Craywinkelhof: Omloop Van Het Hageland 1.1
The race today is mostly road, with about 10K of cobbles and a few short but mean climbs. Not too bad, right? Normal road racing? Nah. The catch is that most of the roads are sidewalk-sized, there are numerous tight turns (think US Crit, but for… 80 miles), and the pavement is covered in potholes, bad lines, and random road furniture like cement blocks and raised roundabouts. Add some barbed wire and mud, and that’s Belgium racing. A small part of me is aware that these races will begin to lose the novelty and insanity with time, but coming from Indiana crits with fields of 30 people, it feels insurmountable. This is an entirely new sport, and I am in the absolute most vertical part of the learning curve one could ever be in. Think: a straight line to the sky. 90 degree angle type shit.
Before the race, our DS casually tells us “yeah there’s only one spot where you could fall, on a bridge around 30K. Make sure you’re at the front, and you’ll be fine!” I look at him in horror. Cycling is already extreme in how it pushes you so much mentally and physically, but, oh yeah- try not to fall off the bridge and die, either! Roger that! Still, I try my best to snap into racing mindset. Fighting mindset. No more thinking about everything that can go wrong, the bridges, the barbed wire, the intimidating women in the peloton. This is war, I am about to go all in, I am going to stay at the front no matter what. On the line, I look back, the entire peloton mass behind me, so big I can’t see the last riders. Gulp. I take a deep breath. The flag waves, the gun goes off, and the race starts.
We take off through one roundabout, in neutral. Seconds later, I feel myself flying backwards, the peloton swarming around me, my brain flailing, my fear taking over. I am at the back when a crash takes out the back left group of riders. I narrowly avoid it, sprinting around them, glancing to see bikes piled and riders with bloody noses on the ground. I try to ignore it, I pretend like I don’t care, but I am vaguely aware that I am most definitely not in the right headspace.
I see gaps, but I don’t take them. I spend more time envisioning crashes and trying to avoid dangerous areas than focusing on moving up, in getting into the near-meditative state that is required to maintain position in a race like this. Before I know it, and without even consciously deciding, I feel myself braking, letting girls dive bomb wheels and grab them from me easily, and I am the last wheel of the entire race. I am far from the chaos, I am safe, but I am not racing. Being last wheel going into the first turn, I seal my fate.
For the next two hours, the front of the peloton flies through corners, while the back slows down so much we come to a near complete stop. After I emerge from every corner, the front of the race is a mile away and I am sprinting as hard as I can to remain somewhat-attached to the back. Drop, sprint, come back. Each time I finally get back to the group, I become too scared to bully my way to the front, not knowing how, not having the energy after a full gas effort to get there in the first place- and BOOM. Another corner, another stop, another sprint.
The worst part is that my legs feel incredible. It makes me furious. I am wasting good legs on stupid positioning and it’s all my own doing. I just don’t have what it takes to be at the front today. I do this for 60K, all of which I spend daydreaming and wondering why the hell I am doing this. I wish for a flat. I ask myself if I am cut out for this. My mind is everywhere but the race.
From the back, I see my teammates float towards me. In a race like this, our inexperience is our achilles heel. I mentally urge them forwards. We approach a climb at 65K and I am aware that my legs don’t have much more to give. I can only close the gap a few more times. I am starting to drop off the last group of stragglers, and my teammate screams at me from behind “DONT GIVE UP GRACE!!” I get jolted awake- she’s right. I fly up the hill, giving it everything I have. On the descent, I catch back on, take the next corner, ready to fight… and then I get gapped again. I attempt car-hopping back to the peloton for my last hurrah, but it’s no use. I am softly pedaling, dripping in shame and annoyance at myself as a blue van rolls up to me. Not fully understanding what he says (haven’t learned Flemish yet unfortunately), he just waves frantically until I stop, takes my bike, and points to the van behind me. It hits me- my god, I am in the damn broom wagon. DNF time.
As I walk up to the van, I see a cheerful face pop up in the back of the window. My teammate is laughing and waving at me, I hop in, and start laughing just as hard. She consoles me, telling me this is what learning is. We laugh about her final send off of “DONT GIVE UP!” - because man, Belgian racing is hard, that it’s okay. We get driven to our team camper, and sit there sipping on protein shakes, trying to figure out what the hell just happened. As we sit there, clearly DNF’d and dropped, (the race still happening for another 1.5 hours!)- various Belgian fans come up and ask us for bottles, jerseys, photos, and autographs. I was the LAST rider in the peloton. And this old dude knows who I am, and wants my autograph? It left me in tears I was laughing so hard, but it also made me smile.
Cycling is on another level in Belgium. Another dimension. Simply being here, experiencing it, learning in such a cutthroat environment, in the center of the cycling world- that is beyond special. I am so very lucky to get to learn like this, even if it can be humiliating and frustrating and terrifying all at once. And even though I am not proud of my race, this is the rite of passage as a cyclist, getting your shit kicked in and humbled more times than you can count. Racing scared, and learning how to be a little less scared next time. As my director reminded me, everyone has to start somewhere. Perhaps it’s better to share and fully embrace these learning moments as I go, because it is truly one of the more beautiful aspects of this sport. A sport where fitness can only get you so far; a sport that is defined more through self confidence, grit, and mental strength than raw power. In order to succeed I have to believe I can, before I do. It’s the secret sauce. Fake it til you make it.