The season of 2017 started with positive vibes. I was extremely dedicated and trained hard all through winter.
My progression was measured by regular testing with my coach. By February I was counting down the days until I moved to Belgium where I would undertake my first season of racing on the Continent.
Submitted by Joe Sutton
Prior to leaving for my new home, I discussed a handful of targets to aim for during the season. This really motivated me to knuckle down and complete the last few weeks training.
With everything packed I headed for Belgium on the 12th of March. I couldn’t wait to get stuck in!
Belgium had refrained from it’s stereotypical rain and wind when I arrived in Zottegem on the 12th. It was a lovely day to settle in for my seven month stay.
After I unpacked, my team-mate and fellow Dave Rayner Funded rider Ben Foames went for a short spin to loosen the legs after the journey. We discussed our first continental race of the season, Merelbeke Kwenenbos. Belgium had dropped me into the deep end of the kermis scene!
Before Merelbeke I had raced in Belgium during the latter months of the previous season, in fields of up to 70 riders. However, today, as I lined up with 174 other riders I felt rather intimidated. As the whistle blew and the race got underway my nerves died down, I became more confident riding in such a big bunch. That race set me up with the skills and tactics I needed for future early season large field racing.
A few weeks on, I took the skills I learnt in Merelbeke and applied them to a race in Bredene, West Flanders. After getting kitted up, I did a course recon before joining the rest on the start line. I really liked the look of the course. It was a very technical course with a small cobbled section. Right up my street!
168 riders rolled out behind the car for a neutralised lap. Once the car pulled away, it was flat out. There were flurries of attacks, none of which stuck for more than a few kilometres. Due to the technical nature of the course it was imperative to remain as close to the front as possible while still being sheltered from the wind.
After the most recent attack was caught, there was a small lull in the bunch. Instinct kicked in and I attacked. Within a few minutes I had a reasonable gap. I could see a few riders were bridging to me. One of them was Kermis hitter Mario Willems. At this point I knew that our break had a good chance of sticking. We rode hard until the line. The sprint was very fast but I managed to roll in 4th. I was really happy to have got a result like that so early in the season. It was a real confidence boost for me.
The next few months racing consisted of many Interclubs and one stage race.
On the 17th of May I travelled with the team to Coutances, which is located on the northern French Peninsular close to Jersey. The race, La Tour De La Manche was a four day stage race with five stages.
Having been told to expect hills, I did some research on the region to grasp the terrain that was to come. After looking on Google Maps and Google Earth, I was anticipating some hills. The team manager also warned me about the climbs, however I took his words with a pinch of salt as I thought he was making a contrast to the small lumps you get in Belgium.
By the second day I drew the conclusion that my research did not entirely uncover the gradients and lengths of the climbs. Nevertheless I got stuck in and really enjoyed it, finishing the five days 67th/102 and 20th in the points classification.
I got most of my points on the last stage, when I made the break. We lasted until the finishing circuit when we were swept up by the bunch.
Overall I was pleased with how I rode considering my comparative age and level to the riders in the French teams.
Moving forward by a few weeks, once I had recovered from La Manche, it was time to head back to the kermis scene.
The Goma Dakwerken-hosted kermis, Fietsen D’hoven, was the next race in the calendar. We were told that the team had to have a man in every move to represent our sponsors.
The race progressed fast and before I knew it, Goma had a rider in the front group. It was now my job to bridge across to the break. I attacked on the short steep climb creating a gap and was soon joined by three others.
In the last lap of the race we got across to the leading group which had now split into two. The winning split was just up ahead, again containing a team-mate. The group I was in thundered into the finish straight. As the sprint opened up, I pushed my way through the riders and took the sprint, albeit for 14th place.
In the previous paragraphs I have best described some of my personal highlights of the season so far. I hope I have given an insight into the life and experiences of being a full time cyclist in Belgium.
What I have learnt in the first half of my season in Belgium on and off the bike will help me in all walks of life. It has helped deepen and strengthen my motivation, determination and commitment.
On a practical level I have enjoyed sharing a house with other riders from different parts of the world, managing my own money and structuring my time.
This brings me to express my gratitude to the Dave Rayner Fund for the support they are giving me through this year; but also the pride that I feel to be supported by such a wonderful foundation.