There are great things about being a novice: everything is new and challenging and you’re constantly learning, gaining confidence, and pushing through boundaries. It’s exciting but it’s also hard because of those exact reasons: everything is new so you have to keep up with a steep learning curve, your confidence rests on shaky ground and endless disappointment can leave you wondering why you are racing in the first place.
Redefining myself as a more than just a climber this season has meant racing the Spring Classics for the first time and, especially racing Ronde van Vlaanderen for the first time this past weekend, it has given me a good reminder of what it is like being a novice again.
Flanders is a true celebration of cycling. The Belgian spectators were out in full force, enjoying the spring holiday and sunny weather – I hadn’t seen crowds like that since the Olympics! I had ridden the route a few times, the crucial points a few more, my legs were raring to go and there wasn’t an allergy symptom in sight; I was feeling confident and more than ready to race.
The race started well and I could feel my legs were ready for business. Even as we approach the first climb and the bunch got jittery, unlike a novice, I stayed calm and fully in control. The whole team was well positioned and, with Chloe at my side, I was sitting pretty, eager for the action to start.
One lesson I learned as a novice, however, is that there are many things outside your control in a bike race. No matter what you do or how perfect the race is going, sometimes there is nothing you can do to avoid a crash. One wrong wheel started a ripple effect on the right side of the bunch and in a split second I was on the cold, hard tar.
After so many crashes in my life, I went into post-crash mode: head to toe check, bike check, get going! Pumped full of adrenaline, my Norwegian teammate Cecilia and I started to chase back. With no cars in sight, I figured there was a bunch behind us but when the convoy started to whizz past, I realized we were farther back than I thought. With a crucial climb mere kilometres away, I desperately burnt my matches just to make it back to the bunch.
I finally made contact with the bunch but the feeling of “now or never” didn’t dissipate. The front of the bunch surged up the climb and I had to dig deep to keep up, all the while weaving my way through riders at the back of the bunch. I made it over the climb in the peloton and then we hit a cobbled section and the same thing happened: the front surged, I kept up, all while trying to better my place in the bunch. Then another cobbled section came. Then a climb. And another climb. And more cobbles. Eventually, I was back at the front ready to tackle the last half of the race.
When you start racing, you learn pretty quickly you only have a finite amount of matches to burn in a race, and in Flanders, it’s imperative that you keep those matches for the important moments. I may have been at the front and ready for business, but after my big effort to get back to the business end of the race after my crash – I found myself out of matches when it really counted.
To keep the fire burning, my body went into survival mode entering the pen ultimate climb of the day, the cobbled Oude Kwaremont. It was at this moment that the winning move disappeared into the crowds! I tried to follow, but I soon realised that my body had checked out a while before.
With my teammate Elisa in the decisive break, I was relieved of the responsibility to chase. Another group of five riders slipped away on the last climb of the day; the famous, cobbled Paterberg. Having missed the move, Wiggle and Giant worked the gap down quite quickly, I was hanging in the top couple wheels making sure I was still in the action. The gap came down to a few meters and I figured we had caught them but then a counter attack went.
I hesitated and, as I watched Liesbeth de Vocht power away, I realized I made rookie error: never hesitate! Now I had to sprint among the track riders!
I wrapped up my Flanders taking 21st in the bunch sprint. The team performed really well together and Elisa finished just off the podium in 4th. I was a disappointed with my mistakes but I can appreciate that my result doesn’t necessarily reflect my performance. Personally, surviving my first Flanders is a small victory, but a victory nonetheless because I learned a lot!
The truth is, riding the Spring Classics for the first time has made me feel like a novice all over again. It’s been a steep learning curve for the first half of the season but each new race has taught me something new. It’s reminded me that being a novice is tough but, if you can appreciate that there is a bigger picture to consider, as your knowledge and confidence grow, so will your results.