Last Sunday was a day of firsts for me. My first Tour Of Flanders, my first World Cup, and my first race over 4 hours. Being such an iconic race, and one we have been truly immersed in as a team based in Oudenaarde (the races home town), the build up to this race, and the attention surrounding it, are something I’ve never experienced before. From the thousands of riders descending on the town to ride the sportive the day before and watch the race, to the signs and banners on every lamppost in town, the race was unavoidable. This made it both more exciting and more daunting in equal measure.
With the start and finish of the race a short pedal away, and the course literally passing my front door, I’d been able to ride the course a number of times in the weeks leading up to the race; a necessity if you’re to have any chance of remembering the courses long list of non-stop obstacles. Taking in 145kms of the Flemish Ardennes, the route includes a number of long, flat cobbled sectors, as well as ten classified climbs; three of which are also cobbled. This makes for a gruelling and relentless race.
The opening 50kms were generally flat and open, but the race was on from the gun. The pace was high and the battle to stay at the front was even more hard fought than in any of the races I’ve done this year. Staying out of trouble and dodging street furniture were both key at this point.
Knowing the course well was a definite help as we came into the first climb of the day. Turning from a wide road onto a narrower residential street, before another sharp turn onto a steep (and even narrower) climb, it was crucial to be well positioned. As we turned onto the residential road I managed to hold my place at the front of the peloton and breathed a (very quick) sigh of relief. Although the race hadn’t really begun at this point, it could easily have ended here. Even if you have the legs, being stuck at the back of a 150 rider traffic jam will undoubtedly lead to being split from the front group.
Although this first climb was tough, there was a long way still to go, and so it was clear it was being ridden to thin out the peloton rather than too win the race. With the big teams setting a tough but consistent pace, I settled into a rhythm and felt comfortable as we crested the top. Without time to look behind me, I didn’t know what damage the climb had done; but the group was definitely more strung out as we hit the cobbles.
Without much time to catch my breath, the relentless jarring had begun! With 6.4kms of cobbles in total, and one sector of over 2kms, this was where the hurt really started; and I knew my legs weren’t feeling as good as they had been in some of the previous races. Quickly banishing this thought from my mind, I focused on holding the wheel ahead of me and told myself how much I was enjoying this. Something that became increasingly difficult to convince myself of. With teams on the front driving the pace once more, the pressure was really on and I had to dig deep (mentally and physically) through this section of the race to keep contact with the constantly reducing peloton. With the cobbles sapping any power from your legs, it’s a battle to keep the bike moving forward.
Along with the many flat sections of cobbles, comes the Mollenburg. Having ridden and raced this climb before I knew exactly what to expect. A fight for the best position, as the peloton turns a 90degree turn from a main road and onto the narrow and rough ascent. I’d made sure to keep at the front of the race, so managed to make the turn unscathed and in a good position. The pace kicked again as we began to climb, but I found climbing the cobbles much easier than the flatter sections we’d already faced. As we pushed over the top, and onto some smoother ground, I took the opportunity to look behind. The group was strung out, and I could see that some major damage had been done.
After ticking another couple of cobbled sectors off the list, it was time for the next climbs of the day. With the Leberg coming first, closely followed by the Berendries and Valkenberg climbs, the attacking really began in this part of the race. With riders launching from the group constantly on all three of these climbs, the peloton would shatter as riders responded. Fighting to stay with each acceleration and counter attack, I tried my best to ignore the pain in my legs and keep focused on maintaining contact with the front of the race. As we crested the final of these climbs, nobody had managed to break free, but the group was now down to around half of the original field.
At this point there was a brief moment of respite where I could sit in the wheels and take stock before the race entered it’s final (and most gruelling) phase. I tried to conserve as much energy as possible here and used the opportunity to take on some fuel and try to recover as best I could.
With the momentary gap in the action over far too quickly, it was time to tackle the next three climbs of the day; the Kaperij, Kanarieberg and Kruisberg. The middle of these being one of the hardest so far. Although the other two were still attack filled, and definitely not painless, the race for the summit of the Kanarieberg was the biggest test. Full gas down the main road leading up to it, with teams giving it everything to put their leader in the best position possible, I latched onto one of these trains and fought for my place on the road. As we took the sharp turn onto the base of the climb, it was flat out from the start. This climb is both long and steep; and my legs and lungs were screaming at me for the duration. Ignoring this as best I could, and with the help of some much needed shouts from supporters at the side of the road, I managed to keep contact with the group as we pushed over the top. Although shattered at this point, the peloton largely reformed over the next few kms and stayed together as we climbed the Kruisberg. Everyone at this point biding their time for the big double header yet to come.
With my legs well and truly pummelled by this point, it was time for the two most iconic features of the race; the 2.3km cobbled ascent of Oude Kwaremont and the steeper, shorter (but still cobbled as you might have guessed) Patterberg. These come in quick succession, and would be hard enough on their own; let alone with 100km of unforgiving racing in the legs.
As the peloton wound it’s way to the bottom of the Oude Kwaremont, I wasn’t in as good a position as I would have liked. Instead of being at the front of the race where the attacking was kicking off once again, I had let myself slip back to the middle of the group. This meant I spent the whole climb fighting to make up places; not an easy task by this point as my legs had decided they’d had enough. With my hands raw and blistered, shredded legs, and about as much positivity repeated in my head as I could manage, I slipped into a second group as we finished climbing and began the lead up to the Patterberg. I put my head down and tried to bridge back to the group, but as I flicked my arm for the next rider to come through, I saw that everyone behind me had a teammate up the road.
Not able to close the gap on my own, I had to settle into the group I was in. It was frustrating seeing the front of the race getting further away, but I’d chased all I could and my legs were empty. I’d given it my best shot.
As we turned onto the Patterberg the pressure was back on; but mainly because it’s so steep that without the pressure on you would simply stop moving and topple off your bike! My legs were so battered as we powered over the cobbles that it felt like my muscles were being shredded. With the summit flag in sight, these were the last metres of climbing we would face, so I put my head down and pedalled as hard as I could through the top.
With a flat run into the finish in Oudenaarde, the groups stayed as they were on the road. The lead peloton was in sight for the whole of this section, but with nothing left in the tank, I just kept my focus on staying with the wheels. As the kilometres counted down, the relief began to set in. Coming into the finish I gave everything I had left in the sprint, and crossed the line in 37th place.
Now I’ve ticked off my list of firsts from this race, I’m excited for what’s still to come with the team.