The First Race
Three riders in red-and-blue jerseys backed in to the front of the peloton and installed themselves on the line. “Fuck,” the rider in front of me spat. I’d not expected to hear such a familiar word. His vertebrae shivered through the fabric of his jersey. Arm warmers hung from his tiny triceps. Goosebumps prickled the oily skin of his sinewy calves.
A fat man in a blue suit with an orange scarf and gold-rimmed glasses stood in front of us, shouting into a microphone. Maybe 40 people stood outside the barriers, gathering up jackets and tear-away trousers. The cold, red-brick square smelled of capsaicin and diesel, fresh bread and cigar smoke. As the clock on the red-brick church ticked towards twelve, a bitter wind, which had whipped over half-frozen marshes and fields, pushed discarded spice-cake wrappers over the otherwise tidy street.
“There will be a two-kilometre neutralisation.”
I’d have lots of time to move up, I thought.
The motorbikes started their engines.
I’d already been in the Netherlands for a couple of months and thought I was getting to know the country. I’d picked up a few words and discovered stroopwafels. I was starting to learn the rules for the bike paths and had even found a few routes where I didn’t have to negotiate a roundabout every 100 metres. Riding thousands of kilometres in the cold and rain through the sandy dunes north of Rotterdam, I’d destroyed one drive train and managed to batter myself into a bit of form.
Sleeping in a damp basement without a heater, I’d shivered away my mum’s Canadian cooking. It wasn’t hard to pass up second servings of stamppot. It was harder not to make late-night jaunts to the snack bar down the street after six-hour rides, but I wanted to win races, and I knew I was strong. I’d already won a couple of training races on the go-kart-track-like circuits that every Dutch club seemed to have.
This would be my first real classic though.
We were off.
In ten seconds, I was at the back of the peloton. The violence of it shocked me. Riders sprinted though gaps, and then had to jam on their brakes and sprint and jam on their brakes. Someone bunny-hopped onto a sidewalk and smashed straight into a light post; two others hit a parked car. At the front of it all, the fat man stood, facing backwards, blowing a whistle and holding a red flag up out of the skylight of a car. As we neared the edge of town, the car accelerated. The peloton accelerated. Then, we were out in the fields, and the flag dropped.
We must have been going about 70 km/hr on a path that was just a few metres wide, when a row of trees rose up perpendicular to us. The riders in front hit their brakes at the last second. Behind, riders screeched and skidded, some right into the ditch. I felt an elbow in my stomach. My bars were tangled with someone else’s. I had to put my foot down and watch with the 140 others, as the red-and-blue-led first group sprinted away to the right.
Finally, the road cleared. We were up to top speed in three seconds. Three kilometres in to the race, and there was no peloton left, just a dozen echelons. Somehow, I ended up back on that skinny guy’s wheel. Scrunched up behind him in the crosswind, I could not believe the power that his scraggly calves could produce. Riding on the last centimetre of road before it dropped into grass and then water, we attacked group after group and ended up in the third waaier.
For the next 120 kilometres, the pace never relented. By that time, we’d lost two minutes on the leaders and the commissaire pulled us.
I had come all that way and couldn’t even finish a race.
When I got back to the parking lot, I was so mad at myself. To my great surprise, the director of a rival team walked over and patted me on the back.
I’d ridden well, he said, for a foreigner.
Cover photo: Michiel Maas
This story first appeared in our Global Cycling Guidebook.