In Flanders Fields the poppies grow…

It was strange wandering around the white headstones of the war graves in Zandvoorde.  Quiet, eerie and unnerving.  We were deep in the World War I territory and there were reminders of this everywhere.  The day before we had ridden the Kemmelberg, which I found out was a strategic battleground in the First World War.  The ridge having been held by the French, the Germans, the British and the Belgians at different points.  Its strategic position was obvious, the highest point for miles around allowing a view that in 1918 had seen so much destruction and devastation.  

The graves I was now looking at, with the Kemmel ridge in the background, held the bodies of young men, not much older than me, British, Indian and Canadian soldiers and those whose names were not known but would not be forgotten.

I felt sad but thankful and lucky.  Thankful that I had the freedom to live as I wanted to and lucky to be able to only have a bike race to worry about and not what these young men had, had to face.

This was not my first time in Belgium, having ridden the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Gent Wevelgem sportives.  It was though; my first time racing, racing in the spiritual home of bike racing and I was super excited at the prospect.

We had come over through the Tunnel on the Thursday night.  Dad, Harry, my brother and I had ridden out to recon the course and then ride the Kemmelberg, the iconic cobbled climb of Gent Wevelgem, stopping at the bottom in Kemmel we had tried the local delicacy of Frijtes, Mayo and Tomato Ketchup.  Then we had ridden back to get some miles in my legs.  I was feeling good after my racing at the Tour of Scotland, but nervous in the anticipation of a full-on Belgian race.

Before that though Dad had set me a task.  Cooking!  We went to the local shop and I had to make a meal on a budget of €7, what I expected I might be able to afford if I lived and raced out here.  So I bought Risotto rice, Chicken, Peppers and substituted Asparagus for Broccoli, cheaper option, and a baguette, before heading back to whip it up into a meal for the evening.  Thankfully all went well, and we sat down to a good meal before hitting the sack to sleep well before the Zandvoorde Zonnebeke race the next day.  

Friday brought a crisp clear day and we set off to the course we had ridden the day before, the sleepy town looked different with the barriers erected and a cart placed at the start/finish outside the ‘In de Lustigen Boer’ bar.  We jumped on the bikes and rode the course again.  Out of the village on to a wide headwind concrete road, then right onto a single-track farm road, cross winds, and gravel on the corner from the local Quarry. Through the farm lane we swung right again onto a main road and tailwind up a small climb into the village a flat straight run in with some obligatory road furniture.

Back to the van we had a bit of time to waste before sign on so we tool a walk down to the graveyard, a moving experience.  We walked back in thought and then headed to see the ‘Merry Farmer’ for sign on.  

Numbers and transponders done and warm up on the rollers, doing this meant that I received some very strange looks, it appears that rollers and warmups were not the thing to do, but it was the thing I did, so all good.

The others now started to arrive, sponsored vans, fancy bikes and a warm up that seemed to consist of a roll down and up the road and some embrocation on the legs.   The speaker crackled into action, names were called and a small crowd gathered to listen to the Flandrien caller, the race was good to go.

The commissaire blew the whistle, race on. We rolled round the first lap quite slowly, until we hit the ‘hill’. The hill wasn’t really a hill at all, more like a minor inconvenience, in an otherwise pan flat course. Someone attacked. I saw them going, so I decided to go with them. I took the money over the line for the Prime. We got caught not long after. €10 in the pot though. 

Lap three. 45km still to be raced. Same thing again. I saw an attack, so I went with it. However, this time we stayed away as a pair for a lap, until another guy bridged across to us, making a trio. That trio soon became a double, as we rode the original guy off our wheel. The guy I was with was a similar size to me, maybe a bit skinnier but definitely someone to try get away with. We worked well together, each of us pulling our turns, neither one of us spending too long in the wind. There were points on the circuit where you could look across to see where the bunch were. Each lap the gap got larger and larger until, with about four laps to go, we could no longer see the bunch. We carried on pushing on, however, just in case. 

Last lap, on the hill. I flick my elbow to get the other guy to come through. Nothing. I look round. He’s still on my wheel. He shakes his head and says: “I’m dead.” I stay on the front. 300m to go. It’s now like being Rider 1 in a match sprint. Same tactics apply. I’m still looking behind me, drawing on my ability to ride in a straight line without looking forwards. 250m to go. He gets out the saddle. That’s it. I kick. My vision focusses on one thing, the chequered flag. 

I cross the line, arms in the air, a grin on my face, securing my 100% win rate on the continent. 

Little did I know that there was controversy.  Seemingly the race organiser had spoken to Dad with a lap to go.  “There are complaints, your son has too big a gear, there is complaints”.  Dad was pretty furious and suggested that a roll out and gear check would solve the problem, so we headed back to the yard behind the bar.

Tape measure out and chalked lines, they rolled out my bike. Unsurprisingly it was 6m 93 and the allowed distance was 7m 30.  I was way under; they were embarrassed and I headed out to take the flowers and the applause of the small crowd.  Honestly, I couldn’t stop smiling!

I went to jump on the rollers to cool down.  Again strange looks.  My breakwaway companion stopped and chatted.  His Dad apologised for questioning my gearing.  Changed we headed back to the bar and received a free drink and some great chat with the locals about cyclists they knew and who the local World Tour riders were.  I was offered a ride in the following week’s Easter race, but it was time to head back.  We had a midnight tunnel crossing and I was back at the Velodrome in London the next day for National School of Racing Training.

Leaving West Flanders I was elated but still conscious just how lucky I am to live the life that I do.

The Belgian newspaper report

William Gilbank heeft in Zandvoorde de Zandvoordeprijs naar zijn hand gezet. De Brit uit Essex haalde het voor Sander Scheldeman en de Nederlander Sjoerd Bijlsman.

In een ultra snelle wedstrijd, 64 km in 1u25min, werden de toeschouwers verwent met aan de start 66 deelnemers voor nieuwelingen. Het kleine Zandvoorde heeft met zijn heuvelachtig parcours duidelijk interesse gewekt bij vele nieuwkomers. Toch was er discussie gerezen bij de winnaar William Gilbank om zijn schakelingen die niet conform konden zijn met de Belgische wetgeving in het koersgebeuren. Na een grondige controle van bijna 30 minuten door de bevoegde aangestelde dienstens bleek dat zijn fiets conform was met de startprocedure en inschrijving. Hij werd dan ook op applaus erkent als winnaar van de Zandvoordeprijs. Als tweede kwam Sander Scheldeman over de meet en de Nederlander Sjoerd Bijlsman mocht mee op het schavotje. (ZB)


William Gilbank has won the Zandvoorde Prize in Zandvoorde. The Brit from Essex beat Sander Scheldeman and the Dutchman Sjoerd Bijlsman.

In an ultra-fast race, 64 km in 1h25min, the spectators were spoiled with 66 participants. With its hilly course, small Zandvoorde has clearly aroused the interest of many newcomers. However, there was discussion with the winner William Gilbank about his circuitry that could not be in accordance with Belgian legislation in the racing process. After a thorough check of almost 30 minutes by the authorized designated services, it was found that his bicycle was in accordance with the starting procedure and registration. He was therefore recognized with applause as the winner of the Zandvoorde Prize. Sander Scheldeman crossed the finish line in second place and the Dutchman Sjoerd Bijlsman was allowed to join the scaffold. (ZB)

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