Another hectic week for Wanty-Groupe Gobert's Lion of Crosby, with races in Belgium and Holland. More mixed fortunes with team podium places and a best finish of the season so far, resulting in some rather random prizes and a heart-shaped scar...
As the build up to the Cobbled Classics starts bike races get busier and busier and the races come in quick succession. This is evidenced by the fact that in the last ten days I’ve raced on 6 of them. After the 3 Days of West Flanders came Wanzele on Wednesday. This was a Pro Kermesse (a local race put on by a town or village in Belgium and usually named after the town; where pros from any Continental or higher ranked team, plus a few invited amateurs can rock-up, sign-on and race around a circuit of around 10-15km. Races usually last 160-180km. This particular event was 162km.
The Belgian Kermesses are always ridden flat-out and aggressively, over typical Flandrien parcours with tight, twisty roads going from wide to narrow and alternating surfaces between bumpy concrete slabs to tarmac, with the occasional cobbled section. I decided to ride out to the start of the race in Wanzele because I wanted to clock-up some extra kilometers and see how my body handled a distance over 200km. I thought my ride out would be roughly 50km, but after taking the ‘scenic’ route I found the bus parked down a side street in Wanzele after 65km. This meant I was on for just under 230km in the day.
The race started and it was, as always, bitterly cold. The pace was flat-out, with attacks and groups going everywhere - only to be brought back after a few km of freedom. Due to the wind direction that day the course wasn’t really hard enough to split the race into pieces, so we had to just keep riding aggressively until something slipped away. After the midway point of the race I had myself a puncture, which was quickly changed, and I got myself back into the peloton just over a lap later after a quick wheel change and a mad chase. While I was gone my team mate Tom Devriendt had slipped into a seven man break, so we had to ride defensively, making sure we didn’t miss anyone slipping across. In the final few laps two teams who had missed the break began to ride in an attempt to pull it back. So we made sure we were queuing-up behind them with our sprinter in tow, just in case it all came back together for a ‘Masse Spurt’ (Flemish for Bunch Sprint). As we crested the last corner the sprinters opened it up like a hound chasing the proverbial hare. The break just held-on, our man running 3rd in a hard-fought finish, which all-in-all made for a good day for the boys in blue.
Then came an easy day, where I had myself a delightful ride to the cafe with two of my oldest pals Jonathan McEvoy and Ian Bibby. Their team was over here riding the same races as me and they were staying just down the road, which all made for a good laugh We had a catch-up with a coffee stop and a few hours easy pedalling with me pointing out the local sights.
Next up was a travel day, followed by two days of racing in Holland with the Ronde van Drenthe and Dorpenomloop Reuchpfen on Saturday and Sunday respectively. After three hours of killing time whilst on the bus, catching-up with team mates and talking general jibber-jabber we arrived in a small town called Wezup (Wezup with that!?). By this time it was late afternoon and the temperature was dropping rapidly, so rather than venturing out in the cold I went for the soft option of doing my pre-race efforts during an hour on the turbo trainer.
Travel days are always filled with lethargy. I think it has something to do with the fact that the routine you so dearly cling to as a bike rider is interrupted and as a result you just feel slow and sleepy. After slogging through my hour on the turbo I took a shower and parked myself firmly on my bed until we had to leave for a team presentation and rider buffet in Hoogeveen, where we were due to start the race the next morning. After a good meal we were invited on to the stage team by team. We were presented with a gift of a small bottle of wine, some Honing Waffles and a hand flannel with Ronde Van Drenthe embodied on it. Much like the holy Belgian Rice Tart, Honing Waffles are another Dutch/Belgian sweet wonder. I usually dunk them in my coffee like a true Brit. The gifts were a nice touch and a taste of the random presents which were about to be bestowed upon me!
The morning of Drenthe arrived with blue skies and little wind, but the parcours was still set to be a challenging one. It included a total of five laps of the VAMberg - a former slag heap with a tarmac road up it, just 250m in length, but leg-bustlingly steep - and eight cobbled sections varying from 500m to 3,500m in length, with small twisty technical Dutch roads all day. The sign-on was in the same place we’d eaten the night before, but the tables had been cleared away and we were invited to ride into the building to sign-on. We then waited in the warmth of the building, on our bikes, until it was time to roll out, which was another nice change from the usual huddling together for warmth on the start line at this time of year!
As we rolled out I soon got a feel for what was to come for the day, as we darted in and out of small villages on the way out of town. Then the flag dropped, on a road just wide enough for one car, which sounds like a dream if you’re out for the local Sunday Club run - but not so much if there's 200 other fellas on your Club run all trying to beat you for the sprint to the metaphorical café. Then it changes the quiet, picturesque back lane into an all out fight for position at 50km/h and it took me a while to get to the front. In the first 20km we tackled the VAMberg for the first two times, then we headed-off for the first cobble sections.
Dutch cobbles are different to Flemish cobbles - much smaller than their Belgian counterparts - which makes the chance of puncturing a lot higher. The best policy for these sections was to ride in the middle, as their use by cars, tractors and such had created a bowed shape to the road meaning there was a small section or ‘shoulder’ that was the smoothest and safest place to ride. As we came into the last three sections of the day, with about 80km to go, we hit the stones together as a team - because by doing so we could take control of the race. As we hit the last and longest section we attacked it with all we could, stringing the peloton out and eventually splitting it.
But as we came off the stones the wind was behind us and there wasn’t much to be gained by continuing to ride full-gas, as everybody else can take shelter in the wheels. So as we came into the last 50km of the race we tackled the VAMberg for the last three times. First time over it, the peloton strung out once more but didn’t splinter. I made sure I was well positioned for the small road leading to the climb. As we turned onto it the race ignited. I followed an attack full-gas up the 250m climb, waiting until we’d flown down the descent to take a look back and see what had happened. Sure enough there was eight of us with about 20 seconds over the peloton, which was well and truly splintering. We began to start riding through-and-off.
We maintained our gap as we hit the climb for the final time and it was more of a measured effort this time up, rather than eyeballs out, holding-on for grim death. But as we plunged down the descent one last time I could see another group of 10-15 guys had escaped from the peloton. As I began to ride I heard over the radio a shout from my team mate Kenny Dehaes that he was coming across. So I ‘soft-tapped’ (this is when you roll through easy just to keep the break rolling but not full-gas) because there was already three guys in the eight from the Dutch team Roompot, so another teammate for me would strengthen my position in the race a little more. As the chasing group joined us we headed for two finishing laps of just over 7km.
As we approached the finishing circuit one of the Roompot guys attacked building up a gap of 20 seconds. He had 3 teammates in our group of 20 guys, which put them in the driving seat so they could ride defensively and make the other riders like myself have to go on the attack. After a few skirmishes, and a stall in the group's momentum, I had a call over the radio that I needed to ride to bring the lone escapee back for my teammate Kenny Dehaes, who had won this race two years earlier from a similar sized group. At first I began to ride, slowly bringing the lone rider back meter-by-meter, but it wasn’t really coming down as fast as I would have liked. As we came round for one lap to go the gap was 12 seconds. Then a guy from Topsport Baloise, who also had two guys in the group, came to help me we reel him in with about 3km to go.
Once we had caught him I thought I might as well keep riding to try and deter any counter attacks. As we passed underneath the 2km to go banner I was swamped by the riders preparing for the sprint I thought my race was done and at that moment another guy from Roompot made a well-timed attack. I had a moment's rest and I thought I’ll try and reel him back in as one last deed for the day. As I built up my momentum, going into a corner at 1,500m to go, I put my head down. As I did so I realised that there was no-one on my wheel. As I looked back I realised the group had stalled and gifted me a small gap. I threw the bike into the last few corners with all the strength I could muster. I was closing-in on the leader but as we rounded the last corner with 250m to go I was broken. Still clawing back meters on the leader I couldn’t quite catch him and I rolled over the line completely spent. It was a strange feeling because I wasn’t really thinking about winning the race in the final kilometres. I’d sort of switched my race brain off and just rode, but to finish second in that way I didn’t know whether to feel happy I’d had a result or disappointed because I didn’t have the strength to close those final few meters. After I let it sink-in, the rest of the team arrived with the peloton.
They started asking how we'd got on and then duly congratulated me, and the satisfaction began to sink in. As we were called-up on the podium the race organiser presented us with the usual flowers, but what I didn’t expect was a CD radio alarm clock, an Easter egg, a silver sugar bowl, two bottles of wine - with wine glasses - and last but not least a cuddly toy! (Generation Game reference not intended). If you think that was a lot for finishing second, the winner got a Hoover, an Easter egg, three bottles of wine, a bottle of spirits, an office chair, ten packs of laminate flooring and an 18 inch flat screen tv… oh yeah, and a cuddly toy! It was possibly one of the strangest, and most enjoyable podiums, I’ve ever been on (not that I’ve been on that many to be fair). After being summoned to the press conference after the race to answer very few questions to the Dutch press, I made my way back to the bus and we left for the hotel where we would stay for the race on Sunday, which was just on the Dutch side of the border with Belgium.
It's strange how you don’t really get time to fully celebrate a result. You just go on to the next race and hit the reset button asif the day before was a lifetime ago. It was much more of the same on Sunday, just no climbs or cobblestones. This time they were replaced by stronger winds and more small roads. The race featured 3 laps of 55km followed by one smaller lap of 20km. It was a really nervous start and I could sense there was going to be a mishap somewhere. Sometimes you just feel it because the close calls start coming thick and fast with guys taking chances to move up where there's no space. Sure enough someone got caught on the ‘ridge’ (the joint between the road and the side of the road). I had nowhere to go and went arse-over-tit in a ten-man pile-up, taking most of the impact on my left shoulder, hip and elbow.
As I stood-up, checked both arms, legs and one head was still attached, I realised somehow I’d lost a toe-warmer, but that was unimportant. I picked my bike up, fiddled the chain back on, then realised my garmin was missing. And so I began searching for it frantically in the grass. By this time my team manager and mechanic had arrived and thought I must have hit my head and that I was wandering around in a blurry haze! After relocating my garmin -and my toe warmer, and giving them to the mechanic, I got back on my way having to chase hard for a fair while to make my way back into the peloton. After my crash and with the stressed atmosphere this was the last place I wanted to be. After a few km sulking at the back of the peloton I had a quiet word with myself and decided to man-up and get myself on the front.
The racing was fast and twitchy all day and with about 50km to go we missed a big group of 15 guys riding away. So we committed to riding with the whole team to bring it back. It also meant we could split the race on the smaller roads in the crosswinds, so after what seemed like a 30km slog we had slimmed the peloton down from 150 guys to 30 guys - plus the 15 to 20 we caught from the break. It made for a much more manageable group going into the final 20km lap. We all took our turn to try our hand at attacking. Coming in to the last 5km the group wasn’t going to split so once more we committed to one of our many fast men - Antoine Demoitie. We controlled the group and coming into the last 1,500m I had Antoine in my wheel. I had to 'go long’ as I didn’t want to put him in the wind too early. I lasted until about 500m to go, when I heard the pack surging to start their sprints early. So I gave it one last jab to make sure he had enough speed to slip nicely into the front of the group. Then with my energies spent I sat up and rolled-in for the last 500m. After hearing the commentator over the microphone saying Antoine had come second in the sprint I felt a sense of satisfaction for my hard work. Topping-off a good weekend's racing, even if I was a bit battered and bruised!
Take a look at the VAMberg with these amateur riders:
Follow Mark's training and racing on Strava.