My cycling life has never been the same since I went to Belgium in March. Not that my premiere Flandrian weekend of back-to-back kermesses went well.
Out of the two races, I finished neither. First race it was due to a puncture and in the second I just got dropped. For the sake of self-pity, only 26 riders out of 97 finished. There was a massive crash that stopped the peloton and I didn’t manage to sprint back on the lead group. So not only did I do worse in Belgium than in any bike race before, I’d also never previously been in so much physical pain or felt as slow on a bike.
Indeed, what I experienced wasn’t fun. But it was game-changing. As an analogy, imagine spending a weekend heli-skiing in the Alps and almost falling off a steep cliff whilst trying to go faster than an approaching ravine. Not great. But after that, going back to an indoor ski slope wouldn’t be the same. Outsiders might still call both activities ‘skiing’, just like both Belgian and British road races can be called ‘cycling’. Yet deep down you know the difference. It isn’t the speed, it’s the time spent nearly dying — both in the descriptive and the literal sense. Both the “My lungs are burning and I feel like I’m gonna die” and the “If I can’t hold my line in this sharp turn in a bunch of 100 riders I might fall and die”.
Alas, my cycling-life had changed. It didn’t matter that I got good results back home. I won all individual races in the A cats at the Herne Hill Women’s League and came 4th in the 120 km Lovelo road race. It all felt as exciting as a pathetic indoor ski slope. After all, I don’t cycle to win (except when it gets me a pair of jawbreakers). I ride bikes because it’s a form of meditation to me. When it gets fast and dangerous, there is no space for thoughts. None of the usual “it’s raining and I’m cold and cycling sucks” or “I should really respond to that work email” or “If Iran and Israel will start bombing each other, will that start WWIII?”. Instead, I’m able to be present in the moment – otherwise you either fall or are dropped from the bunch.
Thus, I had to return to my spiritual homeland, Oost-Vlaanderen. The plan: stay for two weeks, work out of office, race as much as possible — and try finish a Belgian kermesse.
Race 1: Saturday May 5th, GP De Wielkeszuigers Schellebelle. 91,5 km. 31st out of 115.
Being at Schellebelle was amazing – all sunny and nice – until a hundred meters into the race. I found myself 300 meters from the lead of the race, with around 100 riders in front of me. There is possibly nothing more depressing than that amount of smashy smash riders in a peloton when you’re at tail end of the pact. And you’ve managed that before the first corner. So I sprinted, did an all-out effort and moved up around 80 places. After that first lap my heart was about to pop and I knew I couldn’t hold on for much longer.
I then settled into the Belgian race mode, which doesn’t mean getting to chill. Nope. The word for ‘cycling’ is the same as ‘nearly dying’ in Flemish. For anyone who’s done a Red Hook Crit, imagine that style of riding but triple the duration and double the field.
The main rule is to stay alert, every second. Otherwise I’d miss the attack (happening at least every three minutes) or dozens of riders would either try to sneak past me or simply push me into the curb. I’d then try to get out of the drain, hoping the 80 riders behind me would make space and not crash into me once I got back to the road. The second I’d look back, I’d be reminded of why you must stay alert — as someone might crash right in front of you. Then as the tightly bunched up 100 riders would hit the curb, I’d try to hold my line and not overlap wheels with the dozen others pushing against me — and then someone would cut the corner from my inside and face me to slow down. Watch corner would thus have to be followed with an epic sprint to keep up. After the cobbled section, the road would get really bad and I’d have to bunnyhop five potholes. Then maybe there’d be a split second where I’d have time to drink (and notice my bottles are empty).
This kept going on for 2h 30min. I had been fluctuating between the front of the peloton and around 50th place. Every time I thought to myself that I was doing well, I’d drop backwards on the long, wide, straight road where the single line of riders would suddenly bunch up. The rest of the lap, I’d spend by sprinting forwards. The same thing happened on the last lap. With one last kilometre to go, I was miraculously positioned 2nd in the lead bunch.
Now I could’ve remained alert and stayed focused on keeping that second place. Instead, I just went “WHAATTT I’M IN THE FRONT!!! I’M GONNA FINISH A KERMESSE! WOWZA!!! I’M SO HAPPY!” Well, after the two seconds of brain jubilation, I was swiftly alerted to all these riders moving past me. On a road two meters wide, there wasn’t any space for the others to move up. Yet somehow they were doing it. When I tried to follow and return to the front of the bunch, there was merely a solid wall left, consisting of wheels and thighs moving at 50km/h. I kept being overtaken. In the end there wasn’t much I could do – after an S-bend, a very narrow lane, a 90° turn and a cobbled section, the finish line was already there.
Due to the semi-pathetic end, I came 31st. 59 out of 115 riders didn’t finish, but I did!
Race 2: Sunday May 5th, Lady’s Day Sinaai. 88 km. 11th out of 115.
[Read Belgie style racing description. It was like that again.]
I was struggling at Sinaai, nearly fell three times, wanted to quit and eventually lost my sense of hearing (as I was pushing myself so hard). Learnt the lesson that being constantly at the front and chasing down every single attack is very tiring. Especially when you don’t have a team to work with.
500 meters before the finish I miraculously found myself second in the whole race. Again, I was just like WHWHAHAAAAHAHHAAAA THIS IS UNREAL I’M DOING REALLY WELL. But this time I wasn’t going to let everyone slide past me. I decided to sprint. For a brief moment I was leading the race, only to realise that I’d misjudged the finish line by 200 meters. Oops. As my thighs started burning like a flame, I could only watch others sprint past me. I finished 11th.
Given that I started riding road bikes less than a year ago and that my first road race was in February, I should’ve been happy with my result. But after the initial “I CAME ELEVENTH WAAAHHHH UNREAL!!!”, I could now only think of how close I’d been to being in the top 10. What if I had been more alert at the end? If I had patiently waited for someone else to go before starting my own sprint? What if I had tried to win rather than just try to finish?
Thus, the racing continues.