Het Volk. My first Classic. I'll join you in thinking it was a rather strange choice of programming and also my first ever visit to Belgium. I was led to believe the exposure to the delights of the northern European cycling scene was one of the building blocks I was expected to climb. Like giant Lego for the neo-pro.
I soon realised, as I sat at the dinner table on the Friday night before the race, that I wasn't selected to surround the Flandrians with my 58 kilos of pure power. No, my selection was based solely on the criteria that no one else wanted to be there. Specifically, no one French wanted to be there.
It was a trait I'd noticed in the previous year in the amateur ranks. There were hushed tones and rumours of what awaited once you ventured beyond the Somme. I got the impression that nothing good would come of a visit to what was described as a grey wilderness of industry with dragons hiding down cobbled lanes. To the average French cyclist, going anywhere they considered northern was questionable, but Belgium was plainly to be avoided. I could have said I was from Scotland and considered most places south of there as cosy or inviting, but I didn't. I just shut up and got on with being a mercenary.
Looking round the table, out of the ten guys who were going to put a number on their backs the following morning, only two were from the land of our sponsor, Peugeot. Everyone else was an import of some sort: some of us lived amongst them, some didn't, but everyone spoke French at meal times, because that was the official language and of course we were still in France. The hotel might only have been half an hour from the start, but it was on the correct side of the border. A last haven of home comforts.
The directeur sportif was, of course, Belgian and most of the other staff were also locals or from northern France. As I finished off my last supper before the ordeal which lay ahead I definitely felt like I'd been seconded to a branch of the Foreign Legion, doing the dirty work whilst the bourgeoisie quaffed champagne and nibbled canapés in front of a roaring fire. Maybe they were right. After all, it was March, it was Belgium and the weather forecast was questionable.
Oh ye of little faith! Race day arrives and it’s sunny and, even better, dry. At the team briefing, the French guys talk of maybe finishing, whilst the rest of us were given orders of a specific nature. Being new to this Classics lark, my role for the day was to get in the early escape – I was assured there would be one – and if it contained more than five riders, we needed a representative. That seemed like a reasonable request, so as we roll down to the start, all muffled up against the cold, I’m not too worried. I mean, how hard could it be?
“Very” was the answer.
The first half an hour passes rather speedily, with me doing sprints of two minutes on, two minutes off. If it was a break of three guys or less, I can relax, but any more than that and I have to be in the next wave that threw itself up the road in pursuit.
After the first couple of attempts, I cotton on to the fact that I am okay on a wheel going forward at 60kph, but not in the wind doing the pulling, so I reassess my strategy and chose a fellow desperado assigned to being in the escape. I choose him, not because I know who he is, but because he is large, not that quick in the initial acceleration phase and never asks for help – the archetypical minor Belgian team kermesse rider: strong as an ox and built like a brick outhouse. I figure the break isn't going without him.
I follow him for a few more sprints and nothing comes of it. Then just before the first hour is up, four riders escape and there is a lull in the bunch. I’m thinking that was that and I can rest, but then I spot my new friend sneaking up the outside for a cheeky counter attack. At just the right moment, he sets off at full tilt on the bike path with me and three others in tow, head down and asking for nothing till he reaches the group in front. A quick look back and the shutters have comprehensively come down in the bunch. Bingo, we are now in the break.
Two kilometres later, we have a 40-second lead, then a minute, and there is a gentle easing in the pace, which is a relief as I am way over my sustainable level. Just as team cars arrive to dish out the orders, another five guys come across and a discussion ensues between those not wanting to wait and those willing to have more reinforcements join us. There's head shaking and some shouting, but eventually drinks and food are consumed as we wait up, and our nine become 14.
I mistakenly think it'll be easier now with more bodies, but the guys that have come across are of the type that a headwind doesn't hurt. The gap goes up as we blast through villages and small towns, dodging traffic islands, using pavements when cobbles appear and generally behaving like we own the roads. I've started missing turns as the constant fighting with the concrete slab roads and lack of shelter on the back of the line wears me down. My companions aren't sympathetic, because when we reach the point where the course heads back towards the meagre hills on the menu, they start attacking each other. The excuse is the bunch has woken up and soon our TV time will be over.
As the real racers get nearer, our group splits in two on a long false flat and I only make a comeback to the front by hanging onto my original friend. He kindly closes the gap, but five minutes later there's a nasty pavé section which sees me jettisoned forever from the pointy end of the race. Now completely knackered, I've no idea where I am other than somewhere in Flanders, so when the bunch arrives – alarmingly quickly – I stay well out of the way. But I soon figure out why they are rushing when we turn onto a glorified track which goes by the name of Oude Kwaremont.
Craziness turns to carnage: people, bikes, bodies in all directions. There are guys waving wheels, handing up drinks (or trying to), others fighting over lost bidons, all mixed into a barbecue atmosphere of beer and chips. And this is only the start of what will be the finale…
At the top there are 40kms to the finish for the committed or, in my case and predicament, 20 on the wheel of someone who knows the straightest, flattest, easiest way to the showers. Not the hardest choice I've ever made. Then I hear the voice of one of my team-mates: “Where have you been?”
“Getting an education,” I reply.
When we finally get to the finish, there is no hot water left and our two French guys are asleep in the back of a team car.
Belgium, you've got to love it. And the team clearly thought I did, because five weeks later, I got sent to Gent Wevelgem.
From Rouleur issue 52