Complete and utter sensory overload. That’s today in a nutshell. It was the day that marked my ‘welcome back to European racing’ here at the Tour of Flanders. Ronde Van Vlaanderen for the die-hard cycling fans out there. Also known as one of the hardest single day races in the world on two wheels. Yes, today was the day I’ve been anticipating with angst and excitement for some time. With the exception of the world championships road race last year, which was tame by cycling standards in terms of technicality and difficulty, it was also my first race back in the European peleton in some twelve years.
I’ve decided a decade on ice doesn’t really prepare one for the absolute chaos of bike racing. I think to the pre-race days at world cups in speed skating, with athletes of all distances dodging each other at break-neck speeds on the 400m oval…if my imagination fills the ice with a thousand skaters on long blades and places me with a blindfold on, even this does not compare to the terrifying insanity of this race I did today.
Approximately 170 female racers took to the start. Ka-boom, a crash even before the end of the neutral ten minutes of pedaling. Crashes, turns, cobbles, sidewalks, wheel-width cracks in roads and utter insanity filled the next three and a half hours. Girls screaming and pushing each other into perilous situations juxtaposed with fleeting gaps of calm. Any chance of an open road made a sudden and universal rush to get to the front. The faster and bigger the road, the more aggressive the moves made. The smaller roads gave the illusion of safety because it was strung out with attacks and hammering from those in the front trying to gap and drop those behind.
It was just as I remembered it all to be. Only I’ve never raced on cobbles in my life. In fact, I’d never ridden cobble stones until two days ago when we pre-rode the last 90 kilometers of incredibly technical terrain. Yes, those nasty, jagged bricks glued into the road, the paths leading up and over the bergs that who knows built who knows when.
No matter, I was ready to ‘rock and roll’ as our team director Jens said from the car behind into our radios. These tiny devises served as a life source as we navigated through the race. Without his constant input, I can’t imagine the difficulty of riding such an event. It was 3 1/2 hours of intense, mind-numbing focus that I am not totally qualified to execute at the moment. It takes time to sharpen the sense to the point of finding an odd sense of calm within the chaos.
Which is why I am here for the month of April. It’s a crash course for bike racing. A ‘101’ level series of instructional classes that, if all goes well, by the end of the month will leave me feeling like a bike racer again.
It’s almost like I have a second or third language that has not been used for over a decade. It’s there in the brain stored in a compartment, locked up safe and sound. I just need to find the key to unlock this experience and put it into the races again.
Today, I found no key. I did, however, find myself wondering why I was worrying about my water bottle popping out of it’s cage precisely at the time after putting myself in the perfect position before a cobble stone section, and then losing places in the bunch messing with it. Why my brain would wander when we were going through villages that were literally left-right-left-left-up-down…..all around and if you know what I mean. Your senses have to be alert to make all the right turns and not crash into a building, car, spectator, dog…rider….
And then….just before the very last oh-so-hard climb…being just fifty feet behind the top riders chasing with all I was worth with my teammate and number two ranked rider in the world on my wheel, Trixi Worrack…absolutely flying on a one-lane road…when I saw a fork in the road and saw the pavement go straight and the last minute saw the corner marshall point LEFT!!!!! Well, that was when I could not make the turn and had to choose between hitting a metal post, a person or a grass embankment about 3 feet high. I chose the latter and thank gawd for knowing how to stop, drop and roll.
The crash compartment of my brain was definitely opened up and I managed to get up on my feet, brush myself off and, after looking down at my bike that was literally ripped in half, radio for a new bike to the team car. Riders whizzed by below me (I crashed UP onto the embankment!!) and then the shiny Specialized lululemon team car pulled up. Olli, our mechanic, who I saw earlier in the race when I had a rear flat tire and needed a new wheel, was out of the car with the bike off the roof as fast as I jumped off the embankment, then gave me a big shove to go again.
About a hundred feet later was that nasty steep cobbled climb, followed by a whole lot of chasing the last twenty three kilometers of the race. I chased with all I was worth, caught a group, chased some more and got within fifteen or so seconds of the full-speed ahead chase group behind the duet of riders up ahead another minute. Ina Teutenberg and I pulled and pulled and finally a few others joined in. We never caught the leaders but there’s a sense of pride and satisfaction in trying.
All in all it was a hell of a day. A heck of a re-initiation into the sport. A brain full of reminders as to just how hard it is to win a bike race. A sack of motivation to be better, smarter and more skilled next time around. And, last but certainly not least, thank gawd I am in one piece. I can count my lucky stars that I somehow remembered how to fall with grace. If I was a gymnast, I think I would have topped the marks for the fine execution of technical skill of my summersaults.
In closing, the words of the lady I managed to avoid when flying off my bike team mechanic Olli shared with me, “I guess the bike is kah-put?”