TEAM NEWS : PAUL VAN DER PLOEG’S DIARIES, HOUFFALIZE

It was a rollercoaster ride of racing for the first World cup sprint Eliminator of 2012. I had my share of good luck and bad, but the chain of events were under my control and at specific moments I was my own worst enemy…

Nerves were at an all time high coming into the event and without Internet at our accommodation (Belgium is a little behind the times with WiFi and is in full ‘Ghost Protocol’ black out) my ability to find time consuming distractions was limited. The pressure of being a so-called ‘Sprint specialist’ was getting to me. Not to mention that the course was unlike any sprint course I had ever seen, with brutal steep climbing and single-track sketchy down hills. Very little overtaking meant that overtaking would be a challenge.

When we got to the event village we walked a lap of the track and this only increased my nerves and fears that I wouldn’t even qualify for the top 32 and make it into the knock out rounds. There were over 100 people in the time trials and with only a 15sec gap between each, I was also worried about getting caught.

In the warm up on the course getting around seemed to be a challenge in itself and I was getting more nervous (if that was possible at that point)…

After a good warm up on the rollers I was getting in the zone with some amped beats on the ipod to get my head in the game. Before I knew it I was in a line getting shuffled into position for the Time Trial. 5 seconds… beep…beep.beep… I hit the first climb at full speed and didn’t slow down and to my surprise I was strong on the steep sections, before I knew it I was on the downhill and into the final few corners, this is where I washed out the front wheel and found myself rolling around in the dirt! I turned and picked up my bike and completed the final corner to cross the line with severe doubt that I had made the finals and the top 32 riders. What an amateur mistake by me, but other riders were also going down including Manual Fumic (3rd at world cup XCO 1).

I went back to the tent and did what I thought was a cool down and the end of the night. I got my minor scrapes cleaned up and thought to myself ‘Oh well at least I didn’t pop my shoulder out again’. After about half an hour Robert came over and said that all three of the team riders made it into the finals! I was stoked and ready to get my revenge on the course…

I had qualified in the last of the knock out round positions (32nd) and this meant that I would get final lane choice for each round. I was also in the 1st heat with the fastest qualifying rider, and 4 x world champion Brian Lopes. I was on the outside lane, on the whistle all 4 riders launched down the ramp and into the course. I went wide to gain position and slot into 2nd behind Lopes who was super fast off the gun (Something he has been famous for throughout his whole career). I held my line and rolled in 2nd, but still advancing into the next round.

In the ¼ finals I was again with Lopes and again he schooled me on the start and so did a Swiss rider. On this course passing was restricted to only one or two places (not idea for sprint races), I tried to get around on the second steep climb, but was forced off the track. In fear of losing 3rd I went back to the race line, as we crested the climb I hit the gas and rode a tight inside line which enabled an overtake. I was in 2nd and I wasn’t going to let it go. I was through to the semi finals after some nervous moment. At the end of the heat Geri said that it was the first overtake mid lap he had seen all night. I was lucky and happy to be advancing onto the next round.

Into the semi final and I was again on the outside lane, but eager to stomp it and get into the top 2 positions. I kicked off as hard as possible, trying to gain position as I was in a heat with the 1st (Lopes) and 4th fastest Qualifiers (Kenta Gallagher). It was tight but I managed to get into the number 2 spot by the first tight corner. It was there that an inexplicable turn of events unfolded… I wish I could explain what happened and I have been trying to figure it out myself ever since. On the uphill I flipped over the handlebars and hit the dirt! It happened so fast that I don’t know what I did, it may have been a gear crunch or it could have been a wheel spin on the loose surface that kicked my weight forward and over the bars. Regardless of how, I had fallen across the track and then attempted to get up, but as I was scrambling to find my feet, Kenta’s front wheel got tangled in my bike saddle! I couldn’t believe that I not only did an uphill flip (Called the ‘Monster Flip’ by Uwe @ Felt), but I managed to get my seat totally tangled in the bike of a fellow opponent. I apologized for the craziness to Kenta, as I was the fool who took away his chances for the finals, he seemed OK about it, but there was nothing that either of us could do to change it now.

In Europe there are 5 positions for the podium and I knew that to save the night I needed to win the small final and take the final step on the stage. It was hard to put behind the madness of the semi final, but I was ready and angry to show I’m not a complete ‘handbag’ (Someone that is useless, oversized and helpless).

So the Small final was my chance to prove myself. I didn’t have Brian Lopes to destroy me in the start this time. The gun went, Kenta and Kaufmann were very fast, but luckily I was faster! For the first time I was leading the heat and I wasn’t going to let anyone past. I hit the steep climb and dropped the watts and opened the gap. I rode smart on the downhill and flowed down to the finish line crossing 1st. I was happy to have clawed my way onto the final step of the podium…recovering from what was looking to be a disaster start to the world cup sprint season.

So World Cup sprint Eliminator 1 is over for 2012 and on a very tight, steep and technical track I surprised myself about what I’m capable of. If I can keep it rubber side down and my body off the ground I will potentially have a chance of moving up the podium.

Today is the 2nd XC world cup and it is going to be a smash fest with super steep climbing that only Houffalize can supply I’m hoping I surprise myself again and ride smooth and consistently fast on the physically demanding course.

Thanks to the Felt-Oetztal-X-Bionic team and all of there associate sponsors. Thanks to Geri for always having my bike ready to race, Andy for tuning up my legs with quality sports massage and Robbie for keeping his ear to the ground and supplying us with all of the latest from the UCI.

Cheers Guys.

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