Weeping legs

I have been on the road since 6.30 am when the start gun sounds for Gooik-Geraardsbergen-Gooik at 2.30 pm. The long journey via train stations, airports and hotels proved to be a real threat to my well-being in general and my legs in particular. Exhausted, I stand at the start line hoping that this feeling will disappear once I hit the pedals and the road.

The race starts with a vengeance. After 30 kilometers we already face the Muur, the legendary Muur van Geraardsbergen; the exact one that, to the regret of many, does not feature in the Tour of Flanders anymore. The decisive moment in the race will most likely be exactly there, so the peloton nervously races towards Geraardsbergen.

I check the kilometres and see that we are almost there. A roundabout and the peloton stretches itself to take a right turn. I sprint on the now suddenly empty road to the head of the peloton and re-join just in time to take the turn first.

Where is that Muur?, I think and then we turn right. Cobbles. This should be it. I feel desorientated because we started the Muur from another side than I know from tv. Nevertheless, I know that I have to give my all to reach the top as fast as I can. Instantly I feel that my legs have not forgotten the journey I undertook this morning. Far from it. I am overtaken by a few riders but I reach the small chapel with the first couple of riders because I started the Muur at the front of the peloton.

In the descent a group of nine is formed including four Smurfs (Lizzie, Emma, Sharon and me), two Aussies (Tiffany and Gracie), two Hitecs (Emma and Elisa) and one Rabo (Liesbet). I try to recover a little as far as that is possible in a group that rides full throttle to take a gap on the chasing peloton. In a few minutes the next climb is up: the Bosberg. If I know Hitec-Emma well, she wants to ride that climb fast. I am right. We climb so fast that my legs explode and I get dropped. I don’t know what is wrong with me and cobbles this season but I can’t seem to find any rhythm on them. And today, with these messy legs, I don’t find the right pace either.

I clench my teeth and reach the top. Stupid cow! You got dropped! I shift gears and chase. I won’t drop back in the peloton. Not today. Reaching the Muur first, something I never did before, and being in the decisive breakaway and then drop back to the large group anonymously. No, I don’t want that, but the first group rides really fast. One against eight is an unfair battle.

But nevertheless I win! After the chase which seemed endless, I get back to the first group. Untill the next cobbled section where I, to my own frustration, get dropped again. Have I gone mad? Silently I yell at myself. How could you have let that happen. Again! I don’t care how you do it but you get your ass back to that first group, you stupid cow. My legs hurt so much that it seems to be a mission impossible.

Thank God, one of the Australians got dropped on the Bosberg too and just slightly before me. She desparately tries to get back too. We chase together, taking turns. Slowly, painstakingly slow we come closer. Encouraging but scary at the same time. I have no idea what to do once we get back to the group. I can’t ride anymore. This must be the worst I ever felt in a race in my life. We get back.

The peloton keeps chasing like a madman. No wonder because a lot of teams missed the decisive move. We must ride for our lives when we enter the local 10-kilometer circuit, which we have to do seven times, with a marginal lead of only 15 seconds. I am dying in Emma’s wheel. I am dying again in Sharon’s wheel and during my own turns at the front of the group, when I shift gears to try and ride even faster, a remarkable silence enters my head.

Ride on, and fast. This is what I should do, this is what I do but in fact it’s the last thing my body wants to do at the moment. But the worst is yet to come. After every turn I have to stand on the pedals, accelerate and get back in the group’s slipstream. We have to stay away from the bunch. That’s the only thing that matters at the moment. I am already dead so if I die a little more it won’t matter. I have to help my team mates get to a good position in the final.

For minutes I look at the wheel in front of me. I look at the white stripes on the road when I take my turns at the front. Time is creeping on, the stage seems to take forever. I will have to ride like this for the rest of my life, I am sure of it. I hardly notice that Sharon attacks, with Liesbet and Elisa. I see them go, through the turn. They seem to be on another planet. They feel so far away.

Hitec-Emma attacks and Lizzie follows. They play cat and mouse 200 metres up the road but suddenly drop back to our little group. Finally, after 300 years on my bike, or was it only 3 hours, the pace drops. The sun starts to shine again, at least I see it shine again and my legs come back to life. Well, life might be a bit too much for something that died and partially decayed already.

I still don’t know what Sharon, Liesbet and Elisa did. We will sprint for the fourth spot. Lizzie wins the sprint. I finish seventh but the only thing I can think of is that it is finally over. Done. I became 300 years older and even more tired but I don’t care anymore. Finally I get to do what my heart and my weeping legs longed for the entire race. I get to stop. At last.

Translation: Procycling News / Tour de José

Photos: Kris Claeyé

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