Race Report – Joe Saunders trip to Harelbeke

Friday started with packing kit and a pre race ride on the turbo. Car packed and by 2:30 we were on our way to a Premier Inn about 20 minutes from the Eurotunnel. 4 and a half hours later we arrived after spending a fair amount of time sat on the car park that is the M25. Dinner in a beefeater, then back to the room.

Saturday morning, I woke up having had a really good sleep and the legs were feeling good. We packed the bike and spare wheels back into the car and headed over to breakfast. The short drive to the Eurotunnel was a lot quieter than the previous evening on the way up. Once on the train I bumped into the other guys going over on the John Barclay trip. A short drive through Belgium and we arrived in a wet and cold Harelbeke.

Sign on seemed to take a long time but once I’d collected my number it was off to get ready for the race. Changed in the sports centre and then got my number pinned and the number board fixed to the bike. It was colder than I thought and was glad I’d opted for the thick winter jersey under my skinsuit with long finger gloves. 10 minutes before the race however, I decided this probably wouldn’t be enough; I decided an extra jersey under the skinsuit would be needed (it later turned out this was a good call as the weather only got worse).

No one could quite work out the course with marshals not speaking enough English to direct us the correct way so we decided it was safer to warm up on the start/finish straight; as opposed to getting lost in the town. With 10 minutes to go we were lining up for the start and they were happy to keep us there. After upsetting the commissaries by having a kit they thought looked too much like the Belgian national champs kit (looking forward to the change to red to avoid that discussion again) it was time to race. The flag went down and from the line it was fast. With three lanes becoming one only 100m into the race it was vital to be fighting for position. The first three laps were blisteringly fast and it narrowed the field down to around 30 riders (almost 100 started). Over the course of the next 80km riders just popped out the back until it was only 17 riders left. With around 3 laps to go I lost contact with that group and they became 16 while I had to hold off the small group chasing behind. My hands had frozen at this point and changing gear became more difficult while getting food from the pockets of my skinsuit was impossible. With 15km to go I was hoping fuelling on the tablets in my drinks would be enough to stop me blowing. Luckily it was and I was able to hold on for 17th in my first Belgian race.


Post race was about warming up again, re fuelling, collecting prize money and then heading to the hostel to start preparing for day two.

Again, I woke up feeling good. My legs, despite the previous days efforts, felt good. Not wanting to take this as a given I decided I’d wait to see how they felt on the rollers before deciding how to ride the race. We had to be out the hostel by 10am so a trip to Ieper (Ypres) was arranged to kill some time before the race starting at 3. All the guys went to a little pasta restaurant and this was a good meal to be going for about 3 hours before.

Arriving in the town we all went and sat in the warmth of a cafe while the rain continued to pour outside and the temperature dropped to about 3 degrees. Signed on and ready to race I started my warm up in the entrance to the changing rooms to keep out of the wet and stay warm. My legs felt good and I was hoping for another decent ride. A pro race came through the same town and then a few minutes later we were starting. Up the drag from the town, out to the flat and then a sharp left onto a single track road through farm land. Fighting for position all the way along here but holding nicely in 10-15th wheel. Round the next left hander, out the saddle accelerating and down a small decent before rising up a short but sharp climb into the town. It was at the top of here that my race ended abruptly. I saw a bottle skidding across the road and before I knew it 2 riders were down in front of me. I was on the brakes to avoid flipping over the two of them but the Belgian behind me hadn’t seen and piled into the back of me. Bikes tangled together it was a frustrating and panic filled fight to get them free but nothing could be done as the bunch sailed up the road. A frantic chase to try getting back on but in the weather conditions once you’d stopped it was once again freezing. The 45 second gap with cold legs just couldn’t be closed and so 3 laps later I pulled out along with the other guys who had been caught up in the same incident.

A disappointing end to Sunday but nothing that can be done about it and was promising to see how my legs felt good enough to be up there again.

I’m looking forward to racing over there again soon because it taught me so much and the British racing really doesn’t compare; there’s also a certain excitement about racing abroad which adds to the occasion (fully closed roads are lovely).

I’d like to thank John Barclay for organising our trip and sorting everything out for us. Also my dad for taking me over and spending his weekend stood in the rain.

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