It’s April in Belgium. Wind, rain and the occasional sunshine. For most of the people the weather doesn’t matter though, because there’s bike racing to watch/race or scream at. Even with what has happened over the last couple of weeks Belgians and cycling fans around the world will be out on the narrow roads or in front of TVs excited and impatient to see the winner.
“It’ll be fun” said a young Latvian cyclist. His director replied with a serious face: “No. No, it won’t.” Now I know why he stopped competing. It’s still fun for me. It’s still going to be fun no matter what the end result is. Is it going to be hard? Am I going to suffer? Is my body going to give out? Am I going to go to my limits and cry for my moma? Yes. Yes, that’s what I call fun.
I’ve raced the Tour of Flanders U23 version 4 times. I’ve even been on the podium with Andzs in 2011. But this is a different beast. This time we don’t hit the first uphill cobbled sector till 100km in. The distance itself is going to be hard. Add 200 riders trying to push you around. Cobbles all shapes and sizes scattered on the roads. Tempting beer hand outs on the side of the road. Smell of frittes when you’re low on energy reserves. As I said. A different beast.
I came out to Belgium early to be able to ride the sectors a couple of times more as to refresh my memory and scope out any changes and missing stones. Knowing as many details as possible is key. That’s why you never count out experienced riders. The race changes every, but experience matters, sometimes even more then strength. You can’t waist any ounce of energy, because the effort is so long and so hard. Luckily Andreas Klier could ride this course blindfolded. He can tell by the smell of the air and the wind direction which sector he’s on. He’s my saviour.
You know that climb with the cobbles and it’s really steep, and usually super hard on the top, there’s usually crosswinds on the top after the climb too, and then before you hit it you’re on a cement road leading up to it and you have to shift before the climb, so you don’t lose speed once you hit the cobbles. Oh, it also has trees on the side at one point and always packed with spectators when the race goes by. You know which one I’m talking about?! Oh, the *&*#*berg. Sure. What?! Knowing the sectors is key as I’ve said, but I just pretty much described every one of them. They are all hard, all steep and getting up isn’t the only difficulty. But once you look further in detail you realized they are different from one another. Not just by their characteristics, but also where they are in the race.
Here are a couple of key ones at least by my standards:
1.Ode – Kwaremont. Wait?! You said all are *bergs. Well this one is not. It’s the first cobbled climb this year and we’ll do it two more times after. For some(like me, that just want to finish) the first time up it will be the most important, for others(contenders) the final time might be where the decisive move goes.
2. EikenBERG – Also a climb in the U23 version. It’s not too steep, has some asphalt cheat sections on the sides that all the riders will try and ride, as to save energy, because it comes pretty early in the race. The fight to get into the climb will be harder then the climb itself. Or so I expect pre race.
3. KoppenBERG – Hitting it after 210km ridden as the 13th steep pitch is frightening enough. Max garde is 22% they say. In training I hit a tiny mud patch and couldn’t restart without the push of our mechanic. In the race, there will be no pushes given as the cars will be far back. This one feel free to fear openly. It’s a toughy. Even guys at GCN had troubles:
It’s not just the climbs, it’s the fight for them that’ll hurt oh so much.
We all know the contenders. Fabian, Sagan, GVA are the top 3. No one would doubt that. Everyone knows who to watch. But all we others can do is watch as they ride away. Crazy, huh? How frustrating is knowing what is going to happen and not being able to stop it?! All it takes though is a puncture or a small mistake and you could be out. That’s why the stress is high, crashes are on the forecast and only the strong, brave and courageous will survive.
As for me. I’m just a small fish in the pond. It’s my first Ronde and I am expecting to suffer a lot. I will be in the service of my team and try and help the guys that have managed to stay healthy from our team be in the best chance of a result. Am I going to finish? I wouldn’t bet on it. Am I going to fight till I don’t have a single pedal stroke in me? Even you can bet on it. It will be something I won’t forget. My first Ronde. So turn on your TV on Sunday. I promise it’ll be a show.
P.S. Follow up next week for a tale of the Ronde the way I saw it.