It’s a rarity these days that I get to do a ‘new’ race. After five full seasons in Europe (this is my sixth) I have memorised most left-hand turns, roundabouts and friendly pubs for last-minute toilet stops at most races.
Sunday, however, was different. Gent-Wevelgem is one of the oldest men’s races on the calendar. In its 80th edition it is sandwiched between Milan-San Remo and the Tour of Flanders and has earned its spot as one of the biggest classics for the men.
Three years ago the race organisation – the same organisation which run races like Het Nieuwsblad and the Tour of Flanders that both feature men’s and women’s races – held the first ever women’s Gent-Wevelgem; it was won by Lizzie Armitstead from a small group.
In 2013 Dutch sprinter and four-time winner of the Ladies Tour of Qatar, Kirsten Wild, won from another small group.
The first two winners show the quality of the field which has lined up for the past two years. After the success of the first two editions the organisation upgraded the race from a national race to a UCI 1.2 categorised event in 2014.
I missed out on the first two editions because of clashing race programs in 2012 and a wedding in 2013 but I couldn’t wait to take part in the third edition this year. Maybe I was just looking for the adrenalin rush you get when you don’t really know which way you’re turning, or maybe I’m just a sucker for racing in Belgium.
Either way, the race delivered. The 112km race which, despite it’s name, actually started in the small town of Leper, weaved and looped its way through the famous Vlaanderen country side like a toddler’s crayon before finishing in Wevelgem.
It had everything that races in Belgium are famous for: wide roads with terrible ‘gaps of death’ in the middle, tiny roads which are really more like bike paths, steep cobbled climbs and even steeper paved climbs.
Looking at the trusty race bible it was clear that the race would most likely be won between kilometres 36 and 80. The profile on the page showed a static line and then, like a faltering heartrate line that starts to spike to create drama in a terrible Hollywood flick, five short, sharp peaks emerged at 36, 40, 67, 75 and 79km before the line flattened out again.
It seemed like the entire peloton had come to the same conclusion because as we approached the first climb at 36km, 160 riders were fighting for the first few positions. Boels-Dolmans, Rabo/Liv and Bigla all had semi lead-out trains organised and were pushing the pace leading into the right-hand turn on to the first climb of the day, the Kemmelberg.
This is a nasty cobbled climb that starts out at a gradient of about 8% before rudely kicking up to about 17% at the top. It’s only about 350 metres long but you feel every centimetre.
Overcoming my positioning issues from a few weeks before I turned on to the Kemmelberg in the top five and said to myself, ‘this is perfect.’
Out of the seat. In the seat. Out of the seat. ‘Wait, where’s my power?’
It was like when you furiously push the power button on the remote to turn the television on but the batteries are dead. My head wanted to go but the batteries in my legs weren’t charged.
A Boels-Dolmans rider attacked up the cobbles and was followed by a Rabo/Liv rider, Kirsten Wild (Dutch National Team), Liesbet De Vocht (Lotto Belisol Ladies) and some others. I just watched as they floated past me. For the riders behind me I was acting as a road block.
As we crested the climb 20 or so girls had a gap of about ten seconds on a small chasing group which is where I found myself. My teammate Emilie Moberg had flown by me on the climb and was sitting comfortably in the lead group as they kamikazed down the steep, narrow descent.
Sitting in the small group just behind the leaders I sucked in air like my dog gulps water and tried to recompose myself. Jumping my back wheel up and down I looked for any other reason why I had gone backwards so quickly on the Kemmelberg. I didn’t have a puncture, I just didn’t have the legs.
Like a roller-coaster we went down — my speedo told me I reached 75km/h — into a sharp left, sharp right, sharp left, and then up again: the Monteberg. The lactic acid was still pumping through my legs from the Kemmelberg. I had wandered so far into the dreaded ‘pain cave’ that I could even feel it in my arms.
That’s racing in Belgium; you don’t get ten kilometre climbs or mountain passes, but you get very little recovery between short, sharp climbs which can be even more exhausting.
Despite this, my small chase group latched on to the leaders on the descent of the Monteberg. With just over 40km completed no-one was willing to waste too much energy too early so the pace had eased enough for us to close the 15-second gap relatively easily.
I breathed a sigh of relief that I was back at the front of the bike race and rode straight up to Emilie, ‘we go for you, okay?’
Going into the race our team manager had told Emilie and I to talk in the race about who to ride for. While our other teammates were free to go in attacks, Emilie and I were to save for the sprint, if it came to that.
While you can go into races with the most detailed plans and tactics, very rarely do they come to fruition. Being honest and communicating are two of the most important things in teams when you’re out on the road, especially when we don’t have radios [ed. race radios are only allowed in World Cup races for women.]. I had to make the call if I could sprint and, putting my ego aside, decided that Emilie was the best person to get the team a result.
“Just sit in and save energy, okay?” I said.
With just over 20km until the next climb, the Baneberg, the peloton had been reduced to about 60 riders. A few attacks started to be fired off the front by teams that still had numbers like Bigla, Boels-Dolmans and Lotto-Belisol Ladies but nothing was sticking.
As we approached the sharp left-hand corner on to the base of the Baneberg the fight for position began again. While the peloton momentarily spilt on the short, steep paved climb the reduced peloton came back together about five kilometres before the second ascent of the Kemmelberg.
In the end it was the Kemmelberg which proved to the decisive climb. Lauren Hall, racing for the American National Team, launched a strong attack up the climb, shattering the field and creating a group of about 25 over the top with teams like Bigla, Boels-Dolmans, Lotto Belisol Ladies and Rabo/Liv all well represented. They quickly gained a gap of about 30 seconds on a chasing group where I once again found myself.
Emilie had just missed the front group as well so with no Hitec Products riders at the front a frantic chase began. For the next ten kilometres our chase group could see the leaders just hanging there.
One service car pulled out of the gap, then a motor bike, then the last service car and finally the last motor bike. We closed the gap with about 20km left to race but it was too late. The group of about 25 had split with eight riders escaping off the front.
With all the major teams represented the gap quickly went from one minute to two minutes and despite chasing with some of the smaller teams we were never going to pull them back.
The lead group of eight worked well together until the final kilometres at which point attacks started to be fired. It was an attack by Lauren Hall, Janneke Ensing (Boels-Dolmans) and Vera Koedooder (Bigla) within the last kilometre that went to the line and they finished in that order. Sofie De Vuyst (Futurumshop.nl) lead the remainder of the lead group home for fourth, only a few seconds behind the leading three.
While it was a disappointing race for me I still think I will be adding it to my list of favourites. Belgium just gets bike racing.
For me however, more important than any result is the fact that women’s cycling had two major UCI races on one day. The rest of my Hitec Products team were racing the second round of the World Cup, Trofeo Alfredo Binda in Italy. It’s a sign of the growth of women’s cycling that two quality events can be run on the same day and both attract quality, competitive fields.
After a crisis email to my coach asking where my power had gone I have some bulk recovering to do before the third round of the World Cup this coming weekend: Ronde van Vlaanderen.
Click here to read Chloe’s post about the first World Cup race of the season, the Ronde van Drenthe. Click here to read Tiff Cromwell’s report from the second World Cup race of the season, the Trofeo Alfredo Binda. And click here to read Jessie MacLean’s report from the Ladies Tour of Qatar.