The magic of the Ronde

Imagine the team you barrack for is in the grand final. You and thousands (of not millions) of other fans have been waiting for this day with non-stop chatter about who is in form and what may happen once the whistle blows. Now imagine that everyone’s favourite team is playing in the grand final. At the same time. On the same field.

Sounds ridiculous right? There would be pushing and shoving, swearing and shouting, and inevitably somebody would get hurt in the pursuit of getting the ball over the line. Now add speed, tarmac, cobbles and a bike for each person and you have a real Classic. You have the Tour of Flanders.

In Belgium, Flanders is the highlight of the cycling season. Belgians love cycling — I mean really love cycling — so this day is practically a national holiday with an estimated crowd of over 1 million people yelling and drinking on the side of the road.

Ronde van Vlaanderen  2014 women

It began in 1913 and has built a reputation for being one of the hardest one-day races of the year since the end of the World Wars when the Belgians wanted it to become an international event. They initially raced over the now-famous cobbled roads out of necessity and convenience, but when tar roads became the norm the race organisers had to find back roads and climbs which would make sure of one thing: that the finish should never come down to a bunch sprint.

The women’s edition of the prestigious race didn’t begin until relatively recently in 2004. The distance is just over half that of the men’s race at about 140km, including many of the difficult cobbled sections. The race is special for us not just because of the history of the roads, but because it comes second to none for the crowd.

We don’t get to experience the craziness of the Grand Tours like the men, so for one day of the year we soak up the craziness of the Belgian fans hollering over the fences for any rider in any kit.

Memories of the race

My first experience of the Ronde was last year. It was my first full season as a professional and I was blessed with the green and gold stripes already. I got called up to start on the front line in front of thousands of people in the central square of Oudenaarde, the town where the men and women were to finish the epic day.

After having pored over the glossy pages of cycling photography books in the local Ronde van Vlaanderen museum years ago during a trip to the cute little town, it was beyond surreal to be standing there at the front of the women’s peloton alongside greats such as Marianne Vos, ready to begin my first Flanders.

Last season I had a great introduction to spring racing. After surprising myself (and others) and winning the national championships, I ran head first into racing I had never experienced before. I rode in the front and made the right moves in many races, providing support to my more experienced team-mates. By Flanders my confidence had grown and I knew how to navigate the bunch and the treacherous roads.

I stayed safe in the bunch for most of the race, and even put in a few small attacks with my team mates to see if the bunch would react. I was there at the pointy end but didn’t have the legs when the real action happened with about 30km to go, at the very tough section of cobbles called the Oude Kwaremont (have a look at my video here). The lead bunch was small and ultimately it was a four-up sprint of the very best, but I was still disappointed not to be there.

This year I surprised myself (and others!) again when I won the nationals for a second time. Training in my hometown of Canberra before I left for Europe I had never felt fitter. I arrived late after an important stopover on my way, and had to jump straight into the racing with no time to settle. It’s been a month now and I still feel like I’m finding my legs. I can’t help but have high expectations of myself, so to not be racing with the best has bitten into my confidence.

I wrote down Flanders at the start of the year as one of my big goals. I’d been training hard with lots of short intense hill sessions, some base miles, motor-pacing, sprinting, core training, yoga and a TTT camp thrown in for good measure. I’ve been watching my diet very closely, weighing myself regularly. In my mind all I could see was the Oude Kwaremont and how badly I wanted to make it over it with the big girls. I was ready to suffer!

The big day

I woke up before my alarm at an hour that is very unlike me. Flanders day is like my second Christmas, and I wanted to shake my roommate Emma (Johansson) awake saying “It’s Flanders day! It’s Flanders day!”.

I did a 20-minute spin on the rollers before breakfast to warm up my legs and get the body firing for the day. Typically we don’t warm up before road races in Europe, but I find a morning spin really helps me. I indulged in a big carb-heavy breakfast of toast and cereal and enough coffee to really ignite the jets.

We arrived in the start town of Oudenaarde to a big crowd of excited fans. Our new team edition camper became more valuable to us as we hid inside from the photographers and autograph collectors, a novelty to us usually. We also used the camper for a team meeting to rehash our team plan: ride for Emma.

The Orica-AIS team camper: good for team meetings and for hiding from photographers.

The Orica-AIS team camper: good for team meetings and for hiding from photographers.

Loes (Gunnewijk) and Jessie (MacLean) would look after the front in the first 50km; I would then start to become more active in the middle; Shara (Gillow) would drive it into the last few climbs; and Spratty (Amanda Spratt) would look after Emma for as long as possible at the end.

The race

Rain clouds threatened but fortunately they were bluffing and we started the day in just summer kit and arm warmers that were quickly discarded. I was lucky to be asked again to start on the front line with the other national and World Cup jersey wearers, like I had the year before. I made sure to really soak up the atmosphere this time around.

The first 40km before the climbs began were hectic. Belgian racing is usually a fight but today was a war. There were girls pushing into non-existent gaps and consequently there were many unnecessary crashes.

By about 10km or so I found myself following the wheel of an Ale Cipollini rider who was surging and when I looked behind I realised we had a gap. I sat on for a few minutes, waiting for the bunch to pull us back but the gap only grew bigger. I started to pull some soft turns, deciding that conserving energy in a breakaway was better than spending energy in the bunch fighting for position.

To my relief, about 5km later we were reeled back in but by this stage we had lost Amanda Spratt to a crash. Her important role was now given to me, the instructions communicated to me via the radio in my ear [ed. race radios are only allowed in World Cup races for women]. I had to throw all my doubts out the window to be as useful to Emma near the end of the race as I could be.

A change of tack

I remained in and near the front of the race fairly comfortably for the first 100km, attentive to the other teams and staying near Emma so she could give me any orders. I felt decent on the short steep climbs and really good on the flat cobbled sections. The Dutch team Rabobank were really the only ones trying to form a breakaway, but were unsuccessful with most of the bunch trying to stay conservative.

Amanda Spratt crashed out of the race, breaking her collarbone.

Amanda Spratt crashed out of the race, breaking her collarbone.

The bunch broke up over each difficult section and swelled again before the next. I was caught out of position coming into the Kanarieberg and the pace increased considerably. I made sure to ride smart and get in the wheels of the second main group forming over the crest and not panic that I’d missed the front. Thankfully it came back within a few kilometers but I could tell my legs were finally hurting.

The next climb was the Kruisberg, but to my surprise it was the cobbled street parallel to the main road that I thought we were riding. My legs started to scream when we hit the rough steep climb and I found myself in the second group once again.

Shara was with me and we sat in and hoped it would come back. It did, and as soon as we reached the group we both went straight to the front. We went into TTT mode to try and bring race leader Ellen van Dijk back heading into the famed and feared Oude Kwaremont [ed. Ellen van Dijk (Boels-Dolmans) had attacked solo with 27km left in the race, just before the Kruisberg.] We wanted to give Emma the best chance of victory.

Shara and I both knew we were doing what is called the “suicide pull”. We swapped off as fast as we could with tired legs and then when the road tilted upwards again towards the tunnel of screaming fans, the lights went out. I dropped off the back as the cobbles began and watch the front 35 riders grind away.

Roxane Knetemann (Rabobank-Liv) attempts to breakaway with Orica-AIS's Shara Gillow.

Roxane Knetemann (Rabobank-Liv) attempts to breakaway with Orica-AIS’s Shara Gillow.

Although it was the very point of the race I had been training for to get through, I was more happy than disappointed because I knew I had given all I could manage to our team leader Emma. I was only frustrated for her to be on her own against teams with better numbers.

I rode solo up the Oude Kwaremont between the first and second group, and received the most amazing cheering. I looked up from the jagged biting road and took in as much of the atmosphere as I could enjoy through my pain. There were plenty of “Go Aussie!” cheers, and even a few yells of my own name. I couldn’t help but turn my grimace into a grin. I threw a bidon into the throng of revelers just to see their excited faces.

Up the road, the crème of women’s cycling were battling it to the very end. Aussie and ex-team mate Tiff Cromwell put in a brave attack near the end but it wasn’t to be. No-one could catch the current time-trial world champion van Dijk as she soloed to victory. Emma dragged van Dijk’s team mate and current World Cup leader Armitstead to the finish and spent every last cent to finish third overall.

Ronde van Vlaanderen  2014 women

I rolled into the finish with the main bunch that had regrouped in the last 10km. They sprinted for pride and UCI points, but I was happy to be so spent that I didn’t want to bother! Seven hours later as I am writing this blog, my legs are still aching.

The wash-up

Overall as a team we are happy with the day and how we executed our plan, but when you race to win it can be a little disappointing when it doesn’t happen. Credit goes to Emma — she always thanks us after a hard day regardless of what the result was. She is a great winner and definitely not a sore loser.

Personally I was happy with my day. I came into the race with little confidence and I felt a lot better than I had hoped. My result was similar to last year but I feel like I had a bigger impact on the race today and that I rode some sections much better.

I have two days to recover now before heading up to Holland to begin the five-day Energiewacht Tour on Wednesday. Now with a bit more confidence in my form and mentality I am really looking forward to pinning on the numbers again!

Thank you for following and supporting women’s cycling.

You can check out more of Gracie’s writing at her great blog here. You can also follow her on Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

Follow the link for full results from the 2014 women’s Tour of Flanders. Check out Chloe Hosking’s report from the first race of the World Cup, the Ronde van Drenthe here. Check out Tiffany Cromwell’s report from round two of the World Cup, the Trofeo Alfredo Binda here.