I’m gonna start this story from the end.
I got 24th place at Bekegem. On paper it was one of my better results, I guess… But it has been a while since I had done a kermis and I had learned a lot in that time - the result was a bit of a disappointment. Never mind, 10 Euros in my pocket - can’t complain about that! I rode home with the boys with my mind on a hearty dinner and a good night’s rest. Onward!
I crossed the finish line with one other guy. Behind one other guy. I attacked him through the short cobble section around the last turn with 300 meters to go, but I couldn’t hold it. I had already burnt some big matches. Just ahead my teammate played out the exact same tactic and result against a teammate of the fella who beat me. Shit.
With one lap to go (7.5 km) it was the four of us, two-on-two. With two kilometers to go I let a gap go to my teammate and one of them jumped across. I was too blown to take advantage of the situation. So it became one-on-one, times two!
I was dropped, again. Just up the road, my teammate, Nick, had just popped too. Ahead of him a group of two teammates had started working together, also off the back. I caught Nick and we started chasing the duo ahead of us. Since we had just dropped off the back second group on the road, we were passed by the follow car and ambulance, so we assumed we were on the last lap. We caught the two guys and I ripped past them on the cobbles with the last match I had left and sprinted to the line, throwing my bike to take it from one of the other dudes! … It wasn’t the last lap. You never really know over here until you see the checkered flag and its over. So, I tried to recover.
When I came back to the “peloton” it was only about 15 riders! The race had obviously blown to pieces in the first 60+ km of racing. But I was toast! I did my absolute best to get into the rotation and chill. My legs were burning and my lungs were empty, but it was my head that was in the worst shape. I was mentally toasted and totally disappointed. I only lasted about a lap.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have the mind wrapped around the situation quite properly. “Donnie, you’re out of your element!” comes to mind. Not that I haven’t rolled a break before, and it wasn’t that I didn’t belong there, but I still feel uncomfortable in the Belgian peloton. People yell (at me or others) and I’m the only one out of the loop (and unsure whether its at me or not). People yell in English and suddenly I am singled out. It is really a hard barrier to cross - racing as a foreigner - though I am sure once I get used to it, it will be hard to see how it ever seemed so big. Anyways, I let myself be abused. Instead of pushing back or telling someone to “take it easy!” or “steady!” when pulling through I just kind of gritted my teeth and tried to do my share, quietly. I ended up doing more work than anyone. Such a waste. I think I was so focused on not doing more work that I fell into a sort of trap (I think of a pitcher in baseball with a full count being advised “don’t throw a ball!” instead of “throw a strike!” if that makes any sense. I don’t think a strategy is a list of things not to do. Oh well). I still am sort of in shock that I let it happen. Next time, I need to be more assertive and confident. The last moment was a gap opened in the middle of the group and I refused to be used to close it and we were all already on the limit. I just didn’t have the gas to close the gap when the guys behind me jumped me, swearing. I cracked. Physically and mentally. But I set myself up for it. Learnin’!
I was in the break of 12 guys, leading the race! Finally, I made it up there. I knew I was capable - I knew it - but it was so good to finally have everything to come together for me. Immediately, I started trying to size up the situation. My first concern was that I was the only foreigner in the group and I am sure it was the first thing everyone else noticed, too! I knew that they would try to use me and take advantage of my inexperience (its assumed), so I tried to be invisible. Not necessarily the best tactic, in retrospect, but I partly had the right idea. I tried not to take long pulls and show extra excitement and eagerness to work. I made sure not to close gaps that weren’t my responsibility and show willingness to pick up other’s slack. But I also tried to take a nice, steady pull each time through, so nobody would single me out as being strong or weak. Basically, I tried to hold my cards close to my chest.
At the start I was calm and relaxed. I was not worried about whether I would make the lead group or where it might go or who to watch. It didn’t consume me today. I was focused, clear, and relaxed - totally at ease. The first riders went up the road straight from the gun and I just accelerated into a smart position at the head of the race. Five guys dangled just ahead as a counter-move went and was brought back just as quickly. Then, in the next couple kilometers, a couple other moves went, and went nowhere. I was reacting super-quickly, without any thought. Somehow I had found my zone! About 5 km in I took my first real dig, following a counter-attack off a failed move. After a hard kick and a short acceleration, I looked back and there was a solid gap between me and two other guys and the rest of the field. Soon we had caught the leaders and worked immediately to widen a very narrow gap. Things seemed good but I knew the pace would be relentless. The field started to catch us, shattered, about two km later. Only four guys made it completely across before the elastic snapped! Then we were clear and our gap started to grow - painfully, very painfully, but steadily.
The course at Bekegem was everything kermis all wrapped in one. 116 km, 7.5 km loops, a technical section through town, narrow farm roads, crosswinds, cobbles, you name it! JBCA had six guys in a medium-sized field. We had a nice 20 km commute over to the race, registered early (I got lucky #3!) and rode the course once to scope it out. We got to the line just in time to get the prime spots on the front and munch a quick bar - then it was game on!