The chaos of my first Tour of Flanders
A little over a week ago Team Tibco-Silicon Valley Bank rider (and VeloClub member!) Sarah Gigante clipped in to race her first Tour of Flanders. Join Sarah as she walks you through her first ‘Ronde’, a chaotic, fast-paced, cold, and incredibly rewarding day of racing.
This article was first published as a newsletter for VeloClub members.
I definitely don’t need an alarm today. It’s the Sunday we’ve all been waiting for (that’s especially true for this young overeager Aussie in particular!) – April 4th, the date of my first ever Tour of Flanders (or Ronde van Vlaanderen, as my Dutch teammies prefer me to say!) I jump out of bed as excitedly as I can without waking up my roommate and get to work. We don’t roll out from Oudenaarde until 2pm, so there’s plenty of time to chill before we leave, but I do have one small job to do before the rest of my team wakes up – hiding the all-important Easter eggs! Most of my excitement is stemming from the hype of race day, but part of it is because it’s also Easter – I love egg hunts as much as I love Strava QOM hunts, and that’s saying something!
I don’t usually feel the nerves too badly, except for races that I really care about. I’m starting to feel a bit nervous for this one though, even as I open up our mechanic’s toolbox to squeeze in some chocolate eggs amongst the Allen keys, so I grin and tell myself that these pre-race butterflies are a great sign. Nothing beats a bit of nervecitement! I had an awesome race on Wednesday at Dwars door Vlaanderen, fondly nicknamed ‘mini Flanders’ for its similar terrain and high-calibre peloton, so my hopes are high for today too.
That race had felt like a real breakthrough for me mentally, and really boosted my confidence. It was my first Belgian race in which I felt fully part of the action and like a real racer, rather than just chasing at the back and being another extra cyclist in a field of 150. I’d finally found my way to the head of the peloton, which is far harder than it sounds, held my position amongst the front riders and covered moves to my heart’s content. I’d absolutely loved the feeling – the improvement in how I raced easily felt as satisfying as a big win – so I am really hopeful of replicating the experience and having an aggressive race with my team today.
The vibe from the other Tibco-Silicon Bank riders, who have all raced Flanders before, and the passion from our DS, mechanic and two awesome soigneurs, just adds to the hype. This race seems to be up there in everyone’s list of favourites, despite all the different strengths and weaknesses amongst the team, and really, it is little wonder why. It’s the most prestigious Spring Classic on our calendar – unpredictable and exciting, long and brutal, and despite the understandable lack of roadside crowds this year, we know that the whole cycling world will be watching on screens anyway. I smile just thinking about my lovely family back home, probably getting their snacks and warm blankets ready right now, to tune in bleary-eyed in the early hours of the morning to watch me pedal my bicycle on the other side of the world.
2pm is a late start, but it doesn’t feel like much time has passed before we’ve already visited the stage for team presentations, finalised our tactics in the team meeting, crammed our pockets full of gels, done the last-minute radio checks and stuck our course notes to our stems. Suddenly I’m on the start line, and as I look around at the impressive number of teams around me and listen to the babble of different languages, I take a moment to consider how special this sport really is.
Every single rider has trained so hard and sacrificed so much just to be here and gone through so many ups and downs (and lefts and rights!) Out of the 143 starters, we all want to have a fantastic race and we all want our team to be the one that takes home the spoils. The coolest part about cycling is that every rider and every team has that chance. Anyone can win. The brutal part about cycling is that nearly everyone won’t.
“Klaar voor de start, af!” I don’t understand Dutch very well, but just like how dogs don’t know English but do understand the W-word, I do know when someone tells me I can start racing. So do the other 142 women, it seems, as masks and jackets are quickly tossed to soigneurs and bike computers are started. There are a few seconds of music-like clipping in, and then the whir of spinning carbon wheels begins, backed up by the hum of occasional freewheeling and pierced by the semi-regular slamming of disc brakes. We are starting with 9 km of neutral, but there’s already quite a fierce fight for positioning going on at the front.
I lined up relatively early, but I notice myself already slipping backwards through the bunch. The ferocity of the battle to be as close to that red flag as possible is a sign of what’s to come for the next 160 km, and if I’m being honest, also a sign I’m a long way from my Australian home. Another sign of the latter is the stark difference in climate, of which I’m currently feeling all too aware.
This extra-long neutral might be a nice way to ease into the race, but it’s also a chilly one. I’m wearing knee warmers, arm warmers and a thermal jacket, yet my teeth are still chattering … I have no idea how most of the riders around me only have the added protection of arm warmers, or even more horrifyingly, are just wearing what appears to be short sleeve jersey and knicks. I mutter to myself that maybe my body will get used to this freezing Euro weather when my mind gets used to this hectic Euro bunch. Now that would be a special day!
Eat, drink, eat, drink. There are two cobbled sectors 50 km in, but nothing too crazy. To be fair though, I have different standards now – I probably would have called them insane just a month ago, but I’m a few Classics older now and also toughened from the brutality of our Paris-Roubaix reconnaissance two weeks ago. These ones seem as smooth as an indoor velodrome in comparison!
Our team’s main goal is to reach the start of the series of 13 climbs safe, well-fuelled and still feeling fresh. We’re sailing along so quickly that it’s not too long before we do make it there, and thankfully, everything’s still going perfectly for our team.
We summit the Kattenberg, Edelare, Boigneberg, Molenberg and the Malboroughstraat … and it’s still going well. We don’t expect the race to split up just yet, but we’re definitely racing towards the business end of the day, so it’s not hard to tell that the sense of urgency within the peloton is increasing. I find my teammate’s wheel on the Berendries climb and we move past some riders together on the steep gradient, both feeling really strong on its slopes. I like the feeling of moving as a unit, and it’s nice to have a wheel to follow after feeling a bit like I was stumbling around at the back of the peloton up until this point.
Then comes a moment of down time as the group passes through the feed zone, and I take yet another bottle of mix, legs still feeling good as I meticulously keep up my intake of 80 grams of carbs per hour.
There are over 10 km until the next climb, which feels like more time to move up than it really is, because suddenly we’re turning off the highway and the peloton stretches out single file as we wind through the fast and twisty farm roads. I was just starting to feel as though my favourite section of the race – typically once some attrition has occurred and I make it to the front and hopefully stay there! – was just around the corner, but as I look up at the long stretch of wheels ahead of me, suddenly the front of this race seems a lot further away than it did when we were packed together like sardines in rows on the highway, and the all-important 113 km point that I had marked on my stem was coming quickly. Too quickly.
We turn left into the Berg Ten Houte. There’s not much I can do from the back now in the few hundred metres left before the steep, cobbled climb, but I tell myself that it’s ok. I know that groaning to myself about how I’ve messed things up won’t exactly help the situation! I may not be a positioning expert, but I do love the hills … hopefully this will be the climb I can move myself to the front on, ahead of the key Kanarieberg climb just three kilometres later.
Swearing in Italian. Riders in the ditch. The sound of cleats coming out of pedals. These are not good signs, and once they are confirmed by the sight of the crash ahead of me a couple seconds later, I know this is not the situation I want to be in, particularly as the favourites race on up the steep cobbles ahead. My heart sinks even more when I see a couple other blue and yellow jerseys nearly track standing next to me and realise that my teammates have also been caught out too far back.
The road’s clear again soon though, and it’s now or never for us. We’re chasing as hard as we can, but as we do so, we hear over our radios that Annemiek van Vleuten’s teammate Leah Thomas is doing likewise at the very front of the peloton, which is now splitting into multiple groups as everyone is scrambling to be at the front for Van Vleuten’s impending Kanarieberg attack.
I think I can sometimes be seen as an ever-optimistic person, but even I know at this point the chance of us getting away with this mistake and arriving back at the front with nothing more than just some wasted energy is very slim. I owe it to my teammates to try though, so I give what I have left to bridge across on the next climb. For a split second my heart soars, as I make it to my new group and see Emma Norsgaard, Lucinda Brand and the Barnes sisters there. Then it sinks again, even lower, as a motorbike speeds past us and I notice the absence of nearly all of the favourites.
This definitely isn’t the front group.
You can sometimes use the convoy to make your way back to the leaders, jumping in its draft to snake your way up through the team cars before making the final leap between the commissaire car and the rear of the peloton. Not in Flanders though. The roads are so narrow and twisty that the convoy is trapped behind our group of 30 for quite a number of kilometres, and by the time it is able to go past, the time gap to the leaders has blown out so much that the cars soar past at what feels like twice our speed. There’s no chance at all to work my way into their draft.
I grit my teeth and add the lack of draftable convoy to my growing list of factors that make this race so brutal. I don’t know why my mind seems to be making this record, but I guess it’s at least something to do to distract myself from the pain of these cobbled climbs. We’re still going hard up them, our group splintering over the top of each berg just like we would if we were at the front of the race – only this way seems a lot less fun. Hopefully one day I’ll be able to use it as a list of factors that make a great result at this race even cooler.
I have no idea how many people are up the road, but I know it’s not a small number and only includes one rider from our team, so when I cross the road and see my soigneur Jan waiting for me, I give him a smile, but it feels rather forced and is not really reflective of how I’m feeling. The Belgian holds up both his hands. “Kristen [Faulkner] came tenth?” I ask. He nods. It’s a wonderful result by Kristen, a top 10 in one of the coolest and hardest races of the season, but I can’t shrug off the feeling of guilt for not being there to help her.
Doing so well without any teammates is incredibly impressive and shows that our goal of a podium for the team was not far-fetched, if only we could have started those climbs closer to the front. I sigh. Then my attention turns to the lady standing next to Jan and I read the writing on her embroidered shirt. Anti-doping! Now that does make me giggle. I have no idea what part of my dismal performance today could have flagged me as someone showing out-of-this-world strength, so it does feel ironic, but I’m glad that they seem to be doing random tests too. “Good race?” she asks, as I ride slowly alongside her on our way to the control station. I shake my head.
There’s only one room in the control station and it’s already occupied, so I sit there alone, reflecting on my race in silence as the three anti-doping officers chat to each other in Dutch. There’s not really anywhere to sit in this hospital-like corridor, so I sit down on the floor, my legs suddenly feeling a little tired. I’ve just started taking off my numbers and I’m peeling the sticky gel packets from my jacket when another rider walks in, looking even more battered than I feel. I see the gash on her hip and wince on her behalf. She smiles weakly back at me. “Your first Flanders?” she asks me. I laugh and nod, wondering to myself what part of my exhausted appearance gave it away. I ask her if its hers too, but she shakes her head. “Seventh.”
It’s quite funny really. I just finished an absolutely brutal race, I’m incredibly disappointed and relatively frustrated with myself, yet I can already see myself in her shoes in 2027, on my seventh attempt and hoping that one day everything will tick. At least the rider ahead of me in the queue has finished now, so I’m able to go in and listen to the TV while I fill out my paperwork. The audio is in Dutch, but I wouldn’t ever miss my former teammate’s name. Grace Brown from Camperdown is on the podium at Flanders!! I know how strong she is, so part of me is not surprised, but it’s still insane and gives me quite a boost.
I am quite distracted now, which, when paired with my exhaustion, isn’t a great combination, and I actually manage to spill the remaining contents of my beaker of urine all over the table. This day is getting better and better! Thankfully there’s enough of my sample left that I don’t have to redo the test though, so I hastily do my best to clean it up, apologise to the poor officer and ride back to the team camper. I’m treated to a mix of emotions there: happiness at a top 10, pain from a crash, frustration at positioning, disappointment in form, and quite some regret at what could have been.
You live and you learn though, and when it comes to sport, you win or you learn. At the end of the day, I’ve just finished my first proper set of Cobbled Classics and there are plenty more races ahead of me – including the hilly Ardennes, which are only a fortnight away! – in which I can improve. Plus, by my (admittedly often faulty!) logic, Van Vleuten just smashed today’s race at the age of 38, so I’ve got until at least 2039 before I have to start worrying that I’m running out of time.
I finally pull out my phone, grateful that my mum has turned nocturnal for the past couple weeks and is kind enough to answer a disappointed call at 2.30am. I’m also grateful that being the Easter Bunny for the morning means I will know exactly where the best chocolate is hidden once we arrive home!