The youth tour of Flanders… Well what can I say? Not only was it my first races abroad, but it was the best tour I have ever been on! It was split up into four days. Day one was a 6km time-trial and the rest of the days were circuit races. However, these weren’t just ordinary circuit races, these were 7km a lap circuits that we raced for 10 laps – yes your right, 70km races; every day for 3 days! I knew it was going to be tough, especially as it was my first time abroad, but that never stopped me.
‘South east cycling team’ was the team I was selected to ride for. There were 6 of us: Callum Rodgers, Matt Hargroves, Germain Burton, Joe Kirkham, Joe Evans and myself. Great bunch of guys to be with; on or off the bike, we supported each other all the way. Also, we had the world’s most active 82 year old! – Our manager John! He has been organising races abroad, with teams from the UK for many, many years, so we were very grateful to have him lead our team into this prestigious tour.
It came to the first day, the time-trial. I had never ridden a time trial bike before, so my dad stuck these ‘mini 88’ tri-bars on my road bike! Not the most comfortable or best tri-bars, but it was better than nothing! Leading up to my start time at 5:37pm, I had just got off my rollers from my 20 minute warm-up, I was starting to realise where I was; what I was doing. The whole atmosphere of the tour gave me an extra rush of adrenaline. I rolled up to the starting post, where I signed a board with my name; there was no going back. Being held upright by one of the volunteers, I watched the timer on the computer slowly tick down. Silence… I flicked my visor down; I was ready to go…
After completing my time trial, I finished 136th out of 156 riders. ‘Not bad’ I told myself as it was my first ever race abroad, I’m only first year in my category and I didn’t finish last! The quickest time was posted by the ‘USA National team’. One of their riders completed this 6km course in 7mins 27 seconds! You do the math – that’s unbelievably quick! We got back to our apartments, chilled out and went to bed.
8:30am start with breakfast at 9am. Now, I have a very specific diet. I am a coeliac (pronounced ‘silly-yak’) and I must not eat wheat or gluten as it will clog up my digestive system and I can’t get the nutrients that I need, from my food. As you can imagine, being abroad and hardly knowing any of the Dutch language, this was very difficult to get round, but me knowing my stuff; what I can and can’t eat, as well as packing my own food with me, this was not a problem! Once having breakfast (this routine was the same for every day) we had to get all our kit that we need and we had to be out of the accommodation by 10am – to get to our race. The races were always 3pm every day. However the first day was very much different from the rest. Unlike in the UK, when everyone is warming up, being as there were 156 riders in this tour, everyone was fighting for a place on the start, as they were not gridded, instead of being on the rollers and doing a warm up!
I had an average position on the start; I had managed to squeeze myself into the middle of the bunch. I looked around… Everyone was twice the size of me! Some of the riders looked like fully grown men! It was the most intimidating sight I have ever seen! But then suddenly, the race started! Straight from the gun, I saw an attack go up the road – I knew this was going to hurt. Having done the best I could to try and adapt to the huge change of racing style, I lasted 6 laps (out of 10) on the first day. It was a respectable ride as I was far from being the only one to pull out. The team help me gain my confidence overnight and I was ready to give day two a crack!
It was the same as usual – early start; 3pm race start. We lined up again and the whistle went. This time, it was fairly relaxing for the first lap but then it started to kick up again… The race on this day had a lot more corners, so I knew I had to be in the front half of the bunch. However, this is a hell of a lot easy said than done! I had to put in the same level of effort that I would put in at a UK national champs, just to stay in my position in the bunch – let alone move up! But then you’ve got the ‘everything is the course’ rule. In Belgium, everywhere the race course goes is the course, so that means that we are allowed to ride, overtake and sometimes attack on the pavement! This was insane! However, when I had the confidence, it really did help a lot whilst trying to move up the bunch. I lasted until 1 lap to go on day two! I was at the back of the bunch and the pace kicked a lot out of a corner, I lost the wheels and got spat out the back… Bummer!
However day three, I was totally pumped and determined to finish the whole race. The same start time; the same routine – I was starting to get the hang of it all; everything was much easier. I rolled up to the start and I was confident that I could work my way through the bunch, so there was no need to scramble for positions on the grid. The race started. The course on day three was mainly straights and one gradually steep climb every lap. This played into my advantage as I have a good power-to-weight ratio – I’m only 47kg! Suddenly first lap, a huge crash happened; my poor teammate ‘Joe Evans’ got caught in the accident and was classed as a DNF for the race and therefore did not complete the tour as he lost more than 20mintues on the leader.
4 laps went by and my legs were still staying fresh – I had a good feeling about the race. I topped myself up with food and drink and got stuck in. 8 laps done and things were hotting up. I knew I could stay to the finish, but I had to be near the front. But then again, another crash! We hit a speed bump and a person from the ‘Dutch racing team’ slipped out along the cobbles and took out half the bunch! I was delayed within the riders avoiding the crash, so the head of the bunch sprinted up the road to get clear. Blasting it to get back, a second bunch formed which later returned to the front bunch just before the ‘1 lap to go’ board. Then the pace really kicked… on the last lap, we averaged 43.9 kmph; it was savage and brutal right to the very end. Round the last corner and now a 2km straight to the finish. Lead out trains were fighting against each other… BANG! The whole bunch goes down! Someone had switch wheels and taken everyone out just before the 1km sign! Recovering arms, legs and bike parts from the wreckage, riders came into the finish in ones and twos – but guess what? I was still there! I had a lucky escape and I had finished the race!
I came over the line with the biggest smile on my face! It was like I had won a national series! I was so proud just to finish the race – also in one piece! We regrouped in our teams, just beyond the finish line of the race; giving each other handshakes, congratulations and team hugs – we had finished the tour. We were sad to see it end but then again, we had gained a lot from the experience. In the end, I had finished 127th. I was second to last; however I remember at the start that there were 156 riders, so I was proud. Racing abroad is so much different to racing in the UK! It’s twice as long; twice as fast; twice the amount of riders and spectators! I definitely recommend racing abroad as you will gain so much more racing skills and experience; you’ll never want to come home again!