Another fantastic display of how much cycling is a team sport - about our first UCI general classification victory this year and how it was done! #embracetheworldcycling
Thanks to a good selected equip and perfect organization we felt well prepared for our first trip to Africa this year to participate at the Tour Du Benin. After some demanding and awesome racing in Burkina Faso last November we had an idea about what's to come and that, if we want to make an impact, we had to work together as a team!
We gathered Mario Boll, Clemens Averdung, Anton Benedix, Marcel Peschges and Hermann Keller around our Africa improved sport director Enzo Waterman. As support and mechanic we brought Fabio Kossi and behind the camera we had Stefan Brencher and Oliver Farys - what a line up!
"Despite the early season, we all had some racing in our legs already, we're feeling good as a team and will see what's possible!" said Marcel before the first of five stages.
The Tour takes place in Benin (west Africa), the motherland of Voodoo and heartwarming people all around. We arrived some days before the start to acclimatize and get used to the surrounding. We rode our bikes together, had some beers on the beach and enjoyed the warm sunshine. Benin, from an ocean point of view, is different from what we experienced in Africa. Besides many fancy bars and restaurants there were big supermarkets (Super-U) and beautiful beach side houses along the busy coast of Cotonou, which is Benins biggest city with around 750.000 inhabitants. We really enjoyed our time here, but as there's work to do we packed up to transfer to the north - 528 kilometer to NATITINGOU!
"A race back to the coast" could be the claim of the tour! After a 12 hour transfer through the green and beautiful Benin we arrived in Natitingou, far up north and close to the border of Togo. From here we raced the following stages within the next five days:
- Boukoumbé-Djougou 120 km
- Djougou-Parakou 133 km
- Savalou-Banamé-Bohicon 127 km
- Bohicon-Lokossa-Comé 126 km
- Sèhouè-Cotonou-Porto-Novo 138 km
646 demanding kilometer through heat, rain, thunder, wind and more heat! After the first stage we understood, how challenging racing within these conditions would be. The humidity was really high and made the acceptable 32°C feeling really unacceptable every once in a while. Hydration was key again and so we forced us to drink around 5 to 6 liter water within a day. As the first stage was the only one with an actual climb (3,5 kilometer), we were well alert and went with every attack, there was, to not let anyone establish a gap. With success, as we had a rider in every group and finished within the Top 20 with Hermann and Marcel sitting within 3 seconds to the Belgian Bjorn De Decker, who was the leader of the general classification after the first stage.
Our strategy was to go for stage wins, until we're leading the general classification. We tried to avoid that as long as possible, as it would have meant a lot of extra work wearing the yellow jersey too early. The plan turned out great and after the second stage (Hermann to finish P3) we had Marcel, Clemens and Hermann sitting all within 19 seconds inside the genreal classification. A very comfortable situation until everything went upside down within the third stage from Savalou to Bohicon!
The start was fast and demanding as every day. The team managed to have a good overview on GC competitors and promising break aways. Several attacks went, the speed was high and the field was stretched out. Fast single file racing to force a break took its toll on many cyclists, but we went with every attack and managed to install Marcel in the relevant group of the day. Nine riders up the road and the first impression of the team from Morocco. Those guys and the dutch team played their cards and we knew, what they were up to - the general classification. The break had a gap of nearly 3 minutes after just some kilometer and everyone worked together until 10 kilometer to the finish.
"One of the guys from Team Morocco attacked out of the breakaway, some followed and we closed the gap just before the next attack of the other cyclist from Morocco went - I could follow and as I caught him, I counter attacked as hard as I could. I wasn't looking back for while but I knew, that I was alone and so I went deep to win the stage!" said Marcel in the finish of the third stage in Bohicon, where we not just walked away with his outstanding solo victory, but also with the yellow jersey for leading the general classification on our shoulders, what a day!
Fantastic result, but still two more stages to go. No more following, it was time to lead! At the line of stage 4 in Bohicon dark clouds covered the sky, it already smelt like rain, but little did we know, what was approaching us. With not even 10 kilometers into the stage a storm broke lose - wind, rain and mud everywhere with hardly any sight. Plenty of crashes, including Mario were the result and after we sorted him out at the back of the field, we realized that a group with GC competitors went. Luckily we had Hermann in said first group who could interrupt the work as good as possible. Combined with Anton and Clemens in the chase we managed to close down the gap, which was somewhat around 2 minutes at some point. In Comé it came together to a sprint in which Hermann finished P2! #teamwork
At the end of the day we had one stage to go and 1:08 minutes advantage in the general classification. It looked promising, but there were still 138 fast and hot kilometer between us and a cold beer on the beach of Cotonou - lets get it on!
We knew about our role today and so we all lined up in the front and rode as hard as we could, to keep the speed high and avoid attacks at all cost. There were still six riders within a 1:42 minute gap to the general classification, which meant we had to be really careful about whom to let ride or not. We started the stage in the countryside and finished in the buzzing capital of Benin, Porto Novo. We had to make our way through Cotonou, which promised to be very difficult taking the traffic into account. To ride all day at the front was never better than today. We had a very good overview and weren't involved in any crashes in the back of the field.
With 10 kilometer to go the race started to get hectic. Several riders tried to break away and the surface of the road went from poor to really bad at certain spots. We covered attack after attack and stayed at the front to avoid getting swarmed and not seeing a pothole coming. And then the unthinkable happens - Marcel punctured. "Le maillot jaune a un défaut" said the commissaire via radio tour. We thought, that this must be a mistake, but then we saw Marcel standing roadside, waving with the front wheel of his bike. Anton was there luckily and swapped his front wheel with Marcel. He was back on the bike in no time. As the incident happened within the final 3 kilometers we already celebrated the win of the tour, well, a bit early...
Some team wanted to win the general classification at all costs and took advantage of the fact, that the 3 kilometer mark wasn't exactly 3 kilometers away from the finish line. They tried to convince the UCI commissaire, that Marcels puncture was further away and therefore he shouldn't get the same time as the group, he's been in before (which is an official UCI rule). They even rode their bikes twice to the 3 kilometer mark and took the UCI commissaire to said spot to establish their protest. How sad can your life be? The officials from the UCI accepted the protest, but immediately averted it! Time to celebrate!
What a journey its been and how much effort we all put into this result! Nothing of this would've been possible without the full commitment of the whole team. We want to thank our partners, staff members and everyone involved!
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Keep your eyes open for the upcoming film by Oliver Farys covering our time here in Benin!
Photos and write up: Stefan Brencher