Travis McCabe writes exclusively for Factor Bikes about the Opening Weekend of the Classics Season at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad

Part Three

Hopefully, this piece will serve as a journal providing insight into just how hard the racing is over here, because god damn – I don’t know if I’ve ever really raced until now.

Here’s why.

It’s not just one element, or two, or three, making it difficult. It’s the entire 200+km of racing. Start to finish, five hours of physical and mental stress, leaving you in a state of exhaustion I’ve only felt a few times. It’s challenging to explain just what it’s like racing the Classics, and since I don’t have a ton of experience, Het Nieuwsblad being my first one, I can only give you my perspective as an American Classics virgin.

This is the best way to describe OHN (Omloop Het Nieuwsblad):

Remember when we were all kids, and you used to play “the ground is lava” on the jungle gym? You would always be pushing and shoving for the safest spot, trying to maneuver around the gym, taking risks you hope pay off by getting to a safer spot. Everyone was your enemy, there was only so much room on the jungle gym and only one person could be the victor. That person had to be smart, crafty, patient, strong, and want to win more than anyone else. Of course, this game was of pretty low risk.

The Classics are a lot like that, except the risks are very high, the rewards are even bigger, and everyone you’re playing against is capable of winning and wants to be the last man standing. It’s the Jungle Gym Olympics and to the victor, goes the spoils!

Before the race, my director, Dirk Demol, said it’s like going to war. You have no friends, and you constantly have to battle. Now, obliviously it’s not war, but god damn it’s a non-stop five-hour battle. Tensions are high the entire time, which means you have to be at your physical and mental best even to make it to the finish. Then you have to be smart about your efforts, know when to expend energy as well as save energy. Which is a very, very tricky thing to do.

So a little history lesson now…

2020 was the 75th edition of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, formally known as Omloop Het Volk, and is also known as Opening Weekend. It is rapidly succeeded by Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne (KBK) which takes place the day after.

Omloop Het Nieuwsblad is the first race in Belgium and is commonly considered the first ‘real’ race of the year. It’s typically held in high regard because it’s the first race to show who the favorites are for the more significant Monuments. The Belgians are hard mother effer’s, and they take pride in it. For many of them, they only see the Classics as real races, and to an extent, I agree. It’s like nothing else. Every cycling fan knows of Roubaix and Flanders, but not everyone in the US knows about the rest of the classics and semi classics.

It’s really a full season of one-day racing packed into a few months and I’m the inexperienced American getting thrown to the Belgian wolves.

I was pretty nervous about the racing coming into the Opening Weekend. This would be my first time at OHN as well as KBK and I could only imagine how hard it was going to be. I watched previous editions of the race, combed through the race map, tried to memorize the cobbled sectors, which helped, but it only goes so far. The Belgian directors and doctor kept saying this year was going to truly be a classic. I could see why. The weather forecast was predicting rain and 50km/hr winds, crosswinds of course, but on the bright side, it would reach 10°C. I was nervous, excited and anxious to finally experience the first ‘real‘ race of the year and it did not disappoint.

After the team presentation, taking photos, signing autographs and actually feeling like a professional athlete, it was time to get the party started. The pre-race anxiety had worn off as soon as I pinned on the numbers and I knew there was no turning back now, I just had to race. In the team meeting, we discussed the tactics of the team, the race profile, and the most crucial sectors. I was designated as the first worker, which meant it was my job to position the leaders, Nils Polit and Mads Würtz Schmidt, into position before the crucial sectors of the parcour. It sounds easy, right? Well, when you’re on the jungle gym with 160 other kids and you have to make sure you keep seven others together, and away from the lava, it becomes pretty difficult.

I’ll say it right now, I did a pretty shitty job that day. Actually, I feel like I didn’t even do my job. I could barely move up to the front, and the few times I did manage to touch the wind, it would only last about 5 minutes or less. Then I would find myself in the 3rd or 4th row of riders and somewhere in 50th-60th position with maybe one teammate around me. I learned pretty quickly what Dirk meant about war.

In these races, you really have no friends other than your team, and everyone is out for blood.

The 200km race kicked off true to Belgium’s norms, cold, wet, windy, and grey. It didn’t take long for the breakaway of 5 riders to escape because everyone knew it was futile. We spent the first 30km or so fighting each other on the jungle gym, trying to move up into position and preparing for the first sector of cobbles and crosswinds. I tried my best but could never get further than 50th position and rarely was able to link up with other teammates.

This is something I’ve realized that I need work on. It’s one thing to be upfront by yourself, it’s completely different when you’re up there with a team.

We came flying into the first sector of cobbles, a 2km sector called the Haaghoek, which preceded a short, punchy climb called the Leberg. We would hit this sector a total of three times, and it was a crucial part of the parcour. I managed to come into it in 50th position onto the wet sector of cobbles. 50th might not sound so bad, but when it’s single file, and you see the front of the race is 80 meters ahead, you notice the difference.

I remember this section really well because we entered when it was wet, and I heard someone who was one or two bike lengths ahead of me yelling: “DON’T BRAKE!! DON’T TOUCH YOUR BRAKES!”

For me, this was a bit sketchy because the first sector of Haaghoek is downhill, and with wheels only 6 inches in front of you, you don’t have much wiggle room for a mistake. If the person in front crashes, you’re going down too. But I thought, f*ck it. If this guy is yelling not to touch the brakes, then I’m not touching them. Jesus, take the wheel!

After 400 meters of pretty much ice skating down the descent, the cobbles pitch up and climb for 100 meters. It then flattens out for the final 1,300 meters. The climb of the Leberg proceeds the cobbles, and although it’s short at 1km, it’s punchy and drains the power out of the legs. After the descent on the wet cobbles, I hear people yelling, ‘Go Phil Go!’ It took me a second to work out who this Phil guy was. But then it clicked. Philippe Gilbert.

Suddenly we are off the Haaghoek and entering the Leberg and bam! Gilbert flies by me and up the climb. I’m thinking: ‘OK, I’m not in that bad of a position.’ Then we turn right, straight into crosswinds, the field is still single file, we are on a 3-meter wide road, and the race blows up. I find myself in the 3rd group fighting to hold the wheel in front of me for what feels like an eternity.

Eventually, the field comes back together briefly until the next sector of either crosswind, cobbles, or narrow roads, and it happens all over again. From kilometer 30 to kilometer 160, I finally fell into lava and had to settle for the grupetto. We raced. And raced hard.

I can’t really say I was a factor in the race, more like pack fill, just trying not to fall into the lava, but nonetheless it was brutally hard, and I loved it.

Maybe not so much in the moment, but the experience overall was awesome. I have more motivation to race and learn what it takes to be good over here. It’s given me a newfound respect for those like Gilbert and Stuyvens, and all of Quickstep, who make it look easy. This is real racing, and now I know why they call it the first ‘real‘ race of the season. Because it is.

I finished Omloop 18 minutes after the winner crossed the line. Since 60 riders had also finished, the commissar decided the race was over, leaving 40 of us pedaling into the finish as the roads were re-opened. We were left navigating our way through cars to the finish, and all we received was a DNF.

It would have been nice to have a finishing time by my name, but that’s bike racing. I’d live to fight another day, and that day would come sooner rather than later…

Part 4 Coming Soon

Photos by @bettiniphoto & @jeredgruber

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