Echelons form across the narrow farm track. Spread across the full width of the road, we each seek shelter alongside our temporary companions.
There’s a mutual, silent agreement that we’re going to work together. We may all have watched the eventual winners ride off up the road, but we are still willing each other onto the finish. We’re in our own personal race ‚ anything to avoid the dreaded letters DNF beside our name on the results sheet. There will be some glory in finishing. We battle on.
Soon, the road surface deteriorates further. Racing through a farmyard, past huge stacks of hay bales and menacing-looking farm machinery, we’re onto a farm track, descending. A large crowd of supporters greets us as the descent turns into a steady incline.
This is the jewel in this event’s crown, a track scarred with potholes, lunchbox-sized bricks, puddles and slimy mud. My bike bumps and bounces over the path; you would need a four-by-four to get through this, not a road bike with slick 25 millimetre tyres.
I try to let the bike float over the large areas of gravel, broken tarmac, water-filled potholes and large rocks. Picking a clean route through while jostling for position is more luck than skill. Finding traction is a struggle. Not every rider makes it through intact. This is the breaking point of the race.
I grip the bars tighter and decide that the best way across is flat out. Gritting teeth, I push on the pedals as hard as I can. Dodging a fallen rider, my bike squirming on the slop, I veer into a pile of bricks. I try to unweight the bike as the tyres pound into and bounce over them. My heart is racing – a puncture now would be a cruel end to my race.
Then we’re onto the tarmac, slithering in the mud that has been dragged onto the road by the riders. The huge cheers from the crowd are overwhelming yet hard to decipher beyond being those of admiration. People holding wheels in preparation line the road, some offering bottles. And we’re through. For another lap.
It’s about as close to racing in Belgium as you’ll get in the UK, along with the Rutland-Melton held further north. Its roads might not be as steeped in tradition as the spring Classics, nor are the roads considered as punishing. But it still sparks some of the fascination that makes us admire the true grit of the sport’s hard men, such as multiple Paris-Roubaix winner Roger De Vlaeminck and last year’s winner Tom Boonen.
The Dengie offers a unique chance to emulate those tough roadmen, putting you right into those sepia-toned photos we all admire. It was a race of courage.
Even though I was nowhere near the pace of the leaders, I’m glad to have taken part in a very unique race and one that I’ll be telling stories about for years to come.
Extract from 1 issue 17.