Jo Hogan: behind the scenes at the Tour of Flanders

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Jo Hogan is a Victorian cyclist currently based in Girona and riding for the Spanish-based Bizkaia-Durango team. Last Sunday she rode in the Tour of Flanders and in this post, Jo takes us behind the scenes of her team’s preparation for and participation in the cobbled classic. Enjoy!

The Tour of Flanders is arguably one of the hardest Spring Classic races, with cobbled climbs, sections of pavé, large fields and this year, with Europe experiencing one of its coldest winters on record, extremely unpleasant conditions.

Coordinating team logistics for a race like Flanders is a difficult task. It’s not simply a case of the riders rocking up to the start on the day. Organising riders, equipment, staff, accommodation and transfers requires a lot of forethought and planning, and this year was definitely a challenging task for the team.

We arrived in Belgium the Friday before the race but as we all were traveling from different parts of Spain, synchronising arrival-times was difficult. Our mechanic and soigneur made two trips to Brussels Airport, which is a good hour-and-a-half away from the race hotel in Roncq. The final members of the team, Dorleta, Ane and one of the team directors, Agur, arrived on Friday evening at 11 pm.

Jo (left) with her teammate Dorleta Eskamendi Gil.

Our plan was to look at the course on the day before the race, to ride the technical sections, which could prove to be decisive (and they were). We left the hotel at 9:30am planning to ride for a total of 2 hours.

Unfortunately we were unaware that we would have to share the course with 16,000 other people riding in the Ronde Van Vlaanderen Cyclo, one of Europe’s biggest mass participation rides! This meant that the drive to the start of our ride took longer than expected. To make matters worse, once we eventually got on our bikes, we managed to lose our follow car. The total ride time then blew out to nearly 3.5 hours and we didn’t return to our hotel until 5 pm.

It certainly wasn’t the ideal pre-race preparation I had hoped for, but it couldn’t really be helped. Upon returning to the hotel it was time to relax and regain focus for what lie ahead.

When race day rolled around the alarm sounded an hour earlier than normal with the change of daylight savings in Europe. Everyone at breakfast looked a little tired, but I was confident that once we were all packed and ready to go to the race, it was going to be game on!

Doing a bit of pre-Flanders course recon.

With numbers pinned, food in pockets, bottles filled, the race parcours taped to my bike stem and final warm up massage and oil on the legs, we took to the start line. I arrived early and was well positioned at the front of the peloton for the 2km neutral zone out of the centre of Oudenaarde.

The red flag was pulled up and we were racing, full gas and with everyone rushing and jostling for position at the front of the peloton. I remained well-positioned for the first part of the race, constantly aware of the flow of the bunch and ensuring that I kept an eye on the kilometres ticking over.

The first test of the day would be at the 38 km mark — the cobbled climb of the Molenberg. At the 28km mark I felt I was a little far back and again made a move to re-position. It was at this point that other riders on my left were losing control and went crashing into spectators on the side of the road. It happened in a split second. I had nowhere to go but over the top of people falling in front of me.

It was on the run-in to the first challenge of the day, the Molenberg, that things went wrong.

I lay still for a second and assessed whether I was able to move and how much pain I was in. I was aware of what had happened and wasn’t in too much pain so I stood up. I looked around for a second to assess the situation. There were women and bikes everywhere, team cars stopping and chaos erupting.

I looked for my bike only to find the levers were bent sideways. I call into my race radio for a bike change, but my mechanic was already running towards me with wheels. I pointed to the bike and he turned and ran back to the team car to grab my spare bike from the roof. By this time other riders were picking themselves up and trying to get themselves back into the race. Others were being attended to by medical staff.

Andoitz gave me my bike and with one big push I was off again. There was no real time to worry about the pain setting in — I just had to focus on getting the draft of the team car to motor pace me, hopefully back to the peloton.

It soon became apparent that my handlebar bolts weren’t done up tight and the bars were moving under my hands. I pointed to the bars and the team car slowed. I rode alongside the car while Andoitz tightened the bolts. Unfortunately this was wasting valuable time, time that I need to make up to regain contact with the peloton.

I hit the Molenberg in contact with other riders who were also trying to get back to the peloton. The peloton was nowhere in sight. I crested the climb and it became obvious that our race was over. I got as far as the 80km mark with a group of about 10 riders, at which point we were directed into town – our race was officially over.

About to do course recon before the race (left) and after the race, from hospital (right).

Coming into town I was getting more and more pain in my neck and one of the riders I was with asked me if I was ok – my neck was starting to swell. The adrenaline was wearing off and I was worried about how I was feeling, yet the team car and truck were not at the finish of the race yet.

I decided I was in too much pain to wait for anyone, and as a critical-care-trained nurse, I was fully aware that neck pain after a bike crash should always be checked. I found a medic who assessed me and decided it was best I go to the local hospital for X-rays of my neck. Luckily, I’ve done no major damage and I’m already back on the bike.

Thank you to everyone who supported and wished me well for this race. Unfortunately the day did not end how I had hoped, but as they say, that is bike racing.

You can read more about Jo’s adventures on her website, The Healthy Cyclist. Check out the behind-the-scenes videos below to see how Jo’s day unfolded.