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Staring At The Biscuit Tin

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Photographs: Marijn de Vries

The moment my alarm clock pulls me out of my dream, I groan. No, not today. Please, leave me here in bed, under the duvet. I don’t want to go there.
The first women’s World Cup race of the season, the Ronde van Drenthe, is today. It’s a race in the north of the Netherlands, over small roads with cobbled sections through the forest and over a steep man-made hill which – only in the Netherlands – is actually a rubbish tip. This, plus the strong wind, makes almost every edition pretty epic. It’s the Hell of the North of women’s racing.
It’s also the area where I grew up. The race passes the places of my youth, the streets I know so well. For me, it’s special to race here and last year’s Drenthe World Cup was the best race of my season. My best race ever, actually. In horrible, cold and wet conditions I ended up eighth. Since then, I’ve been looking forward to doing it again.
And now I stumble out of bed with a broken collarbone. I crashed in Het Nieuwsblad and was operated on two days later. I’m healing really fast, but from the moment I felt the sharp edge of a broken bone sticking out of my skin, I knew I wouldn’t be racing just a fortnight later. I was heartbroken.
I still am. Why, oh why, did I promise the organisers of the race that I’d be a speaker in a bus full of VIPs? It’s like putting a hungry kid and a tin of biscuits together in a room, and forbidding the child from eating one. Yes, being there and not being able to participate is pure torture. But the organisers didn’t really leave me a choice.
So here I am, in a bus, with a group of people who ask me all the time if I am an ex-rider. Or, when they know who I am, say it must me so nice for me to at least watch the race now I’m not able to participate myself. I know they’re just trying to be friendly, but I feel like yelling: “What do you think? It’s the most horrible thing to be forced to do!”
The bus pulls over so we can watch the race pass. I stare at the cobbles and try to be cheerful to the VIPs, but I can feel tears welling when the leading motorbikes hit the cobbles. When the first riders race onto the section, I see Chantal Blaak is the one who leads the pack – and then I am forced to look the other way. I don’t want to cry out loud.
Somehow I manage to quell the feeling of sadness at being sidelined and start to enjoy the day more. The VIPs appear to be very interested and, as always, I like to share stories from the women’s peloton. In the front seat of the bus, with a microphone in my hand, I elaborate on the art of riding Dutch cobbles, which are much smaller and rounder than Belgian ones. The people in this area call them baby’s heads. Every time we stop, my prediction of what is happening in the race appears to be true – which makes me a bit proud. See, I know what I’m talking about!
We arrive at the finish with 15 kilometres to go for the leaders. I hurry to a big screen and the feeling of not being there, on my bike, hits me again. The last bits of cheerfulness seem to have been squeezed out of me and I lean on the barriers, totally washed out.
My former team-mate Lizzie Armitstead wins and I leave the VIP tent as soon as possible. But not before the VIPs all have thanked me. My cheeks cramp from smiling while they’re shaking my hand, saying nice things to me and patting me firmly on my injured shoulder.

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