Back from the Middle East and getting over his jet-lag, we re-join Mark this week prepping for his first European race of the season - Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, one half of the famous Belgian "Openings Weekend".
Well the recon for Omloop Het Nieuwsblad was a stark contrast to the warm climes I left in Oman. Still a little sleep deprived from travel I woke at the crack of dawn on a crisp and cold Belgian morning feeling a little bit under the weather. I made my way to the house of my team manager Hilaire Van Der Schueren, which is located at the foot of The Bosberg, a famous climb in Flanders that used to be the last climb of De Ronde (thats Tour of Flanders for the true Anglophiles). I wasn’t really sure what to expect as the sat. nav. directed me there. As I pulled up and saw the team bus and a few cars I was greeted with a warm welcome consisting of coffee and fresh rice tarts (a cake with a thin pastry base filled with creamed rice - when made correctly it's a like crack cocaine for cyclists).
Once everyone had arrived, said hello and got booted and suited we headed out on a look of the last 110km of The Omloop starting with the Muur van Gerrardsbergen and finishing on the last section the Lange Munt (which translates as ‘the long mint’ - although it is very long I can assure you there's nothing minty about it). For me, not riding The Omloop, it was more important that I test the equipment and tyre pressure for the following day in Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, which went pretty well I think. One thing I did learn on the recon was the code of letters used by the Soigneurs (the name given to the masseuses who look after us in races and training). They write the letters on top of the bidons to differentiate between three various contents: Water, Energy and Electrolyte. What confused me about it was they had a ‘X’, which my expert pallet could distinguish was water, an ‘E’ which with my deductive skills I thought was Electrolyte and ‘D’ which to be honest I had no idea what it was but it tasted a'rite. Just before we set out one of the swannies (short for soigneurs and much easier to spell correctly) asked me what drink I wanted on my bike. I saw as the perfect opportunity to work out what they all were so, I asked the options and was told: ‘X’ = water (one point to Mark), ‘E’ = Energy (I had a 50-50 chance!), and ‘D’ which was Duurstlesser, I had to think about it for a minute but Flemish is an amusingly literal language at times (my personal favourite is a 'brood rooster' which is 'a machine for roasting bread' - more commonly known as a toaster). But 'duurstlesser' does exactly what it says on the tin - it's a liquid for 'lessing duurst' or in English 'thirst' which is to all intent and purpose - an electrolyte.
After getting into the bus and heading back to Hilaire's house we were once again greeted with the smell of freshly baked rice tart. Unsure whether or not this was a test of our self discipline we sat down as a team for lunch, which was prepared by Hilaire's wife. It started with a bowl of minestrone soup that was hotter than the sun, but exactly what was needed after 3 hours battering about Flanders in the freezing temperatures. It was followed by the main course which was a bowl of spaghetti bolognaise so big that at first I thought it was to to be split between the ten riders present - until it was set down in front of me and everyone else got something similar. Once everyone had finished and was well and truly full then came the third and final course - coffee with yet more home baked delights: a semolina cake with raisins which I think they called ’Smol Tart’; yet more mouth-wateringly-good rice tart and last but not least Appel Flaps (which is just an apple turnover).
After being fed like a King and returning home I slept well that night but woke up the next morning full of a head cold. The problem with being in good condition on the bike is it normally means your immune system is a little bit fragile. With one thing and another I think I’d overdone it a bit since returning home from Oman on Monday and waking up Thursday morning full of a cold. After an easy hour on the rollers I spent the rest of the day, and the following day, on the couch trying to get rid of my snotty head. I was over the worst of it come Saturday I got wrapped up in my fancy new training 'Diamond' jacket with a built in balaclava - perfect for Belgium this time of year - and headed for the canal in Lier to do a ten minute opener and a few sprints to get myself ready for Sunday. I didn’t feel great but I’d felt worse on some previous pre-race rides, so I returned home, packed my bag and made my way to the team hotel in Drongen. Here I was greeted by a swannie ready to give me a pre-race massage, have a chit-chat over The Omloop, and generally put the world to rights. After dinner it was early to bed and up at 8 o’clock the next morning for an early breakfast. After a good meal and a cup of coffee I headed back to the room to do my final pre-race checks; make sure I had my shoes, helmet, licence and bike (that was the check my dad used to make me do when I was a whippersnapper, because as long as you have those 4 things you can borrow the rest if you forget them). Then I made sure my numbers were pinned precisely and that I hadn't left anything in the hotel room (I’ve lost 4 toothbrush chargers in the last year alone). And then of course I checked I had downloaded my all-essential playlist ready for the drive to the start of the race.
And so to the Wanty team bus (I like to call it the 'Bluestar Liner' mainly because it's blue and not intimidating enough to be called anything as dramatic as "The Deathstar"). I’m not ashamed to say I was quite excited as it was the first time I’d ever been on this team bus, with plush leather couches, two showers, a fully flushable toilet and the all important coffee machine. When we arrived at the start the atmosphere was already bubbling, with fans blocking the way to Team Parking. Belgians love a bike race, and especially so the 'Openings Weekend'. As soon as you step out of the bus you see team fan cards from every year you’ve ever raced - some even homemade - thrust into your chest along with a black marker pen to sign with. Then there's the various different photographers who turn up and ask to take your headshot before every race. I’ve always wondered what they actually do with this vast surplus of headshots... Once you’ve made your way to your bike, stuck your sticker with important points of the race to your handlebars, clipped your Garmin into its mount (other manufacturers of cycle computer are available), checked the brakes and given the tyres a squeeze, it's time to navigate your way through the ever-growing sea of fans to the sign-on podium.
We arrived at the podium to be greeted by a rather angry Belgian man with a cigar butt in his mouth. Turns out we were an hour late for the sign-on. We gave our apologies as we waved to the crowd then made our way to the start line. My job for the day was to look after our sprinter again which meant staying out of harm's way for the beginning, as the attacks started with guys trying to get in the escape of the day. One of my teammates, Kevin Van Melsen, who was also in the breakaway the day before in The Omloop, doubled-up, making his way into the eleven-man group that slipped away shortly after km zero (that's the point where the race actually starts after the neutralised zone). The first important part of the race came at the Kruisberg after 97km, where we went from a downhill dual carriageway to turn right into a road just wide enough for the cars to fit down. I turned the corner inside the top 20 which set me up nicely for the following climbs. This is where the race really ramped-up. The next critical point was the Oude Kwaramont, which is famous for being one of the climbs on the new Ronde finishing lap. It's a 2.2km uphill cobbled slog. The pace was ferocious before the climb, with crashes happening left, right and centre. I navigated my way through them just before we hit the climb and the race was fully on. In the crosswinds we hit the climb, but there was just nothing in my legs. I went from being well-placed to hanging-on for survival by the top. It's like being on a rollercoaster. When it goes full-gas in a race around Flanders, you go up, down, left, right, in and out, all at the same time. Shortly after my legs buckled in another crosswind section and I was dropped - together with a small group. It's a horrible feeling when the back of the race caravan passes you. It's marked by an ambulance and it means that you are out of the race. You go over and over everything that happened in the race thinking what you could have done different to not be in this position, but to be honest i think I rode well, I just didn’t have the legs for one reason or another. I think it was probably the hangover from my cold. Now, after a few days resting-up I feel a lot better with a much less snotty nose. I'm hoping to right the wrongs of my under-perfomance in my following race which is GP Saymn. This is another Semi-Classic which has changed over the last few years from a sprinters race to an out and out cobblefest. Hopefully next week I’ll have more positive news to report to you...
Photos kindly provided by Luc van Steenbrugge and Fabienne Vanheste.
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