On Wednesday, 18 April, I took part in my second Flèche Wallonne Femmes World Cup race. Flèche Wallonne is one of the toughest and most prestigious World Cup races on the women’s UCI calendar.
The Flèche Wallonne is such a prestigious race as we race on the same day and same finishing circuits as the men’s race. This means that we experience the amazing vibe and spectatorship of the men’s event.
The race takes place in the hilly Wallonne region of Belgium. It consists of one long loop, summiting the infamous Muur de Huy at 87km, and then a smaller loop finishing on top of the very steep, Muur de Huy at 123km.
On route to the Muur, we climb five categorised climbs along narrow, winding roads; through small Belgium villages, forests and exposed farm roads. We then climb the Muur for the first time, followed by another two climbs; before climbing the Muur for the second and last time, to the finish line.
Yesterday’s race was one of the toughest Flèche Wallonne races yet, as it took place in very unusual and unforgiving weather conditions. We started in freezing cold and experienced both rain and howling winds during the course of the race.
The bad weather conditions caused much stress in the peloton. From the start, I could sense a tension in the peloton with girls screaming, breaks squealing and wheels touching. The first crash happened within the first 10km and this continued throughout the race.
Despite the tension in the bunch I managed to stay calm, focused and collected. Doing my best to hold good position, out of the wind, out of trouble and without spending unnecessary energy. I managed to achieve this and hitting the Muur for the first time, I felt good and climbed comfortably amongst the world’s best, summiting the climb in the top five.
This is when the race really started! If the Muur de Huy wasn’t tough enough already, there was a strong cross wind on the flat piece of road on the top. The top teams used this to their strength, in numbers, and drove the pass hard, guttering the front split and attacking at regular intervals.
This was the hardest part of the race for me, as I found myself somewhat outnumbered and isolated. I had to fight hard to maintain my position and avoid being dead wheeled in the tough cross winds. While this was happening, I saw the move of three off the front consisting of Clara Hughs (Specialized Lululemon), Linda Villumsen (Greenedge) and Lucinda Brand (AA Drink). I didn’t panic, as the key riders I was watching, had not yet made their move.
The three-man breakaway posed quite a threat to Marianne Vos and her Rabobank team. They had missed the split, which forced them to use valuable energy and chase. Approaching the second last climb of the day, Marianne Vos put her teammates Pauline Ferrand-Prevot and Annemiek van Vleuten on the front to bring down the gap to the breakaway.
Hitting the penultimate climb, I knew Marianne Vos was going to make her move, but didn’t expect her to go at the very bottom of the 1.5km climb. I was sitting about 7th wheel entering the climb, just too far back to react immediately. Evelyn Stevens who had teammate, Amber Neben, leading her out into the climb on the front, managed to take Marianne’s wheel directly and I found myself chasing, stuck in no man’s land.
Reaching the top of the climb, I decided to limit my losses and waited for the chasing group including last year’s podium finishers Emma Johansson and Judith Arndt. GreenEdge riders Tiffany Cromwell and Claudia Hausler got on the front to chase for their leader, Judith Arndt and being outnumbered, I decided to settle in a comfortable position near the front, waiting for the final climb up the Muur de Huy.
Climbing the Muur for the final time to the finish line was quite an amazing experience! The crowds lining the climb went mad, cheering and chanting, making the severity of the climb all that much more bearable.
I had practiced the Muur before in training and knew it was critical not to go too early. I had to remain disciplined not to surge to the front to soon, but about half way up, I was feeling comfortable and realised the remaining girls were hurting. I got on the front and with about 150m to go, I realised it was Judith Arndt and I to the finish line. I gave it one last kick and found myself crossing the line in 5th position, ahead of Judith.
Congratulations to Evelyn Stevens for her incredible win! Marianne Vos finished 2nd, Linda Villumsen 3rd and Lucinda Brand 4th.
Finishing 5th in a race of this calibre is a big result, the biggest of my career thus far. A top five result was my goal for the race, I’m happy with what I achieved, but I must admit I’m disappointed I missed the move of the day!
A top five result is special, as Flèche Wallonne is a monument race in Belgium and I race for a Belgium team, Lotto Belisol when in Europe. It was wonderful to see the joy it brought to my team, management and Belgium sponsors who were at the race supporting.
On my way back to my European base, in Spain yesterday, I found myself counting my blessings! It is amazing how people have been placed in my life and doors have opened to enable me to persue my dreams! I am incredibly blessed to have the opportunity to race at the highest level in Europe with amazing support from my husband Carl, family, teammates, friends and key role players, Roy Gershow in particular!
The experience I am gaining racing in Europe is irreplaceable! Once again I learnt so much about myself during yesterday’s race. I have come away from Flèche with renewed faith and confidence in my abilities. In honour of Carla Swart, 2012 is the year to “dream big and make it happen”. I will continue dreaming!
Thank you to all at home in South Africa and other parts of the world for the amazing support, it is very much appreciated!
Onwards and upwards 🙂