Text by David Robert / Photography by Tony Decruyenaere & David Robert
Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne is a spring classic opener. A mum's experience of the junior race: “I felt quite sick today”.
It’s 5.45am and the Kent-based cycling family Robinson are waiting for Mum to walk the dog, Taffy. Mum’s Welsh pride doesn’t only flow when naming family pets; it also pumps through the veins of three cycling sons. For the last few editions of Paris-Roubaix eldest son Ollie has stood on the side of the Arenberg Trench waving the Welsh flag, the bold red dragon fighting for prominence in a pride of black Flandrian lions, as he spurs on fellow Welshman Geraint Thomas of Team Sky. It’s part of the process of nurturing your son to become a pro bike racer: early exposure to monumental races and rôle models. And what better rôle model than Geraint Thomas, whose first big win in 2003, aged seventeen, was Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne Juniores. Which is the very race we are currently heading to as Ollie, now aged seventeen himself, rides his first Belgian classic for Geraint’s own junior squad, The UK South East Cycling Team.
Mum describes herself as the mother of four boys (hubby included) with OCD – Obsessive Cycling Disorder. There’s talk of knitting Taffy a dog coat in the colours of Thanet Road Club, who Ollie races for when not riding for the region. But Taffy’s at home with Granddad today and Ollie travelled out with the team the day before.
The family van seats Mum, Dad, two younger sons, plus a spare bike, bottles, Tupperware full of sandwiches and chocolate. “unleash the beast ollieman” Mum texts en route.
Eurostar makes these pro-forming Belgian races easily accessible to East Kent riders. But the road to selection for such a prestigious race has been a long one. Dad wanted to get his sons involved in his club, ‘The Thanet’, so in 2009 he qualified as a coach and formed the club’s section for Go Ride, British Cycling's development programme for young riders. But Ollie was already ten, a late starter who needed to gain race experience. So Dad started organising races for Ollie to enter and running coaching sessions to ensure there was some stiff competition. Many young riders have benefited on the way. There is now a healthy roster of coaches and a young membership of over sixty, a good mix of boys and girls, riding across all disciplines both regionally and nationally. Ollie’s palmarès plots a tried and tested route through ever-more-important races: 2013 South-East Road Race Champion, 2014 South-East Time Trial Champion, 2015 seventh in the Nationals. 2016 was a crucial year as he matured to the junior ranks, soon getting himself noticed by winning the South East Junior Road Race.
Every good fairy tale needs a fairy godmother (or, in this case, godfather). John Barclay, now aged 87, has been organising trips to Belgium for decades, giving countless young riders a taste of racing on the Continent. Many of these riders have gone on to become WorldTour pros; Ben Swift, Peter Kennaugh, Mark Cavendish and David Millar have all been through John’s tutelage. He has been bringing the South East Team to KBK Jnr since it started in 2000. It’s a key race on John’s calendar: the Pro Tour Classics season begins with the nearby Omloop Het Nieuwsbald, but the day after comes KBK which includes a junior version, a UCI 1.1 ranked event. The South East Team has notched up some notable wins: Geraint Thomas 2003, current GB Road Race Champion Adam Blythe in 2007 and last year’s winner Ethan Hayter. It’s all done on a minimal budget: the jerseys could do with renewal though Ollie gets a kick out of knowing he is wearing the very jersey that Adam Blythe won the race in.
Kuurne is well into classics party mode. With the pro version running simultaneously it’s “get up everybody and sing.” Our early arrival gives the younger Robinson lads, Max and Flynn, the added joy of celebrity spotting. Walking the length of the team buses promises souvenirs, yet more branded drinks bottles to fall out of already stuffed kitchen cupboards. The boys glow in proximity to the superheroes they have grown up with. Max has done fancy dress in rainbow stripes, Flynn has presented Cancellara in class. They are both impressive riders themselves. Max could be the race’s own poster boy, a foetus on a bike, as he started racing at three. Now aged nine he holds the club’s 10 mile TT race records from Under 5 to Under 9. He’s now chasing the run of records belonging to brother Flynn, now thirteen – from Under 9 to Under 12. Like Ollie, both are winning regional races.
Max snaps away with dad’s Nikon at the team presentations, staying until the very end to catch BORA – hansgrohe and team leader Peter Sagan, tightly embraced by his rainbow hoops. Kids burrow well through mounds of adults, and reach the start line to see the pros set off for their 200km. The juniors are due to start in ten minutes, so we are surprised to see the start line dissolve into a mass of spectators and vehicles. The cent drops: the juniors are starting somewhere else; somewhere, we discover courtesy of multilingual police officers, over a mile away. Our frantic run begins: we can’t miss Ollie at the start line.
Mixed ability running means we arrive fragmented, though we all make it in time thanks to a delayed start. The South East Team is jammed in near the front of a mass of over 160 riders. Ollie is noticeably pleased to see his family. He must have been getting worried that they hadn’t made it to Kuurne. Tension eases between Mum and Dad. Mum knows Ollie’s race focus would have been seriously disturbed if they hadn’t been there. She reminds Dad that she “would’ve killed him if they’d missed her Ginger Ninja,” as she affectionately calls Ollie. That would certainly not aid their son’s progression to the pro ranks. A dual parental income is required to supply top end bikes and kit and it certainly helps to have two taxi drivers to move between the races of the UK and Northern Europe.
Dad is forgiven this one slip up and from this point on he leads like a slick local tour guide through Flanders. He knows the terrain; various previous trips and recces by car and bike have etched the narrow roads into his mind map. The drive to Oudenaarde is immediately rethought as the race is moving quickly due to a tailwind, so we head for their fifth climb of the day situated just past the halfway mark of the 120km course, the cobbled road named Oude Kwaremont up Kluisberg Hill.
This cobbled climb is well-known due to its presence in many races: the Tour of Flanders, E3 Harelbeke, Dwars door Vlaanderen and, of course, KBK. Cyclists love their stats, and those of the road have first to be established to set the stage for the flurry of digits that gets recorded once the riders hit the course. But the accepted figures – length 2200m, average gradient 4%, max gradient 11.6% – suffer from some alcohol-fuelled confusion. A local beer has adopted the same name of Kwaremont; it may even be served in a cobble-based glass. It boasts its typically Belgian high ABV as a road sign seemingly displaying average gradient: 6.6%. So, for evermore, this cobbled climb will rear up in the minds of cyclists with greater severity than it really should.
It’s pleasing to see that the junior race also attracts spectators, though most are found in the vicinity of bars in preparation for the pro race still 45 minutes away. The Robinsons take up position for their supporting rôles, spaced out on both sides of the climb with fresh bottles in hand, hopefully to be grabbed by Ollie or at least a team member. Dad has even wheeled the spare bike up the hill in case of a technical. Their nervousness is as palpable as the beer on the locals’ breath. Worst-case scenario is that Ollie doesn’t even appear, injured in a crash or DNFed through mechanical failure. Or he drags his already burnt-out body up the slope as a solitary rider, ashamedly trying to hide in between vehicles in the convoy of team cars. Alternatively, he could be up there, in the main bunch, still vying for a respectable placing. One thing a mother doesn’t want to witness is blood upon her son’s body; a gaping gash where her child’s soft skin has been torn away whilst sliding on hard, abrasive cobble stones. Sly and his Family Stone sang of something we don’t want reminding of today:
"Blood's thicker than mud. It's a family affair, it's a family affair”
I’m not the only one to quote lyrics in the context of family at the KBK. In a race publication, Francois Benoit, the mayor of Kuurne, entitles his editorial “We Are Family.” He quotes Sister Sledge as he talks of the grandmother of 2016 winner, Jasper Stuyven, being at the finish line. He goes on to thank the staff, volunteers and supporters for their faithful commitment, equating the organisation of the race to a family.
“We are family. Get up everybody and sing. Everyone can see we're together.”
The noise of racing cars and motorbikes precedes the peloton, sharpening the senses as we ready ourselves to make sense of the rapid, space-contained chaos that is about to pass. Just as parents can tune into their own child’s crying drowned in the orchestral wailings of the nursery, cycling parents can spot the team kit they have washed so often, leaping out at them from the messy palette of the peloton. Ollie is spotted, in the main bunch, riding strongly in the top thirty. Words of encouragement are bellowed – well-timedly, as the sound of familiar voices is known to give that vital boost needed to crest a climb. The vacuum created by the passing convoy is quickly filled by the Robinson’s silent, familial joy.
Dad’s Flandrian tour resumes for the drive to the finish in Kuurne. The atmosphere in the van is upbeat and Tupperware is peeled open in celebration. Cheese and pickle, or ham, sandwiches can now be enjoyed thanks to the passing of gut-wrenching anxiety. The clan’s logic predicts that, bar a disaster, Ollie will finish, an achievement in itself, perhaps even getting a top thirty.
Our next sighting of Ollie is on a wide main street in Kuurne during the race-ending lap of the town. Now only seven kilometres from the finish he is still up there in the thick of it, looking comfortable. Only later will we learn what drama Ollie has been through between our two brief glances of his relentless race. Just after we lost sight of him on the Kwaremont he got stuck behind a crash. Relieved not to go down, he did however veer to the roadside and drop his chain. By the time he clipped back in he was well over a minute down on the main group. The rest of his race was chasing, chasing, chasing; mainly downhill made it a chase for a speeding group. Working with other riders they picked off stragglers, reaching and then passing gruppettos until Ollie and nine others made it back to the main group as they entered Kuurne. And we knew nothing of this. Wearing his race face, tear-abating eyes hidden behind shades, legs locked in powerful piston motion, we thought Ollie was preparing to unleash his formidable sprint.
“My legs just cramped up after all that chasing.” A succinct explanation for placing 52nd in a field of 71 from the 160 starters. The end was dominated by Danish riders, with three in the top four and Johan Langballe of Team Herning CK taking the win. Ollie came in under a minute off the winning time, though he is understandably disappointed, his initial post-race analysis centring on getting stuck behind that crash: the if-onlys, the what-ifs, the could’ve-beens. John Barclay performs his routine wizardry on the team, casting a positivity spell over his riders assembled in a car park. “Three out of five finishers and no injuries. Good result.” Magic words.
Once back home the bike is dumped in the living room to ooze unfamiliar smells for Taffy to explore. Ollie already has a balanced perspective on the race. He knows his family has genuine reason to be proud of him and that John Barclay sees his potential. Not only did he finish when half the field failed to, Ollie showed both physical and mental strength, pulling off an impressive chase to get back into the race. John Barclay has compared him to a young Ian Stannard, displaying the same guts and determination. Ollie is already a seasoned racer who has tasted many of the bitter flavours that bike racing can dish out. Losses, near-misses and even races missed through a broken wrist when hit by a car in training. Initiation into the way of the hard man, the classics rider, has begun. Dad has been taken aback by his son’s commitment to preparing for this race:
“He’s worked bloody hard this winter . . . you remember that day it was snowing, he went out after school, on a five-hour ride. He came in here screaming, crying with hypothermia, landed on the floor and we had to strip him all off and dab him with warm water.”
Ollie is due to return to Belgium the following weekend to ride a couple of kermesses on both the Saturday and the Sunday. He’ll be there just with the team, no family to shout from the roadside or to dab him down. It’s part of the plan to move to Belgium and ride with a local team, and part of the transition from the real family to the team family.
For now, it’s back to school tomorrow morning. Mum, a teacher, will help with homework and Dad will clean Ollie’s bike for him and organise some more races. Ollie likes to call Dad his ‘manager’. He’ll also put a second layer of bar tape on so Ollie doesn’t get such sore wrists when riding the cobbles the coming weekend.
Bike racing: it’s a family affair.