The Opening Weekend: Omloop het Nieuwsblad
There is no soft opening in bike racing. When the season starts we all turn into blood thirsty vampires hungry for a kill — or a win in non-metaphorical language — like a plague has run rampant through the peloton.
“The combined result of all these things leaves you feeling like an 80 year woman with arthritis the next day”
To continue the metaphor then, the plague began this weekend at the (European) season opening spring race, Omloop het Nieuwsblad. Nieuwsblad is one of my favourite races. That’s not to say I enjoy racing it, however.
There really is no way to prepare your body for the onslaught that the first spring race will bring. It’s not just race intensity that you need to deal with. You have to battle close to, or below, zero temperatures; a chaotic and nervous peloton; and to top it all off your body is shaken like a cocktail being made by a bartender as you bounce — most of the time very unglamorously —across brutal Belgian cobbles. The combined result of all these things leaves you feeling like an 80 year woman with arthritis the next day. And then you race again.
In 2017 Omloop het Nieuwsblad did not disappoint. The race, as it generally does, blew apart on the Cote de Trieu, 60km into the 124km Classic. It then disintegrated even further up the Paterberg which came only 4km later.
The Paterberg for those that don’t know it is about as hard as a 350metre climb can get. ‘How hard could the possibly be?’ I hear you ask? Well, 20% gradient and cobbles is basically the equivalent of over caramelising sugar and you breaking your tooth trying to eat it. It’s that hard.
It was up the Paterberg that the race really came alive with Elisa Longo Borghini and Ellen van Dijk going clear over the top of the climb. It’s never a good idea to let two of the world’s best time trialists time trial off the front. Unsurprisingly though, there was little I could do about it. Something about me being a sprinter and needing to save my legs.
As I sucked in air and found my place in the group behind Elisa and Ellen my job was abundantly clear; don’t crash and hope they get caught. I didn’t achieve the first limb of my job as I took a tumble on the Karel Martelstraat – what felt like the fifteenth cobbled section of the day but was probably only the third – breaking my shifter in the process and relegating myself to the big chain ring (or the big dog for those who prefer cycling slang) for the rest of the race.
“…it was a race marred with crashes and bike problems…”
The peloton didn’t achieve the second limb either. Only four girls could bridge up to the leading duo, catching them just at the end of the Lange Munte, the final cobbled section of the day, with about 15km to go.
Lucinda Brand was one of the four and launched a perfectly timed and very daring attack around 5km to go. Indecision from the four riders that weren’t her teammates (Ellen and Lucinda joined forces on SunWeb this year coming from Boels-Dolmans and Rabobank respectively) gave Lucinda the gap she needed and she held on for the win. It was, in my opinion, a very impressive and a well-deserved victory.
For myself and my Ale Cipollini team it was a race marred with crashes and bike problems. So, you could say it was a typical day in Flanders. My mechanical issues meant that I had to tackle the final climb of the day, the cobbled Molenberg in the big chain ring, and while physically I probably could have suffered over it, mentally I lost focus a bit and entered the climb to far back which saw me miss a decisive break of 14 that formed over the top.
While I thought tackling that climb in the big chain ring was bad enough I learnt after the race that my teammate, Romy Kasper, had to tackle the previously mention Paterberg and a scattering of other brutally tough climbs in the big chain ring until she could eventually get a bike change. Meanwhile, Janneke had someone run into the back of her causing her to have to have a bike change at an inopportune time. Our little Italian Anna Trevisi crashed and Daiva and Marta also has mechanical issues. Disasters all round.
Stay tuned for my race report from the second race of the weekend, Omloop Hageland. Ci vediamo!