Ronde Van Oost-Vlaanderen
My stint of Kermesses had been leading up to the U23 five-day stage race Ronde Van Oost-Vlaanderen, or Tour of East Flanders. The first three stages were mostly flat, with the final two days being lumpier “classics-style” courses. Although only run four times previously, the race is pretty prestigious and a highlight of the season for many local Flandrian ‘renners’. I skimmed over the past edition’s result lists and some big names stood out. Connor Dunne had placed 6th in 2013, just ahead of Edward Theuns. Both of whom are currently riding the Vuelta a Espania. The following year Dan McLay won the overall. Clearly those who could cut it here weren’t shabby!
I would be guest riding for Goma Dakwerken – VDB Steenhouwerij cycling team, a Belgian setup made up of both Belgians and foreign riders. For Oost-Vlaanderen my friends Joe Sutton and Ben Foames would be riding, along with one Belgian, two Americans and a South African.
16/8 Stage 1 – Bavegem: 150km
After 20 minutes lined up on the start line to get a decent position, we were thoroughly warmed up in the stifling heat of the sun and hundreds of oiled Belgian legs. The flag was dropped and we began flat out sprinting to hold position in the bunch. And it barely let up for the first hour; 45km/hr average. It was just sprinting flat out through town centres, locking up the brakes at the last minute and kicking out of the corners again.
The kermesses (smaller local races) I’d been riding had been fairly easy to move up in. The hard part was the peddling, not the positioning. Not here though. Although I was working hard, it was almost impossible to move up. I knew where I wanted to be, but couldn’t get myself there. There was hundreds of tightly crammed bodies blocking the way! The narrow roads were swamped with angry Belgians elbowing you and dive-bombing the corners.
As such I was badly placed for the first few hours, despite knowing it would be costing me more energy chasing out of bends. Towards the back of the bunch is the worst place to get caught up in crashes, however it was admittedly my own fault when I decked it on one right-hander about halfway round the stage. I’m not entirely sure what happened, but my front wheel slid out from underneath me and I was sliding my ass down the tarmac yet again.
Jumping back up, I managed to get going again. But not before the entire field had shot past. As the convoy cars started looping round me, I got on to the bumper of my team car and had a blurry stint chewing the stem chasing back on.
Lotto led out the sprint from about 30k out which meant a fast but smooth finale. A gurana caffiene shot had perked me up but I had neither the balls or legs to get near the front of the bunch kick and rolled in mid-pack.
What I learned: if you want to play with the big boys, grow bigger balls
Savagery rating: 7/10
In the evening I was treated to a massage, as was standard procedure after the stages. My legs felt like they’d earned it but was certainly a luxury I wasn’t used to!
love a good oil-up
17/8 Stage 2 – Adegem: 148km
After the first of many pasta parties, GOMA was ready to rock again…
Day two’s course took us down narrow single-lane farm roads. Rain started falling on the startline. And chaos ensued.
The bunch hurtled down the tiny lanes, strung out in the gutter. After a mud-splattered first lap I punctured on the second. The team mechanic fitted a spare wheel and pushed me off, jumping back into the car. I chased agonisingly slowly but soon realised this was due to my rear brakes rubbing on the new wheel. I managed to get the message across to the car and soon enough my bike was held with my feet aloft as the mechanic adjusted my chainstay brake at 30mph. I could barely see where I was going, let alone how a mechanic could fine tune a brake in all the wet, muddy spray. Madness.
I was being paced back on, but still found it hard going. The bunch were motoring and I was pulled on the line on the third lap. I rode back to the team camper, my rear rim dragging on my brake pads at every turn. It was completely seized up with mud and gunk. I was not in a good mood.
What I learned: chainstay brakes don’t like the mud
Savagery rating: 8/10
Result: 145th (I was still placed and allowed to start tomorrow due to mechanical)
18/8 Stage 3 – Haasdonk: 155km
After two days of bad luck I was determined to salvage something of the race in Haasdonk. I was pretty tired, which was a shame, as usually I recover better than most over stage races. However, after a couple of intensive training days I’d finally begun to get a hang of positioning in such a large pack. As such my race was easier, doing less work sprinting out of corners. But there’s only so much positioning can do over the grippy cobbled sector on the stage. I rolled around and finished midbunch fairly comfortably. – Not much story here…
However, it might’ve only seemed easier….. I had a couple of coffee’s before the stage, plus a caffeine gurana shot plus coke bottles in the last few laps from the team. (Caffeine is great at reducing perceived exertion).
What I learned: More caffeine is better
Savagery rating: 7/10
Unfortunately our DS was not impressed with the team’s antics over the first three days. We’d missed all the moves and were not doing well on any of the six jersey classifications. This meant no massages, washing and a delayed dinner – just an hour long bollocking at 7 o’clock to make us hungrier for the following stages…
19/8 Stage 4 – Maarkedal: 156 km
The whole team were keen to get stuck in on the fourth day. We were keen to get back in the manager’s good books, and our morale was lifted with some sort of fruit tart from the soigneur’s musettes before the start.
The circuit took us up a savage climb three times before moving onto a shorter lumpy finishing circuit. The first time up the climb was fairly hard but I was well placed and as we crested it I found myself second wheel in the bunch. When a rider from T-Palm attacked on the next roller, I didn’t hesitate and buried myself to follow. We were soon joined by another pair, and then one from Lotto bridged across. However after a while up the road, we were brought back by the chasing peloton.
There were a few of these type of moves early on, and luckily we had riders in them all. However, nothing was sticking. Lotto were driving the pace on the front making attacking a unsustainable strategy. By now my legs weren’t quite as zippy as before, so I was content sitting in given the high pace.
The next few times up the climb I just about managed to hang on. The finishing circuit was harder throughout, and suited me more since the group were forced to ride at a more constant effort, rather than surging and easing back. However my legs were definitely leaving me towards the last 10ks. Perhaps I was paying for my aggression earlier on?
My left shifter had become loose, meaning I only really had use of my front brake and had to climb on the drops Pantani-style. However I must’ve channelled some of Il Pirata’s panache as I manged to get round on a day that many were shelled.
What I learned: don’t go too hard too soon
Savagery rating: 8/10
Back in the house, Joe led the calorie consumption charge. After four days “vol gas” our bodies were starting to cry out for serious speculoos nourishment.
all you need is a jar and a spoon
20/8 Stage 5 – Herzele: 155km
The final morning was spent searching for Pro Plus tablets and caffeine gels (we didn’t really get offered coffee at the team house). Once these were ingested, all worries about the last day evaporated in the buzz.
The first lap the whole team were represented at the front end of the pack, going with moves and generally letting off some steam. Teammate Ben Foams had bridged solo to the break but behind I was enjoying the caffeine high, closing down any aggression from other riders.
Once the breakaway’s gap had been well established, the main group’s pace became more consistent and we cruised down closed main roads at 40k/hr making me feeling like a world tour pro in a sprint stage of the tour.
However, once we hit the bergy section of the course the pace became less chill. I was fighting up the hills but managed to stick in until I dropped my chain at the bottom of a cobbled descent. Unfortunately, this was the worst possible place it could’ve happened, since I lost all my momentum for the following climb. I went from mid-pack to last wheel in no time.
Once I’d got my chain back on, I ground up the grippy cobbles with little traction and even less speed. I chased with a few others who’d been distanced by the bunch but just as we made contact with the pack, the road went uphill again. 25% uphill. “Thanks but no thanks” said my legs.
Soon I found myself behind the convoy, with just one other Belgie for company. I was so wrecked at this point that I couldn’t even give him a turn. I was an absolute shell and relished being pulled when we rolled through the finish line.
bike racing making men into shells since day 1
Agonisingly, after I climbed off I found that both brakes were rubbing. My chainstay brake had been a nightmare the entire five-day race but the front was new to joining the party. I was pretty disheartened, since I didn’t really know what I could’ve done without mechanical issues. I certainly felt I would have finished the final stage, which would have been nice since I listed as a DNF on the results- something which I didn’t feel was truly representative of my physical ability.
However, the five days race had been a brilliant advenutre and great opportunity to gain invaluable race experience at such a high level. Fair play to Lotto for ripping it up, dominating the race and taking most of the jerseys home.
What I learned: italian bikes don’t like belgian roads; and nor do weak british legs
Savagery rating: 8/10
Thanks to GOMA for the amazing opportunity. I’d love to be back next year for another crack. Maybe with a bike without a chainstay brake.