Words: Natalie Creswick | Photography: Steev Davidson | Date:
All the ingredients for a brutal introduction to one day pro racing were there, wind, rain, mud, cobbles, cold, narrow twisty Belgian farm tracks, bad road surfaces, short sharp flandrien climbs and a peleton of Dutch girls who like to hoof it along on the flat. Yesterday’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad definitely didn’t disappoint and as my season opener was a far cry from the cat 3/4 Surrey League race that started 2010.
In a bow to Rapha Women’s Day, Rapha Racing fielded a mixed team of British, Swedish and French riders who also incidentally mostly had ginger hair. By my side on the start line for our first UCI one day race and first real meeting with the fabled cobbles were Estelle Rogers (Rollapuluza CC), Sarah Byrne (VC Raphael) along with Swedish girls Martina Thomasson and Carolin Gustafsson plus Julia Krasniak from France.
The first 41km of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad was largely flat and to my surprise didn’t seem as fast as I’d expected. The bunch stayed together, no one really attacked but with the rain and wind to contend with it was still pretty hard going as I shivered constantly and looked across in jealousy at all the girls who’d kept their rain jackets on. At 41km we met the first hill which wasn’t that tough but was enough to break the field up and bring to my notice with a jolt that my positioning in the bunch coming in to the climb was shocking. I was far too far back and had no hope in getting across to the front group who I could see disappear over the top as I picked my way through girls who were struggling up the hill in what must have been the very back of the peleton. I was determined not to lose too many places so over took as many people as possible and kept powering over the top to chase back onto the group in front.
From this point on, things became a little blurry as the hills and the cobbled roads blurred into one and my determination not to finish in the back half of the race became stronger and stronger. My lack of experience riding cobbles was pretty obvious and I apparently ignored all advice to stick it in a bigger gear than I would usually ride and grind through, according to Rene who was following me in the team car. For a lot of the girls in Het Nieuwsblad, cobbles are second nature but I was pleased to hear that I also got better as the race went on. The two sections that stick out in my memory were 2.3km and 2.5km in length, which is a long, long way when your whole body is bouncing up and down, your brain is being shaken about and when your bike has a mind of its own. Any cobbles I’ve ridden before paled into insignificance. I’m sure that half of the road was missing. At one point things felt so wrong that I was sure I had a puncture. It was only after I’d stopped and felt both tyres that I realised, actually, this was normal. Getting going again on cobbles isn’t so easy either!
The fourth climb of the day, The Paterberg was also interesting, all the cobbles and 20% of it. I’ve seen footage of the pros many times before having to get off and walk as the rider in front slips over or just loses momentum on the greasy surface of the road and I was gutted when something similar happened to me. Riders seemed to be flying past me in the gutter so seeing a space I jumped into it. For a while the smooth surface was bliss, until the girl in front of me just stopped riding and with inches between our wheels I had to put my foot down too. Looking about me, others were already running up the hill pushing their bikes and the lone rider who was still atop her bike was actually making slower progress. All the transition practice back when I was a triathlete finally seeming to come into its own. Running up the hill was the easy bit. Trying to clip my feet back into the pedals on the narrow, twisty, wet descent was the hairy part.
As the race went on and the breakaway went up the road from the front group I continued to battle my way through small pockets of riders making up more places and more time on the peleton. I largely rode the last 50km on my own and for the last 30km or so they were in sight up ahead but I wasn’t able to catch them. Apparently I passed around 40 girls on my solo travel and made up about 6 minutes on the first group I had left and clawed back 2.5 minutes from the peleton in the last 25km alone.
In all, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad was an awesome experience and all the girls in the team were smiling once we’d warmed up. With nine spills between six of us there were quite a few war stories to tell and even more scrapes and road rash. I’ve learnt a lot from the race and know that I’d worked super hard. Even though my positioning when it mattered wasn’t great I fought back. My lungs were burning when I crossed the finish line and I sat on the curb hardly able to take a breath in and spitting out Belgian toothpaste that had clammed up my mouth. On paper my 46th place isn’t too impressive but the results sheet never tells the story of each individual rider and I certainly felt I had the experience of a hard Belgian pro race and my filthy kit and bike tell a similar tale.