Belgium Trip Day 1 Wednesday 17th September
Having had to follow a diversion off the motorway and then being pulled in for a random check by customs I arrived late for my ferry check-in at Dover. Even getting up at bloody 4am isn’t early enough any more! Luckily this wasn’t a problem and I promptly boarded my vessel for the morning.
So, tired, with backache from driving, with knee pain just because I have and full of more than a bit of trepidation about the amount of suffering I was about to endure, I set off for 5 days, 4 nights and 3 races in Flanders. I was more than aware that my last experience there ended up in casualty, and, 6 weeks on, I am still reminded on an hourly basis when I put any pressure on my elbow.
Anyway, bike racers are a tough breed and I’d targeted one Elite level (UCI 1.12B) kermesse for the Thursday (to take a beating) and then 2 Masters’ races (over 40s) for Saturday and Sunday (to share a beating). It then dawned on that Jens Voigt, Chris Horner and Chris Hoy are my age so I shan’t be approaching the weekend with any less respect but it’s nice that there’ll be no chance of anyone calling me ‘dad’ in those races!
I was staying at The Chainstay guesthouse in Oudenaarde, East Flanders. This is a 7 bedroom house especially designed for young cyclists wishing to make a career in cycling. And me.
Many a professional has ‘cut their teeth’ in Belgium as it famous for being some of the hardest bike racing on the planet.
That’s why I love it.
Arriving just before midday I met Holly the owner (and her husband Gregg but he was away for a few days). Gregg used to be a Pro Cyclist and comes from the USA (no Lance Armstrong digs yet they might be best mates) and realised that people who race in Belgium needed a place to stay where they didn’t have to think about anything other than the racing so it is really is excellently equipped:
A bike storage room
Bike washing facilities and workshop
Free use of a 9-seater minibus which also carries 9 bikes.
A wealth of knowledge.
The weather is truly beautiful and the garden and patio is lovely.
Holly was great. Super helpful, friendly and easy to find when you needed something. The prefect host.
That’s enough of the travel guide, suffice to say the American, Canadian, Kiwi, Irishman and Englishman (no joke) I have met today are either full time bike riders or aspire to be one!
I am old here but respected as anyone who races here is.
I decided to go out for a quick spin for an hour. I’ve raced in Belgium 11 times but never just ‘ridden’. Something magical comes over you as you realise you are riding the same roads as every cycling hero that has walked the earth. People look at you, half assuming you do this for a job (well if it wasn’t for the white legs) and cars stop for you EVERWHERE. I have joined my gods today and it is wonderful. The son is shining, my legs are turning effortlessly and I don’t need to prove myself as that happens in the arena; every single day a town in Belgium closes itself to traffic and puts on a bike race. The people flood to the race like they are flooding to a football or rugby match in other countries. The cyclists are the stars here. There’s no need therefore to prove yourself out on the open road. Despite there being way too many mosquitos and flies in the guesthouse, it is still so fantastic that I already know I will return next year so I can ride more of these roads between races.
Tomorrow, Pete the Kiwi is taking me to an Elite race and he has been giving me tactical advice. Now, if I can just get him to give me his heart and lungs too.
Day 2 Thursday 18th September
Westkerke Kermesse, West Flanders.
100 plus riders, scorching hot and I’ve just caught sight of the Belgian National Champion dressed resplendently in the Belgian colours of yellow, black and red. As if that wasn’t enough I then spotted a Lotto Bellisol rider and if you’re unsure what that means, his team mate, Andre Greipel has won many a stage in the Tour de France!
I rode the course to warm up and, as they often do, it seemed relatively tame when riding on your own, on your terms. When the race started and we came out of the first right hand corner, about 30 seconds into the race, all hell broke loose and now we were all riding in one long line, on the limits of our capabilities in the left hand gutter of this farm lane, salvaging what little shelter there was when riding at nearly 30 mph into a cross-wind coming from the right.
Another right, taken this time at full pelt and I just prayed that I wasn’t going to fall on my injured elbow. Did I put the right amount of pressure in my tyres? Was there any gravel in the road? Am I low enough on my bike? Am I committing to this corner properly? You just can’t practice cornering at these speeds in the warm up as the roads aren’t closed until the race starts.
Phew, made it round, a real confidence booster. Now remains the tasking of getting out of the saddle and sprinting like a madman as a 3 metre gap has opened up between me and the rider in front. Done it but now I’ve noticed that he has left the same 3 metre gap in front of him so he accelerates but I’ve got nothing more yet I have to find it otherwise at best I’ll be shouted at by the riders behind or at worse my race will be over.
And we have only been racing for 1 minute!
Another right then immediately left, cornering better now, we cross a main road, marshalled by the Police, thank goodness as there was no looking left or right, just at that wheel in front, stay out the wind, stay out the wind. A sharp right and up a slope full pelt and I’m feeling ok despite the gradient when we hit another right and a short downhill section. OMG now they reeeaally stepped on the gas, we are literally flying, 40mph? 45mph? I don’t know, I just know I can’t pedal harder than this. We hit a roundabout at maximum speed and in the distance I see that some riders are going left and some are going right. There’s a Police Officer in the middle with a yellow flag blowing a whistle. I’m in the Tour de France!
Just when I was deciding whether to go left or right I then noticed that some of the riders were bunnyhopping onto the roundabout to go straight over it! “I’m not doing that on lap one” I thought until I realised I had no choice! I lifted my bike over the small curb, still travelling at least 40mph and then saw that it stepped up again! Just got up it, down twice and off we went. Phew. That was scary.
Through the start/finish line; I’m aware of the massive crowds but can’t look up to enjoy it. I can hear the commentator (in Flemish) and I am aware I am not sitting in last place. Lap over (5.2km) and into the first right hander again.
The pain continued like this for 15 minutes or so, with gaps opening and closing and me even finding myself closing a few gaps for the weaker riders. 25 mins into the race we hit a section where somewhere clearly had a rocket up his a*** as I remember being in my biggest gear, hands on the drops, chin on the stem and just smashing myself to pieces for what felt like an eternity. I’d survived although I felt like I’d been 12 rounds with Tyson and was appreciating the 3 second rest in the protection of the peloton when we hit a right-hander and another rocket…
I couldn’t go with this one. My day was over. Believe you me I have played this over in my head time and time again. It was my head that let me down, not my legs. Dammit. I will be back. I will nail this.
Pete the kiwi finished (and looked good out there when I was enjoying the not racing bit) but did tell me that the first half hour was so hard he nearly got dropped himself. These were encouraging words seeing as he was:
– 11 kilos (2 stone) lighter than me at 79kg
– 17 years younger than me at 24
– Had been living in Europe and racing every other day for the past 5 months
– Hoping to turn Pro sometime in the future.
Day off tomorrow then Saturday I am having a bash at a Masters (age group) race, this is why I’ve come so now I’m ready for anything!
I treated myself to a beer tonight although being surrounded by such awesome bike riders who wouldn’t have more than one drink has definitely rubbed off on me (I only had 3!)
Day 3 Friday 19th September
Breakfast, cleaned my bike and did my stretching, all in the sunshine. Then drove into town (Oudenaarde) with Pete the Kiwi and Irish Steve who had ridden for rode for a Pro bike team for 2 years. The day before I arrived he found himself rubbing shoulders in a race with the Omega Pharma Quickstep guys who have just come back from the Tour of Spain or La Vuelta. I am meeting the right people here, this is why I did this.
We went to the Tour of Flanders museum. I know it is hard to believe that a one-day race can have its own museum but once in there you can see why. This race, up and down the cobbled climbs of Flanders, often in the wet, is legendary and getting round, let alone winning, deserves a big medal (take it from someone who couldn’t get around one cobbled corner in the wet!). We saw footage of riders literally falling off sideways as the climbs were so steep.
Riders like Belgium’s Tom Boonen are Gods out here. Swiss rider Fabien Cancellara is arguably even more so. These two have picked up more than their fair of wins at the Tour of Flanders and the other local cobbled classic, Paris-Roubaix in recent years. As expected the museum had overdosed on footage, bikes and jerseys belonging to these 2 men but we weren’t complaining. I had to laugh though when I heard that Tom Boonen doesn’t like the celebrity status that comes with being a bike rider yet he drives an orange Lamborghini!
Chilling out in the sunshine in a café on the local square was our activity for the rest of the day and this gave me a chance to pick the brains of my two new friends, picking up some great training ideas. I’d tell you but they’re secret 😉
Day 4 Saturday 20th September
Masters race Westveleten, West Flanders.
I picked this race as I wanted to see what racing in my age group was like in Belgium. It turned out that I’d picked a race for 19 to 48 year olds!! Not exactly what I was looking for but the sun was out, it was another scorcher and I was up for it.
I rocked up early and so parked my car next to riders from the ahem, elder categories. I was surprised by how many people said hello, there was definitely a more relaxed atmosphere compared to the bigger race on Thursday.
I signed on and checked out the course. A cobbled corner! Plus, rain was forecast for later! The only consolation was it was a left hander so if I did fall it would be on the arm I can still currently use after my fall last month. Anyway if the heavens opened I could always pull out. Yeah right!
68 riders appeared on the start line for this 62km race over 10 laps of farm roads. 60 of them were under 25 and one had any bodyfat to speak of (other than me!).
It went off hard.
Not as hard as Thursday but only about 1% less hard! These boys were here to race. Great, bring it on, I knew nothing could be as hard as Thursday so, legs screaming, I stayed out the wind and followed the long line of riders.
Towards the end of the first 6.2km we hit a fierce wind coming from the left. Everyone hit the right hand gutter and we were drilling it about 6 inches from the ditch (the road was as wide as a dual carriageway!). I find this really hard to do; you are on the limit physically, you can’t see anything, you are travelling really quickly and you are trusting your opposition to ride in a straight line as you are following his wheel. I confess I may have strayed an inch or two to the left of him.
Through the cobbled finish line and left into the cobbled corner. Ok, in the dry it’s not so bad. 1 lap down and I don’t feel like dying.
I got into a groove and stayed calm, laps passed but each time it was too fast for me to work out where the lap board was. Then I saw it.
5 to go.
I would have preferred 4, or even 3 but at least that was half the race out of the way. The bunch eased up for the first time in 45 minutes. No heroics, still a long way to go and I wanted to go home knowing I’d finished one of these races before going into my winter training.
Occasionally it was so hard I did wonder if I’d make it to the end but each time I thought this the pace dropped and the pain subsided, albeit temporarily and I began to believe in myself. They couldn’t break me.
A lot of people were going backwards though and I did have to close gaps for riders who couldn’t do it themselves. I kinda liked that.
3 to go. I’m near the back but I’m getting plenty of shelter so for now I’m going to stay here.
2 to go. Alright I’ll try to move up if I can stay out the wind. I move up a bit.
1 to go. The bell. This is it. I AM going to finish another race in Belgium. I might as well get it all out now so I put my nose in the wind, passed 10 or so riders and slotted back in. So far so good. We turn right, left and right again and onto that crosswind section for the final time. 60 plus riders are all over the road now, jostling for position. Attacks off the front but, incredibly, we’re all still together. I hold my nerve. We are really motoring and riders are smashing themselves silly all over the place to get near the front. I am still moving up and drafting in the wheels. We have a final left hander approaching before the finishing straight and I step on the gas down the right hand side to stay sheltered the whole time. I must be mid-pack now. Turn left and go go go. The sprint has opened up and I’m passing riders yet nobody is passing me. I don’t question it for long as we hit the cobbles and I try to keep the bike pointing forwards, charging past a few more riders for the line and then slamming my brakes on before the corner.
21st out of 68 riders.
I’m bloody elated. Is that even a sentence?! I’m too bloody elated to care.
The lows keep making the highs seem so high I cannot describe. I love this sport.
I return my race numbers and get 5 of the 8 Euros entry fee back. Yes that’s right I have just raced in the Mecca of cycling on fully closed roads, at breakneck speeds in front of huge crowds in the glorious sunshine and it has cost me 3 Euros. Oh yes. I won 3 Euros for 21st place too!!!
I won money in a bike race! What a day.
In the car park some of the people I met before asked me how I got on and congratulated me, asking if I would be at tomorrow’s race. “Yes” I replied “after a beer”. In the bar I ordered a pint and one of the people I was chatting to asked me if having a beer was a good idea with another race the next day. She suggested that they do serve small beers instead of pints.
“This is a small beer” I said.
Day 5 Sunday 21st September
Houthulst, West Flanders
Same category as yesterday, this very odd 19 to 49 year group of basically kids and a couple of oldies.
I left The Chainstay guesthouse at lunchtime with the aim of racing at 4.30pm before catching my ferry this evening from Calais. It has rained all morning and I’m determined to finish this trip upright so I’m checking the weather on an hourly basis. It’s going to be dry later. Good.
I arrive at Houthulst for the 71km race and there are about 50 riders entered. I recce the course to find the biggest hill I’ve seen in Flanders and it’s into a bloody great big headwind. If you think the descent with a tailwind will help me to recover each lap then you don’t know Belgium! At one point in this race I was in my biggest gear, 53 x 11, and I went for another gear and it wasn’t there!
So the race started in the sunshine fortunately and I don’t mind admitting I am partially beaten already on a 3.5 km course which is more Chris Froome than Chris Hoy but I dig deep when we reach the first climb. During the warm up I was out of breath pushing a 39 x 19 (2nd gear) but now I was not only in 53 x 17 (about 12th gear) but also on the drops the whole time. We were FLYING up this climb and I was just about hanging in there.
Over the crest, turn left and left again and BANG……now they START racing. Riders in front of me are leaving gaps and I am having to go around them and close them myself. If only I’d climbed the hill nearer the front; easier said than done! I could see riders going backwards and out of the back as I realised I was now last but at least I was still in contact unlike 10 or so riders for whom their race was already over.
We finish the first lap and I am back in the peloton but already suffering, knowing that we have to ascend that b*st*rd 18 more times. I get into a bit of a groove for a few laps and then start moving up on the climb. This uses more energy and unfortunately and that exact moment the leaders went into overdrive over the top, into the first left turn and into the second. We are at full gas now; it’s harder than hard and on the second left hander I worry, momentarily, about crashing. Bad move, I’ve left a gap. I’ve got my chin on my handlebars trying to close it but it’s no good. Riders start passing me, shouting and cursing (I assume) until I managed to jump on the wheel of the last rider. I’ve burnt a lot of matches, maybe all of them as we cross the start/finish line 25 minutes into the race. 180 degree left hander into the foot of the climb and they gun it again. This time I’m really concerned, yo-yoing off the back. Another 30 seconds and my race is over. Gutted but realistic. This course didn’t suit my build.
From 50 starters only 20 finished. Some small recompense.
My trip is over. 2 non-finishes and one 21st place against Belgians half my age.
Sure I could always race “within myself” but what’s the point. You can spend all your life without stretching yourself and subsequently have no idea just how good you could be at something. You only fail when you give up trying eh?. I’m certainly leaner, fitter and a wiser bike rider for having spent 5 days here.
More importantly I’ve had an amazing experience. I’ve also seen “inside” Belgium racing a bit and have learnt to be more aggressive (no not after that Stella) and to push myself harder. I know my way about more in several respects, I know which races to do next time, I have made some contacts.
I really hadn’t realised how much they love cycling in Belgium. It would be wishful thinking to hope British Cycling will follow suit but UK racing on closed roads, thousands of spectators drinking and cheering, a party afterwards, Police marshalling, no maximum number of riders, no need to enter in advance, prize money down to 25th place, fully committed racing by every single rider for between £2 and £4 EVERY SINGLE DAY from March to October is not going to happen!!