Gent-Wevelgem. Oh wow. What a race. Gent-Wevelgem isn’t known as one of the biggest spring classics and doesn’t carry a ‘monument’ title but the race itself is clouded in cycling history. For two main reasons; it’s in Belgium, and because of the iconic parcours the riders race over. As an Australian I didn’t grow up with these Belgian races. I didn’t spend my weekends trudging through muddy fields in horrific conditions to watch the hard men of the sport battle the elements and navigate the cobbled climbs of the Flanders region. So I can understand why – if you didn’t grow up in the cycling culture that engulfs much of Belgium – it’s hard to really comprehend the history that is attached to a race like this. It’s sort of like the Ashes, except if it’s raining they won’t halt play. Since coming to Europe in 2009 I have slowly but surely learnt about these races and why they carry so much history. And I had to learn a lot. A month or so after I arrived in Europe for my first season I asked someone, ‘so how many days is the Tour of Flanders?’ Now, Ronde van Vlaanderen is one of the races I look forward to most in the year. Not because I think I will win it, but because of the atmosphere and the energy that surrounds it. I’m not religious, but I imagine my discovering Belgian racing is much like finding God. Certainly, I think for many of the crazed Belgian fans cycling is a religion.
Coming into this year’s edition of Gent-Wevelgem – the 4th ever edition for the women (the first edition was held back in 2012 and won by Lizzie Armitstead) – I had mixed feelings. I was excited because the team had been on such a high over the past few weeks with wins in Belgium, the Netherlands and France. On top of that I knew this was a big race for our Belgian champ, Jolien D’hoore, who actually lives in Gent. I wanted to help her win. Unfortunately my preparation had been less than ideal. After the Drenthe races I’d come down with some annoying bug and just hadn’t been able to shake it. I wasn’t overly surprised I got sick given that I had literally raced every race on the European calendar up until that point. But I was frustrated that it had taken a toll on my training. What’s more, I was nervous. Like when you use negative reinforcement to teach your dog not to pee on the grass I didn’t have the best memories from racing Gent-Wevelgem and so was convinced that I would suck. Last year was the first time I raced the event and it was the beginning of quite a long struggle with cramps which continued well into the season. Maybe it was irrational, but I was paranoid that it would happen again purely because it was the same race. The Race
As my teammates and I rocked up to the start we knew it was going to be a horrific day. It was pelting rain and the wind was howling. I won’t go as far as to say that I was excited by the weather, but I don’t think I get as flustered by these types of conditions as others. This is for two main reasons. My Dad always told me growing up that I had an advantage when it was cold and wet because “I had more fat on me and would stay warmer than all the skinny girls.” And secondly, as Jens Voigt once said to Matthew Hayman in an elevator, “This weather is so shit, I love it, half the peloton has already quit!” The Jensie wasn’t wrong either. As soon as we rolled away for our 116km race the peloton seemed tiny. And it only got smaller. In our pre-race meeting our director, Bob, had told us the first really important part the race came only 8km into the 116km race, when we would make a sharp right hand corner directly into a roaring crosswind. He wasn’t wrong. Making my way to the front just before the right hand corner I could see the entire Liv-Plantur team getting ready to cause some damage in the crosswinds. Oh no. I was maybe 15 riders back and girls were already starting to drop the wheel in the winds which must have been blowing more than 40km/hr. All of a sudden there were four Liv-Plantur girls riding away from the peloton. Maybe they just wanted some team time trial practice but I wasn’t going to take the risk, sprinting up the right hand side I yelled to Jolien as I passed her and we started powering towards them. Then all of sudden I heard yells and saw girls and bikes crashing into each other. I’m not sure if it had been a touch of wheels or if the wind had hit the wheels at the wrong angle but suddenly three of the four Liv-Plantur girls were on the ground. Jolien and I had just enough time to swerve around them. If my heart rate wasn’t already racing from my power effort to try and get into the fast forming echelon then it definitely was after that. I think the peloton went into shock for the next 30kms because no-one really tried anything. Its not very often you see half a team taken out and it’s never nice. 8km had been our first danger point and we had successfully survived that, just. So our attention switched to our next danger points; the climbs. The race had five significant climbs. The Kemmelberg a tough cobbled climb which has points of 17per-cent. We tackled this climb twice, once at the 36 and once at the 76km mark. The Monteberg, a longer paved climb which we also climbed twice (at 40 and 80km) and the BANEberg a steep paved climb which we hit at 66km.
I’m not sure I’ve ever raced in conditions like that but I knew 15 riders back was not where I wanted to be. Grabbing my bars in the drops and lowering my body I powered to the front of the peloton, picking Jolien up with me. I decided I’d rather waste energy than die.
Racing into the Kemmelberg the first time it was a fight for positions and Jolien and I both managed to hit the bottom of the climb in the top five, admittedly by the top of the climb Jolien had held her position a lot better than I had. Despite that I managed to fight over the top and keep in touch with the lead group. The real damage didn’t come until after the Monteberg however, when we hit the tiny farm roads. Up until that point we’d been riding largely into a head wind so as we turned onto these roads which were barely wide enough for one car the wind caught a lot of girls off guard. Sitting about 15 riders back I watched as gusts of wind grabbed girls and their bikes and slung them dangerously close to the edge of the road. I’m not sure I’ve ever raced in conditions like that but I knew 15 riders back was not where I wanted to be. Grabbing my bars in the drops and lowering my body I powered to the front of the peloton, picking Jolien up with me. I decided I’d rather waste energy than die. The peloton had been totally shattered. I never really look further back that the top 15 riders but I’m sure there were not more than 20 riders at the front of the race. Having survived our next two danger points we’d singled out at the beginning of the race – the first ascents of the Kemmleberg and the Monteberg – my focus went straight onto positioning Jolien and I for the next time up the Kemmelberg. I was so sure that would be when the race winning move would go. Amazingly I hit the bottom of the Kemmelberg first with Jolien positioned a few riders behind me. I figured if I could ride the climb at my pace for as long as I could I had a much better chance to survive over the top with the front group. In the end I came over the top just off the back of the front five riders, which included Jolien, and was perfect for us. With a fast and technical descent directly after I knew that if I wasn’t too generous with my breaking I’d be able to close the gap, and I did.
I was sitting on Roxane Knetemann’s wheel and gambled, ‘she’ll go,’ I convinced myself. She didn’t.
Racing towards the Monteberg I readied myself for other attacks but it they didn’t come — on the climb at least. As we turned left onto the wide open roads back to Wevelgem I started to look around. It was less than 35kms to the finish and Jolien and I needed to talk about what our game plan should be. Looking around Liv-Platur had the numbers, I think they had four girls when every other team only had two or three. As I was going back to say to Jolien we just had to follow and anything that had a Liv-Platur girl in it I saw Iris Slappendel launching herself up the left hand side of the road closely followed by Amy Pieters. Well okay then, I better go. Just like that I was in a six rider break with 25kms to race. It was a great situation for us. Jolien had no pressure in the back to chase and I was confident I could win, or podium, from the group. At first the break was working flat out like lizards drinking, but unfortunately Amy crashed in a roundabout a few kilometres later and this dramatically altered the dynamics. I got the impression no-one wanted to take me to the line and as we reached 15kms to go the break had become about as cooperative as a group of toddlers at nap time. Not surprisingly a group of six or so joined us which fortunately included Jolien. Finding Jolien we had a quick tactics meeting. “Wild isn’t here, I’m going to go as hard as I can for you, okay?” I said to her. “Okay, just pick a side in the finish and go. But don’t go too early,” Jolien agreed.
I felt like I was pedalling in squares and even a grandma on a motorised scooter could have rolled past me at that point.
In the end, it didn’t play out as perfectly as we had planned. Liv-Plantur still had the numbers and they played their cards perfectly. I knew I should expect something from them when I saw their team car drive up to talk to the girls with about 10km to go but there is only so much two riders can do against four. In the final 8km the Liv-Plantur girls were as aggressive as a Queenslander meeting a cane toad with a five iron. One would go and I would jump. Then another and I would jump. Then another. With about 5kms Jolien covered an attacked which gave me a chance to breath and then all of a sudden Floortje Mackaij launched herself on the right hand side of the road with about 2.5kms to go. I was sitting on Roxane Knetemann’s wheel and gambled, ‘she’ll go,’ I convinced myself. She didn’t. That moment of hesitation was all it took. All of a sudden Floortje had a 50 metre gap. I knew I couldn’t wait any longer so I launched myself off in pursuit of her. Janneke Ensing followed me and then it was just us. I’m not sure what I should have done. In the split second you have to make these decisions I decided to bury myself to try and catch her. Janneke rolled with me but Floortje was gone. My legs were screaming and I was literally groaning on my bike. I stupidly rolled through to do a turn with less than 1km to go – in my head she was just there, we could have still caught her– but then I was stuck on the front. With 50 metres to go Janneke rolled past me, I won’t even say sprinted because I felt like I was pedalling in squares and even a grandma on a motorised scooter could have rolled past me at that point.
Going over the race in my head now I could have waited and tried to position Jolien for the sprint for second place but I was so fixated on getting the win for the team this didn’t even occur to me at the time. I’m disappointed that we didn’t win because I know Jolien had great legs and this is a race she loves and a race which means a lot to her. But at the same time I think we did what we could against a team that had the numbers and played the game right. If anything, we can take a lot of confidence from the race leading into The Tour of Flanders, or Ronde van Vlaanderen, this coming Sunday. Which, for those would didn’t know is just one day, and not in fact a tour.