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Two kilometres. Two hairpins. Narrow roads. Nervous Cyclists. All the elements combined to drive the pace to levels previously unknown to this innocent Australian. As the flag dropped the pace was ‘on’, and it stayed ‘on’, for 120k, not buts about it.
The first stage of the UCI 2.2 Ronde de l’Oise said a few things to me. It said, you know all that racing you have done before; Herald Sun Tour, Asian tours, even some international junior racing in Italy; well I don’t know how to break it you Jono, but that wasn’t even foreplay. Take off the training wheels kid, you’re heading up shit creek and you better hope you’ve got a paddle. Welcome to unprecedented levels suffering. Welcome to Europe. Welcome to the next four months of your life.
So how does 460 watts for 4 minutes sound as a warm up? The situation presented above was that of the first stage of the Ronde de l’Oise in France, we started off with a small town loop then straight up and over this narrow little road that spiralled out of the town. The hill for me consisted of being at the back (I know coach, I know!) and doing 2 minutes at 470 watts to the first hairpin. Coming to a standstill, doing 25 seconds at 430 watts to the next hairpin, standstill, then just a trivial 1min 30 sec at 515 watts just to make the second group over the climb. You’ve heard it before but time to hear it again, you must start each climb at the front of the peleton! The race was consistently hard, we where otherwise climbing at 400+ watts over the short two to three kilometre KOMs, or, we were closing gaps and splits in the crosswinds just fighting for survival. So first race in, 288 watts average power and 338 watts normalised power for a tick under 3 hours all for ‘only’ a bunch sprint mind you. For someone only a week off the plane from Australia it was a veritable baptism of fire. Unfortunately for me a destroyed shifter left me stuck in the 11 tooth and with little choice but to run, yes run, up one of the steep KOMs in the 3rd stage. I made it to the feed station of that stage and made no arguments when my directeur sportif suggested I call it a day. So that was France, aggressive racing, crap coffee, forgetful pasta, but absolutely amazing bread that easily made amends for the aforementioned aberrations that would have sent any self respecting nonna to an early grave.
The next four months for me will be spent based in Geleen, Holland, wedged neatly between neighbouring Germany to the right, and big bad Belgium to the left, no complaints here. It’s a club sandwich of cultures that revolves heavily around beer and cycling, again, no complaints. I am in nestled the heartland of cycling, ready to take my tertiary education in how to race a bike.
Life in Holland and surrounds is great on two wheels; bikes are given space, respect and the safety resulting from that is second to none. Don’t get me wrong, there are still the nutcase impatient whack jobs that we encounter on the road in Australia, but the prevailing attitude towards cyclists is much more amicable. Where else in the world can you shut down an entire township or city at any time of the day just for a bike race? And not one off closures either, we are talking about racing every day of the week at this time of the year. Whole town centres blockaded and shut down, just so we can ride some laps. Yes of course I’m talking about good ol’ Belgie kermesse racing.
Given kermesse refers to a festival of sorts it really is the most apt description of the racing you will encounter in this part of Europe. Everyone comes out to watch, beer in hand, to see the amateurs, women, professionals, or juniors race. Music blares and commentators get louder as each lap passes by, the atmosphere and the agony augment in unison until the race reaches its culmination with parents, coaches, drunken louts and exhausted riders all screaming with various emotions ranging from ecstasy to outrage. These races of attrition appeal to a deep seated human fascination with speed, adrenaline, suffering and sometimes carnage. For the riders it’s one big blurry repetition of wind, corners and if you are extra lucky some cobbles.
Yesterday I started, and finished, my first pro kermesse. The race was based in the Belgian town of Lede and it was a real professional experience. I felt almost like a ‘someone’, almost. At the sign in a man with a camera came barging up to me,
“Excuse me, your name?”
“OH Lovelock! Great can I have a picture?”
And that’s the way it is. Everyone remembers those kids back in primary school, they had the footy player cards collected from every AFL team, they knew every players name, number, vital statistics and anything else that would make a stalking charge not so hard to pursue. Well in Belgium it’s the same with cyclists.
Next step from the adulation of the sign in is to check out the local sports centre. Here in the carpark amongst the sprawling team vans, bikes are prepped by mechanics, soigneurs prepare bidons and race food and the neatly groomed, oh so ‘Euro Pro’ riders, saunter over to one of many change rooms to get dressed in comfort. The last point comes as a great shock to someone used to getting changed in the dirt and mud by the side of the road in some obscure part of country Australia. Actual change rooms for a bike race! This is unheard of. This also means a hot shower post race, also equally shocking and god dam fantastic if you ask me.
The final piece in the puzzle that defines what is so special about this part of Europe is the race food available. Back in Australia, race food on a budget means jam sandwiches or fruit cake. In Europe, it means honey filled or sugar crusted waffles, marzipan nut bars and cakes of any possible variety with my favourite being the cinnamon ginger cake. Perhaps we hear stories of Euro Pros doing repeated 6+ hour days simply to avoid the burgeoning waistline associated with the ever possible overindulgence on these delectable goodies. All I know is that mid race, a good honey waffles sends my spirits and blood glucose levels back in the right direction.
As I write this I can still feel my stomach churning with hunger after 4 hours of extreme glycogen depleting racing yesterday, and am about to go fuel up again as there is another 4 on the cards tomorrow. Wish me luck, I think I’ll need it!