Tour and roommate, and rode with Mapei and Quickstep for 11 years.
Hulsmans’ style is ultra aggressive. He was in a breakaway on five of the 10 stages – and many of them lasted all day. The tragedy of the Croc Trophy for me this year was that Kevin didn’t get a stage win. The day that perhaps typified Hsulmans’ style was stage 8. Urs Huber, the Swiss Marathon Champion and two time winner of the Croc, had lost a big chunk of time a few days earlier and was clearly pissed off. He got on the front at the start of the 89km stage and wound up the pace immediately. At the 40km mark we had averaged 36kph on extremely rough corrugated roads and the group had gone from 80 to 13. He had ridden 67 riders off his wheel. Then, inexplicably, Huber started soft pedalling on a nice stretch of road at 20kph and no one dared come around him. Then when we hit the next rough section he wound it up to 50kph and snakes from one side of the road to the other trying to hurt as many people as he could. This continued for the next 50 odd kms and no one dared attack Huber in this frame of mind – except Kevin. The first attack was a monster and Huber responded with a massive chase and then a counter attack as if to say `you want to attack? I’m going to make it hard for you to get back on.’. But Kevin did get back on, and a kilometre later he went again with the same result. By this time Huber was bleeding from the nose and had worked himself into a state, partly aggravated by Kevin’s aggression. I counted 8 attacks from Kevin in total, but it was his teammate who benefited by taking the stage.
I spoke to Kevin about his time with Boonen and he recounted one story with particular zeal. He came into the velodrome with Boonen and put his arms in the air as his team leader crossed the line for the win. “I would have been fourth but as I was celebrating a group came up from behind and I ended up 15th. At the time it was no problem but after I thought to myself – fourth at Roubaix would have been nice…”
Kevin only road one Tour de France but road close to a dozen Tour of Flanders and Paris Roubaix. As a leadout man he had a few jobs – working for the first 150 kms, fetching bottles and rain jackets and keeping Boonen out of the wind in narrow crosswind sections. “But my specialty was the leadout from 4kms to go to 2.5kms to go. My job was to get the speed above 55kph but most importantly I had to have the bunch in single file. I didn’t have the nerve to do the later leadouts where it gets really crazy.”
Riding with these guys in the break I learned more than I had in whole seasons on the road. There were the little things, like lifting the pace by 2kph just before you finish your turn so that the next guy feels obligated to maintain a higher pace. Or Kevin’s tactic of picking a spot way up the road and taking a time check, then looking back at the same point to see if the break were in sight. “We have at least two minutes” he would tell us.
Speaking to Rene after the stage he told me there are a few golden rules for a breakaway. The first is to ride the hills easy and flats fast. The second is to establish the break and then slow it down. The group behind will have in their minds what they are prepared to give so if you ride hard they will ride hard. If we ride easy then they will ride easy. Our gap that day hit 7 minutes 45 but by far the hardest part was the first 10 kilos.
In the end that breakaway didn’t succeed. In fact only one rider from one breakaway succeeded for the entire 10 days of racing. I was passed by the race leader at the 100km mark and managed to stay with him and Rene for 7kms before exploding. I eventually picked up Kevin in a bad way in a deep section of sand 20 kms up the road. He had run out of water and hating the sand; I had to leave him behind. I caught Rene just before the last feed at 130kms and he was riding to conserve energy and, as always, in complete control of the situation. I managed to hold on to a top 10 spot on the stage and gradually watched my breakaway companions limp into the finish over the next 45 minutes.
I wish I had done this race 15 years ago and got the experience of racing pros when it could have done me some good. But then again, 15 years ago I might not have finished what was undoubtedly the hardest race I have ever done.
2011 Crocodile Trophy Photos