14 April 2007

Tour of Flanders

Next up The Tour of Flanders, a classic one day race, held in conjunction with the men’s race. This is the fourth running of the race for Women, and one of the biggest, most hotly contested one day races, for the World Cup series. This would have to one of the more prestige races for the girls to win, and with the streets lined with spectators waiting for the men’s race, one of the most exciting for the atmosphere present. We have won this the last two years, with Mirjam taking both wins, and a third place last year for Loes G, so this race has been good for us so far. This years race, was going to be interesting for us, with Mirjam not quite up to speed, after her accident last year, she was not to start. So the race would be wide open for the other teams hungry for a win.

We had a younger team racing this time round, with Susanne L taking the cap for the team, she was supported by Amber and Loes G for the lead, and Annette, Iris and Mie taking up the slack. This is one of the toughest races on the circuit this season, with 11 mean climbs, three of them covered in nasty cobbles. As well as the climbs, there are 11 sections of old cobbles, some of them up to 3 or 4 km long, this is one race you need to be prepared for. The cool thing is that we do all the climbs and cobbled sections as the men’s race, the difference being, they have a 100 or so more km to ride before they get to our start. This would be the most serious race for the bikes, wheels and tyres, and probably the most sweating that I do in the back of the car, in any race. We make some changes to the setups of the bikes from a normal race. A bigger tubular, from 23mm to a nice fat 25mm, these are glued on to both a low carbon and alloy rim. No high carbon wheels for us today, they may look cool, but far too stiff for the cobbled sections, giving you a far harder ride, and a higher chance of punctures, by almost factor of three. And even worse is the chance for multiple crashes, with a big peloton, filled with nervous riders, it’s just asking for the wheels to be smashed to bits.

A profile of the race from the race guide, doesn't it look cool.

The drive was a short one from home base, kind of strange really, as I was at the hotel in and hour and a half. The carpark was full with trucks and race cars from the men, with a few of the smaller women’s teams trucks filling the gaps. The night looked clear, so we were expecting a fine day, not really what we wanted, as our girls love the rain and the wind, and it gives them a great advantage over the other softer teams. But the morning was cold, as I started, it was sitting at a cool 1.5’C, this was the coldest day I have had since arriving a few weeks ago, so it was kind of nice for a change. After five or six summers in a row, a day of winter was good for the system, just to remind me what a winter feels like. I had done all my work the night before, so a little bit of tyre pumping to go, and I was ready for the start.

A nice cold start to the day, lets hope it gets warmer.

A small drive to the start town of Oudenaarde, and the temperature was not budging one single degree, the sun was coming out, but things were not changing so quick. The race was full, with 28 teams racing, each with six riders, it was a very full peloton. Lucky we had car number 6, at least we would see something of the race, and would be quick on the spot if there was any crashes or problems with the bikes. Riding cobbles can be pretty bad for your body, but it’s the bikes I worry about. Things shaking loose, bars moving, and numerous other problems can occur if you are not so careful, but after checking each bike about fifty times, I was ready, and confident. But still there is always that little bit of fear in the back of my mind, did I get everything, are the tyres the right pressure, etc. But after a few hundred races, this huge fear, kind of moves aside, as you see all the other mechanics panicking, and furiously fixing the last few problems. The guy next to us in the carpark, was a wreck, it looked like he had been working all night, and was still sweating putting the final touches to his team’s bikes. I could help but piss myself laughing as he dropped a big case of small parts, all over the road, it was the last straw, he almost lost it. Lucky he could see us laughing at him.

Some of the gang before the start.

The race begun with a roar, the speed was incredible, over 45km/hr to start with, and there was riders hanging off the back of the bunch already. The sun was getting hot, and soon we had a high of 22’c, this was going to be a hot day after all, thank god, no chance of rain. Well they raced for an hour or so, a few teams were having troubles already, with many girls getting flats, some of them getting a couple in the first 50km, what a bummer. The streets were small, so getting through the caravan of about 40 cars would have been interesting, lucky we had only about 6 cars to move through, hope we didn’t have to try. Opps, spoke too soon as the first major crash was upon us, about thirty girls were down, what a mess. As I run up on the crash, I could see a pile of girls (most guys would love this idea) almost four high in a pile. I had a quick look, helping a few of the other teams get the pile untangled. Were weren’t going anywhere in the cars, until the mess was cleaned up a bit. No one was really hurt, and lucky enough, all our girls were well out of the way in the front of the bunch. But there was a fair bit of skin off in the pile, but all of them except one, got back on the road. Twenty or so of the girls were not to be finishing the race, unfortunately for them. A few weeks training out the door, and a few sore asses to boot.

This pic doesn't give it justice, but a truck mounted observation deck, that folds out to a two story, huge, glass hangout.

The race started to get serious, when two of bunch escaped for about two hours, gaining a lead of up to about 3 mins at one stage. None of the other teams were interested in chasing them, neither were we, so we just relaxed. A few more smaller crashes, a lot more punctures from other teams, was making the following caravan a race in itself. With some very small country lanes, some with cobbles, holes and other various obstacles was making life fun. The last climbs were looming, with the last one being the deciding climb for many races in the past. The Murr, or wall in English, was the killer for the day, with a gradient of about 20%, it looks a lot steeper in real life, with stones so old and messed up, makes for a nasty climb at the 100km mark. This along with about ten thousand drunk Belgium’s, cheering themselves hoarse, makes for the most exciting moment of the race. Here the race changed a bit, with four more riders, including Susanne, managed to escape and join the tow at the front. They raced hard, with the peloton quick on their heels, with a few attacks put in by Karin Thurig (Raleigh Lifeforce), the five had to follow. But with the current World Cup leader Nicole Cooke (same team as Thurig) following, the chasers were getting tired. As they entered the finish chute, Cooke came around the pack of 5, and took yet another win, bring her to a clean sweep of the WC races, 3 in total. Susanne came in 5th I think, and the rest of the gang finishing in the bunch.

The Flemish country side, spring is here, time to plant up the fields.

Hey, you can’t win them all, the Girls were all safe, no damage to the bikes, no crashes, no punctures, and the sun was still shining. What more (besides another win) could you ask for. A quick pack up of the bikes and staff and riders, and we were out of there. The men’s race was about half an hour away, then the traffic would be blocked for a few hours, so we were out of there.

Next up, World Cup number four, Ronde van Drente, and a couple of races either side of this around Drente, in the north of Holland. This is a new race for the WC circuit, the race that NZ lost from Wellington, so the normal three day tour, gets split in to a mess of races. More soon.

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