Good Morning Belgium!

My season really started back in January at the Bay Criterium Series. For many others their season started two weeks ago at the Ladies Tour of Qatar. But for some reason there’s something special about the first European race of the season. It’s like everything before this was a soft launch. Maybe it’s because from today onwards it’s full steam ahead until the World Championships, or maybe it’s because Omloop het Niuewsblad is such an iconic race in what is arguably the heartland of cycling, Belgium.

If I was planning a holiday Belgium would not be at the top of my list. It probably wouldn’t even by in my top five countries. But for bike racing? It doesn’t matter how many different ways you ask where is my favourite place to race, Belgium will take the number one spot every time. The cycling history, the cycling culture, the iconic parcours, the cycling crazy people. Belgium get bikes racing.

Getting Ready

Lining up for this years edition of Omloop het Niuewsblad I was a little nervous. I’ve been in Belgium since last Sunday for the Wiggle Honda training camp. Don’t get confused however, more often than not more team bonding and media go on at these things than anything else. As such Bae and I (my bike) hadn’t been able to spend the quality time together we might usually have in the lead up to a normal race.

Having said this, in between the various team challenges which included a tire changing contest (I lost – in my defense I had just had a manicure and was proceeding with caution) and an ascent of the famous Koppenberg (I won despite it being credited to our Belgian rider Jolien D’hoore) we did manage to fit in a reconnaissance ride of the Omloop het Nieuwsblad course.

This wasn’t the first time I had done the race. In fact I’ve started my European season with the Belgian classic for the past three years. Knowing the parcours in these classic style races gives you a huge advantage. You can be the strongest rider in the race but if you don’t know there’s a blind right hand corner at 74km where you turn straight onto the Paterberg you might as well not even start.

I was certainly glad that our director had dragged us out in 5 degrees and rain on Wednesday to ride the last 85km of the race when I was forced to change bikes 30kms into the race today.

After rolling away from the Eddy Merckx velodrome in Ghent I felt good. The team had picked out four riders to protect – Jolien, Elisa Longo Borghni, Audrey Cordon and myself – and our other riders – Emilia Fahlin, Anna Christian, Miyuku and Eileen Roe – were there to help make sure we cruised through the opening stages of the race hassle free.

I didn’t cruise through hassle free as such but the girls definitely made sure I didn’t have to worry when all of a sudden someone ran into my back wheel. My rear mech was ruined. It didn’t take long for Anna and Eileen to find me. Anna literally jumped off her bike, ‘here take mine, take mine.’ But the race was slow enough.

‘It’s fine. Just stay with me. I’ll change bikes and you and Eileen can bring me back,’ I said.

The girls did a fantastic job and I was back in the peloton within a few kilometres, but from then on I was riding blind. I didn’t have a cycle computer on my spare bike. Thankfully I’d ridden the course earlier that week!

The Business End

When we started talking about the race the first thing our director, Egon Van Kessel, said to us was that it wouldn’t be hard all the way. But that it would be really hard for one hour; from the tough paved climb of the Cote de Trieu at 59km to the long cobbled section Lippenhovestraat at 93km. He wasn’t wrong.

Leading into the Cote de Trieu Velocio-SRAM had their entire team in a line pushing the pace. Somehow I had managed to position myself just behind and as their riders dropped backwards quicker than Guy Sebastian’s latest hits on the Billboard charts I managed to keep hanging on.

The Cote de Trieu has to be one of my least favourite climbs (not that I have many favourites). It sits in that uncomfortable length to steepness ratio. Too long to simply power over and too steep to find a gear and just grind over.

As the climb continued I glanced around and could see Jolien, Elisa and Audrey all at the front with me. Gritting my teeth I just kept pushing. I couldn’t believe it as we crested the top of the climb I was still with the front group. But Egon’s words were still in my head: there was still an hour of hard racing ahead.

The next obstacle was the Paterberg. A steep, cobbled climb but only about 400ms in length. That didn’t matter, as soon as we took the sharp right hand corner onto it, it was chaos. It was like picking your way through a minefield; girls were going every where.

I dodged one rider, two riders, three riders but my luck ran out pretty quickly. I ended up having to stop as riders fell off in front of me. I was faced with the decision; do I try and get back on my bike on the 18% gradient or do I run the remaining 150ms to the top of the climb?

I opted for the latter. I’m sure I looked ridiculous running as fast as I could in my bike shoes to the top of the climb. Ironically I think I passed a few girls who had managed to stay on their bikes.

One thing I clearly hadn’t taken into consideration when I made the decision to run however, was the fact that mud would get stuck in my cleats. As I remounted my bike to start the furious chase back to the front riders I couldn’t clip in. Oh god. For the next minute I furiously banged my cleats against my pedals all the while rocketing downhill. Yeah…I wouldn’t recommend doing this at home.

Somehow I managed to catch the second group on the road and we bridged up to the leading group a few kilometres later. From then it was a race of attrition. After each climb or cobbled section the peloton became smaller and smaller.

Elisa and I were the only Wiggle Honda riders left in the lead group as we made our way towards the final climb of the day, the cobbled Molenberg. She as asked me how I was feeling. I shook my head and said, ‘I’m surviving.’ I felt like I was hanging by the skin of my teeth.

With about 25kms to race I could feel my body starting to shut down. First it started in my left quad. Then my hip flexors. Then my hamstrings. The same cramps I had struggled with in the spring last year. No, no, no, no, no.

As we hit the Molenberg my rubber band snapped. I got dropped from the lead group and at the same moment the race winning move escaped. Ellen van Dijk and Anna van der Breggen launched themselves off the front. We wouldn’t see them again.

Somehow I managed to claw my way back to what was now the chase group but it wasn’t the last time I got dropped for the day. As we hit next cobbled sections I got distanced again and was forced to chase with Amy Pieters back to the lead group.

With about 25kms to race I could feel my body starting to shut down. First it started in my left quad. Then my hip flexors. Then my hamstrings. The same cramps I had struggled with in the spring last year. No, no, no, no, no.

With Ellen and Anna up the road we had little choice. We had to chase and so Elisa acted like a motor bike on the front. In the final as the sprint opened for third place I got out of the seat and my body ceased up. I literally could feel my hand cramping to the handle bars.

I finished 12th. It was a disappointing result after Elisa buried herself and I had put myself in a position to potentially finish on the podium in major spring classic. My next race is on Wednesday so I’ll be trying different fueling and hydration methods to try and fix this cramping situation.

Until then!

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