Holland Hills and Belgian Cobbles
After my Italian boot camp and a few days solo training in Girona I headed back up to the Netherlands and Belgium for another weekend of racing. While generally racing in the Netherlands is synonymous with pancake flat terrain, wind, and aggressive racing the first race, the Boels Holland Hills Classic on Friday, was only one of the three. Aggressive.
Holland Hills Classic
And it certainly wasn’t flat. Held around the famous Valkenburg region in the Netherlands the 128km course had 14 climbs, including many of the iconic climbs that races like the Amstel Gold race take in such as the Cauberg; a nasty, one-and-a-bit-kilometre climb that hits around 12% at times.
My Hitec Products team went in with defending champion, Ashleigh Moolman — who won the race last year from a select group sprint — as our team leader and we were determined to keep number 1 for another year. While there was just four of us, Lauren Kitchen, Miriam Bjørnsrud, Ash and I, rather than a full team of six, we were still ready to give it a ‘red a hot go’.
There wasn’t much time to warm up with the first climb coming only 7km in to the race. Then, just like when you make the first purchase on a shopping spree which opens the flood gates for more rash, impulsive purchases, the climbs just kept on coming. 15km, 19km, 25km, 30km, 45km, 57km, 88km, 95km, 101km, 119km, 128km. Up and down. Short, sharp power climb after short, sharp power climb.
Over the first three climbs my teammates and I were positioning ourselves well and conserving our energy. With only four riders you’re forced to ride more defensive than aggressive. Orica-AIS were extremely aggressive in the first 15km or so until Gracie Elvin, the Aussie National Champ managed to establish a solo lead over the rest of the peloton.
This was a situation we were happy with. Having one rider up the road does two things; it settles the peloton down so you’re not forced to jump on attacks every three seconds and unless it’s Ellen van Dijk at Flanders you can be pretty sure that you’ll be able to reel them in when things get serious. And reel we did.
As we ascended the fourth climb of the day, the Eyserbosweg, Emma Johansson attacked and the peloton immediately started to stretch and, eventually, splinter. We managed to place Miriam, Ash and I in the first group but there wasn’t much time for recovery.
Bang. We descend down a tiny, steep descent before making a sharp right hand turn onto a bigger road and then immediately a left hand turn onto the fifth climb of the day. By this time Gracie was back in the peloton and it was game on.
After we made our way over the top of the fifth climb the Rabobank team immediately made their intentions known, moving to the front and starting to push the pace on the flat, open roads.
Smelling danger I moved closer to the front for the technical, narrow, and long descent I knew was approaching…that’s the thing with these sorts of races. If you know the course you already have a huge advantage on those who don’t.
I was right to have been worried about the descent. Kamikaze-ing down the downhill I couldn’t believe how fast these girls were going. I obviously wasn’t as confident in my bike handling skills and was a little more generous on the breaks than girls like Ellen van Dijk and Anna van der Breggen who started to establish a small gap.
Emma Johansson was still right near me so I wasn’t that worried but as we turned left off the descent and and onto the flat the gap that had been established on the descent looked somewhat more worrying. Four riders had managed to gap the rest of the peloton by about 30 metres, but 30 metres is sometimes all you need.
Johansson sensed the danger and jumped with a Boels-Dolmans rider. I was on their wheels and hesitated for a second too long and all of sudden there were six, extremely strong riders, off the front.
I didn’t even look behind me, I knew Ash would be there. I immediately got on the front and tried to close, or at least maintain, the gap hoping other teams would come and help me.
A kilometre or so later my teammates, Lauren and Miriam had navigated their way through the peloton and joined me on the front and a frantic chase began; Lauren, Miriam and I swapping off with Ash on our wheels. We had 10kms to the next climb and we knew we had to bring the gap down, which had blown out to 30seconds, as much as possible for Ash to try and bridge on the next climb.
We buried ourselves and when we reached the base of the climb the gap was just 13 seconds. We could see the follow car and the escaped riders antagonisingly close to us yet still so far away as the road stretched upwards. Then it was lights out.
Miriam, Lauren and I went backwards on the climb like bricks through water as Ash did what she does best, launched herself up the climb trying to reach the front six. I can only imagine what the follow cars were thinking as they dodged three Hitec riders up the climb.
After we managed to recover (sort of) from the effort of the chase Lauren and I (Miriam had managed to hang on to the back of the group) were able to rejoin the peloton. Riding straight to the front I was met with the bad news that Ash hadn’t quite been able to bridge across and the gap had blown out to 1minute and 45seconds with no Hitec Products rider is the lead group.
For the rest of the race it was a bit of a none-event for the peloton. While the paced still got pushed over the climbs the gap continued to grow and the break was gone. Johansson won, ahead of van Dijk and Amy Pieters. Ash managed to finish 10th which was a pretty good effort with only three teammates.
Our Belgian Home
After the Boels Holland Hills Classic we loaded up the traveling circus and travelled back to the Hitec Products base and service course in Ninove, Belgium. Our next race, Gooik-Geraardsbergen-Gooik, was two days later and literally 15km from our ‘Belgian home’ so I guess you could say we had a home ground advantage.
During the spring the majority of our races are around Belgium and the Netherlands, what’s more, the majority of our staff are Flemish so I guess it’s only natural for our service course and team base to be in Belgium despite being a Norwegian team.
For those who don’t know, a service course is basically just a warehouse or something similar where teams store their vehicles, equipment, clothing and everything else required to run a cycling team.
Our service course doubles as our ‘team house’ and is a fantastic little B’n’B just out of Ninove in the Flemish region of Belgium.
Ann and Guy, the owners, have about six self contained apartments on their property all appropriately named after famous cycling climbs around the region like the Murr or the Paterberg.
Juan (our mechanic) and Didi (our head soungieur) have their own rooms in the garage for storage and our vehicles populate their driveway when they’re not being driven to Spain, Italy, or Norway. Throughout the season we regularly return to the B’n’B and the Murr or Bosberg apartments and this weekend was no different.
Somewhat fittingly this time I was staying in the Murr which we were set to tackle on Sunday.
Our team of four had swollen to six after our teammates Elisa Longo-Borghini and Audrey Cordon agreed to travel 10 hours by car after a race they competed in (and won!) on Saturday in France.
With this boost to our roster, the home ground advantage, and great weather we were all ready to race.
140km with four climbs, including – you guessed it – the Murr, the Bosberg, the Congoberg, and the Bergstraat we knew this race wasn’t going to be easy.
The first real challenge of the day came at 75km with the famous Murr of Geraardsbergen. If you think you don’t know which climb this is I can pretty much guarantee that you actually do; it’s the iconic cobbled climb that snakes around a small church on a hill. We’ve all seen the images of Fabian Cancellara powering up this climb to take one of his many Tour of Flanders victories.
Well, on Sunday I was determined to channel my inner Fabs. Our director had told us to be in the top 10 going into the Murr and amazingly Ash, Elisa, Audrey and I were all in the top 10 as we sped onto the cobbled climb with Miriam and Lauren not far behind.
As has come to be expected from Orica-AIS they launched another solo attack artist in the form of Loes Gunnewijk who escaped about 30km into the race. While it wasn’t the best situation to have an Orica-AIS rider off the the front alone because it essentially gave Johansson an arm chair ride it also wasn’t something that I was willing to waste energy chasing down because we knew the real business end of the bike race would come later when we hit the famous climbs and cobbles of the region.
Just as we’d expected the race totally shattered on the first climb of the day, the Murr, with only the best coming over the top of the climb at the front; Vos, Johansson, and two Hitec riders, Ash and Elisa. I was pleasantly surprised to find myself in a chasing group of about 15 just behind these leading four.
Both Audrey and I had made it over the climb in the select chasing group. With our two climbers working hard ahead of us to bring back Gunnewijk, who still had over a minute lead, we had the luxury of sitting on (a nice change after Friday’s efforts) as all but three teams had missed the break.
Straight away Giant-Shimano, Boels-Dolmans, furturumshop.nl and Lotto Belisol started chasing and the gap continued to yo-yo for the rest of the 140km race, blowing out to as much as 1minute and 45seconds and getting as close as 25seconds in the finishing laps.
The four riders eventually caught Gunnewijk with just over 30km to race and from then it was a game of cat and mouse. One Hitec would attack to be chased by Vos and an Orica rider. Then and Orica rider would go only to be chased by Vos and Hitec. Evening just listening to Elisa and Ash retell how it went down I felt exhausted.
In the end Elisa finished 3rd behind Vos and Johansson, Ash was 5th and I took out the bunch sprint of about 30 to finish 6th after another fantastic lead out by Audrey. In my humble opinion, it was a pretty fantastic and exciting race.
It was a good weekend of racing for me personally and for Hitec Products in general.
After Audrey’s victory in France on Saturday (and Elisa’s second place in the same race) we finished the weekend with a first, a second, a third, a fifth and a sixth in three different races.
What’s more impressive is that four of those five results were achieved by four different riders which just goes to show the depth that Hitec Products actually has. While we’ve yet to crack a big victory I know it can’t be far off.
Now for a bit of self-indulgence; I was happy that after suffering through the the climbs in Italy and a pretending my heart rate wasn’t a few beats off max while out training with Elisa my climbing had shown a notable improvement. After all, I’ve never gotten over the Murr in the top 15 riders before.
Now I’m back to Girona for some more training before my next race in just over a week, Bira. Oh and did I mention in between all of this I submitted three university assignments? Now I’ve got a 14 week break from study before I’ll open the books again to finally complete my Bachelor of Communications; only two units left!