In mid-February I got an exciting, unexpected email from our team Directeur Sportif [Team Manager]: “Cycling Australia has a spare spot for U23 Tour of Flanders [De Ronde van Vlaanderen voor Beloften], should I say you’re interested?”. Of course, I replied “Yes!” before asking any questions about how I would get there, where I would stay, what it would cost me, etc. The catch was that Cycling Aus was contributing $0 to the event so all costs involved with getting to Oudenaarde, finding a place to stay and food to eat were on me. Luckily for myself, the continued support of Melbourne University Sport, Melbourne University cycling club and Unibicycles which has gotten me through a Bachelor of Science degree while making great developments in my sporting career covered the shortfalls in personal funding required for me to make the trip and allowed me to book a return ticket to Brussels. I can’t thank the University enough for their support because without it I’d be a long way behind where I’ve found myself today!
After a few tweaks to the training program (some 5-hour days finishing with a Hawthorn criterium or Tour de Burbs) the end of March came around and I was off to Belgium. After a strong ride (3rd overall) at Oceanias just before leaving, I knew the legs were about where they needed to be and the main key to a good Flanders would be plenty of knowledge of the local roads and plenty of luck. The first part was easily controllable and teammate James Whelan and I set about doing reconnaissance of the race route most training rides during the day and watching old videos of Fabian giving it to Tommeke up the Flemish bergs in the evenings. Luckily for us, the Drapac team management organised accommodation in Oudenaarde, the centre of Flanders and the Start-Finish point of our race, which made getting to know the course a breeze. Despite staying around 300m away from part of the 250km Elite Ronde van Vlaanderen the week before our race, we stayed glued to the TV, not wanting to miss any of the action or any decisive moves in the race that followed mostly the same course as our 170km version.
After the final few recon rides with the rest of the Aus team were complete in the days leading up to the race the only thing left to cover was good luck. Given Whelan and I were racing on disc brakes and the Mitchelton Bike-exchange team supporting us were on rim brakes we had no spare wheels and no spare bikes with us, meaning we’d have to get through a Belgian classic with no crashes and no punctures, a rarity in most cases. The weather played in our favour here; after training in cold and rain for the weeks leading up the skies cleared, race day was a sunny 18 degrees, finally time to ditch the leg warmers and rain jackets and don the skinsuit.
Coming into the race Whelan and I were unsure what to expect. It was his first race outside of Aus and, despite plenty of racing myself in Europe and Belgium specifically, it was my first Nation’s Cup event. After a chaotic first hour full of attacks, crashes and swearing in a range of different languages the race settled a little and our Australian team became prominent at the front. I managed to get into a 12 man break after the Muur van Geraardsbergen which stayed in the front from 80km to 30km to go. I had good legs at this point so pushed the pace up the Oude kwaremont and Paterberg, reducing the lead group to 5 riders. Whelan was able to come across with a select group up the Eikenberg and Boigneberg.
After getting the relatively comfortable (barring the cobbles) ride across Whelan hit out solo with 30km to go meaning myself and another Australian teammate (Stannard) simply had to follow anyone trying to ride across and nullify any chance of riders bridging. Whelan was definitely one of the strongest on the day and a deserved winner after taking the race on from so far out. Impressive considering it’s his first race outside Aus!
I tried my luck following a move from one of the Belgians in the last 2km which was caught at 800 to go but managed 10th, finishing in the reduced group at 6’. Personally, I was happy to be heavily involved throughout the race and still cover any dangerous moves in the final, and absolutely stoked to be part of a huge result for Whelan.
Our underfunded, undermanned, underdog Australian team came away with a 1st, 3rd and 10th in arguably the most prestigious 1-day race on the U23 calendar outside of World Championships. This Saturday we have ZLM tour, another Nation’s Cup 1-day race in the Netherlands. Hopefully we can repeat last weekend’s performance!
Cyrus (second from left) with the rest of the Australian U23 Tour of Flanders team. Image: RideMedia.com