Stage 1 – 102km RR
Day one of this prestigious three-day stage race was, on paper, a day for the sprinters due to the profile of the course (it was as flat as a pancake). 180 riders took to the start line, and not too long into the first day was the first crash. My God was it a bigg’n! All it took was 1.6km and that was the atmosphere for the rest of the race, nervous. After that first crash the race was either strung out or in grid-lock with the front of the bunch parking up and going walking-pace. This made it virtually impossible to move up especially when you had bigger goals in mind in this stage race. So I played it safe at the back, saving my legs for the following days, especially the last one as I really didn’t want to blow up on the Queen stage.
Stage 2 – 12km TT
So here it was, my big goal for the race. With an awful night’s sleep and my incapability to complete the set warm up, it wasn’t looking good for my goal. To add to that, it had been spitting all morning, so there was a “nice” fine layer of water mixed with the grease that you find from the previous warm days. Heading down the start ramp I took it easy with a sketchy corner at the bottom of the hill, my effective race start was after that unforgiving corner. As I had ridden the course the previous day, twice, I effectively rode the whole course head down to get #bareaero. I had to of course change up my tactics due to the unfavourable weather in the morning. I railed all the corners perfectly, if I do say so myself. My only downfall was the long straights where I tailed off a little bit towards the end of the section (my bad legs were to blame), especially after being 4 seconds down at the first time check.
Stage 3 – 81km RR
The second stage of Saturday’s races. This race, although still sketchy, was on the whole a lot better for myself and the team. With my move up to 17th overall in the morning, I was set to keep my top 20. If I’m honest the race was more like a gravel race for me, as I moved up on the “gutter” (the general name for any surface at the side of the road) which was just hard-packed enough to ride a bike over without losing any speed whatsoever. Incidentally, every other rider in the peloton either didn’t have the skills to ride it or was just afraid of getting a puncture (I would hedge my bets on the latter). Going into the final laps, my legs were feeling better than the morning and wanted to try something on the last short, but substantial, cobble section. I was unfortunately too far back to make an impact. So going into the last 5km I found my teammate and told him I would lift the pace and get him to the front for the sprint, which I duly did and he managed to get a fantastic 7th in a bloody fast sprint. I myself finished 25th after a dodgy last roundabout where there was almost a crash. After the stage I moved up a place on GC to 16th overall.
Stage 4 – 99km (~1300m elevation)
So to end an already successful race, was the queen stage. To complete the day we had to navigate 3 times round a course of 33km with 4 major Flemish Ardennes climbs, most notably the Valkenberg (not to be confused with the Dutch Valkenburg), and the infamous uphill cobblestones road called the Paddestraat. This caused mayhem later into the race, but we’ll get into that in a bit. The race didn’t start out great for me with some dead legs on the brutal Valkenberg. Fortunately, the legs clicked into gear over the top and actually got better as the race went on. On one of the descents there was super heavy crash of a rider just in front of me. Unfortunately he crashed, by flipping over the front of his handlebars and landing at the top of his back/lower neck. He was moaning aggressively post-crash, which is very disconcerting. Then came the aforementioned cobbles section. We actually rode this the downhill way in the Tour of Flanders back in April, but this time was the much harder way with a 2% incline for 2km. On the right there was a small but rideable “gutter,” and yes there was a catch literally and metaphorically. If you moved all of two inches to the right or to the left you would be coming straight off the bike as there was a big lip to either side big enough to catch the rim of the wheel. In fact several suffered the consequence of poor handling and this big “lip” I managed to have a few close calls myself, and while doing so placed too far down the peloton when the race leader and madly strong USA rider Quinn Simmons attacked. At the end of the day, I tried some small attack but I never managed to get away and came 21st on a brutal day in the saddle and 17th on GC.
To put it into perspective, 66 riders finished this iconic junior stage race and 180 riders started the race. Including 5 national teams of 5 riders (USA, Germany, Finland, Norway, Italy).
So that completes two stage races within the month, including a successful race in France where I won the points jersey (and 24th on GC) for the 3 stage race (2 days).
Over ‘n’ Out.
Massive thanks to Joeri De Coninck for the awesome photos
Massively grateful for Trainsharp’s support and training to allow me to compete at this very top level
Thanks to the continued support of Pedal Potential this year
and of course to my team for the opportunities this year, Spiderking Soenens