Cobbles, crashes and carnage.

Guido Reybrouck Classic 2023

I have been to pro races before: Tour of Britain, Tour de France, Tour de Yorkshire,
and I have obviously watched the races on the TV. I have also been fortunate
enough to ride the Tour of Scotland.

From the outside, I have seen the chaos of the racing, the melee around the buses, the racks of bikes, the busy soigneurs, the coaches chatting, the riders resting, the rows of shiny Team cars. It all looked exciting, exotic and mad. On the weekend of the 17 th March, at the Guido Reybrouck Classic, Damme, Belgium. I stepped from the outside to the inside and it was indeed; truly, completely mad!

We left early from Folkestone on Friday 17 th March. Catching the Eurotunnel over. 6 Juniors, selected by LVJT, to represent the club at, for most of us, our first UCI
race. Sam Leslie was the only rider who had been before, but for me; Tom Mead,
Ethan Storti, Ben Walker and Charlie Abraham, it was our first taste of the big time.
We arrived in Damme at lunchtime and quickly unpacked and got the TT bikes out.
Dad’s van, Charlie’s Dad’s car and the Team car were all fully loaded, jammed with
disc wheels, TT bikes, Road bikes, all clean and sparkling in the spring sunshine.
We had parked next to the tree-lined canal and a moment of recognition swept over us. This was the World Championship TT course, Van Aert and Ganna had ridden here. This was cool!.

We did a recon of the course, for some the first time on Cobbles, not for me I had ridden sportives in Belgium with Dad; Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Kuurne, Gent Wevelgem. No fear for me but for the others, certainly an experience. The course looked great, we were nervous, excited and delighted to be here. We prayed for good weather for Race Day. Heading off to Brugge and our accommodation, we started to get ready. Fiddling with TT bikes, worried about the UCI’s new rules and just generally nervous about what was to come.

Saturday – Sunny, windy, exposed!
The first stage was an 11km Time Trial. However, before that we had to get passed
by the Commissaries! We arrived at 11:30 and set off to the tent at the start ramp.
Here the jig was set up and we joined the line. Time ticked away and eventually the
bikes were measured. I am Category 3, at 6ft 4in, I had the extra reach but the bars
were too high by 1cm, Ethan’s reach too long. Everyone else was good. The
madness began; time was running out to my start time. Back to the bus, the
mechanics, Dad, Bob and Nick set about the bikes and I managed to get on the
Turbo for a 15 minute warm up before heading over to the ramp. Lines of cars,
team, comms, jury. This was proper pro. Everything I had dreamed of. Here we go!
The crosswinds were blowing, and the times were quick.

Going out I had a tail wind and went off quick. Head down I followed the road … steady … nearly into a ditch as I missed a left, correction, heart rate down, calm. Over the bridge, left down the straight road into the Headwind. Pressure on the pedals, get close to the left into the wind, shelter from the trees, left onto the bridge, watch the lip, on to the next bridge, right hand side and when at the trees, left, push hard give your all.

I set a time of a 14:02, eventually placing me in the top third. The times then came in thick and fast, with all our riders in the 14/15-minute region. Ethan unfortunately, even by putting the saddle on the limit, had not managed to reduce the reach so had to head out on Tom’s bike, he put in a great effort, from what I could see in the Team car. I had changed and got a chance to ride with Bob, Julie and Matt and see the course from inside the car! Ben broke a spoke and had to change wheels just before the start. More madness. This was stressful, this was amazing.

Recovery, repack, reflect.
We went back to the hotel, to recover and prepare for the second stage. In the Team meeting, Matt and Dad talked us through the course, the servicing from the car, the feed zone. “Get to the front”, “stay at the front”, “show yourself”, “push hard on the cobbles”. We had questions, you could sense the tension, this was new and we just wanted to get out there, get it done, learn and hopefully enjoy!

Sunday – Rainy, Wet roads, nervous!
I woke and could hear the wind outside and the sound of cars on wet roads.
Opening the curtains, it was not raining, but it had been. Wet cobbles. Hmmmm!
We ate breakfast and headed back to Damme, now it was bright and sunny and the wind had died down. We arrived and started to unpack, checking the bikes, attaching the number plates on the bikes, this was so cool, the pros have these!
Then the loudest noise, Euro pop smashing out on this quiet Sunday morning in a
sleepy village in Belgium. Everyone stopped as a tractor turned the corner, a Viking
ship on a float in tow and a cacophony of deep bass and electronica spewing out.
This was mad! We laughed, it took the edge off. Nearly time for the presentation.
Changed we headed over the stage, Glasses on, glasses off? This was the big
question! We mounted the stage and mounted our glassed on the tops of our head.

Waving as we were introduced and then a short interview with Sam. This was so
cool! Back on the bikes and a brief warm up. But as the start drew closer the clouds
and drizzle set in. This was Belgium in the spring!
We headed to the start line, nervous but ready to race. 200m down the road,
neutralised zone. Crash!, We had not started yet and the race was stopped,
everyone had a wee and got sorted out, we got going again.
10km in. Crash! It was just before the first cobbled sector and you could feel the
stress and the tension. It was edgy, some of the favourites taken out. But we were
all still going and upright. 25km in and another crash, Ethan caught up in it,
mechanical, service called, bike change, mechanical, stuck in small ring, keep going feed zone at 35km, decide then. Feed zone, Ethan out, ride back, get the miles in.

Stress, all still in the main peloton. Settle, feed, race leaders sits up and takes a gel,
we all sit up and take a gel. Rhythm, hit the cobbles, use your power, move up,
narrow roads, check your position, crash, get caught up, get back on, calm, go
again. Over the next 110km, carnage ensued over the 13 sectors, and when we got
on to the finishing circuit, I was our only rider left. Charlie had punctured on a
cobbled sector, got a new wheel but was too far back, Ben had had to retire the second time through the feed, contact lens issues and unable to see properly, safest to stop. Tom and Sam had been caught behind so many crashes that the efforts of getting back on had taken their toll and eventually the broom had swept.
Onto the finishing circuit, various breaks got away and were pulled back, only for a
different one to go. It was attack after attack. I was still there in the bunch. In the
red, I had never raced this far before and I was determined to finish. Legs felt good.

I was in this race to the end.

I never saw the winner cross the line, with 500m to go my derailleur caught in my
chain and snapped in half, I looked at the drooping, sorry chain, no other option I
shouldered the bike and ran the 500 meters, slipping on cobbles with the effort now showing on my face. I was so determined though I was going to finish, I crossed the line to applause. Dad there to guide me to the side. Deflated, yet elated, Exhausted, yet invigorated, Disappointed, but proud. I had done it; I had completed my first UCI race! And that was that. 125km of cobbles, crashes, and carnage.

Thank you so much to LVYCC for the support; to Dad, Bob, Nick, Matt and Julie from all the team, Thank you! Thank you massively to the Rayner Foundation for their financial support, without which we would not have been able to race this important event. Thank you to the organisers for the invite and to the organisers and commissaries for such a professional, enjoyable and brilliant event. I hope that we will be back next year. Ready for the chaos to ensue once again.

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