Pre-race nerves are standard for me. The way I usually experience them is in an acute feeling that “I don’t want to be here, I don’t want to do this”. They usually kick in 5-10 minutes before the off, typically as we’re starting to line up. I don’t usually get them on the drive to the race, 5 minutes after leaving home.
As I drove the 35 minutes between Weregem and Wervik, I was very aware of the conditions. A small shower had me concerned, as did the speed with which the roadside windmills were turning. However, as I came into Wervik, a small hamlet near the French border, my weather concerns turned out to be overdone, as the clouds cleared and the wind proved to be present but not too strong. My nervousness didn’t disappear though.
Parking up, I found the sign-on in an old local bar. A hint of what was to come came from the commissaire, after some confusion between us. After we ascertained that “Master” in Belgium refers to non-pro riders (not “old” as it does in the UK), I identified myself as such. The look that passed over his face could be described as a mixture of surprise and “wow, this guy must be nuts”. However, my license, BC letter and an additional €6 were sufficient for me to race, and I collected numbers for both my jersey and bike.
For some reason my pre-race routine was reduced to a lot of what can only be described as messing about. Despite having been warned that the race would kick off from the start, I managed a sum total of 2 minutes warm-up. Looking around on the start line, I realised I was likely the oldest rider there, probably by a long margin as I would guess that the average age was in the low twenties. I was left hoping that the pace wouldn’t be too high from the off, so that I could try to ride myself in to the race. Some hope.
The race started at 2pm. 75 of us lined up at the start-finish line, outside the church. The church bell gave a single chime and a sharp shrill burst from the official’s whistle signalled the start. The peloton rolled off, and the speed built up until suddenly it was hard on the brakes and a sharp right hand turn on to a cycle path. 75 riders, 2 abreast, this was a bit different. We joined on to a main road, and the pace went up again. A grab of brakes and a sharp right in to a twisty lane, 3 more sharp turns, sprinting out of every one and the lack of warm-up is telling – I’m struggling. I’m at the back of the bunch, my legs are screaming, failing to respond, though I’m not even breathing hard. Suddenly, I’ve lost the wheel in front. A one metre gap opens, becomes two, and then ten. I push as hard as I can, but I can’t close it. And that’s it. Less than one lap, and I’m gone. I ride on, trying to push through and hoping the bunch will come back to me, but I can’t get back on and my race is over. The back of the convoy comes through, and the broom wagon checks that I’m ok. “Yes, just no legs” I respond, which seems to confuse them, so I wave them past. I determine that I’m going to ride on until I get pulled out, and finish a lap and a half before I get lost in the lanes and decide that the only option is to retrace my route back to the start.
The race was criterium racing at it’s finest – pan flat, high pace and sharp corners. To say that I got my ass handed to me would be to overplay my impact on the race. In fact, I would be surprised if many other riders noticed that I was there. So, was it all worth it? Definitely. I was clearly out of my depth, I broke my pre-race routine and wasn’t mentally prepared. My biggest mistake was not warming up sufficiently. Despite my performance, I loved the whole experience, and my legs are ok so I can race again tomorrow.
Watching the bunch come through from the sidelines was, strangely, a great experience on its own. The pace and the smoothness, I really want to be part of that. Tomorrow is another chance to make that happen.