The insanity is real.
European racing is certainly a different beast then your typical North American road race. After racing some 10 races in my 20ish days in Belgium, the Erpe-Mère UCI race most certainly stands out in my mind as one for the books. This is mainly due to the insanity of it all; an insanity that could only be bike racing in Europe.
A Note on the Importance of UCI
With governmental funding, pro contacts, selections for national team projects, and much more determined on the accumulation of UCI points, the Erpe-Mère UCI race was a top priority for me during my time in Belgium. This race was the 3rd race in this projects-busy race schedule. My hopes were that with a little rest I could recover from the travel to Europe and the busy July block. I also hopped that a couple of races before the UCI race would get my body sorted and hopefully in top form, ready to rip it up Erpe-Mère.
180 Starters: Staging Matters
Usually stages, where you are at the start line, don’t overly matter in road races because you have literally 100km of kilometers to figure it out. Staging in a crit is much more critical just due to the speed, aggression, and short duration of the race. Erpe-Mère was definitely different. With almost 180 starters crammed into a starting corral, positioning was key. If you started at the very back of the pack it could take you +40km to move up. By that time critical breaks in the race could have already been established without you knowing it. Myself and the rest of the NextGen ladies were all able to stay at the front third of the race, which was great except that means you need to be at the line over 30 minutes prior to the gun going off to get your position. An athlete just sitting in the blaring sun for an extra 30 minutes will surely wear on you, but you either get to the line early or spend half of the race trying to move up.
The Erpe-Mère course was more than a little confusing. The race consisted of one big loop and then many little circuit loops, which sounds straightforward enough except that the big loop was very technical. It’s a little insane, blasting down super narrow, windy roads in such an out-of-control massive pack, then all of a sudden the whole pack does a sharp left or there is a giant round about in your way. Or even better yet, you are ripping down a hill with racers shoulder-to-shoulder and then the whole pack slams straight onto cobbles, everyone slams on their breaks and you just have to react and trust your good luck and bike handling skills to keep you out of trouble.
With the technical nature of the roads and the massive packs, this race was a swift lesson in pack awareness and fighting for positioning. Also, because we only did the big loop once it was very challenging to settle in a get the flow of the technical course. Once on the little loops things got a bit better, a bit of pack attrition had started to plague the field and the numbers dwindled, but only slightly. I think we did at least nine laps of the smaller circuit. This was great because you could better settle into the course and start to plan some attacks and counters.
With all races, position is key, especially when trying to respond to and initiate attacks. If you weren’t 100% fighting to maintain your position, you could find yourself having to make big moves just to get back to the front to counter a teammate’s move; which isn’t overly ideal because your counter attack just became that must less effective, and you are burning through your limited number of matches.
Everything’s Great… and Then You Crash
Even given all the above noted insanity, the large numbers, narrow roads, and hazards, I felt I was settling into the race, doing some attacking (my personal favorite thing to do) up until I crashed. This crash happened in the name of the eternal struggle for positioning. Some riders will just try to push their way into spaces where there isn’t any, literally just pushing you backward. It is a constant battle fending off your hard fought position from your competition.
Usually the rule of Front Wheel Loses applies. What this means is that if a rider is trying to overtake you, their front wheel is behind yours until they fully overtake you. The front wheel is the weakness, and the danger is usually the other riders if they mess up their move. It will be them who crashes, not you. This is literally because the front end of the bike is less stable then the back end. However, shit happens and a racer tried to blast into a small space and overtake me and I was having none of it and held my ground. We both ended up going down along with a large percent of the peloton around us. Lucky enough, I slid out on my butt and then did some fancy rolls and had only slightly ripped shorts and minimal road rash. My bike was fine and I was injury free so it was time to get back on the bike and chase back on to the race.
Despite coming out relatively unscathed, crashing and having to chase always takes a lot out of you. After my crash it took me over three laps to make it back to the front of the pack. At that point I was pretty exhausted and had little fight left to contest a bunch sprint. All that being said, I am happy to have finished with the group and come out of that race in more or less one piece.
Success Comes with Time
I am proud to report that racing just got better with time. The more the team gelled the more we were able to support each other in the races and represent Canada over in Belgium. Before the Belgium project I had only raced on a team with two of the riders. As time marched on, the better everyone felt in the pack and the more comfortable we all felt relying on one another. After the whole ten races of the project was done, I am glad to have successfully supported teammates to at least five wins and I was lucky enough to get the Trek Red Truck Jersey on three podiums: two 2nd place finishes and one 3rd.
Insanity aside, the whole Belgium project was a fantastic learning experience and has been instrumental in my athletic growth. Thanks to Cycling Canada for running the project and Trek Red Truck Racing and our amazing family of sponsors for supporting me!