Our Ronde van Vlaanderen

I’ve been around for a while, it’s true. I’ve been in Europe since 2009 and have had the opportunity to race on some of the biggest teams in the world. When you race on a team with Ina-Yoko Teutenberg or Judith Arndt at some point or another you’ll be part of a team that wins big races. But there is just something extra special about my Wiggle Honda team’s victory this past weekend in Flanders.

The reality is this victory was already being invested in back in February when my teammates and I dragged ourselves out of our beds the day after Omloop het Nieuwsblad to ‘recon’ the last 70kms of the famous Ronde van Vlaanderen. I was grumpy because my legs felt like Katniss Everdeen from the Hunger Games had shot an arrow through them and Elisa dropped me on every climb. She was on a mission in February like she was on a mission on Sunday.

From Nieuwsblad our attention switched to races like Strade Bianche and Ronde van Drenthe but ‘de Ronde’ was never far from our minds.

Sitting at the dinner table at Drenthe in early March we decided as a team that if we wanted the best chance to win at Ronde van Vlaanderen – the third World Cup of the season and arguably the biggest race on the women’s calendar – we needed to be in Flanders the week leading up to the prestigious spring classic and training on the roads we would race on.

So, diplomatically, I ambushed our team manager, Rochelle Gilmore, as we were pre-riding the Ronde van Drenthe cobbles. I asked if we could have a team camp leading into the Tour of Flanders (as us Aussies call it).

It was a big ask. We were asking for the team to find the budget for 6 riders and up to 3 staff to stay in a hotel for 5 days before the actual race day. My mum will be the first to say that I’m yet to master the art of budgeting. But even I understand that if that hasn’t been accounted for in the yearly budget it’s not the easiest thing to squash in. I imagine it’s somewhat similar to when I have an accidental shopping blowout and then have to eat at home for the next 3-5weeks.

Rochelle agreed. And her gamble paid off.

The course. Thanks to velofocus.

The course. Thanks to velofocus.

We rode the final 105kms of the 145km race on Wednesday with our full team; Jolien D’hoore, Audrey Cordon, Giorgia Bronzini, Elisa Longo-Borghini, Mayuko Hagiwara and myself. We had radios on our ears and our team director Egon telling us when we had to dig deep and when we could recover. We tested race wheels and different tire pressures.

On Friday we rode the section of the course from kilometre 45-85. It was another opportunity to learn landmarks that help you place yourself on the course. Another opportunity to learn the best lines on tough cobble sections, and another opportunity, particularly for me, to convince myself that the climbs weren’t actually that long.

It’s strange to say but on both these days there was a weird air of confidence about the team. We rode as a group and encouraged each other. There were no egos trying to prove they could rip the legs off other people. Instead there was just laughter and a calm that gave all of us confidence.

I said to Elisa I had expected a smash-fest. She just said, ‘no, no’. Everything is done already. I think she was referring specifically to February when she crushed my soul on our first Flanders recon.

As we sat in the camper on Sunday morning at the start in Oudenaarde I think we all felt ready. Egon knocked on the door as Taylor Swift (as requested by Gio) boomed from our speakers and came inside.

“Do we need to talk about tactics?” He said.

I just laughed. I thought he was kidding. This is the biggest race of the year and he’s asking if we need to talk about tactics. He had had individual meetings with us all on Saturday explaining our roles and as a team we had discussed in detail the course and the main challenges on Thursday but we hadn’t sat down as a team and said ‘X, Y, Z’.

“For me it’s clear. We have our two main girls Elisa and Jolien, you all know what to do,” he continued, and so ended our tactic meeting.

When I sat down with Egon he’d asked me what I thought about the race. For me it was clear as he said, we had two main riders — Elisa and Jolien — and my role, along with the other four girls, was to make sure these two ladies had the easiest possible ride until the fireworks started to happened.

When would the fireworks happen? We thought the real danger would be from the Kanarieberg onwards, one of the steepest and longest paved climbs of the race which came about 35kms from the finish.

The race

As might have been evident from our multiple course reconnaissance rides we didn’t think the race would really start until about the 45km mark when we hit the first climb of the day, the Wolvenberg, and directly after the first cobbled section of the day.

While we didn’t think the race would necessarily blow up here we knew it would be important to already be in position because here on it was onto narrow roads and then even more cobbles. So as we raced towards the Wolvenberg Mayuku and I surfed wheels and helped move Jolien and Elisa into position. All five of us got over the Wolvenberg in the front twenty riders (Audrey had come down sick the night before and couldn’t start.)

For the next 15kms we stayed in the front. The longest cobblestone section of the race came about 51km in and we navigated that without any problems.

The next challenge was the Molenberg. I hate this climb. For some reason this had, up until Sunday, been a climb I always got dropped on; in Omloop het Niuewsblad, in Flanders last year. You name the race, I’ve been dropped on this climb in it.

Under my coaches orders I had done some 1 minute max efforts on it in training. The combination of being able to find the best line on the jagged cobblestones and realising that it’s actually less than a 40 second climb had changed my mindset and as we sped towards it on Sunday I was ready.

Again Mayuku, Gio and I were positioned at the front with Elisa and Jolien following us. Boels and Rabo both also had trains lined up racing towards the narrow entry of the short but technical cobbled climb.

At times when you’re fighting for position in these spring races there’s truth to Ricky Bobby’s motto; if you’re not first you’re last. I wanted our team to be first leading onto the Molenberg not because we wanted to attack but because we wanted to stay out of trouble.

Elisa and I lead the peloton over the Molenberg. Make sure you check our the great photo gallery over on Velofocus. © velofocus.

Elisa and I lead the peloton over the Molenberg. Make sure you check our the great photo gallery over on Velofocus. © velofocus.

Gio did an awesome job of powering past the Boels train before I ducked underneath Lucinda Brand and led up the climb with Elisa on my wheel.

In my head it was like ticking another thing of the mental check list. I’m not really one for computer games by I imagine my mental check list is sort of like completing tasks before you can progress to the next level. We needed to complete sections of the course before we could try to win.

Egon had actually spilt the course into five main sections. Each section was full of dangers points but after each section was a point to recover. We had to kill ourselves in danger sections, but if we made it through we had a chance to recover. For Egon, these races were as much about the head as they were about the legs.

Discussing the race with our team director after we were in agreement that the balance of the race really shifted in our favour when a breakaway of eight riders established about 90kms into the race, over the top of the Valkenburg. We had Mayuku and Gio in the break while Boels had two riders and other teams had individual riders. Most importantly, Rabobank wasn’t represented.

The break didn’t stick, it was caught about 45kms from the finish and quickly countered by Annemiek van Vleuten, but I think other teams started to realise they really had to put the pressure on. I may or may not have been told that certain teams were told to start working because ‘all of Wiggle’s sprinters’ were still there.

It didn’t matter anyway. Because Elisa felt like showing off. Elisa never really asks for much. She’s a fantastic teammate and will kill herself for you but she rarely asks for much from you in return. The one thing she asked in the camper on Sunday morning was this, “I usually don’t have problems positioning myself but if you could, could someone please help me be in the front at the Kanarieberg?”

I looked at her and said no worries, “I need to be at the front there anyway.”

There was still 30kms left to race. I think all the other riders were sort of just like, ‘yeah, good luck.’

Leading up to the Kanarieberg Annemiek hung off the front of the peloton but the bunch was moving towards the bottom of the climb faster than most scooters could travel. Her gap just kept decreasing. I started surfing trains and making sure I had a clear line to bomb through the right hand corner directly before the forth last climb of the day.

Looking behind me I glimpsed the red, yellow and black jersey of our Belgian Champ Jolien and Elisa just behind her. With a few hundred metres before the corner I decided it was time to put my nose in the wind and take these girls to the front. Ellen van Dijk just beat me through the corner but I couldn’t believe how perfectly this was going. If I was to pick one wheel to follow for this particular section of the race it would be last year’s winner, Ellen’s.

As the road tilted upwards I let the girls go to work and watched the race unfold as I drifted backwards. Trixi Worrack attacked on the steepest part of the climb and was followed by Ellen and Elisa. The three raced over the top of the climb but Elisa knew she had to go solo.

On a slight drag upwards leading into the third last climb of the day she went. There was still 30kms left to race. I think all the other riders were sort of just like, ‘yeah, good luck.’

Jolien digs deep over the Paterberg.

Jolien digs deep over the Paterberg.

Other than being incredibly strong Elisa had one major advantage; Jolien. No-one wanted to take the Ronde van Drenthe winner to the line. Unfortunately for everyone else, they couldn’t drop her either. Undoubtedly her presence in the group behind deflated the chase group’s spirit. Elisa’s gap quickly went out to 30 seconds and then 1 minute. She won by 43seconds. Jolien sprinted to second place from the chase group of nine.

What amazes people is I had no idea any of this had happened until I crossed the line. In had heard in my radio Egon recounting to Elisa her gap when she first attacked but I had thought she was with Trixi.

I skidded my bike around and start yelling ‘where are my girls?’

As I crossed the line I couldn’t see any of my team. I couldn’t see our swannie who usually waits with drinks and jackets or any of my teammates. The only person I saw was our photo man, Bart.

“How did it go?” I yelled to him.

“First and second,” he replied. He was so calm. I was not.

Some expletives may have escaped from my mouth as I skidded my bike around and start yelling ‘where are my girls?’ as I went from tent to tent. After finally locating the correct tent I charged in. I didn’t care that I wasn’t on the podium; I was seeing my teammates. Rudely interrupting a TV interview I launched myself onto Elisa and Jolien.

‘You champions!’

It’s hard to express how happy I was not only for the girls, but the team. When people as me how was your race I just reply we won. Because we did win. And we also got second.

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