To celebrate the Tour of Flanders we'll be running three excerpts from The Racer about the great race. The book focuses on the 2014 season but thanks to the legend that is Graham Watson, we've been given a hand-selected set of images from the last 40 years to bring these stories to life. Graham's ability to bring life to a race from a still image are unrivalled and we're incredibly grateful for him sharing his archive with us. You can visit Graham's site to browse more incredible stills or even buy yourself a print.
The Europa Hotel in Ghent is our home for three weeks. This is the Tour of Duty for the Classics team, staff and riders alike. Most teams will fix themselves a hotel as a base camp for the Flanders campaign; those riders who don’t live in Belgium or Holland will stay there for the duration. There’s no going home between races. When we aren’t racing we’re either resting or doing recon- naissance. The recon ride is done by all the teams: it allows for the experienced riders to refresh their knowledge and learn of changes to the route since the previous edition. For the inexperi- enced riders it will more than likely confuse and scare rather than educate. Everybody gets something from it, though.
We have two days’ rest between Milan–San Remo and the first of the six one-day races we’ll do over the following three weeks. It’s held on a Wednesday, and it feels like hump day. It’s called Dwars door Vlaanderen, which translates as something like ‘Through Flanders’. That sums it up. It’s not a particularly challenging race but it’s a good reminder of what awaits us in the following weeks. I feel totally recovered from my recent efforts in Italy, so much so that I make it into the first selection of the day. It isn’t long before I regret being so eager. I average 153 heart rate and 340 watts for nearly four hours; banging my head repeat- edly against a wall would have been more enjoyable. Once we’re caught I accept that my race is over and roll back to the team bus, my DNF in the results not telling the full story of my day in the saddle.
The next day we recon the critical fifty kilometres of the race we’ll be doing on Friday – E3 Harelbeke. E3 is the old name of the motorway that runs next to the town of Harelbeke; it’s maybe one of the least glamorous race names on the calendar. The race itself is better than its name would have you believe, and because of this has attained World Tour status, meaning there are precious points up for grabs. I should have been saving myself for this rather than getting carried away and head-banging my way through Flanders. It’s too late for me to learn from this. All I can do is accept it; the phenomenon of knowing this is my last year racing means this has become a regular state of mind. No longer can I say to myself, ‘Well, I won’t do that next year.’ It’s more like, ‘Well, I won’t ever do that again.’
E3 is referred to as a mini Tour of Flanders, which is a fair description as it tackles all of the climbs (referred to as hellingen by the locals) that will be used in Flanders, although its distance of 210 kilometres means it’s fifty kilometres shorter. This doesn’t make it easier. In fact, it can be harder because there’s none of the inherent fear of distance that the Monuments can instil in the peloton, therefore there’s little trepidation about racing it hard and fast from early on. The favourites for Flanders will be out to prove themselves and earn the right to leadership within their team for the upcoming Monuments. All the ingredients are there for a great race, and it rarely disappoints.
Unfortunately, it is disappointing for me. The team decide to save me for the finale, yet when it comes to crunch time I’m not good enough, the efforts of the previous week finally rearing their ugly head. There is only one day’s rest until the next big one: Sunday’s Ghent–Wevelgem. Hardly enough time to fix me, but enough for me to recover sufficiently to do my job as road captain. Ghent–Wevelgem is one of the few Classics that often finishes in a bunch sprint, hence its reputation as the ‘sprinter’s Classic’. This doesn’t mean it’s an easy roll around the Flanders countryside – far from it: it can be as hard as any Classic. The key difference is that it is relatively controlled because of the many teams having the same objective: to have the race finish in a bunch sprint. There is only one thing that is almost guaranteed to spoil their monopoly over the tactics, and that is bad weather, especially wind – if it’s blowing then all bets are off.
This year we don’t have any wind. In fact, we have beautiful weather, something that is to last the whole Flanders campaign. This makes all of the races easier, hence why the specialists prefer bad weather, because when that’s the case they’re already winning before they even get to the start line. While they’re wringing their hands with excitement others are wallowing in self-pity in anticipation of what awaits them; the psychological warfare begins the moment the morning curtains are opened. This year the concern isn’t the weather, it is the crashes.