Pre Race it was 2.5 degrees but warmed up nicely!
We rode the last 30km of the Tour of Flanders course the day before the race itself. As soon as I got on the overly crowded roads I knew it would be a race to remember. More than 25,000 cyclists ride the 220km mens course on the Saturday over hills, down single track roads and over sections of cobbles up to 3km long. There are bergs (hill climbs) scattered all through the course including the dreaded Murr, which is a steep single track cobbled climb where race fields are known to be obliterated in seconds. Cycling over the finsh section of the course gave us a good idea of what the race would be like the next day and I liked what I saw!
We arrived at the race start at 9:30am in a foggy and chilly morning of 2.5 degrees. We kitted up for our race and went to the team presentation and sign on to get introduced in front of a big crowd and loads of photographers. After presentation the 170 starters gathered at the start and waited for the gun to go.
The race was on from the beginning and lots of breaks and loads of huge efforts out of the slow corners were necessary to keep up. You needed to lock up the brakes at the last minutes approching corners. Then you had to use apply full effort to keep your position or gain a few bikes lengths if girls in front took a moment longer to get up to speed. It was a crazy start and you needed to be extremely focused and a bit of luck to stay out of crashes. After around 30 k we got to the first section of cobbles which was around 2km long. It was then that I realised just how hard it is to ride on cobbles over long distances. I wondered about my sanity when I claimed a few weeks before how much I would love to ride over the course of Paris Roubaix where the riders travel over more than 50km of cobbles over the course of the race. I honestly don't know how they do it.
To ride cobbles you choose a big gear and sit back a little more on your saddle. You grind over the cobbles while your body is literally being shaken to bits and your butt jumps up and down on the saddle. I always thought riding cobbles was pretty ordinary but riding two or three k's of them at a time is something else. No one ever told me of the extreme pain you feel in your hands and how you can barely keep hold onto the handle bars. You expect your hands will just shake right off and you'll be on the ground in no time. While riding you look ahead and hope for smooth road. Once you find it,your legs feel heavy but your bike is floating. You have claws for hands because you can't even open your fingers for some time. Though I've never had arthritis it seems to be the only thing I could think to compare it to! It's so painful.
After finishing the cobble sections we came upon the mighty Murr and the field split to pieces as girls dropped wheels up and down the climb. Not long after the Murr we climbed up the long cobbled drag of the Bosberg, which was another painful experience. After that punishment I ended up being in the second pack and waited it out a little for an opportune time to try for a break away to bridge packs. I got away with an Italian rider and we managed to swap off for 3-4k and bring in the front pack a little before we were caught from behind. In the last 5 k I sat within the pack and then finished 38th, and around 30 seconds behind the first finishers. I was a little disappointed in 38th but to place that well in my first Flanders, a classic race in the history of cycling is probably not so bad.
After the women's finish we hung around for the finish of the men's race which was great because it was huge! I had thought the spectators on the course and at the finish were pretty decent for the women's race but I was knocked out when busloads of people started getting dropped off around 30mins from the finish of the men's. The place was super crowded and the air electrifying as we saw the nail biting, two man lead keep a 12 man pack at bay for a two man sprint finish between the Italian, Allessandro Ballan and Belgium's own Leif Hoste. Ballan finished as the top man and it was an exciting and inspiring time. We all watched grinning from ear to ear.
While it was an awesome experience it also brought a lot of truths home for us women. We would have had under 1/20th of the crowd at our finish and that night on TV we watch for some time as they talked about the men's race and it's winner and the women's race or winner Nicole Cooke did not even get a mention.
Mens Sprint Finish