It's been a while. As ever, lots has happened since I last put my fingers to a keyboard. Rode a few races: some went well, some went well, some not so well. But, as the saying goes, ". . . that’s bike racing."
I did a few post-Tour criteriums, which are a chance for many of the cycling-mad towns in Belgium to put on a town centre race on a circuit of a kilometre or two to showcase their returning Tour de France heroes and some of their local riders to boot. They were quite enjoyable if I dare to say it: it reminded me of bashing round the Tour Series in England last year, just with a little less dive bombing!
Then came Prudential RideLondon. I’d been targeting it for a result for a while. If I’m honest, in the early stages of the race I didn’t feel great - but a split in the peloton mid-race that contained two of my team mates meant I could sit tight and "survive" (a term used by bike riders meaning "to stay in the shelter of the peloton and get through the hardest parts of the race") as some of the bigger teams who had missed the split worked to bring it back.
In the closing kilometres we swept up the last few escapees and I built up to a bunch sprint. With a kilometre to go I was on a good wheel, and well positioned. I let myself get swamped a bit and started from a bit far back, but made my way to a respectable tenth place which, considering how rubbish I felt early on, was a decent result.
Then came Belgium's answer to Italy’s Strade Bianche or France's Tro Bro Leon; Dwars Door Het Hageland. Not only was this an exciting race to be a part of, with its nineteen sections of dirt roads and cobble stones, it was also a lot of my training roads, which came in handy in the fight for the beginning of each section.
Thats one of the many things I love about bike racing in Belgium. You can be as strong as an ox, but if you can’t position yourself at the right place at the right time then you’ll never get into the thick end of the race.
The race started in a torrential downpour: alarming, with those nineteen off road, gravel or cobblestone sections to tackle. But luckily it only lasted for the first hour of the race, and by the time we hit the first cobblestoned section after 50km it had dried up.
This was the first crunch point in the race. I hit the start of the section in the top ten and, sure enough, all hell broke loose, and it was full gas. The first selection of the race was made after a few kilometres. The group swelled to about 20 guys, until about 90km in, there was a regrouping, and a large chunk of the peloton came back. As we came to 60km to go the attacks were coming thick and fast, and I slipped away in a group of eight or so guys including one of my team mates Marco Marcato. As we forged a gap out in front of the peloton I knew the last crunch point in the race was at 30kms to go, as there was a tough uphill gravel section followed by a gravel descent and after that the the sections came one after the other all the way to the finish. We got to the 30km to go point pretty straightforwardly: we knew there was a small group coming across, but the peloton had been considerably distanced by this point.
Our numbers swelled to fifteen once again, as some big names came across in a small group including Nikki Terpstra and Wout van Aert. I was getting excited. My legs were good, I knew the roads, and I believed I had a decent result in my legs today. As we came onto a section with about 15km to go before we came into the town of Scheupenhuevel (translates roughly to "Sharp Hill" - which, to be fair, it is) I was sat in fourth position in the group, and as the man on the front applied some pressure the guy in third wheel got the corner a bit wrong and went down like the proverbial sack of spuds. I had nowhere to go but over the top and into the farmers field. As always with a crash you get a little bit dazed and it took me a kilometre or two to get back to the group.
Once we were past the Basilic in Scherpenheuvel it was time for the third-from-last section at 10km to go. After my mishap on the previous section, I thought, "start as close to the front as you can on this one". So this time as we rounded the bend to enter the section I was in third wheel, but yet again I was horrified as the guy directly in front of me tried to bunnyhop whilst leaning the bike over to get round the corner which ended in a catastrophic failure.
For the second time in 5km I was sitting in a farmer's field checking all my body parts were still attached and functioning. In my panic I jumped back on the bike as I felt the race slipping out of my grasp, my chain had come off in the crash and it took me a good while to get it back on. Once it was back on I was caught by another two of my team mates and we furiously chased for the last ten kilometres, but our efforts were in vain. We never saw the lead group again. I came over the line in 20th place, my morale broken, and rueing a missed chance.
Chances in this sport are sometimes few and far between and when you don’t make the most of them it's sometimes hard to stomach. But, no matter how much you beat yourself up, it won’t change what is already done - so you just have to pick yourself up, check everything is still where it should be, and jump back on the bike . . . oh, and make sure your chain is still on! Like an old friend of mine used to say; "If ifs and buts were candy and nuts . . ."