The beginning of April finally marked the start of my 2017 race season in Belgium, after a long winter’s preparation.
An unfortunate issue with the team’s accommodation arrangements for the year meant I had to head home unexpectedly immediately after arriving in Belgium, and this knocked me a bit sideways mentally for a while.
Despite this, I managed to organise a 16 day racing trip along with my British teammate, George Wells, in which time we stayed in Lille and I lined up at seven kermesses and one interclub.
Clearly, doing a race on average every other day is very demanding, but the idea was to do as much racing as possible during this two week block. This would hopefully have the effect of sharpening up the legs by getting some race speed in them and generally getting back into the rhythm of the fast-paced style of racing found in Belgium.
As a result, there was no real pressure to perform this early on in the season. The aim was simply to get a solid month of race training under my belt in preparation for the bigger targets later on in the year.
As it turned out, it was also a good opportunity to identify a couple of mechanical teething problems with my race wheels which needed resolving… better to not finish races due to mechanical issues now rather than later in the season.
Sure enough, the first few races were a real shock to the system, as I was both still quite fatigued from my final block of training and also a bit rusty and sluggish given that my previous proper race was some seven months ago!
I wasn’t concerned though, as I was confident in the knowledge that I had already put in the hard yards and the underlying fitness was there – it was all to be expected and the results would come in their own time. I knew that I also needed to work on my positioning skills within the bunch as much as my race form, and it is fair to say that this was the main reason why I struggled in some of the races, but in others it was simply that I didn’t have the legs.
This is why Belgium is perfect for this kind of preparation; if you aren’t able to kick hard and go with the accelerations, you quickly find yourself towards the back and these kicks and accelerations just get even harder.
It’s a vicious circle, and the style of racing quickly forces your legs to wake up, or you get dropped! After some DNFs, I soon found my race form and by the end was riding strongly, exactly what had been hoped for. With each race, I had improved noticeably, both with regards to race form and positioning skills and general confidence.
I was of course also still doing some training during this time, and it was refreshing to explore some new roads in the area surrounding the Lille city centre. I say “roads”, but the highlight was actually the fact that the famous Carrefour de l’Abre cobbled sector of Paris-Roubaix was right on our doorstep, and was therefore ridden on more than one occasion during my stay, including the day before the race passed over it (I would have gone to watch, if I hadn’t been racing myself that day, though I did manage to watch the race there last year).
Every avid cyclist is I’m sure aware of the reputation of ‘The Hell of the North‘ and the difficulty of the pavé sectors, but I have to say that you can’t possibly truly appreciate it unless you’ve ridden over them yourself.
Riding Carrefour de l’Abre was like nothing I’ve ever experienced before, and after just a few seconds your legs have been numbed by the bone-shaking vibrations, and you can barely feel your hands trying to grip the bars. Paris-Roubaix is now all the more epic every time I watch it.
I concluded my first month of racing by returning home for a week or two, and I managed to get a last minute entry to a National B road race in Essex.
It was good to catch up with some of the British riders and also put in a good ride and get a result. All of the race reports are below, but in summary my best results were 4th in a UK National B and 25th in a 1.12B kermesse.
Having rested up a little bit, I’m now Belgium-bound tomorrow for another couple of weeks of kermesses (this time staying in Achter de Wereld, near Leuven in the eastern part of Belgium) before hopefully relocating permanently to Poperinge in West Flanders and racing interclubs once the team accommodation issue is resolved.
I must thank the Lewis Balyckyi Trust Fund for giving me the support to keep racing during this time despite the unexpected difficulties.
Hopefully I’ve now got the race form in the legs to start getting some results out in Belgium. Tune in to next month’s blog post to find out…
Wortegem-Pettegem 1.12B kermesse (8th April, 120km)
Strong crosswinds, a lumpy course and 160 starters made for a difficult first race.
I just wasn’t up to speed at this stage which meant that it only took 30 minutes for me to find myself at the back and behind splits going over the top of the main climb of the circuit and into a crosswind section.
The fact that more than 70 other riders also didn’t finish was of some comfort.
Wieze 1.12A kermesse (9th April, 135km)
The next day, and 160 riders took to the start once again, and on a flatter course the average speed was up at the 45kph mark.
I felt vastly better compared to yesterday, and was quite comfortable with the pace throughout. I was struggling to hold position though and found myself towards the back for much of the race, and two bottles were insufficient for the unseasonably warm conditions.
A crash in front after 90 minutes caused some splits and put me out the back, but I was happy with the clear improvement after just two races.
Bellegem 1.12B kermesse (13th April, 112km)
An exceptionally hard race due to a strong field and winds.
Credit to the BC academy boys for smashing it at the front and taking the win.
I held position towards the front for a lap or so but started to slip backwards, and then soon after I hit something in the road so hard that it seemed to unseat my rear wheel in the dropout, causing bad brake rub.
That ended my race, but to be honest I think it would have been a tough race to get round anyway.
Driebergenprijs 1.12 IC 1 NAT interclub (15th April, 154km)
The first big event of the year for me, and I was hopeful that the handful of kermesses I’d done would have opened the legs up well so that I could do a decent ride.
Taking in various small roads and short sharp climbs including the famous cobbled Oude Kwaremont which features in the Tour of Flanders, it was set to be a hard day out.
I knew that a left turn at 24km which led to the first climb of the day via a narrow lane would be absolutely key.
The following 40km were littered with small climbs before the race returned to the start to complete a series of finishing circuits.
I did well in the fast opening kilometres, making sure I kept myself right at the front and out of trouble, despite the average speed of 47.8kph.
However, as a breakaway filtered back into the bunch and we also negotiated some road furniture, I was swamped and lost my battle for position into the corner, finding myself towards the back on the climb and then closing gaps as it strung out over the top.
As it transpired, this wouldn’t have been much of an issue as the race settled down soon after, but on the descent I hit a pothole hard and my front wheel impact punctured.
I managed to stop safely and get a quick wheel change, but despite making it up to the lead car at one point I never made it back on as the race hotted up again.
Frustrating, but a good learning curve to have experienced, I suppose.
Zwevezele 1.12A kermesse (17th April, 120km)
At last, the legs were feeling really excellent, the race form had finally arrived.
Unfortunately though, my chain decided to hop off the 11T and jam between the cassette and frame, which I could only fix by stopping. Once again my race was ended by another mechanical, and I was getting very frustrated.
It turns out my race wheels and training wheels require totally different indexing despite the fact that they should perform identically.
I went over every aspect of my bike after this race to ensure that was the last mechanical problem I would encounter (thankfully, it was!).
De Haan 1.12B kermesse (19th April, 120km)
Big, straight roads (except for a small technical section and then a cobbled finishing straight), crosswinds – the perfect kermesse for me!
Once again, I was feeling incredibly strong and was excited to finally be able to race at the sharp end without problems.
What I hadn’t anticipated was that I’d get far too carried away with all the attacking and put myself in the red.
I went with every move in the first hour and was feeling almost invincible, but then it all suddenly came back to bite and I was suffering.
Slipping towards the back trying to recover, and a major attack went up the road and the pace soared, and I once again found myself getting dropped, albeit this time for very different reasons.
A promising race, now time to focus on getting a result…
Wevelgem 1.12B kermesse (22nd April, 120km)
The only way I can describe this race is savage, one of the hardest I’ve ever ridden.
The field was particularly strong, as were the crosswinds on the small farm lanes, which meant that most of the race was spent in the gutter. It was tough going, and I was suffering a bit towards the back when I realised after about 75 minutes that everyone was on their limit and the elastic was about to snap.
I moved up the entire peloton in about 500m and rolled straight into a breakaway.
After about one lap of being brought back repeatedly, faffing around and new selections being made, that was it, I was in the winning break of 15 riders or so and we were off and away.
Seems easy, right? It wasn’t.
The break was full gas, but I was feeling strong. Unfortunately, the group was a bit too large which meant that on the farm lanes you were still in the gutter in the crosswinds as the road was only five or so bikes wide, which made it attritional.
After one hour in the breakaway, many of the guys were suffering and I was hanging on in the crosswinds, feeling the effects of too much wasted energy earlier in the race.
I dug in as deep as I could, but ultimately I was dropped from the group with just 25 minutes to go.
I finished at the back of the second small breakaway group on the road in 25th place.
It turns out that behind, the race had split to bits and only 50% of the field finished – brutal!
I was really disappointed not to stay with the front group, but at the same time I pleased with how much my performance had improved over the last couple of weeks of racing.
Ardooie 1.12B kermesse (23rd April, 112km)
Confidence was high after the previous day’s racing, but my legs were wrecked as I had gone incredibly deep in the breakaways yesterday.
So, being the sensible guy I am, I clipped in perfectly off the line and sprinted straight into a breakaway attempt.
Amazingly, the winning move countered before we’d even done half a lap and they stayed away all race, despite the 45.5kph average!
That was that pretty much that – nothing else was getting away so I just rolled round getting the race miles in, and finished in the middle of the bunch sprint in 47th place.
ECCA Festival National B Road Race (4th place)
Up at 05:20am for a 08:30 race start – quite a shock in comparison to the 3pm Belgian kermesse starts!
It was quite nice to be racing back in the UK for a change, despite the return to the games of oncoming-car-roulette and negative racing.
I was feeling really strong and comfortable though, and was at the front of the race all day, getting myself in every important move whilst saving energy as best as I could.
I’d say honestly that it was probably the best I’ve ever ridden in terms of tactics, positioning and general race-craft.
Ultimately, after numerous selections it came down to a seven man breakaway, with the rest of the field split across the road far behind.
Despite having seen the finish seven times already, I still managed to get a bit disorientated and was caught by surprise out of position for the sprint.
I made up some ground but was a bit boxed in and finished in 4th place.
A little disappointed, but it was nice to clock up a result, and it was nice also to come home and rock up to a National B and find it quite easy.
A fun day out all in all, and a much needed morale and confidence boost for the next few weeks.