I was smashed. I was tortured. Finally I was respected. That’s how I feel about Belgium road races.
I’ve got the experience which I would never get somewhere else. I would love to say now, if you haven’t race in Belgium, you haven’t race at all. Ladies and guys which have raced there would understand what I’m talking about.
It’s hard to explain, how it is when you, who has used to be the first one, are barely finishing. I was not naive, I knew what to expect when I arrived in Belgium, but still I couldn’t imagine that it would be so tough.
Let’s start with that it is my first season fully dedicated to the road races. Before I’ve just rode MTB and if I took part in the road race then just for another experience and to fulfil my “sport’s agenda”. There is no secret that there are no races in Baltics where only ladies are on the start line. And ride with guys, it’s completely another “game”. Believe me.
My Belgium experience
First Belgium Road Race
As this season started a bit different as usual and I wasn’t in my racing shape even in the early summer time, also my race season started later than usual. Before I started to race in Belgium I have had only two races – Latvian MTB Marathon Championships and Tartu Road race.
Hate to ride the National Championships as the first season’s race. Because you don’t know anything. You don’t know what your racing form is. You don’t know how good or how bad you are, how good and strong your competitors are. I only knew that all other girls which would also compete for the National MTB Marathon Champ’s title had had at least couple of races. It meant that all of them were at good speed and race shape. But for all that I arrived in Latvia in good mood, motivated and ready to defend my National Championships title. I won the race and brought another Gold to my team and my coach. For the first time crossing the finish line there were tears in my eyes, because that win meant so much to me. Before the Nationals I doubted myself and knew that this year I wasn’t at my best form because of the different reasons. For me the toughest races have always been those which give you the biggest satisfaction. It’s always like that in my life – if something comes with an effort it’s with the greatest value.
So Tartu Road race was my second season’s race, where I finished second also. I could stand on the top of the podium, if I was not so bad in the sprint finish. I chose not to risk and finished somewhere in the bunch.
My third race was Belgium road race. If I remember correct it was 86 km race in laps (15 x 5,6km) or something like that. It’s always those kind of that the race in Belgium. There where around 100 girls on the start line. Something really new for me. First of all, I have never raced only with girls, secondly I didn’t know any of the girls. Oh, sorry, I knew one of them – Vita Heine. My toughest competitor in ITT National Championships last year and also this year. So, I was quite happy to meet her there, because it was the possibility to race shoulder to shoulder with one of my greatest competitors. I guess she was a bit surprised to meet me in Belgium.
Thirdly I have never had the possibility to ride with girls from as famous teams like Lotto Belisol, American National team, Norwegian National team, Rabo Liv Team and many other local and foreign teams. There they were and I was standing together with them on the start line, riding shoulder to shoulder with Belgium and other National Champions, Olympians and other high ranked riders.
Before the race I’ve done course recon to see what to expect. Wow, so many corners, so bad asphalt and the cobble stones before the finish line. I forgot about the competing and the race strategy I just could think about those many corners, bad roads and the cobble stones and how bad it would be to crash. Luckily my boyfriend was with me for my first race in Belgium, otherwise I would go mad about all of that. After the race he told me that for a moment he thought that I wouldn’t race. So stressed and worried I looked.
I didn’t expect anything from this race, because I didn’t know what to expect. My goal was to finish and not to be withdrawn from the race, in other words – not to get DNF.
Jesus! That race was hell on the earth! Starting from the first km and till the last km there was only one thought in my head – how it comes that the girls can be so strong? It was one long suffering for almost 3 hours. I quitted almost in every lap in my mind. Only my dignity didn’t allowed me to quit. But actually I was one the most active riders in the peloton that day. Me and 5- 6 other girls where those which dictated the race.
And there comes my first Belgium experience. The girls quickly noticed that I was the newcomer. Honestly, it was not too difficult, because I was riding in the front of the peloton all the time. After some laps they started pushing me, yelling at me, sending me to the back of the peloton. I realized that it would not be easy to ride on my own without the team in Belgium. Anyway, I was there for getting road race experience and to keep me in the race form, so no big deal about the tough life in the peloton. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
The race was really dynamic. After every corner, every turn there was an acceleration. All the time there were attacks, somebody tried to go on breakaway. It was so energy demanding. And as one of my weak points is sprint, it was really hard to keep going. Beside that the race was quite stressful also, because the roads were really narrow, bad quality and the pace was very high. I finished the race somewhere at the end of the peloton because just before me there was a nasty crash.
At the end I would like to say that I did a good race. I was not so bad on the turns. I was really active. I pushed myself really hard. I didn’t get DNF. And what the most important thing was, I did my best NP 240 watts for almost 3 hours. It meant that I was not in so bad shape as I thought. Still my only words after the race were – that was a Hell and my toughest race ever, and I would never ever ride again the Belgium road race.
But as everybody of you know, you forget all that suffering and words what you have said very quickly. So the next day I was racing again. It was the best race in the Belgium till now. It was hard, but I felt good, my legs were good. As I am not the sprinter I have little of chance to finish in top when there is a sprint finish at the end. For me it is better if there is hill, not really long and not really steep, at the finish. And the next day was just this case. The finish was on the 700-800m long uphill with gradient of about 4-6%. As I had depleted my energy recourses in the race the day before I was not able to get in the breakaway, but I finished in the peloton and did manage to get in the top 20, which was good.
The first two races were good and I was really satisfied with the result. Maybe everything went so well because there were no expectations. But it doesn’t mean that I was not suffering. I was. I was suffering really hard in both of them.
I have done about 8 – 9 races in Belgium, two of them real Belgium criteriums. Belgium criterium means the race is only approximately 40-60 km long which consists of short laps. The lap is not more than 1,6 – 2 km long. Definitely it is much more suffering as the normal road race, because you are riding in line all the time and there is no usual bunch or peloton. If you are the last wheel then it is almost for 100% that you won’t survive there for long and will be dropped off.
Chasing the breakaway
From the strategic point of view I did everything wrong, but I did it on purpose, because I just wanted to understand how was the life in the peloton, which were the most active girls in the peloton and to push myself really hard to know my limits, abilities and trouble spots. I noticed about 6 – 8 girls which were active, tried to go in the breakaway, attacked and to dominated in the race. It was really interesting to watch Belgium National Champions and to follow her strategy. She was riding smart and not wasting energy by responding on every attack. She waited for the right moment and then attacked and went in the breakaway. There is little chance to jump on the wheel of attacker if you had spent all your energy riding in the front of the peloton almost all race long.
The bad race days
As I told already in the beginning, I was smashed, I was tortured. Some of the races went really bad. I could just barely stay in the peloton. Hate those race days, when you are suffering and trying to keep yourself at least in the peloton. The worst experience was when there was +30C° degrees outside. Half of the race I felt really good. I was riding in the peloton and waiting for good moment. I even thought that it was the easiest of races which I have spent in Belgium. I guess the heat was what made the peloton so sleepy. Nobody was willing to take any move to attack. Sometimes those are the most dangerous races, because you should still be ready for an unexpected attack. It is the good moment for attackers when the peloton is so sleepy. After 6 – 7 laps the first serious attacks were made. I managed to close one of the breakaways. And some minutes later I bonked. The temperature was so high that after first 20min the sport drink in the bottles was of the same temperature - + 30C°. As I have no support in the race then I should ride with two 0,75l of warm sport drink for almost 3 hours. It is not enough. I was trying not to drink all of it in the first beginning of the race. At the middle of the race I felt goose bumps. No, I was no cold. It was +30C° degrees. It meant that my body was dehydrated. Dehydration (hypohydration) is the excessive loss of body water, with an accompanying disruption of metabolic processes. From that moment I was not racing but only trying to survive. After the finish I felt as a wreck. Even next day I felt bad. The worst thing about such races is that all your training plan is messed up and the following days you should focus not on the training you planned but solely on recovery.
My first Belgium criterium
Surprisingly I did like the criterium race. My first criterium I did really well. I felt good, my legs were good. That race could be a good chance for me to get on the podium but I missed the breakaway. Anyway, it is easy to say I could do it, but you never know how it would be if it was different. So no excuses. Still I was really satisfied with the race and with my performance. It gave me some confidence. After the breakaway I was the only one who was riding in front of the peloton with a little help from two other girls. I did my best and pushed really hard, but without help it was not possible to close the gap. For a moment the gap was only about 25sek, but then again it was 45sek. I understood that it was fight with windmill and it wouldn’t be possible to close the gap if there were girls who were able to push really hard to chase, but I decided at least to do my best. I didn’t get in the breakaway, I didn’t close the gap, but I did earn some respect from the other girls for the first time in Belgium. It meant really much to me, because till that day I was not loved. The girls which usually were active and loved to dominate at the race, they were yelling at me, pushing me, because they were those which used to dictate the race. And I was some kind of competitor who probably was trying to occupy somebody else’s place. But that day I’ve earned some respect. After the race couple of girls came by and told me – you did great job. Believe me, to hear something like that from the other cyclist (women), doesn’t happen that often.
Hard effort each time...
Crowds cheering as peleton passes by
I’ve got some new and good experience, which I couldn’t get anywhere else. Belgium is “Mecca” of the fast Road Races. I did some good races. I did several really bad ones as well. Overall I have nothing to be proud about, but there is also nothing to be sorry about. I’m little bit upset that I didn’t use these rare given opportunities to fight for the podium, because of stupid mistakes, because of lack of confidence in myself, because of lack of experience.
If I have another possibility to race in Belgium, I will definitely do it! As I told at the beginning – if you haven’t race in Belgium, you haven’t race at all. I really miss the Belgium races already. I could not imagine that I would say something like that after the tough begging in Belgium.
My first race number in Belgium
Starting from the first km and till the last km there was only one thought in my head – how it comes that the girls can be so strong?
The next day was another criterium race. The course was more difficult than the previous day. If the day before there was good road surface and only 4 corners (800m straight, than 200m, than again 800m straight and 200m), next day’s course was much more difficult than day before. The lap was 2km as it was the day before, but it was not regular form. It was with many turns and approximately two thirds of the course was on cobble stones. And again - heat!
I knew that it was really important to get good position at the first beginning of the race. I made a mistake at the start and managed to be the last one of the peloton. What happened? The most stupid mistake – I could not get my shoe in the pedal!!! And secondly I didn’t expected that the start would be so fast. The start was so intolerably fast. After every turn speed was more than 50 km/h. I tried to get back at the peloton for almost 4 laps. And when I managed to get better position, my chain dropped and I couldn’t to get it back. While I was switching my gears everybody passing me again. And again the same – I must get back to the peloton.
I was out of the energy. I didn’t managed to get back to the first group of escapees. Not again. The same scenario as yesterday, with only difference that I was not as strong as yesterday. For a moment I really wanted to quit the race, but I changed my mind because to end my Belgium race season like that wouldn’t be the way I would like it be. I guess everybody in the peloton thought something like that – just quit the race. After lap or two I recovered a little bit because the pace was not high as the break went away. And decided if I was continuing the race then I should do everything I can to be satisfied with myself. So I didn’t let the peloton relax till the end of the race.