As we drove to the race there was the (in)famous Belgian fog resting on the landscape. At the start line it felt almost as if we were at one of those cold foggy classics we see so many pictures of back home.
The line up looked as if I were in some crit back in the states, everyone fighting just to wedge their bike in as close the start line as possible. The race started with guys just sprinting up the road. With the speed of just the first few hundred yards it was hard to believe everyone was planning on a 150 km race.
Upon leaving the first town we came out into a large meadow and it became clear as in any other race here that it was going to be very difficult to hide from the wind. After racing for only 6 minutes I guess some guys decided they wanted to lie down and rest for awhile. From the sound of the clanging and grinding metal the crash could only have been 5 to 10 bikes back from me. I was very relieved that I had been ahead of it.
The next thing I heard were people yelling in at least two or three languages, mostly Dutch. It was clear they were telling everyone to drill it. The race which was already faster than even any crit I’ve ridden in suddenly jumped speed to a very unexpected level. I was feeling good but being so close the crash put me out of the echelon and in the gutter lined out. There was absolutely no draft and I was now already hurting like I never have in a race. I was so pumped just to be there racing that I had to kind of smile at how hard it was.
The next hour the race did not slow. It even picked up quite a few times as people attacked relentlessly. After a little over an hour the attacks finally had done their damage. The whole field just shattered and echelon after echelon formed. I ended up in the second large echelon and ended up riding there the remainder of the race.
We had a lot of rolling hills and then 4 very, very steep climbs. Luckily they were not cobbledâ€¦ this time. The climbs were so hard that I felt like I was a sprinter, going from the front of the pack almost to the back every time. I have never ridden anything nearly that steep or any climb of that length at such a fast pace. My power profile from the power tap looked like what a crit profile would look like back in the states. As the race went on in these conditions I had to continue to fight for every inch. I fought hard and was normally able to stay in the echelon where I had at least some draft. The only problems I had were those few moments trying to recover after each pull I would make.
We came out on what appeared to be a 6 lane wide highway with large shoulders and it was amazing to see within about 20 seconds or less the echelon had moved across all 6 lanes and shoulders. The guys that got stuck out of that echelon had to have suffered badly because we were absolutely flying. A good portion of us were working hard together to try and catch up to the first group so that we wouldn’t get pulled from the race upon entering town for the 4 finishing laps. I ended up taking some good pulls for a very long time and was actually feeling pretty dang good still. We hit the last climb going just as fast as any of the others and just like the others I by the time we got close to the top I was sliding well back into the group.
The guys here just keep pouring on the pressure all the way over the top of each climb and just keep going harder and harder until the peloton is back to its normal high pace for the flat, popping riders left and right (and sometimes straight back). As we came over the top of the last climb I was fine. In plane view ahead of us off I could see just wide open space with 3 giant windmills churning at a fast pace. As we entered into this large meadow the wind hit me and I was pushed immediately all the way across the road to the left side along with the rest of the peloton. The pace just kept getting harder and harder.
I was sitting pretty near the end of the strung out group and we entered the feed zone. Immediately gaps opened up everywhere with guys just trying to get their last feed. I, along with a handful of other guys, was gapped by the time I got my feed. My heart sunk. I just couldn’t quite stay up enough after that climb and that blew it for me. The other guys that were gapped immediately disappeared. They knew the inevitable and stopped.
I continued to ride as hard as I could in the wind alone. I rode for at least 10 min at a time out of the saddle in the drops just cranking as hard as I could. Slowly I was starting to be passed by team cars that were also spread thin from the climb. Little by little I watched the group I had been with disappear. I rode for only about 10 to 15 min when a race official drove by and yelled something at me in Dutch. I had no clue as to what he said but from the tone of voice and his hand gestures I could tell he wanted me off the roads. Not one to give up I continued riding as hard as I could alone and moved as far to my right as possible without riding in the dirt. A short while later a yellow van pulled up next to me. They screamed at me in Dutch also and then finally in English told me to stop and pull over. I was officially done.
The guy took my bike and I entered the mostly full bus that followed. As I entered I felt pretty frustrated and discouraged at having been picked up by the infamous broom wagon. There were a couple of my teammates already along for the ride. They had been caught up behind the early crash and had fought as long as they could to get back on with the main peloton. After only 5 to 10 min in the broom wagon the peloton I had been with was also pulled from the race. I had been pulled just before entering the closing circuits in town. The race officials didn’t want any extra guys on the course besides those who were in contention. Seeing that I would have been pulled with them just 10 min later made me feel a little better I guess. In the changing room (a tent) I changed and cleaned up next to one of the victims of the crash. He had the whole left side of his face skinned and didn’t look too pretty.
A day later going over the race in my head I feel pretty good about it. I still felt really good after the race while other guys just looked devastated. Iâ€™ll just chalk it up to a learning experience. This is just the beginning of my third season and my first UCI race. I thought I’d learned a fair bit back home but the tactics that play out here combined with the small roads and amazing wind are again the difference between night and day with the way races are in the U.S.
That’s my race report. All there with nothing to hide.