3 Days of West Flanders

No lie in.

My alarm clock rumbles into action and slowly I return to reality. Leaving the cosiness of my dream world behind, it takes a while to take stock of where I am; is this Spain, UK, France or Belgium? In a semi-conscious state it could quite easily be any of those options. Another generic hotel bed and slightly unfamiliar environment fits the mould of many of my recent bedrooms. The confusion passes as I remember that I am actually in Belgium and it’s the morning of a race.

Which race that may be is a slightly more complicated question however and the disorientation returns. Where on earth am I??

I lie in bed, resigned to the fact that I’m not going to solve this puzzle. Either way today will involve hurting myself on a bicycle in some area of the world. I close my eyes, enjoying the final moments of comfortable bliss and accept that my situation will be made clear in good time.

Sleep returns momentarily, before being conclusively shattered by the booming voice of my roommate. A friendly good morning is issued before the bright lights above me bang into action and the day officially begins. The room suddenly triggers my memory and I remember that I’m in a posh hotel on the outskirts of Brugge. Drie Daagse van West Vlaanderen (3 Days of West Flanders) will be my torture chamber today and with that realisation I already start mentally readying myself for the effort. Just another Sunday of cobbles, crosswinds, bergs and World Tour opposition.

Breakfast first though, sod doing that without breakfast.

The road snakes aggressively and the incessant concrete slabs of which it is constituted are driving me slowly mad. I’m riding precariously close to the trench running down the middle of these slabs, where the road seems to disappear into an abyss. It feels like I am jostling for position on the edge of a cliff face. I wonder if it would be slightly less painful to allow my front wheel to snag and go hurtling over the bars but I shake myself from such daydreams.

The Kemmelberg is looming into distance before the nervous peloton and I know that I really need to get to the front soon but try as I may, I just can’t seem to manage it. We are hurtling along, spread across every inch of the road and I’d probably have more success riding to the front of the pyramid stage at Glastonbury. The crowd would probably be less rowdy too.

The Kemmel comes and I hit it too far back in the bunch. My fate is sealed as I forge my way over its jarring cobbles and I ready myself for the umpteenth time.

The lineout created on the descent is absolutely brutal. The bunch of 180 riders all funnels into a road one metre wide, plunging down the hill and back out onto the windswept West-Flanders landscape. In front of me is a long, long line of top professional riders and that line is stretching to breaking point. Somewhere at the front the entire Quickstep team is absolutely dishing it out. I hang on for absolute dear life, sprinting like my life depends on it to hold the wheel. I cling on like a limpet for a good thirty minutes before the pace slowly relents to a more sustainable tempo.

Holy s*** that was fast! However, the relief at surviving the onslaught is quickly broken by the urgency to try and get myself to the front of the pack again. I gulp down a High5 bar and make my way up through the slightly depleted bunch.

A short while later, we hook a right and the wind blasts us from the side. Everyone is battered into the gutter and my lungs crave for oxygen once more. All I can see is the wheel in front and I have no idea how long I’ll be sitting at max effort for. The Belgium gutter is infinitely cruel, I discovered that a long time ago.

All I can do now is plough on regardless, holding on to hope and the wheel in front once more. We are absolutely rattling along, holy s*** this is a fast race. I’m a long, long way from that blissful hotel bed right now.