Over here the hardest race an amateur can compete in is called an interclub. They’re pretty much like a mini classics type race, between 160 and 200 kilometers and with an equal amount of participants. I rode with the ASFRA Flanders team in my first interclub yesterday and got a taste of what a Euro pro race might feel like (except probably a lot slower).
In Belgium, cycling is a big deal obviously. Even at the weekday kermess, a big effort goes into making it a spectacle. Wervik was much bigger, with the center of attention around a large stage in the middle of the city to call up the riders for team presentations. There were dozens of motorcycles, police vehicles, support cars and photographers crowding downtown and buzzing around in the race, all there to make a day of pain and suffering possible for us.
The race was 170 km with one and a half large laps of a circuit heading out of town, a lollypop section to get us out to a climbing circuit that we did twice, then back into the city of Wervik where we did 3X14km laps to the finish. I recognized a few of the teams from the kermesses, though now (like our team) they brought their best riders. There were also a lot more continental teams than the average kermess has. My prediction: Pain, with a chance of rain…
All night long before the race, thunder and lightning had cracked and boomed through the darkness and flooded the roads. Jake and I woke to more thunder and lightning in the morning, the storm continuing to dump inches of rainwater. It cleared up by race time and astonishingly held off all day long, but made the cobbled climbs wet.
The climbing circuit contained five climbs in total (two of which we did twice), each with pitches between 15 and 20%. They were all short enough though, each well under five minutes. The most famous one being the cobbled Kemmelberg, which is used in the northern classic Gent-Wevelgem.
Anyways, onto the race: an old man with a hand cannon for a start pistol eagerly fired into the air, everyone’s eardrums rang for the next minute as we fought for position behind the lead car during the neutral roll out. I had cut to the front to line up and got a choice spot sitting just to the left of the lead car for the first couple kilometers until I finally began drifting back into the thick of things. I didn’t know there’d be such a long neutral section; we did two laps through the cobbled streets of the city, and I was thankful for it since I hadn’t gotten a warm up. I almost crashed twice when I got my front wheel lodged in a seem along the side of the road between the cobbles and the gutter. Others weren’t so lucky, judging by the sounds of metal, carbon, bodies, cobbles, and cement colliding.
After we’d done enough miles of neutral to throw me off on distance (do neutral miles count as total miles today?), the race got underway (not that the mileage thing mattered much since my borrowed bike computer only works in miles and I wrote all the climbs down in kilometers on my top tube). Basically, what I’d been told was to just stay at the front because all the roads were small. Easier said than done of course, since there were around 200 of us and Belgians are much more aggressive about positioning than an American peloton.
I held my own though and survived the heavy cross/tail winds of the opening 60 kilometers. Already the pack had been shred behind me, with gaps forming in the cross wind and more gaps from the many crashes. The first crash I saw happened when the guy in front of me took a corner too hot and went over the bars off the side of the road. A chorus of laughter broke the silence of the riders. No sympathy here. Later, during the worst cross wind section I caught a bad lip in the pavement along the very far right edge of the road and almost went down hard at 32 miles an hour. The guy behind me was furious, yelling at me in Flemish for my mistake—like I can control when a random crack shows up and my front tire happens to find just the wrong spot to fit in. His yelling spurred a moment of rage in me and I chopped 40 guys in the next corner. You have to race angry over here.
My legs felt good today, but I’d limited myself to only three attacks during these opening 60 kilometers, because at kilometer 70 we hit the first serious climb, the Monteberg, followed a kilometer later by the Kemmelberg. Then there’d be six kilometers before the next climb, the Rodeberg, then another six more kilometers and we’d tackle the Monteberg/Kemmelberg double again. The race would be decided within these 20 kilometers.
Not knowing the course or what kilometer we were at, I took some precautionary action and got to the very front when I thought we were getting close to the first climb. I held a great spot up there in the first or second row for three or four kilometers, waiting for a giant hill to poke its head around the next bend. I got swarmed a bit right before we got to it and I climbed it in about 30th position. This climb, the Monteberg, was the easiest of the climbs. It’s basically just a warm up for the Kemmelberg, which is the hardest. We came to the top of the Monteberg and rode along the top where it’s flat for about a minute, then plummeted quickly down a short, winding descent before the road takes a 180 degree turn up the cobbled steeps of the Kemmel. Just before the descent, though, I got completely swarmed by everyone who knew what was coming up and before we began the descent I’d lost my spot and was sitting 60th or 70th wheel. Shit. I knew this was bad news as we descended, but there was no time to move up. 30 seconds later and we were jamming our breaks on as we bunched up around the tight corner, flipped to our small rings, and went up by the 20% cobbled Kemmelberg beast
I wasted no time once we got on it and smashed the pedals hard, harder than anyone around me and I tore by thirty or forty guys before the climb was finished. The lower slopes of it were giant, slick cobbles (from the rain). I put in quite a dig here. It flattened out a bit, and then the gradient went back up for the final 80 meters before the road narrowed and turned to cement. I was 100% maxed out by the top, cresting the climb about 15th or 20th. It was flat for another 20 seconds before heading down hill. I was the last to make it over in the front group.
The descent goes along a narrow bike path with a sharp, wet, mossy corner that caused a lot of crashes, even when going slow. A crash split the front group up and a five second gap formed by the bottom of the descent with 10 guys getting away. After the short down hill the road makes another 90 degree turn and begins a crosswind rolling section with a lot of turns. I couldn’t do any work for the next couple kilometers, I just barely managed to hold the wheel in front of me as I attempted to breath. I’d almost recover, then we’d hit a series of 90 degree corners, cobbles, or have to sprint to close a gap. I was deep in the red from the effort I’d put in on the climb.
Over the next six kilometers our group swelled from five to sixty while the lead group gained time. They had almost a minute by the time we went up the Kemmelberg again. But before that we went up the Rodeberg, a non-cobbled climb with three steep pitches. It wasn’t that hard since our defeated group had lost hope in catching the leaders.
The next time up the Monte and Kemmelbergs I made a similar mistake and got swarmed along the flat section at the top of the Monte, right before the 30 second-descent, and entered the base of the Kemmelberg too far back. It didn’t matter though, since I knew I could reach the front if I did another full on effort. I just had to get around all these weaving wimps first! I yelled at people to move as their legs blew up on the giant cobbles. For living in a place with cobbles and rain, a lot of the Belgians sure seem pretty bad at riding over both. I hopped off the cobbles to the side of the road onto the dirt to pass people, then got stuck behind another slow guy. I yelled at him to move, he began swerving to the left, got out of the way, but came back to the right just as I was beginning to pass him and unintentionally forced me further off the road down into a ditch. I unclipped. I got back onto the cobbles. I tried starting, failed to clip in. I had to stop, tried again, came off. Tried again and finally got clipped in. Thank the bike gods for my 11×28 and my decision to use it just in case something like this happened!
Unfortunately the entire group had passed me at this point. I was at the back. I hammered to regain position but it was too late. The group split again on the climb and the descent, where another couple crashes further broke things up.
I worked hard at the front to get things stitched back together. I had four teammates left in the race, three of which were willing to do work. The gap to the group of 30 up ahead of us, which was still in the hunt for at least the top 15, was barely up the road from us at around 30 seconds. It was plausible that we could close the gap, but unlikely since most of the group was sitting on. I was willing to do more than my share of the work since we weren’t even competing for the top 10 anymore.
A split occurred when someone let a wheel go out of laziness. Eight riders got up the road. I put in a big effort and closed it down once the rest of the group had given up. I got up to five of the riders just in time once we turned a corner and the tailwind turned to cross. Three were still just up the road, two of which were my teammates. I went solo again a few minutes later. One guy and then another got up to me shortly after. The three of us buried ourselves to get up to the three up the road. If we could join up with them we had a legitimate shot at catching the large group up ahead by latching onto the caravan behind them. We were tantalizingly close, hovering at five or six seconds before my team car passed me, quickly went by, then sheltered my two teammates and their friend from the crosswind. Soon their gap was up to 15 seconds and rising.
I was just finishing up a long pull up a slight riser into a head/crosswind section when the two guys I’d been riding with sprinted by my onto the bumper of one of their team cars as it came by. The guy right behind me had been holding onto my seat post, a common tactic over here to help things go more smoothly in hard crosswind sections, then gave a yank backwards as he and the other guy came around me and sprinted onto the car. I screamed at them to wait but there was nothing I could do. My legs were dead from the pull and even though they were just a few bike lengths up ahead of me, once they were on that car bumper it was game over for me, left for dead in no man’s land. I later learned that the car towed them all the way up to my two teammates and the other guy, but that they didn’t work at all and ruined the chances of my teammates getting back onto the group of 30 up ahead.
I stewed in anger until four guys caught me. We all worked evenly and came through the finish line banner with 3×14 km laps remaining. Thankfully they cut us and everyone but the lead group short by one lap, ending a long, frustrating, and exciting day just shy of 100 miles. I took 2nd in my group’s sprint and 41st in the race. Very frustrating. This race was all about positioning. I could have guaranteed myself a top 10 had I been better placed heading up the Kemmelberg that first time. Live and learn. Positioning in these things requires constant attentiveness and local knowledge, the first of which I’m lacking (though improving) and the second I have none of.
Jake and I the day before on an easy spin.
Morning of the race.
Then the race happened. I only have pictures of everyone afterwards. I’m gonna guess on the names.
Jurgen I think
Jurgen also, most likely.
Van den Broek
After the race we rode back in the stuffy van with the windows shut and the AC off, everyone dripping with sweat because the Euros didn’t want to catch a cold from a drafty window.