Three tough races in a week for our very own Lion of Flanders - here's the inside track on Mark McNally's week in Belgium with Team Wanty-Groupe Gobert...
Well it’s been a busy week, starting with Le Samyn - which is one of the lesser know Semi-Classics, but is just as hard as many of its more well known cousins. The race began with a few tarmac climbs before moving on to five open and challenging laps, including two vicious cobbled sections each lap. My job was to get in the break of the day, but my efforts were short-lived with the race properly on after 20km. I didn’t see a rather large pothole and got myself a puncture. I was forced to let the peloton pass by before getting on the radio to tell the team car I needed a wheel. It can be quite a stressful thing to change a wheel in a race but I try to stay as cool as possible and employ the philosophy of ‘less haste - more speed’. A common mistake when getting a wheel change in a race is to stop as soon as you have the puncture. If safe to do so, it is often best to keep the bike rolling until your team car, or neutral service car, is behind you. Once they've arrived, pull over to the correct side of the road - right side over here in mainland Europe, or on the left if you’re in Blighty. The best policy to employ to get a quick change is step off your bike get your wheel out as your mechanic comes hurtling towards you with a replacement. Hold the bike loosely so the mechanic can do his job. When the wheel is safely in, step back on the bike and your mechanic will usually give you a bit of a push, and you’re back on your way. It took me longer than I would have liked to get back to the peloton, but once I arrived there it soon dawned on me as to why. We turned right, up a stinging climb of about 700m, and as I turned on to the climb and saw the road rearing-up, the boys at the front were already over the top and putting it well and truly in the gutter. I went full-gas up the climb to try and make my way back to the pointy end of the race, but as I got over the top the peloton was already in pieces. Then once we were over the next few climbs we got on to the wide open roads and the wind howled from the side causing even more splits. My race was all but done as my manager came over the radio and told me not to kill myself as there was plenty more races to come this week. So I made my way to the bus for an early shower. It's quite a horrible feeling to be out of a race when you know you should still be in there but, as in life, in bike racing too ... shit happens!
Next-up came 3-Days of West Flanders, which believe it or not is a race in West Flanders which is 3 days long. It starts with a prologue on a Friday and then two road stages on Saturday and Sunday, tackling the famous climbs of The Oude Kwaremont (famous from Tour of Flanders) and The Kemmelberg (famous from Gent-Wevelgem) respectively. My prologue was average, which I expected as I’ve always struggled with Time Trials. The course was a Tester's dream. A real straight-out-and-back 7km on the seafront in Middelkerke (kerke is Flemish for church and there is one in the middle of this town). Then came the first stage which was full-gas all day no real breakaway established to settle the race and after making the front split up The Kwaremont the peloton regrouped and it looked set to be a bunch kick. Our job for the day was to look after our Italian sprinting stallion Danilo Napolitano. It was all going well with the whole team centered around him in the last 20km. But with around 6km to go there was a crash going into a roundabout in which most of us got held up. Separated because of the crash it made the last few km a very frantic rush to make our way back to the front, as the race was now at full warp-speed. Our efforts were ultimately fruitless and Napo was left to fend for himself finishing a respectable 10th.
Then came the final stage, starting in Nieuwpoort (not the one in Wales). The weather, for want of a better word, was grim - with rain, freezing temperatures and winds of up to 80 kmph. In Flemish the hardmen would describe it as ‘Echte Koers were’. In England we’d probably describe it as "Summer Time". Anyway, I digress. You could sense that a lot of the peloton didn’t have the mental capacity to deal with the grim conditions. No sooner had the flag dropped and a few hopeless skirmishes tried and failed, the wind began to blow from the side and I found my way into the front echelon of 15. We built-up a lead of about a minute in the first 30km, then we turned into a tailwind and the group swelled to 40. What I’d forgot is that on a day like that simple things such was eating and drinking become hard because you always have to concentrate. Your extremities are frozen and you’re usually so well wrapped-up that it's like 'pass the parcel' trying to find your energy bar in your pockets, because you forgot which layer you put it in. After about 80km the race regrouped and a small break of three guys slipped away just before we hit the hill zone which included The Kemmelberg. This climb used to be infamous for its cobbled descent, but after a few horrific crashes they built a bike path round the back that we now use instead. Sometimes you forget how hard you need to concentrate racing here because 99% of the time you need to be working out when you need to be near the front when the road goes from a two lane main road to a cobbled farm track. For two minutes I let myself relax and no sooner had I done that I saw the peloton ahead turn into a small farm track and begin to line out. You can usually see it coming when you turn onto a small road because its so open and twisty you can see the front of the peloton which is where the carnage is dished-out. We turned right onto a cobbled section and I could see the whole Lotto team on the front sprinting out of the corner as I was still breaking for the cobbles. I rode as hard as I could over the cobbles until I got myself into the second group on the road. We got to within 15 seconds of making it back to the front group of 30 or so men, but as the race ramped-up in the last 25km we couldn’t quite make it. On one hand I was disappointed to miss the split, but if I look how I went in Kuurne it was nice to get the race kms in the legs and feel involved in the racing again.
My third race this week was a smaller race in Wanzeel, where I managed to get around without any major mishaps and finished safely in the main pack. Not a spectacular result, but most importantly I'm enjoying my racing. I'm pretty poofed now though as I've only just got home from the race, so you'll have to wait for next week for my review of this one!
Photos by Luc van der Meiren & Kramon / WGG - see more of their work here.
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