Going into the weekend, I was facing a great unknown. Although I have competed and done well in European races, I had not experienced a true Classics type brawl. The Omloop Mandel Leie Schelde is a Flandrian delight, featuring no less than seven climbs including the legendary Oude Kwaremont and Paterburg. Cobbles were doled out accordingly; sharp, bumpy, and uphill. To put the sting in the legs near the finish, the parcours was set to be 135 kilometers. At the end of that distance, I would feel every bit of exertion from earlier in the race. Our director, Billy, told us the Omloop was the hardest Belgian junior race, attracting the top junior teams and talent. The startlist was quite international, with racers from Denmark, France, America, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. Our team consisted of four riders, Alexey Vermeulen, Greg Daniel, Miguel Bryon, and me. The combination of course, weather- spitting rain and 40km/h crosswinds, riders, and prestige was the perfect storm for a blazing fight to the finish line.
Our team had only a short, ten kilometer drive to the start town of Meulebeke. On the way over the weather threatened with spitting rain and ominous clouds. The trees were bending in the wind, signaling the arrival of the dreaded crosswinds. We arrived at the inscription and waited in the car while out director obtained the numbers and car number. I kitted up, packed food prepared by the soigneur Viggo, and proceeded to the start. Fortunately, the sun shone brightly on the start and brightened the mood. With James Blunt on the loudspeakers, we clipped in and were off. Neutral sections aren’t very neutral in European Junior races. They are slow races for position. Jumping the curbs, pushing aggressively, and random yells are common. Crashes aren’t unexpected. Foreseeing this, the team lined up second row, and I jumped onto the bumper of the lead car and held position, sitting just barely behind the motorcycles and car. After three kilometers, we were officially started. One of the challenges of racing abroad is knowing who to follow. I recognize a few names, but can’t tell who is a contender. They all look somewhat good. However, this time I was extremely lucky. One of my marked men, who I raced with in the Czech Republic, shot out of the peloton at kilometer zero. Immediately, three others followed and we had a gap. Since it was early in the race, we were fresh and killing it. With at least a 25 second gap on the field and around ten kilometers covered, a group of around fifteen bridged. Many guys sat on, hindering the pace line. The original agitator, Dylan Kowalski, accelerated hard and reshuffled the group once again. We were much more efficient and had a 45 second gap going into the first climb at kilometer 23, the Tiegemberg. The group kept a steady pace and easily made it over the top. As the break descended, I glanced at my stem sheet to see where the other climbs were. The next was at 35 kilometers into the race. The group kept a steady rhythm as we went through the next few climbs. The Oude Kwaremont and Paterburg were up next. These legendary cobbled climbs quickly reduced the break to five. A regroup happened on the descents and flat roads back to the finishing circuits. The group was twenty strong. We entered the eight kilometer finishing circuits, to be done four times. The wind was raging and taking a toll on all the riders. On the first lap, the dominant team with four in the break, Avia, attacked. Though hurting badly, I quickly responded. Suddenly, our break of five was gone. Two other riders bridged, creating seven man group. At that point, my glasses were so dirty and exertion so high that I could only stare at the wheel in front. The winner, Piotr Havik, broke away with a lap and a half to go. I was only concerned with holding the wheel. Still, everyone attacked as hard as they could, countering again and again. The Avia team guttered the break in the cross winds as I hung on for dear life. Finally, the announcer yelled, “laatste ronde.” I just had to hang on. The attacks kept coming, but I knew I could make it. Finally, the last three hundred meters came. I ended up seventh, much better than I ever expected. 3 hours 21 minutes at a 40km/h average. After being in a break for 135 kilometers, I was absolutely crushed. Any movement hurt. Alexey came in 30th from the chase group. Miguel hit a flower pot and while Greg’s skewer came loose on the Kwaremont. This being my first cobbled, windy race, I am extremely happy with the outcome. I was able to follow the moves, stay in contention, and be aggressive throughout the race. The Mandel Leie Schelde, along with Stage 3 of the Peace Race goes into the books as the hardest day on the bike.