I thought I would wait until after the Tour of Flanders to write an update on my Spring Classics and I’m glad I did. I had my best result to date at my favourite race with a close 2nd amongst riders I’ve looked up to for a long time. It’s a race I’ve dreamed of doing well at since the start of my career and what I have specifically targeted for this year. To be able to deliver on a goal this big is such an amazing feeling, even if it wasn’t the win.
As some of you know from my last blog, I had a big of a rough off/pre-season coming out of my biggest season yet in 2016. I had no bad luck, it was just a normal lull that many athletes go through after something as big as the Olympics and I am very grateful to my support network to get me through. I began the European season is reasonably good shape and got better and better with each race. There were moments that made me frustrated with myself, but I was able to keep a healthy mindset and turn them around very fast which was a great sign that my body and mind were back to a good level. My first podium at Dwars Door Vlaanderen two weeks ago gave me a huge amount of happiness and confidence and confirmed that I had been doing all the right things.
I made an effort this year to do something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time – to base myself in Belgium for most of the Spring and give myself the best chance at my favourite races, especially Flanders. As soon as I settled in I was so happy with my decision. I’ve always had a soft spot for this country since visiting Stu here in 2009 when he ignited my passion for the Classics and introduced me to some people I still call friends. While some riders hate the flat scenery and grey weather, my emotions are tied to all the good memories I’ve had here as well as loving the style of racing. I was able to train over the infamous roads every day and do specific efforts on the cobble sections of Flanders. When it came to the racing I knew them so well and what I could do.
When the big day came I was very nervous but I have learned how to control it from so much experience. In the morning I told myself that the sick feeling was something to treasure and enjoy. Nerves remind you that you really care and have worked your hardest to be ready, and they will be missed when you are no longer able to compete at this level. I try not to be superstitious but kept finding myself taking little things as signs of a good day coming. I wanted to focus on the process and knew a good result could come of everything I have learnt and worked at over the years.
The race was fairly typical of other editions I have been in. Riders tend to be afraid of this race and while it is nervous and fast in the first hours, there aren’t many attacks because everyone wants to conserve as much as they can to make it to the finish. Our team plan was to wear down the “sprinters” so Annemiek and I had the best chance at the finish. Jess, Georgia, Roy and Spratty were awesome in setting some painful pace over the climbs and cobbles. While the bunch was still very large over the Muur, our plan paid off when it all blew to pieces from the Kanarieberg onwards. Annemiek and I were ready to play! She rode a brilliant race making it into the decisive break of four riders only to be caught with 1km to go. It was my job to finish off the job and I had to make sure I made the right decisions for the sprint. I was hedging my bets between Blaak and Rivera, and although I got boxed in I was able to jump free close to the line and lunge for a podium place. So many people have commented that I could have won – maybe yes, but I have reconciled with myself that I was beaten by one of the best sprinters in the world. Sprinting isn’t about speed but about nerves and timing. She got it right and I didn’t, and that is the beauty of cycling.
Apart from the incredible feeling of being on the podium, I was thrilled to have such a good day on the bike. I have been working really hard not just in training, but in my self-talk. I have been unbelievably cruel to myself at times, talking myself out of confidence and into fear. My mantras have been “Don’t be a passenger” and “Be fearless”. On Sunday my real breakthrough was my mentality in the race. I had great legs and I was telling myself that. Coming into my most feared section the Oude Kwaremont I was repeating “I’m the best here” and “I feel f***ing awesome!”. It really worked and though I was suffering, I was in control of how my rivals would hurt me. It was truly an amazing feeling and something I know I can repeat now.
Lastly, I want to talk about bravery. Not from me, but from women cyclists in general. Annemiek is probably my biggest inspiration with this because of her ability to look her doubts and fears in the face and just keep trying. She raced like she did in Rio, and all I could think before her group was caught near the finish was how much she deserved this win. Even after the race when she was disappointed, she was full of genuine happiness for me and I know her fire is only burning stronger now for the next races. Many women in this sport have this quality and it’s something I will value for the rest of my life. We all only win such a small percentage of races we compete in. We break our own hearts over and over, but like the Japanese art of Kintsugi where broken ceramics are repaired with golden glue to make them more beautiful than their original form, we sew our hearts back together with golden thread. Cycling gives you a golden heart if you set aside your doubts and fears and keep trying to be your best, win or lose.
Huge thanks to my team and coach Gene Bates for so much support for this big goal. Also thanks to my original team of Mum and Dad who were here to see it all this time, and to Stu for his support to always chase my dreams.