My Ronde van Drenthe
I won a World Cup. Wait. No. That’s wrong.
The first race of the ten race World Cup series kicked off in the Netherlands on Saturday. World Cup races, for those who don’t know, are pretty much as big as it gets in women’s cycling. These are our World Tour events; our Milan San Remo, our Paris-Roubaix, our monuments. The only thing that trump them are the World Championships and the Olympic Games.
I love Dutch racing, I love cobbles, I love cross winds and I love weather that makes all those skinny girls shake like a polaroid picture.
For the last however many years the World Cup series has started at Ronde van Drenthe. A race made hard by the cobbles and weather rather than the elevation gain. Indeed in this year’s edition we climbed a grand total of 106 metres.
If you’re a regular reader of my blog you won’t be surprised to hear that I was just a little bit hyped for this race. I love Dutch racing, I love cobbles, I love cross winds and I love weather that makes all those skinny girls shake like a polaroid picture. But for this race there was just something else, I felt like my Wiggle Honda team and I could really make an impact.
After our team tactics meeting, as we huddled together in the camper van before the race start, our team manager Rochelle Gilmore said to us, “I think you can all take confidence from the team you have around you. I don’t think any one of you has ever started a World Cup with a team this strong.”
Looking around I couldn’t disagree with her.
Sitting to my left was Audrey Cordon, my French teammate who seems to just be able to dig and keep digging when she has a job to do.
Then there was Elisa Longo Borghini, my Italian teammate who finished third in Strade Bianche last week and Emilia Fahlin, my Swedish sister who despite fighting sickness was still super strong.
On my right was Jolien D’hoore, the Belgian national road race champion who won Omloop van het Hageland last weekend and Giorgia (affectionately known as Georgina) Bronzini, double World Champion.
“…you can all take confidence from the team you have around you,” Wiggle Honda Team Manager, Rochelle Gilmore.
It was a team perfectly suited to the course. Three sprinters and three engines. And our race tactics wanted to capitalise on this.
As far as our director Egon was concerned it wasn’t our job to force a selection over the cobblestone sections that came at 56, 67 and 77 kilometres. It also wasn’t our job to shatter the peloton in the crosswinds that often present themselves in the the open section of the course after the cobblestone sections. And it definitely wasn’t our job to attack over the short but brutally steep climb of the VAMberg at 102 and 109 kilometres.
Our job was to get numbers in the front selection that would inevitably occur either over the cobbles, in the crosswinds or over the VAMberg. This isn’t negative or lazy. This is playing to your strengths and with the super teams of Boels-Dolmans —who have been so dominant already this year — and Rabobank we had to use our strengths.
After the usual panic of what to wear in five degrees and wind my teammates and I were pretty relaxed as we started the first World Cup of the season.
For the first 55km of the 138km race we just wanted to stay safe and together. Like when a group of girls go the bathroom together at a club, we knew there was safely in numbers. Except that we definitely weren’t going to the toilet, alone or together. When Jolien asked every single one of us if we thought she had time to go to the bathroom around 20km into the race we all said, without consulting with each other, ‘no’. After the race we learned that Kirsten Wild did go to the bathroom and ended up in the third peloton chasing back before the first long cobblestone section.
This was weirder than Jake Gyllenhaal’s character in Nightcrawler.
Having done this race before I knew the first crucial point of the race came at 56km when the peloton would make a sharp right hand turn onto the longest cobblestone section of the day (about 4km). Imagine 150 women coming from all directions and sprinting towards the David Jones sliding doors on Boxing Day. Then imagine them trying to all fit through the door at the same time. This is somewhat similar to that point in the race. It is the same every year. And it was no different on Saturday.
Strangely however, as we hit the cobbles the mad rush to be well positioned seemed to vanish. No one wanted to push the pace. Maybe it was because there was still more than 70kms left to race or maybe it was because they had something else planned.
I remember the same situation happened in last year’s edition and I stupidly allowed myself to relax only to be caught out in the crosswinds later. I was determined not to let that happen to me or my teammates again this year.
As we hit the next two cobblestone sections the same thing happened; a hectic sprint to hit the randomly placed rocks ensued and then nothing. This was weirder than Jake Gyllenhaal’s character in Nightcrawler.
With the cobbles out of the way the team’s attention turned to the crosswinds. Egon was in our ears reminding us to stay together and to stay aware. All six of us were still at the front of the bike race.
Then all of a sudden I heard that horrible sound of carbon hitting tarmac and bodies slamming into each other. A huge pile up at the front of the peloton blocked the road and all of a sudden the peloton was reduced to 40 or so riders as we raced closer and closer towards the VAMberg.
I’ve had it drilled into me from a young age; start at the front on hills so you can hopefully still be in the peloton at the top (thanks Dad!)
Elisa, Audrey, Jolien and I found each other quickly but Gio and Emilio had been caught in the crash. The crash wasn’t the only thing that reduced the size of the peloton, however.
As we hit the bottom of the VAMberg for the first time Lizzie Armitstead finally let her foot off the breaks. I’ve had it drilled into me from a young age; start at the front on hills so you can hopefully still be in the peloton at the top (thanks Dad!). Amazingly I was still glued to Lizzie’s wheel as we bombed down the other side of the Dutch mountain.
While a few riders were distanced by Lizzie’s explosive attack it wasn’t until the second time we hit the climb 7km later that things really started to get serious.
This time as we moved towards the climb on the bike path wide roads my positioning left a little to be desired. Unfortunately for me, Lizzie decided to hit it again. This time Lisa Brennauer was with her and Audrey just behind.
It’s amazing how much damage can be done on a 500metre hill. But trust me, it can be significant.
The peloton had been blown to pieces. The first three riders flew down the other side of climb chased by another five which included Elisa and then just behind them was Jolien and I. The gap to the group in front of us wasn’t huge but when you have current and former world time trial champions ahead of you driving the pace it’s never going to be an easy gap to close.
Hanging on at last wheel for a few kilometres I sucked in air like the tax man consumes happiness.
Our director had said to us that morning that these races — the World Cups — were special, and in them you have to go that much deeper. He asked us to dig that much more just for today. As Jolien and I struggled to rejoin the group in front of us Egon’s words echoed in my head. My legs were burning and the cold air I was sucking in was stinging my throat but I kept digging. It probably was only two-minutes of chasing but it felt like at least 10.
By the time we latched onto the back of the lead group of 8 riders I was on my limit. No one seemed to care however, because as soon as we got there the attacks started.
Hanging on at last wheel for a few kilometres I sucked in air like the tax man consumes happiness. It was a horrible feeling watching my teammates cover attack after attack while I ate handle bar stem and tried not to get dropped, but there was still 30km left to race and I knew if I was going to be useful later I had to try and recover now.
When I could finally breath again I rode straight up to Jolien and asked her how she was feeling. She didn’t hesitate, “I feel really good.”
When your teammate is so confident and you can feel that your legs are not agreeing its easy to be selfless. I said, “we sprint for you. Don’t do anything,” and then got my butt to the front of the lead group to cover attacks with Elisa and Audrey. As I passed the girls I said to them, “we sprint for Jolien.” That was all the communication we needed.
Elisa took the pressure of us when she placed herself in a four rider break with about 20km to go but it was shut down as we crossed the finish line with 7km to go.
It’s crazy thinking about the last 7kms now, more than 24hrs later, because everything went so perfectly but it could just have easily not. A large group of about 40 riders rejoined our break of 11 and all of a sudden there was a huge bunch rocketing towards the finish that included super sprinter Kirsten Wild.
With 2kms to go the team just seemed to find each other. Even though we had radios it wasn’t communicated, it just happened. I saw Audrey and Elisa moving to the front on the left hand side. Grabbing Elisa’s wheel I told the girls this was it. Jolien was safely tucked onto my wheel.
Audrey kept the pace high until about 1.2km to go and then Elisa took over. From behind I yelled, “you’ve got to take me to at least 500metres to go, Ely,” and she did.
With about 550metres to go it was like when you feel a chill on the back of your neck, I could feel we were about to get swamped. So as Ellen van Dijk tried to go on Elisa’s left I passed her on the right and dove though the second last corner.
I didn’t even look behind me. I knew Jolien was there. Head down I put it in a big gear and punched through the final right hand corner with 400metres to go.
I didn’t know it at the time but Jolien and I had literally gapped the rest of the field. I just kept going. I had never been at the front of a World Cup with 300metres to go before. It was like the excitement just gave me more energy. With 150metres to go Jolien came off my wheel like a stone from a sling shot. She won by over a bike length.
This brings me back to me winning a World Cup. I didn’t, but it definitely feels like I did. Jolien may have stood on top of the podium but that was a team victory. Egon said in the team car on the way home that it was one of the most impressive displays of women’s cycling he’s ever seen. From a guy with his experience that’s pretty big.