Robin Parker writes…
4th August. ICF World Championships – Ledegem, Belgium. 40-50 year category. 50 miles.
When I was about 18, Dad took me and my mate Mark over to Belgium to do some small race in some village in the middle of nowhere. Dad drove, so I have no idea where on earth it was! But it was “Belgium” that mythical land of bike racing hardmen. That day I lasted about 2km before the race took a left turn. By the time I was around that corner the front of the bunch had disappeared up the road in an echelon. All I could see before me was a long line of riders grovelling in the gutter. In less than a minute that line was shredded and I was stranded in a small group of guys wondering what on earth had just happened. We rode around to complete the lap whereupon the commissar pulled us out for being an embarrassingly long way behind the leaders. And that was the end of my Belgium race experiences. I never went back…
Until this weekend that is. And not for just any old race. This was for the ICF World Championships. The ICF is the international cycling federation that both the LVRC and the TLI are affiliated to. It’s the “other” federation – the one that doesn’t have Pat “Mugabe” McQuaid in charge
I travelled out on Saturday; checked into my hotel in Wevelgem; unpacked my bike and rode out to inspect the circuit based around Ledegem. The circuit, some 10Km in length, was completely flat. Essentially you ride out of town heading North on the Belgium equivalent of a B road, turn 90 left and then 90 left again almost immediately to head back into Ledegem on this tiny concrete road through the middle of a corn field. Having inspected the course, and paying particular attention to the technical bit through the town I headed back to the hotel to rest up.
I didn’t sleep all that well that night. Usual big race nerves combined with the lingering psychological trauma of my last visit 30 or so years ago! I just wanted to finish that first lap. And after that, try and finish and finally lay rest to that “Belgium race experience” that has haunted me all those years.
Sunday dawned bright and sunny with not a breath of wind blowing. I deliberately arrived at the circuit hours in advance of my race. I wanted to be there before the start of the 50+ age race that preceded my event. I found a shady spot close to the start line and waited to see when riders started lining up. Answer – 15 minutes before start time. With that point noted, I knew what time I would be arriving for my race. Then I headed out on circuit to watch the age 50+ guys leave town. It was fast, but they were a bunch and not a long line. Again, noted. I knew what to expect from the start.
Sign in. Pin on numbers. Affix frame number. Stand back and admire just how “Pro” that looks J Talking of “Pro”. What an event! The whole race was run off on closed roads. All parked cars moved the day before. Marshals and/or police on every junction. The finish was the “wrong” way up a one-way street in the centre of town which was closed for the day. The finish was completely barriered off and just past the finish line they had constructed a huge stage on which the podium was set up – handily next to the beer tent (this being Belgium after all!). The PA system basted out music and when the riders came through each lap the commentator chappie was going mental in foreign tongues! There was a red kite at 1km to go and pucker 800m, 600m, 400m etc boards to mark out the sprint. The B road out of town had a traffic island about half way along it and there was even a man standing on that blowing his whistle and waving one of those triangle flags – just like on the tour on telly! The whole thing was totally awesome!
Of course, none of this awesomeness did my pre-race nerves any good whatsoever! I was feeling positively sick by the time I started my warm up. I felt better once on the bike, completing my warm up in time to get to the start the allotted 15 minutes early. I took my place on the second row of riders lined up. For the next 15 minutes, more and more and more riders rolled up. Checking the results, some 120 riders started my race. Take it from me – that’s a big bunch!
We rolled out of town and I’m up there towards the front of the bunch. As the pace lifts I roll out to the front of the bunch and lead the pack out of town. Not sure why I wanted to do this. Partly because it helped rewarm my legs and partly because it’s the World Champ and because I just could! Inside my head there was a little boy screaming “look Mum I’m leading the World Champs!”. And then the attacking started…
They don’t have testers time-trialists in Belgium. Nobody just tows the bunch along at a steady pace. They have 2 paces. Pace A is “flat out, I’m attacking” pace and Pace B is “I’m not attacking right now, I am waiting to grab someone’s wheel who is attacking” pace. You can tell when a rider has adopted Pace B because they are free-wheeling. At all other times, Pace A is engaged. It’s the law.
Actually it was great fun. For the first couple of laps I held my place had the head of the bunch, jumping from attack to attack. In fact, heading towards town on the first lap I even found myself in a small group off the front. “Look Mum, now I’m in a break-away in the World Champs!” Then you look back to check the gap. It’s not much. The line of riders snaked as far as you can see down the road tells you that this was to be a shorted lived escapade and we were snaffled as we hit the edge of town.
After 2 of the 8 laps, I was starting to feel a bit tired. The 50+ age race had finished in a bunch sprint and I figured that my race was maybe heading the same way. In any event, I wasn’t going to be able to keep up with all of the attacking until the end of the race. So I decided to ease back a bit. As it happens, you don’t actually have to ease at all. You just stop fighting for position and you’re instantly two thirds of the way down the pack, it’s that cut-throat in the bunch.
And so it was that I settled into the pack for the majority of the race, somewhat cushioned from the violent accelerations at the front. Obviously this would not have been possible on a windy day. When the pace was full gas, you could see how long and thin the bunch became. A cross wind would have shredded it – just as happened to me 30 years ago. But this time, I’d done my attentive bit at the start and now I was gambling on it staying together.
With 2 laps to go I started my steady move to the front. Making your way up a bunch of that size takes time. As we took the bell, I was still too far back but managed to move up nicely as we headed out of town. Trouble was that 119 other riders had the same plan. Fighting for position at Hillingdon can be pretty frightening. But this was on another level! From getting to poke my nose in the wind, I was swamped by waves of riders moving up and by the time that we turned to head into town, I was some way off the front with no realistic hope of being able to move up before the finish.
But someone was obviously desperate to try. There was a shout; a squealing of brakes; that unmistakable “bike on road” noise and pandemonium exploded around me. We were maybe 3km to the finish on that tiny road through a field travelling at some speed gutter to gutter – or should I say, ditch to ditch…
I was on the very right hand side of the road. The guy in front of me grabbed handfuls of brakes, skidded and went over his handlebars into a pile of bodies to his left hand side. I likewise grabbed brakes and veered instinctively to the right. Seeing the guy in front of me go down seemed to happen in slow motion. But then I’m not sure what happened next. My mind seems to have helpfully blanked that bit out. My next recollection is that I’m lying on my back, feet in the air, bike on top of me staring at the sky from the bottom of a ditch. Luckily it was only about 2 feet deep and dry. I managed to scramble out without too much trouble. Quick bike check – I need to put the chain back on. Pull the grass out of the derailleur. Other than that it all looks OK. What about me? My calf is hurting. Can’t see any blood. Must have banged it on a pedal or something. That’ll be OK. Hmm, arms and legs are stinging and starting to come up a bit red. That’ll be the nettles in the ditch. So nothing serious. Which is more than can be said for one of the crash victims who sounded in some considerable pain. It looked like his shoulder or arm or something. I didn’t want to look too closely. The medics were there in a flash and I was more than happy to leave them to it!
So that was my race done. I rode into town just to register a finish. 79th for the record. But I finished. I rode in Belgium and I finished. I rode the World Champs and I finished. It may not have ended quite how I expected, but it was a great experience. I’d definitely like to go back to Belgium and back to the World Champs.
I didn’t take any photos, but there have been a few videos posted on YouTube that give you a bit of a flavour of the race. I wouldn’t say that I’m overly prominent in any of the videos so if you want to play “Where’s Wally” (or where’s the wally – take your pick J) I am wearing one of the some what aged East Grinstead green/white jerseys; I have a silver Giro Air Attack helmet (looks like a skate board helmet!!); all black bike with deep section mavic rims.
These first couple of videos are taken on the run into town, just before the final corner onto the finishing straight. This is the first lap, I am about 10th wheel (centre picture at 1:00)…
By the 2nd lap I have dropped back a bit to about 20th wheel. Centre picture 0:51.
This is a slightly longer video filmed on the exit of town and at the finish line. Unfortunately they missed the first lap as I lead it out of town that lap. It’s a shame that this wasn’t captured for posterity! And you’ll have a right job to spot me after that J But if you freeze frame at 0:22 I’m there in the middle of the pack next to a big dude in white at the start of the second lap. I was too far back in the bunch or lying in a ditch to be spotted thereafter!