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09-02-2023 | Luc Nouwen

To the Dead Sea for victory

The UCI Gran Fondo World Series started this year with a new event in Jordan, consisting of a time trial and a two-day road race. I have been in Jordan soms twelve years ago with my wife. My better half no longer enjoys accompanying me on my cycling adventures. She's tired of taking care of my "asphalt chamois," her appellation for the countless scrapes and burns my two-wheeled slips have caused me in recent years. To Jordan, however, she was still willing to go with me on the condition that it included some time without a bike. So be it!

The time trial first

The three-day event consisted of a time trial (19 km with 170 meters of elevation) and two shorter mountain stages of more than 70 and just over 80 km with about 1,500 meters of elevation each. Basically the uphill kilometers were in the first 30 km after which it was mostly downhill. Just under a hundred interested people signed up. A limited field of participants. 

The day before the time trial it was time for a recon of the course. A compatriot from the same age group, Peter, came along and so together we set off into an unknown world: Neither Garmin nor Strava helped; the yellow signs were not yet in place so we drove the wrong way. We did agree that we wanted to finish on the podium together: with six participants in the 60-64 year olds that had to be possible. I did point out to Peter that there was a certain Wojtek from Poland who had beaten me to one and a half minutes in the time trial in Cyprus last year.

During the failed recon I found that I could no longer get the chain on the smaller ring. The helpful mechanic Ali made all the effort in the world, but could not the problem. Not to worry, I didn't need the 36. The big ring should be sufficient for the time trial. When warming up in the morning with the untested full wheel, I found that I could only use 5 of the cassette's 11 gears. Just like in the good old days, then: put the hammer down and spin madly when I can't anymore. I tried to ignore the fact that the chain fell off twice.

Peter and I drove from our residence in time to the start, about 15 km more or less downhill. There we reminded each other once again of our plan: get on the podium together. Since I had experienced the qualities of Wojtek last year and Peter almost drove me out of the wheel during the reconnaissance, I praised myself in advance very happy if the third scaffold was possible. However, the other three participants helped us out: they did not show up... Since they had to leave before us, the message was to stay straight and make it to the finish.

I was allowed off the platform after Peter and Wojtek. There was a minute between us each time. With the message to stay straight and arrive between my ears, I got off to a decent but unhurried start. With immediately false flat in front of the wheels, you don't want to blow yourself up as an old racer. The legs felt good and the powermeter told me I was doing well. For the most part, the course runs straight with the Dead Sea on the right and (after turning left) on the left. There was no time for sight seeing. Do I see the two riding ahead of me and get closer? Wojtek overtook Peter halfway through and I had the impression that I was riding at about the same pace as my Polish companion. According to my Garmin, 40 kph halfway through. That was nicely shaken out of my old legs anyway. Four weeks ago, I had yet another crash. The bruised ribs had seriously messed up my preparation. Of course, I was able to fall back on the expert approach of my coach Jonas, who had me complete a modified program on the rollers.

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After I passed the halfway point, I noticed that Peter was dropping Wojtek again. Was Wojtek having a weak moment? The way back is very long false flat where you'd rather not stall. And I didn't. The power stayed in the legs and the fact that my two predecessors were not getting smaller but bigger gave extra energy. A few km before the finish follows a left turn. I have pretty much caught up with Wojtek and Peter is definitely not two minutes ahead of me. Am I going to win here? As I fly past the Polish multiple winner, I hear noises indicating that his bike is out of order. Apparently he has been riding on a flat for a while and the air is now completely out of it. I don't catch up with Peter, but I get to take the win. The five cogs were enough and the chain had not come off. Peter and I together on the podium as desired!

Lone bike number 1

At a three-day event you cannot rest on your laurels after receiving the nice jersey and medal. Especially not if you can't ride up 10-20% hills with a 50*29. However, my new friend Ali had a loaner bike available. My wheels, brake hubs and pedals were transferred and that was that. Appointment in the morning at six o'clock for the handover. Six o'clock in Jordan is four in Western Europe! Good thing I could get up early. The bike was a Scott. Since I rode a Scott up the Angliru during CycloWorld's press trip in the Tour of Spain last year, this couldn't go wrong. Right?

It soon became apparent that with a 39*29 it was not so smooth on stokes of 10%. Wojtek was clearly pedaling smaller. Somewhat to my own surprise, I was able to catch up and leave my nearest rival behind after first being unloaded. During a gear change, however, the chain came off. I know from experience: switch back to large gears and the chain will come off. Not so: the entire derailleur came along and broke off.... After 15 km, stage 2 was over. Wojtek waved and went on to victory. Peter came to check on him and I had to urge him to continue, because the two Irishmen, who had taken the start in our age group, could have kept him off the podium and the qualification for the World Championships in Scotland. But it didn't happen that way. Peter finished second. I ended up in the broom wagon and got to spend several hours doing sight seeing.

Lone bike number 2

The question then is whether there will be a third bike the next day? The area around the Dead Sea there are no bike stores. Ali didn't immediately know either, but he was going to try. Ali would let me know something around 8 or 9 in the evening. When you have to get out at 5:30 in the morning, I crawl into bed at 9. There was no word on a bike. I assumed, however, that everything would be fine and prepared meticulously: get clothes ready, write down daily schedule, read road directions and make a sticker for the top tube, drink energy drinks, load carbs at dinner.

In the morning, an app appears to have come in at 9:45 with the picture of a bike I can rent. See! Ali, however, does not respond to my message whether I can pick up the bike at six. A while later, I do get a message that the bike is on its way from Amman (an hour away by car). Meanwhile, I prepare everything as if the bike were next to me, but without the warm-up on the thing itself.

At 8:18 a message if I can get to the start as soon as possible; the starting shot is at 9:00. The tires still need to be pumped up, the Garmin holder is set incorrectly and needs to be adjusted, the seat position needs to be correct and the saddlebag must of course not be missing (I've never needed that thing in a race). Around 8.45 I can test, after a warm embrace from Ali. We did it! How wonderful camaraderie can be. Three more sprints uphill to shake the legs warm. Some of those in charge at the start manage to tell us to be prepared for rain and cold.... That was a little late then, but with some long sleeves and toe warmers on my shoes, it will do.

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Rain and cold

Based on my preparation, I know that the first climb of three starts after 7 km. Eyes on Wojtek's back until I can't keep up with his pace at 2 km from the top. However, I continue to keep him in my sights. The rain then begins to fall; there is sand on the road surface; it looks dangerously slippery; navigating between 'I have to get back to that wheel of the Pole' and 'I don't need Jordan's asphalt chamois'.... Along with some younger companions, I am able to rejoin at the start of the second climb (a fairly steep affair of almost 3 km), after which I'm immediately dropped again. However, the group in front of me does not get any further away; I can keep the distance more or less even.

The descent brings no relief. The wind blows heavily in the face and the descent is regularly interrupted by sharp sections uphill. The third climb of about 8 km starts. The cold is palpable; the rain is pouring down. My shoes are full of water; my head is soaking wet. Eat, drink, eat, drink.... Mind over body: I'm not cold! Two over-65s join me in the climb. The three of us ride five kilometers behind Wojtek until we get to him about 2 km from the summit. He seems a bit jaded and I get a boost. Heads up and ride, buddy! When we start the wet descent, there are three of us left: the two over-65s and me. That's 50 km to the finish, right?

My companions don't seem to have much desire to help me. They have eyes for each other and I'm riding against the other guy with a blue jersey number. I smell a second victory, so I ride as hard as I can: that's as hard as the gushing rain and uneven road surface allow. My legs are red from the cold; sometimes my body shakes; I frequently move my hands to make sure I can still brake. For one of my companions, things seem to be going too fast; I ride him out of the wheel. The other one takes a head start when I squeeze out a gel. To thank him, I finish him off. We have been on the road for two hours and suddenly I feel the rim of the rear wheel. A leak! It can't be true! How am I going to fix that with my two left hands that are also freezing cold? What was that about that saddlebag?

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12 minutes of fiddling

Twelve minutes it took me to change the inner tube. The hardest part was unscrewing the little screw that holds the valve in place. For me in those weather conditions, that seems like a personal record. Meanwhile, Wojtek rides past me. He gestures to his rear wheel. Later it turns out that he also had a flat earlier. OK, it won't be a win then for sure, but I haven't seen Peter yet and no sign of the Irish either; so a qualification is still possible. Pushing in a gel, drinking and back on the bike in the freezing cold. No idea how far away it is.

Tremble and shiver; I have no cold; I have no cold.... As we gradually descend back to below sea level, thankfully it gets a few degrees warmer. The legs keep turning. Then comes a descent so steep downhill with so much water running through the turns that I take them slower than if I had ridden the same 15% uphill. Fortunately, the stretch is not too long and I can then push on again. I am surprised that the position on the bike feels good and that my legs continue to develop the necessary strength. A sign saying 5 more km.... lay flat once more. Men with yellow flags indicate the direction. I follow the direction, but find they are sending me the wrong way.... Yonder seems to be the finish line. The wind blows rock hard in the face; the rain has stopped; the body is as good as empty. But for the World Cup in Scotland I get a ticket!

Win again

After the meet, my wife is ready to take care of me as are the medical staff: blanket over shoulders and off to the trailer a little further up. Rarely has a hot shower done so much good!

I am getting ready for the ceremony, proud to have made it to the end and to have qualified for the World Cup. Wojtek arrives with his bike with full rear wheel. I try a faint joke: 'the time trial was two days ago!' He says he has had two punctures: 'you passed me with 10 km to go!' Did I win then? I passed several more participants, but sometimes things were too blurry to record who or what it was. In the words of Erwin Vervecken, 'Congratulations, Luc, the pit stops count too!'

Two victories in three days: on the one hand, with some luck and in a field that did not see the most numerate at the start; on the other hand, the absentees were wrong, I was also faster than the best among the over-55s in the road race won and this adventure was full of my character: the persistent wins! (And no Jordan's asphalt chamois!)

Full results here.

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