In the early hours tomorrow morning, the final Grand Tour of the cycling season begins with the 76th Vuelta a España and the battle for the maillot rojo (red jersey).
The Spring Classics campaign has already come to an end and we start looking towards tour racing and moving away from Belgium and Holland to other parts of Europe. I have to say the early part of the season is almost my favourite time of the year.
A lot of hard, fast and aggressive one day racing where you leave everything out on the road and nothing in the tank. At the beginning you are fresh and motivated and usually ready to start off the season with a bang.
Two races that really stand out for me, two of my favourite one day races of the year, two big Belgium classics, are the Ronde van Vlaanderen and La Fleche Wallonne. Two completely different styles of races but two very beautiful races.
For the women they are both part of the World Cup calendar and are both held in very high regard, and as a result they are races everyone wants to win.
I think what makes them so special is the fact that they run alongside the very prestigious professional men’s versions.
You say the name of either of these races and people know them. People know the famous Flandrian cobbles and climbs, and the Mur de Huy of La Fleche Wallonne is such a momentous and tough climb that has endured many battles over the years in the Ardennes region.
There is also something special about the Belgium crowds and fans, they’re crazy, they love it and anything on two wheels, men or women, they will cheer you on.
It’s a cycling mad nation. You arrive at the start, usually it is well before midday and they’re already on the beers and getting into the festive spirit.
You have many collectors who will have albums full of photo’s that they are wanting you to sign, sometimes pictures from years back which can be funny or interesting to see.
After the finish if you have any bidons [water bottles] left on your bike, you are suddenly the most popular kid in school as everyone is trying to take a souvenir from the race and get as many bidons as they can.
You can also get tricked by being given a nice gift from a fan and then it isn’t until after you accept it that they will then go on and ask you for your jersey or something of a lot more value then a biddon!
Apparently everyone in Belgium is a jersey collector…
The Ronde van Vlaanderen didn’t disappoint this year, a similar course to last year with only one significant change, adding the Molenberg cobbled climb as the first sector of the race at 38km.
We started in the town of Oudenaarde and headed out on our merry way with crowds lining the streets as we left town. About 10km into the race we went through my teammates ‘home’ town in Belgium.
Emma Johansson bases herself in Zingem during the spring and the town turns blue and yellow to support the Swedish local.
As expected it was always going to be a race into the first section: from 10km before, the pace in the peloton dramatically increased. Girls were taking risks to fight for position and ultimately there were many crashes, ending some girls’ race before it truly started.
I thought my race was over quite early on as I made it onto the Molenberg not as close to the front as I would’ve liked and was forced to avoid a rider and found myself with no traction on the cobbles, forcing me to stop and walk a small section.
Walking though was almost harder than riding; eventually I found space and traction to get going again and chased hard making it back, and, amazingly to the front in time for the Paterstraat. From then on it was more about always being on the fore, being aware of where you were on the route and what was coming up.
I was also enjoying the vibe and atmosphere as I went through various towns with the music cranking and everyone in good spirit!
In some ways it was a really strange race as it was very aggressive through some parts, and many teams wanted to try and force a break, us included.
Other sections, including the steep and hard climbs were almost ‘easy’ parts of the race as there wasn’t the attacking and the pace wasn’t as high as expected.
Ultimately the race came down to the Oude Kwaremont and the Paterberg, as predicted.
It was a fight between the 40 or 50 girls that were left in the bunch.
For Orica-AIS, Emma was our protected rider so we wanted to put her into the best possible position into the Oude Kwaremont.
She was only one of two riders who were able to go with the ever-so-strong Vos as they created a gap from the rest of the peloton and pushed on. I terms of atmosphere this section was the best of the whole race, largely because you have the beer tents lined all the way up the cobbled climb!
Also up the Paterberg people are cheering you on, you smell the beer and frites and although you are hurting so much it makes it that little bit easier to push through.
Ultimately the race for the win was battled out between four riders, with Vos coming out on top; amazingly it was a win that was still missing from her palmares until now.
I was back with the main peloton getting race updates from my teammate Spratty as we were rolling along pretty slowly and my radio had stopped working, which kept things entertaining.
Everything about Flanders gets me excited and it is a race I love to keep coming back to, and one day I hope to conquer it and stand on the top step of the podium.
As I mentioned before, one of my other favourite one day races of the year is La Fleche Wallonne. Completely different to Flanders, no cobbles, more climbs and a very steep ‘wall’ to finish up, and it’s also in the Ardennes, the French-speaking region of Belgium.
This year the course was changed quite significantly. We still raced over many of the same climbs but they came in different parts of the race. Instead of one longer lap followed by a shorter lap with the two ascents of the Mur quite close to one another, it was changed to two laps of a 65km circuit with 12 classified climbs.
The beauty with Fleche is that most of the fans will just wait for the race on the Mur as the men pass through there three times while we pass twice.
It is lined from the very bottom all the way up and beyond. It is amazing, people cheering you on as you’re suffering, hoping like crazy that your legs won’t give in and you need to stop and get going again.
With the course change it was a hard and aggressive race for a large part of the race, with added wind and perhaps more teams being interested in creating a break which all made for exciting racing.
Although so many girls and teams tried to go on the attack, there were a handful of breaks that established small gaps on the peloton but nothing was able to stick to become a race-winning move.
Ultimately the race did come down to the final ascent of the Mur. For Orica-AIS, once it was clear that with 10km to go and with no climbs left until the Mur that a break wasn’t going to get away, we rallied together for Emma, to put her in the best position into the final climb.
Former world champion Tatianna Guderzo managed a late solo break but the peloton reeled her in just before the final approach.
Orica-AIS took control of the front of the bunch in the final 2-3km.
The hardest thing as you approach the Mur is the roads are wide and the peloton can swarm and you can lose position very easily. We had Spratty and Shara pushing the pace on the front as I sat in behind with Emma on my wheel, giving the perfect lead in to the final kilometre.
I took over from the other girls with just under 1km to go, leading the peloton up to around 400m to go, and then Emma was left to see what she could do. The hardest part was once my job was done with a finish like this you can’t just take the pressure off the pedals and roll into the finish.
The hardest part of the climb was still to come so it was quite the grovel once the front-runners passed me. I was in no mans land, counting down every 50m sign posted on the side of the course but then it really hurt because as I was still holding onto a top 10 finish, I had a couple riders sneak up from behind and I needed to find the strength a small sprint!
Lets just say that coming over the finish line, I was in a world of hurt…
Vos continued to show why she is world number one and has won almost everything there is to win as she took her fifth Fleche title, but it was a great fight behind for the minor placings.
Elisa Longo Borghini just edged out Ashleigh Moolman for the podium spots and for us Emma, although personally disappointed, put in a great ride for fifth.
The crowds did not disappoint this year and it continues to be a great race, and, after cleaning ourselves up and recovering from the race we are able to sit back, relax and watch the men battle it out.
The classics really are a great part of the season but now, as the weather is starting to turn and warm up, its time to get the tan on and continue racing hard all over Europe.
Thanks for reading!