by Molly Weaver
Another week has passed in a flash, with a mid week race at the GP Stad Waregem making it go even faster. Before we knew it, the weekend was upon us again and it was time for Gent Wevelgem. Having ridden the course in the week with the team, we felt well prepared for what was to come. The course begins with a generally flat opening 35kms, before taking in the first climbs of the day in the steep and cobbled Kemmelberg, and the slightly shallower Moneteberg. We would then return to flatter roads for the next 25kms. Once this middle section is completed, the course takes on the Baneberg, before swiftly returning to the Kemmelberg and Monteberg for a second ascent. The race then finishes with a 30km flat run in. The course itself, with 5 key climbs, is a tough one on any day, but with one glance at the weather forecast we could tell that the climbs may not be the most decisive element on the day. Not only was the rain due to be torrential, but we were set to be battered by gail force winds.
The race went off at full speed from the gun; with the neutralised section ending the second we were out of the town and onto open roads. I’d barely clipped in when I looked up and saw the first splits beginning to form in the crosswinds. With teams on the front taking advantage of the weather to force early breaks, the pace was on and it was time to grit my teeth and keep myself in the race! This was the time to give it everything. My race was over anyway if I didn’t. Although I thought I’d prepared myself for the winds, these were by far the strongest I’ve ever seen; let alone ridden in. Holding each wheel for a moment before surging through a windswept gap to the next section of the peloton, my legs and lungs were screaming. A gap as small as a meter from the shelter of those ahead of you and the wind instantly hit you like a ton of bricks.
I kept pushing through the small groups that were fracturing from the main peloton until I made contact with the front group. There was no time to relax though, with the wind constantly changing direction and gusts throwing riders around the road.
The group had already been whittled down to around 100 riders as we began the run-in to the Kemmelberg; and the benefits of knowing the course well started here! We’d planned where we needed to be at the front of the race and maintain a good position, so I made sure to move up at this point and sheltered in second wheel. With everyone holding their ground as we began the ascent, this is where I stayed as we turned onto the steep cobbled climb. I felt comfortable on the climb, and kept myself at the front of the race; knowing this would make it safer on the descent and put me in a good position when the winds hit again.
The peloton was strung out on this climb, but didn’t split decisively, and instead regrouped slightly on the lead into the Monteberg. With a further reduced peloton, the pace wasn’t too high over this climb, and actually provided a small sheltered section where I tried to tuck in and recover as much as possible. Although the flatter section we were approaching would usually be the easiest part of a race, teams were clearly readying themselves to attack in the winds and create breaks over this middle part of the course. It was going to be tough.
Sure enough, as soon as we’d descended thorough the twisty lanes and the roads began to open up, the race was on again; with teams hitting the front hard and driving it into the wind. With even the smallest of gaps potentially proving impossible to close, I knew this was the time to stay alert and react quickly to any moves. With strong crosswinds hitting on one of the straighter roads, the group split into two distinct echelons. The gap quickly opened up and, with riders in this front split working hard, it looked like it could prove decisive. Riders began to attack again almost instantly; trying to drive an even smaller group away. I had made the front split and just focused on holding the wheels around me.
The group swung around the road as more riders attacked and we were relentlessly buffeted from all angles. A strong gust of wind hit us from the right at this point and three of us were forced onto the grass verge running along the road. Myself and a rider from Bigla managed to right ourselves, but the Rabobank rider hit the deck hard. Even though it was only a matter of seconds before we were back on the road, this was enough for a gap to have opened.
Knowing that every second was crucial, we both began chasing straight away. For the next few kms we worked well together, taking it in turns to provide the other with a valuable few seconds of recovery. However, as we moved onto some narrower and twistier roads we lost sight of the group ahead, and the Bigla rider turned to me and said ‘I’m done. It’s over’. With that, she sat up and dropped off my wheel.
With a glance behind, I saw that the second group was in sight, and I was stranded in no-mans land. With the gap to both groups seeming to hold where it was, I decided to keep pushing on solo.
After another few kms of chasing, the team cars for those in the front group sped past; and my team car was able to come along side me. It was 35seconds to the group ahead and 20seconds to the one behind. A tough call, but I wasn’t giving up without a fight. I knew that if I gave it everything there was a chance I could close the gap. With a strong diagonal headwind at this point, the group ahead slowed slightly and I gritted my teeth and started pedalling as hard as I physically could. I made it my target to reach the bumper of the last car in the convoy. As the road kicked up slightly I made contact, and the relief was overwhelming. Sat as close to the car as I dared, the break from the draining wind was incredible. I’d never been happier than in that moment! Taking a moment on each bumper, I made my way through the cars and onto the back of the group; now containing 20 riders.
I tucked into the wheels as best I could. Knowing there were only a couple of kms before the Baneberg would be upon us, I had to recover as much as possible. With my legs absolutely screaming, I knew that I’d burnt most of my matches in the chase.
The next three climbs are a bit of a blur, with only a short distance between each, and no time to rest as riders attacked into the winds once again. I focused on each one individually and imagined the finish line was at the top. At this point races are a mental battle as much as a physical one. Although the climbs were painful, and my legs were feeling pretty drained, I was able to dig deep and keep myself at the front of the group over these. With a long run in, no real attacks came at this point; although the pace was kept high.
It was as we turned into the final, flatter, 30kms to the finish that the hardest riding of my entire life began. I turned the kms off my computer, as they were counting down way too slowly, and focused all my energy on holding the wheel in front. The wind was unbelievable over these closing kms. Strung out in a single file line, we were being blown into the gutter and out again constantly. I was pedalling as hard as my legs would let me just to hold the wheel in front.
When a group of nine riders attacked, I got out of the saddle to respond, but was going nowhere fast. My matches were officially burned! This break moved away, and the gap held all the way to the finish.
With the chase proving ineffective, attacks started coming from my group; causing it to fracture and the wind to hit once again. I kept pushing to the next wheel ahead of me, willing the finish line to come sooner. All my energy was being channelled into not losing contact with this group.
As we came into the final km, the group blew to pieces as riders launched for the finish. I kept pushing as hard as I could all the way to the line, eventually crossing in 15th place. I toppled into our Soigneurs arms, unable to even speak; let alone stand up. That was officially the hardest race of my life.