Some days you feel like whatever gear you’re pushing, it’s three harder than is comfortable. Then you look down at your cassette and realise you’re in the 20s. Some days you feel like you’re flying. Often this just means that you have a tailwind and need to reassess how long your ride will take you after the turn. But sometimes, just occasionally, it means you have good legs.
“You are not Pro Continental are you?” the thin-faced dark-haired commissaire asks me, with a stern look on his face. “No no, just a local club” I answer in my most reassuring voice. He looks at me suspiciously, then continues to check his list of, what I assume to be, Pro Continental teams. Grudgingly satisfied, he passes my license to his colleague, who goes through the familiar drawn out process of entering my details. “Thomas is your first name?”, “Yes.” “What is your club?”, “East London Veló.”, I point to my license to indicate the informatin. I pay my 8 Euros, plus the 6 Euro “masters fee”, and receive number 3 for my jersey and bike in return. Already the feel of this race is different. Maybe it’s because we’re so much nearer Brussels and I’ve run in to big city attitude, but the smiling friendly Flemish faces of the last two races are not in evidence today.
I had been somewhat heartened on my arrival by the sight of someone older, fatter and earlier than me signing on. However, this hadn’t quite made up for spotting a Saxo Bank Sungard wrapped bus on the way to the sign-on, and returning to my car I saw a young lad in sponsored polo shirt and a lady pulling a team bike out of the back. This wasn’t the first wrapped vehicle I’d seen in Belgium, and wasn’t the only one here today, but was certainly the most high-profile.
The course today was, I was told, to be flat, with a slight rise on one side and no pavé. Weather conditions were overcast but dry, with a decent wind. Following sketchy instructions, I recced the course, failing to note any rise (must be a Belgian definition of hill I thought), finding my way round by following “no parking” signs when I got lost.
So, warmed up, I line up at the appointed hour. With little ceremony, we’re off. No marching bands this time, just a sprint away from the line. I look down at my Garmin, we’re doing 50km/h, on the flat, and I’m spinning 53-12, wishing for another gear. Right turn, sprint out of the corner, back on the wheel, lined out, left turn, sprint, hold your wheel. A whistling policeman waving a flag indicates a obstical, we swerve right, hold your wheel, look up, I’m sitting 15th wheel with a group up the road already. No one’s chasing, “it’s too early” I think. Right turn, sprint, I’m breathing hard already, we’re still lined out. A let up in pace and riders are coming round, trying to bridge to the break, I sit in and it comes back together for a minute, before another attack goes. The pattern is established and the first lap passes like this.
Towards the end of the first lap, a hard dig at the front and the bunch splinters again. Suddenly I’m first wheel in the chasing peloton, with two groups ahead. I dig in, and close 20 metres to 10, a flick of the elbow and all I feel is a hand on my backside pushing me forward. I close another 5 metres, and pull over, but the effort has taken its toll, and a line of riders slips past me at pace. I check over my shoulder, once, twice, no gap, three times, still no gap and I’m starting to get concerned, four times, “Kom”, a shout from a rider and a hole appears. I slip in and dig hard to hold my wheel. The races continues to pass, a mixture of sheer agony, fighting to hold my wheel, mixed with periods of relief. I watch the other riders, are they drinking? Ok, I can drink. Are they eating? Ok I can eat. Again I find myself at the front, this time slipping further back before rejoining. The pace slackens and I use my momentum to make up places. We’re sprinting again, and a third time on the front, but this time the race has split seriously. I shout to those around me, moving my hand to indicate through-and-off when, bang, my legs go.
I drop backwards through the bunch like a stone, grasping for respite, I grab a wheel and digging deep, hold it. The pace slackens, and I look behind – I am last remaining wheel in the race. Knowing what this means, I take a gel and push forward, back to the middle of the bunch. I know of course that the race has split, the winning break has gone, and we are effectively done, but no-one cares, no one is giving up. Six of the nine laps have passed, I’m still in the bunch, if I hold on I could still be placed. The bunch lines out again, and suddenly I lose my wheel. I dig in, hold the gap, closing a little, knowing a corner is coming and I can catch them on the sprint out. Without warning, a voice in my ear, shouting in Flemish, and a hand grabs my waist pulling me backwards and out of the way. This isn’t the first physical attack I’ve seen today, but still I’m shocked, and in that moment my focus is gone, I lose contact, and so the race leaves me in it’s wake.
A third race, a third very different experience. The guy who grabbed me was probably telling me to get out of the way, but he takes none of the blame for me not finishing. Holding focus (and the bunch) is what’s required to race at this level, and losing it was my own fault. As for the good legs? Well they were there, as much as they ever are, but without the concentration that’s not enough. On one level, I’m happy to complete 2/3rds the distance in such a hard paced race, and the race was probably half its original size by the time I went. However, as my team-mate Gonzalo once said to me, if you can ride back to the HQ in the big ring you didn’t ride hard enough; I guiltily shifted to the inner ring on the way back to the finish line. And as for the guy who grabbed me? He’d been dropped by the time the bunch came back around for the next lap. As had the Saxo Bank guy.