What had been a long day of sitting around and killing time had finally slipped away and an abundance of time suddenly seemed like not enough. With 45 minutes to go I got my number pinned on and began riding up and down the street near the cafe attempting to get warmed up. It wasn't completely clear where the start was going to be and if it was announced I missed it in the Flemish babble. I was hoping to get a look at the course, but it wasn't really marked so didn't want to get too far away.
While the actual warm-up wasn't going so well I was able to get a couple additional facts. 1st, the wind was even worse than I thought. A cold and steady 30mph blast with vicious gusts up to 40. This was very new to me. I've never even ridden in winds like this let alone raced. The second bit of intelligence I gathered was that I had put my number on incorrectly. In non pro-tour California racing we are instructed to put our race numbers on our rib cages - as I did here. In Europe however they put their numbers on like the pros do - over a jersey pocket on the lower back. So as not to look like a tool when I got to the line, I hopped off the bike, pulled off my jersey and moved my number.
The race was scheduled for 4:30. That time was quickly approaching and it still wasn't obvious where the start was. Guys we're circling around so I just tried to stay close to them. Then without instruction everyone seemed to line up and a blue shirted officials appeared to get everyone organized. I was in front of the lineup so found myself in good position at the start line. This was good news - if it was going to be fast off the line being at the front from was the place to be. The road was pretty narrow so trying to fight though 106 guys to get to the front would be tough. Things were tranquil and I was feeling relaxed. Having done plenty of racing, I don't really get that nervous anymore. Maybe I should have been a little more anxious, a slightly higher heart rate may have prepared me for what was about to happen.
One of the officials said something, and everyone began moving up to some imaginary new start line. Being in my tranquil fog, I was slow to react and guys started pushing forward all around me. Before the race even got going I was loosing my good position. These pricks were aggressive too, literally bumping into me and pushing my bike out of the way. Annoyed, I tried pushing back but it was too late. What was a good spot at the front was now wedged in toward the back. There wasn't much time to be upset though, an official blew the whistle and the race was on.
It was so packed in at the back that I had to wait for guys to get moving before I could even start to roll out and clip in. The acceleration that immediately followed was acute - shocking. From the start everyone was out of the saddle sprinting from the dead stop. There was no windup, no parade lap to see the 8k course, it was balls to the walls all out sprinting to simply hold position. Being at the back I couldn't see the road ahead and when we hit the first roundabout everything exploded into total chaos. Bikes were darting left and right, bunny hopping onto the sidewalks and over the center median. Everyone was yelling and pushing each other out of the way. I had guys leaning into my from both sides and it was everything I could do to protect my front wheel and handle bars. As we cleared the round about and turned to the right the next big acceleration came. The guys at the front who we're able to get through the obstacle quickly dropped the hammer again, while those of us in the pack and were lucky enough to make it through upright were sprinting again to catch back on.
Only 3-4 kilometers into the race and I suddenly became aware of my breathing. I looked down at the old Garmin 305 I brought on this trip to get an idea of what my heart rate was doing, but the screen was blank. The barging and bumping had vibrated the old cycling GPS off, again. This had been an issue throughout the trip, particularly over rough cobblestone roads. On previous training rides around Europe it was easy enough to simply turn the unit back on. But now at the very top end of my capability it was one task to many. I decided to leave the unit off. Taking my hands off the bars and looking down would be too dangerous. And besides, I didn't need a heart rate monitor to tell me that I was past the red line already.
After the hairball roundabout we were flying through a residential neighborhood. Without the computer I can only estimate the speed, which based my perceived hear rate and the fact that I was sitting in the wheels would say was close to 30mph and faster. The road was good, fresh pavement and two full lanes wide. Houses on both sides plus my position in the field had me "protected" from the wind. I knew I needed to move up. Spotting some small gaps I was able to take a few positions, but that was it. I was going about as hard as I could and getting no where. Guys who race with me know that sitting-in is not my style. I usually like to stay near the front in the top 10-15 positions but I simply had nothing more to give. I had the pedal to the floor, and like an old VW bug trying to get on to the freeway - this was as fast as I could go. Next came a fast 90 degree turn to the left and crosswinds came.
As fast as the turn was made the road narrowed down from a well paved two lane residential street into a 9 foot wide rutty farm road. I was inside and everyone was hard on the breaks pinching us through the corner. The turn onto the narrow road created a frightening bottle neck effect that cost us sorry bastards at the back precious momentum. As we came to a near standstill the sadists at the front began a full sprint out of the turn forcing the rest of us to chase again.
This is when the suffering really began.
That 30mph wind was now blowing directly across the rough narrow farm road. The front 20 or so guys formed an echelon blocking the the wind for each other, while the rest of us were "in the gutter" strung out in a long line with no protection from the wind - doing more work than the guys up ahead while trailing helplessly behind. It was the worst place to be and I knew it. Now I was way past my anaerobic top-end - jaw dropped open, gobs of mucus splattering across my face and on to my sunglasses, it crossed my mind for the first time that I wasn't going to be able to keep this up for another 110 kilometers.
Somehow, I managed to stay attached through the crosswind section and the field made another left turn, this time directly into the wind where being directly behind the guys in front offered some protection. We crossed back through the town center finally completing the first of what should have been 13, 8 kilometer laps. I glanced back over my shoulder to check my position in the field and realized that I was the last guy. The thought of being at the back for another run at that crosswind section was terrifying. There was no way I was going to let that happen again. Like the hundreds of thousands of men who died in trenches on the very ground during the first world war I made what was to be my "final push."
With the last of what I had in the tank, I jumped out of the saddle and surged through the pack moving up to a sheltered position mid field. Needing to let off the gas just for a second, I tried to catch my breath but choked on a gob of goo that erupted from my lungs. In that moment letting off the pressure - guys surged around me, and again I was slipping toward the back. Now I had run out of anger. The poisonous thoughts of giving up were encouraged by my pounding heart thumping against my ribcage.
No, I had to stay in this!
I latched onto the wheel of one of the guys surging around me and was again moving up instead of back. A brief flash of light filled my universe of suffering for that moment - if I could just hang-on. If I could make it to the front for the crosswind section and get a protected position they were surly going to ease up at some point. I just needed to hang-on.
Suddenly we were in the round about again and this time I was forced onto the sidewalk in a pack mad shouting Belgians, punching at each others thighs and fighting to keep the wheels on the ground. In a flash, the guys in front of me parted to the left and right revealing a mailbox directly in my path. Who would put a mailbox in the middle of a bike race? Why would a bike race be on a sidewalk? The absurd madness of it all gave way to pure survival instincts. On the breaks, rear wheel locking up I miraculously missed the mailbox. But the damage was done. Now I was at the back again. I was starting to crack.
The field turned again onto the narrow crosswinds section and I was shat off the back. As the field pulled away I had to lean into the wind to keep the bike upright. Now I had a clear view of the echelon ahead noticing for the first time that there were big white and brown cows looking on from the open fields around mus, an ambulance parked on the shoulder and a few silent spectators who knew better than to try to cheer me on. There was some solace in that I wasn't the only one left behind. Even in my depleted state I was passing others for whom the effort was also beyond their physical range.
Pulling into the town center for a second time I was mercifully pulled from the race by a clipboard wielding official in a blue shirt. Head hung down I coasted to a spot out of the wind and leaned my bike against a wall. I slouched down into a heap on the sidewalk and began coughing as my heart rate finally began to come down. Producing foamy lumps that I shamelessly spat into the gutter, I noticed the coppery taste of blood in my spit, feeling deeply thankful that the suffering was over. Thinking back to the first post of this blog, "How Hard Could it Be?" I thought, "THIS HARD," as I tried to wash away with my water bottle the disgusting pustules of my lung mucus collecting in the gutter in front of me. But I did it. I put myself in a whole new place attempting the impossible and the insane against semi-pros and sadists.
106 six racers started the race and only 9 finished.
All Strong guys, future pros and crazed enthusiasts gave it a go here in Belgium and I felt proud to have lined up with all of them. As my hacking finally began to subside, the smell of golden and crispy fritjes (Belgian french fries) wafted my way from the stand around the corner.
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