Staring at the biscuit tin

foto(266)The moment my alarm clock pulls me out of my dream, I groan. No, not today. Please, leave me here in bed, under the duvet. I don’t want to go there.

The first women’s World Cup race of the season, the Ronde van Drenthe, is today. It’s a race in the north of the Netherlands, over small roads with cobbled sections through the forest and over a steep man-made hill which – only in the Netherlands – is actually a rubbish tip. This, plus the strong wind, makes almost every edition pretty epic. It’s the Hell of the North of women’s racing.

It’s also the area where I grew up. The race passes the places of my youth, the streets I know so well. For me, it’s special to race here and last year’s Drenthe World Cup was the best race of my season. My best race ever, actually. In horrible, cold and wet conditions I ended up eighth. Since then, I’ve been looking forward to doing it again.

And now I stumble out of bed with a broken collarbone. I crashed in Het Nieuwsblad and was operated on two days later. I’m healing really fast, but from the moment I felt the sharp edge of a broken bone sticking out of my skin, I knew I wouldn’t be racing just a fortnight later. I was heartbroken.

I still am. Why, oh why, did I…

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I feel what I fear: bone sticking out

imageThey fall like leaves from a tree Saturday, the riders in Omloop het Nieuwsblad. A crash always looks nasty, but most of the time all the riders get up again and continue the race. Like nothing happened, as if it doesn’t hurt. In the first minutes it doesn’t, actually.

In the women’s race of the Omloop it’s the same. We are a herd of cows who are finally allowed outside again after a long winter: we soar away on our bikes, over-enthusiastic, super-nervous. Moving briskly, bumping into each other, we race across Flanders. After months of training everyone is eager. The pecking order in the peloton has to be restored again. And that’s where accidents happen. Especially in the back of the peloton there are a lot of crashes. That’s why it’s important to stay at the front. That’s not easy, with two hundred girls who want exactly the same thing, on the narrow wet roads full of potholes and stretches of cobbles. So also in the front it’s dangerous and hectic.

Once we’ve passed the Nokereberg I bring my jacket and gloves to the team leader’s car. It’s warmer than I expected and not long from now we hit the Côte de Trieu, where the race normally explodes. I ride at the right side of the road, I’m almost back at the front and then I see it happening. From the left side of the bunch girls fall like domino tiles, crashing over the full width of the road. We ride downhill, fast, 60k/h. I brake and brake and brake, almost come to a stand still, it seems I’m saving my skin but then I see and feel two, three riders crashing into me from behind, pulling me down on my left side. One girl topples over me.

In a couple of seconds a lot happens. The rider on top of me says sorry. I get up. At my left hand side, a blond girl lies on the asphalt, screaming loud. She’s bleeding. I stretch my back, feel something snapping in my left shoulder. There’s something not right, I think, while I grab my bike. My handle bars are square. I try to pull them straight, meanwhile inspecting my arms and legs to see what the damage is. The handle bars don’t move.

I put my arm in the air to warn the jury and my team leader, see that my chain also dropped off and give another glance at the blond girl. She is still screaming. Blue lights flicker, an ambulance pulls over close to us. Our mechanic runs towards me, pulls my bike out of my hands and tries to straighten the handle bars. With my finger tips I touch my shoulder. My collarbone, to be exact. And I feel what I fear: a sharp edge, under the skin. Bone sticking out. Like a snapped branch.

In a couple of seconds everything is different. The moving house I was supposed to start today. The whole winter of training hard. The last preparations, where I’m in the middle of, to be in top shape in the Ronde van Drenthe and Flanders. Our mechanic says he’s going to get my spare bike and runs off.

I check my shoulder again, although I don’t need to because I know very well what I just felt and I start to walk. Past the still screaming girl, through the chaos of the crashed peloton, the broken carbon and the riders who try to get back to their feet and bikes. My team leader sees me coming and gestures that I have to get back to my bike. Leave it, I tell him through the opened window, my collarbone is broken. I am so dead calm he hardly believes me.

I close my eyes, shake my head and wish I could turn back time for half an hour. I hope to wake up. I pray this is not happening. If only riders were leaves, we would whirl, instead of smash.

Winds Of Change

foto(258)My roommate Kirsten Wild and I are in our insanely luxurious hotel room, changing into our cycling kit. Just bib shorts and jersey, no leg warmers or arm warmers today – because it’s 22 degrees here in Qatar. While I’m putting my clothes on, I wonder again how the Qataris will fit us, women on bikes, into their world view? This is the first time I’ll race here and I thought about it a lot before arriving.

The Qataris invite us to race on their roads, but when you think about it, that’s practically the most contradictory thing they can possibly do. Working women are in the minority here. Women are not supposed to be athletes. And women are certainly not supposed to ride around half naked. That’s basically what we do, given their standards. The women I’ve seen till now are either working in this hotel – all foreign and unveiled – or natives wearing burkas.

We hit the road. There are only highways in Doha, so we ride among the cars. Honking cars. Not because they’re annoyed, they give us lots of space, but because they are… yes, what are they exactly? Lots of drivers open the window to…

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Getting lost

20140108-174328.jpgPlease don’t go up there, please don’t go up there… The words keep repeating themselves in my head as I glance at Mare de Deu del Mont, the longest and hardest climb in the Girona area. I did it once, last year, and with just a 25 on the back, it was pure torture. Now I’ve got a 27 on and I still don’t feel like riding up.

This time, it’s the guys I’m riding with who scare me. Going up there will mean 18 kilometres of hanging on for dear life and making sure I don’t get dropped. There’s only one rule if you want to ride with the guys – at least, that’s my one: never get dropped. Otherwise I’d never dare to join them again.

Today we’re a small group: Matt Brammeier, Daniel Martin, his dad Neil, David Millar, a strong Spanish amateur, Ricard. And me. Dan said we won’t go up Mare de Deu today because he found another road he wants to explore, but you never know with these guys.

We hit the bottom of the climb. The pace isn’t…

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Athletes are not cattle

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHe got caught for doping and tried to commit suicide only hours after he got the word. The 22 year old Belgian cyclist Jonathan Breyne didn’t die last week; they managed to bring him to the hospital just in time and emptied his stomach.

Oh dear, you might think right now, trying to kill yourself after finding out you tested positive, isn’t that all too dramatic? The world isn’t coming to an end, right? To be quite honest: no. It is not too dramatic. The world actually ís ending, for a guy like this. Testing positive means: your life a as a cyclist is over, as your life as a human being is. You will never get rid of the stigma ‘doper’ anymore.

Whereas it might very well be possible Breyne had no idea he had clenbuterol – the substance he’s caught for – in his body. Let alone if he took it on purpose, to enhance his performance. Even if his innocence will be proven and he will be cleared from all blame, he can forget about his brand new career and his future dreams.

Breyne raced a stage race in China last month, the Tour de Taihu Lake. That’s where he tested positive. For clenbuterol. A drug that masks doping, but more importantly: a drug that’s been used in China in cattle farming. Therefore, athletes have been told for years already not to eat meat in China. However Breyne did have meat, he says. That’s how the clenbuterol got into his body, he states.

Same story with the multiple world time trialing champion Michael Rogers, who heard he tested positive for clenbuterol on the same day as Breyne. He also claims it’s been the meat, that he doesn’t know how the clenbuterol would have come into his body otherwise. But Rogers has been suspected of doping for years and years already. Uhuh, you’ll be thinking. This “I don’t know anything, I’m innocent” is a familiar story. We don’t believe it anymore.

I don’t dare to put my hand in the fire for Breyne and surely not for Rogers. But it’s not as black and white, not as easy to judge as people nowadays tend to do the moment an athlete tests positive. There’s a large grey area. And that’s what the media and especially the audience tend to forget about. We, athletes, have to make sure we don’t get any banned substances in our bodies. But do you know how hard that is? Two years ago, in Germany, they tested a group of tourists returning from a holiday in China. 22 out of 28 tested positive for clenbuterol, coming from meat they ate during the holiday.

In almost every vitamin pill, in almost all medicine, there can be traces of substances that are forbidden for athletes – simply because banned and non-banned products are made in the same factory. You might have these traces in your body. A pretty high chance even, but you never get tested.

Of course the stupidest thing you can do in China as an athlete is eat meat. We all know the risk. In May I’ll be going to China myself to race, but I will not touch the meat there even with one finger. That doesn’t change my fear of testing positive for something I don’t have a clue of having in my body, though.

Because: banned substances can be in anything. No one guarantees us other food is ‘clean’. I’m training regularly with top male cyclists these days. We talk about the clenbuterol scandal a lot. I can assure you: every single one of them is terrified. Truly terrified. Image if you test positive. Just imagine. Career over, life over, stigmatized for eternity.

The international cycling union wants cycling to become a world wide sport. Races in exotic countries, such as China, get more and more important. But every time you put something in your mouth over there, you wonder: will this be okay, is this safe? How can you compete in your sport in a decent way if you have to live with that fear constantly?

Well, you might say, that’s the consequence of wanting to be a cyclist. You’ve got yourselves to blame, this is the result of the doping you did for years in a row. As if cyclists – or better: all professional athletes – don’t deserve a human life. It’s a good thing the sport is becoming global. But please, let the sports unions make sure we get doping free food. Because having to think over every bite, is inhuman.

Published in Dutch newspaper Trouw, monday December 30.
Photo: wikimedia commons