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There were a lot of great stories to come out of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad on Saturday – and by now you’ve probably heard the same ones on repeat. Anna van der Breggen (Rabo-Liv) completed her comeback from a broken pelvis to take out the win in her return to road racing. Boels-Dolmans used their strength in numbers to dominate the day, despite missing out on the win. Tiffany Cromwell (Velocio-SRAM) has shown she’s back on form, finishing in fifth place in Ghent.
We used quotes in our Omloop Het Nieuwsblad photo gallery to point to a few of the lesser-known stories. It is our hope to demonstrate that each race is jam-packed with interesting anecdotes and small victories and unnoticed heartache by speaking with the riders that might not have a microphone or camera shoved in their the face moments after crossing the line.
My Story, a new Ella CyclingTips series, is meant to accomplish the same – and has been conceptualised based on the belief that every rider who lines up to race has a unique story to tell about her day.
We consider Lizzie Williams (Orica-AIS) the perfect candidate to open this new series. Williams finished in 43rd place, 4’54 behind the race winner. By results alone, Williams had an unremarkable outing. By how often do results tell the whole story?
Here’s what you should know about Williams. She is brand-new to Belgian racing with limited experience racing in Europe. The cold and the cobbles. The crowd-lined climbs. It’s all a first for Williams. Which means her story is the story of her first Spring Classic.
I had been warned, so I was mentally prepared for what to expect coming to Belgium this spring. I had been told to expect terrible weather – rain and freezing cold and maybe even snow. I heard about the big bunches and the race for position and how costly making a mistake would be.
“You have to keep going until you drop,” they said.
“It’s like war out there to hold position,” they told me.
My coach, Martin Barras, scared me a bit about the weather. I’ve come from an Australian summer. I’ve probably only been to the snow five times – and that was only in Australia. I haven’t had much to do with the cold weather. Martin told me to harden up. He said: “You need to learn to train in the rain because in Belgium its always raining!”
My teammates and I arrived in Belgium a week before the race. That definitely helped me get acclimated. We’ve been lucky with the weather, too. Mother Nature has been fairly kind to us. I’ve only had to train in the rain in terrible conditions one
time in the last week. We had a beautiful day for Het Nieuwsblad. I raced in just a jersey, shorts and arm-warmers. I’ve actually been pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoy riding here despite the wind and the cold. Weather-wise, it hasn’t been too intense.
The racing on the other hand – that was definitely intense. The size of the peloton was as big as I was promised and the nerves were as high I was told to expect. I had a lot of close calls during the first hour of the race. I can count on two hands how many times I almost crashed. I think that comes with the territory of spring classic racing and early-season nerves.
I won the Amy Gillet scholarship last year, which gave me the opportunity to come over and race with the Australian National Team from June. I raced for about three months in Europe. I did all the stage races – and in the end, I qualified for the Aussie team for the World Championships.
My first race against the European peloton was Thüringen Rundfahrt last year. Before that I was just racing the National Road Series. Last year was my first year back on the bike following a ten-year hiatus. I’ve never been to Belgium. I’ve never ridden any of these spring classics. I had been told how different the racing would be compared to Australia and European stage races or even one-day races in Italy or France. Everyone told me it would be an entirely different beast – and they were right.
Do you want to know what it’s like to ride the cobbles? It hurts! Your whole body is shuddering as you get jostled around. You have to really calm yourself and try to relax your whole body rather than tensing your arms and your shoulders and your back. It’s really important to relax and sort of allow your bike to carry you over the cobbles. After awhile, it stops hurting and you just go numb. Everything goes numb.
It’s a lot different training over the cobbles than racing over them. I found that it didn’t hurt as much during the race. I was in the zone, and I wasn’t thinking about my body. I was focused on my lines and my position and what was going on around me. It was almost easier in a way.
My personal objective was to try to make the front group. My teammate Emma Johansson was a pre-race favourite, and I really wanted to help her in the important final stages of the race. Whilst that was my personal goal, I know without having discussed it with them that my coach would have considered that a bit too much to put on myself, but that’s my personality. I have big expectations of myself going into any race.
Which meant that I was disappointed to finish in 43rd place over the weekend. It’s just like they told me – make one bad decision and it’s a snowball effect. All it takes is choosing the wrong wheel, which I did – and it’s over.
My mistake? I was on the wheel of a rider that crashed in front of me. We were on the Paterberg, which proved a crucial point in the race. I had to get off my bike and run up the hill. I was off the back before I had even reached the top. And that was my day. The lead group was already up the road, and there was no catching back on.
Because I’m new, I panicked a bit when I found myself alone, but eventually I joined up with two other riders and we worked turns. I could see some teammates up the road, and within ten minutes or so a small peloton had sort of accumulated. By then I realised that I was mid-pack. I wasn’t at the back, so I had calmed down a bit.
The group I was in was quite large, and we worked well together, but it’s hard knowing that you’re not in the race anymore. You’re just getting to the finish. It was a little disheartening. I knew what I done wrong, and I didn’t get a second chance not to make the same mistake.
Despite my immediate disappointment, I was able to take a step back and look at the lessons I learned. I better recognise the fine line between when to conserve energy and when to expend energy, and I know that understanding that line even better will come with experience.
Look at someone like Tiffany Cromwell. She didn’t have the best form in Australia just last month, yet she’s come fifth at the world-class level here in Belgium. It shows that experience and knowledge are just as important as fitness. I know that I have to keep plugging along and keeping learning from each race that I do rather than getting discouraged about the mistakes that I make and the targets that I miss.
When you race in a peloton of the size and pedigree of the one here in Belgium, it’s easy to feel intimidated. You think: “I shouldn’t be up there with those girls.” But why not? I’ve worked just as hard as any other girl in that group to get where I am, so I need to believe that I can be up there and believe that I have what it takes to compete with the best.
My next race, Le Samyn, is already on Wednesday. Rather than focus on results, I’m thinking about positioning. My goal is to stick near the top riders, to stay as close to my teammate Emma Johansson as possible. I want to fight for my position better and not let myself feel intimidated by the riders who get results.
My size is a disadvantage in Belgium. I’m pretty small, and there are some big riders racing these spring classics. I find myself getting pushed around a bit, so on Wednesday, I need to my elbows out more. If I get pushed, I’m ready to push back.
The team is definitely looking forward to bigger and better things in the future. We didn’t finish in the top ten on Saturday, which was disappointing for everyone. We’ve worked hard, and we have a strong team. It just didn’t show at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. A lot of my teammates didn’t have a good day, and when a few don’t have a good day, it can be really taxing on the team as a whole. I think we’re all ready for redemption.