Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Jeff's Ultimate Bike Racing Experience (tm)

ALERT! Your Norton anti-virus checker has detected a whole lotta garbage about a bike race in the following email. It has been quarantined for your safety. Except this bit, which probably shoulda been:

Jeff's Ultimate Bike Racing Experience (tm)

It's not that easy to describe, and it didn't have anything to do with winning - which is not the primary reason I race a bike anyway. But today I believe I had the Ultimate Bike Racing Experience (tm).

Background: I got my first ever Belgian racing licence last week, and was very chuffed with it. It's about a tenth the price of an Aussie one, because the insurance isn't totally ridiculous. As I have a permanent address here, it makes sense for me to have a Belgian licence. As soon as I got it, I was plotting what races I could do in the rather short space of time between now and the Giro d'Italia, which starts on Saturday.

I selected one in Hooglede in West Flanders, mainly because it was the only one remotely in my area (50 km hence) and it also corresponded with my Day Off. Coincidentally, two Japanese journalist friends of mine - Miwako and Junko - live in Hooglede, so I let them know and they came out and provided Official Encouragement, which was tres cool and quite funny.

I had a cursory look at the weather forecast this morning and it didn't seem too bad: some rain, clearing in the afternoon with strong winds from the SSW. After several weeks of fantastic weather here (15-20+ degrees, sun, not too much wind), I was lulled into a false sense of optimism about today. I should know better. At least I packed a woollen jersey and arm warmers just in case...

As I got on the train from Gent to Lichtervelde, the first drops of rain began to fall, and by the time we got to Deinze it was blowing a gale and raining more or less horizontally. Completely deterred, I remained on the train to Lichtervelde, which was about 8 km from Hooglede. Fastening my cycling shoes, I merrily set off into the driving rain/block headwind and amazingly didn't get lost, just somewhat frozen. Sign on was at the Cafe Lanterne in Ieperstraat, which was at least warm inside. I took number 76, which surprised me as I didn't expect that there would be so many other loonies lining up to race when it was 8 degrees, wet, with a rather significant wind chill factor.

This strange fact can be explained. a) This is Belgium - more specifically West Flanders. If you don't like racing in this weather then you may as well hang up the bike. b) This was the only race on today in the area. I'd guess if it was dry, we would have had closer to 150 starters rather than 81.

I was bloody cold by this stage, and shivered my way up to the change rooms in the local school, where I bumped into the Americans from the Cycling Center(tm) in Hertsberge. I'd actually interviewed a few of them last week for a feature, which I'll get round to one of these days. I said g'day to Bernard (the boss) and - feeling foolishly underprepared - asked to borrow some safety pins to pin on my number. No probs and I was very grateful for these small, but very necessary items.

I opted to wear the old blue woollen jersey with arm warmers, but no leg warmers. I put my faith in my Strength 3 warm up oil instead. How stupid am I? I should have worn two jerseys, but I wanted to keep one for the ride home, which I expected I would be doing fairly soon as I had no intention of lasting more than 3 laps in the race. I can train in cold and rain, but racing and cornering in it are generally out of my league. As a rule, I tend to corner as well as a 4 tonne truck, but I think I've improved a little after my experience on the Tour moto last year.

Feeling ridiculously underdressed, I ventured outside again, hopped on the bike and almost shuddered to death riding down to the start. Attempted to warm up, but that just made me colder. It was too late to put on my other jersey and leg warmers, so I just put on a rictus grin and bore it like the idiot I am.

I saw Miwako and Junko and a sightseeing friend of theirs (sorry, forgot her name) on the start line and they burst out laughing, not believing that I turned up in this weather to race. I explained to them that 3 laps would be good for me today, an hour at the most. But there was no time for chatting as the whistle blew and we were off.

Racing in Hooglede
© Miwako Sasaki

The course was just under 5 km, with about 10 corners a lap and an uphill finishing straight which kept going - even conveniently passing the change rooms at one point. There were two particularly nasty corners - less than 90 degrees, paved (not cobbled), and one of them had a round metal plate slap bang in the middle!! Argh! I only saw one crash on it though, which was amazing. My back wheel slipped on it at least three times when I pedalled too early out of the corner, but it was recoverable. Early on I was losing a lot of time sprinting out of those corners, which is typical for me. Good sprinting practice though.

I deliberately started at the back to stay out of trouble and not get in anyone's way. Sure there were strong crosswind sections in bits of it, but it was just as hard at the back as it was in the middle, and you didn't have to fight for your position :-) Also I didn't have to worry about missing the break, because by remaining at the back I was *guaranteed* to miss it! Takes all the pressure off, see?

Once we got going I didn't feel the cold any more, although the wind, rain, and the spray from everyone's wheels made it very difficult to see. It would have been worse with sunglasses on, as I don't have any clear lenses. I think I've removed all the grit from my eyes now.

As normal, it was hard going for the first few laps, and I was definitely suffering by the third lap up the finishing straight. But I was trying to enjoy it and relax, because racing in appalling conditions in Flanders, cheered on by two Japanese journalists and their friend and a grim, but appreciative crowd of West Flemings in cycling's heartland is really what its all about. As I said at the top, it's difficult to describe without doing it, but for a foreigner it's just an incredible experience. Wet and dirty too.

The first hour was quite hard, but somehow I had survived being shelled out the back of the now slightly reduced peloton. Whenever I had bothered to lift my eyes from the back wheel in front of me, I could see a long, thin line of riders, with a group always dangling 10-20 seconds off the front. I think this group actually stayed clear, although I deluded myself into thinking that our bunch was "it" and we were racing for first. Wow - the power of the mind! The truth of the matter was that the leaders were so far in front that we couldn't see them any more :-)

After about 50 km, I could see that things were slowing down enough and gaps were starting to appear in the bunch. This is generally a good time to move up and start to play a more interactive role in the race, instead of being a UN observer at the back (at least I didn't get shot at). By this stage the race for the first 23 was actually over, even though I didn't realise it. Our bunch had been reduced to about 40, and kept getting thinner as the laps wore on.

Getting dirtier in Hooglede
© Miwako Sasaki

The hands were a tad chilly by now, which made shifting even worse than before. My derailleur has all but packed it in so I have to shift twice, then back one to go down a gear. I'll get a "new" second hand one tomorrow. But for some reason I was still forcing myself to enjoy it, turning off the fear mechanism in order to get round these ridiculous corners.

Groups of four or five were going off the front at regular intervals, and a couple of times I put in a few solo efforts to bridge up to them. All that training trying to catch the Schelde bunch in the mornings because I'm always late paid off. I'd end up in a break that wouldn't work because that's the way racing goes here. But each time we were caught by fewer and fewer riders, until there were only about 20 of us left with 10 laps to go.

The race commissaire drove up and checked all our numbers, which means that our race was probably due to end soon. By this stage I'd sort of realised that we weren't actually racing for first. I missed the moves that actually got away in the next few laps, and went with all the ones that got caught. But that didn't really bother me.

With about 5 laps to go, I followed a guy who attacked in the crosswind on the second last straight, and he actually towed me just about all the way to the finish line without even looking round. Then he sprinted and I simply couldn't follow him. I'll catch him at the top of the hill, I thought. Then another couple of guys sprinted past me, and I looked up through the grit in my eyes and saw the finish line official waving the red flag for the end of the race. Oops. I "sprinted" - and I use the term in the loosest possible sense - and ended up fifth of what was left of our group. All up, 94 km at a "slow" average of 39 km/h, but I think there were...extenuating circumstances. Even the winner didn't average much more than 40, whereas the norm here is 43+.

For me, it was very cool to last that long, and I later discovered I finished 30th i.e. just in the money (although I ended up 10 euros down for the day due to train travel. LOL.). While waiting for my prize money at the Cafe Lanterne, I had a post-race coffee, mainly because it came with a small biscuit. The caffeine was wasted on me though. I even managed to explain in my rudimentary Dutch to one of the many old men in the cafe, where I lived, where I finished, and - most importantly - how much my bike weighed. I've said it before, but it's very fine to be in a country where cycling is so ingrained.

My plans of riding back to Gent (which had now been changed to riding back to Lichtervelde station) were derailed even further by Miwako and Junko and their friend, who insisted I throw the bike in Junko's car and go back to their place for a hot chocolate. Arrrrhhhhhh. Now that is an offer that no-one in their right mind would refuse, and even though I wasn't in my right mind, I still didn't refuse.

It turned out better than that. Not only was there a warm fire, hot chocolate and coffee, Junko whipped up a large batch of pannekoeken and a few toasted ham and cheese sandwiches...Arrrrhhhhhh. It *really* doesn't get any better than this!

After chatting for a couple of hours, we bundled back into Junko's car and they gave me a lift to the station. Very cool people.

There you have it, Jeff's Ultimate Bike Racing Experience (tm).

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