I was (secretly) hoping that my Belgian trip would include a race with cobbles. I knew what it would mean for my race, but I would have felt cheated if I had come this way and not experienced it at least once.
My second race was at Sint-Kornelis-Horebeke, a picturesque village near Oudenarde, and only a short drive from my base at Waregem. After the last day’s experience, I overcompensated and made sure I was there very early, to give myself enough warm-up time. Early enough in fact that I was the first one to sign-on. As with any EOL race, numbers were assigned in the order that you sign-on. Seeing that I was the first entrant, I became worried that I might be given number 1, but a quick glance at the pile of numbers relieved me of that concern, and I picked up number 2. After ascertaining the course from the commissarie as best I could, I set out on a recce.
It was a little tricky to work out exactly where the course lay, but from what I could tell from the broken English instructions provided, it was a circuit around the village. Setting out, it seemed the course would suit me well – a long hill of 4km, not steep enough to be selective, would make the race attritional, with only a couple of sharp corners and a long downhill section. What I failed to realise was that the course actually included a large dog-leg, the first section of which was a fast cobbled descent and climb. You can find a map here
Racing in England, you’re often looked down on by the local population. Getting any kind of turn out for racing is seen as a bit of a bonus. As is well-known, Belgian cycling has a much deeper grounding, but it’s still a bit of surprise to a visitor like me when the race departure is preceded by a religious procession, complete with brass band. Unfortunately, I didn’t have my phone with me to get a picture, but the image will stay with me nonetheless.
At the appointed time I was lined up, properly warmed up and ready to go. Looking around, I could see the field was a little less pro than the day before, but I was shocked by the number of riders sponsored by Fietsen Flanders, with at least 20 riders that I counted. I learned later that the company were co-sponsoring the race, and the majority of the riders were from their Beloften Asfra team, a development squad (edit: @FlashingPedals tells me that Asfra Flanders bikeshop is based in oudenaarde, making this one of their home races). I was also suprised by how many English-speakers there were – I heard Australian and Uk accents, and spotted one rider warming up in a CC Twickenham top!
The race was started with a minutes silence, and we set off on the standard surge for the first corner, somewhat hampered by the guy in front of me unable to clip in properly, but shortly I was sitting mid bunch and looking to move up. A right turn, and we were on to the long descent, hitting 60km/h. Another right turn and we’re on to the hill. I thought that the selection would come on the hill. It was long, but not that steep, so I figured that we would hammer up it, but suprisingly the bunch had eased off a bit. Looking up the road, I could see a small break, but no real danger as we passed through the start/finish. Suddenly, where we had previously gone straight on, I could see the bunch turning left. “Oh sh*t” I thought, recognising the turn as being on to a cobbled descent that I spotted earlier.
I’ve ridden cobbles before, having completed three Tour of Flanders sportives, but this was the first time I’d raced on them. Over 500 metres, I went from mid-bunch to the back. From bitter experience i’ve learnt that this is the last place in a bike race that you should be. A dog leg round, and I was still holding on to the back of the bunch, which was starting to disintegrate. Jumping wheels, I was managing to stay in touch, but it was only a matter of time before I found myself in the wrong position and going in to the red. After 3 laps, I was 2 minutes down on the bunch, and pulled by the commissaire. “You’re not the last, eh” came the reassuring words in a Dutch accent, and indeed I wasn’t, having seen many riders blown out the back before me.
A much better performance, and up to the pavé I was comfortable. Frankly, I don’t have the handling skills or experience with that kind of surface to be competitive, but apart from that the course suited me and I think I could have finished mid bunch. It definately took a while for the adrenaline to wear off, and the grin to disappear from my face: I love racing my bike, and mixing it in this race was great buzz. Hopefully though, that’s it for the pan-flat criteriums and cobbles, give me something I can really compete at! And the race? Despite some super strong attacks and a number of small breaks, it came down to a bunch sprint from the final selection of 14. Suprisingly, the winner didn’t come from Beloften Asfra.