First-year under-23 Mattie Dodd is one of journal contributors in 2023. Mattie rides for the UCI Continental Tirol-KTM development team this season. His main focus for the first part of his year has been studying for his A-level exams. But he has still had time for Belgian forays, as he reflects here…
I love Belgium. Not for the chocolate. Not for the beer. Not even for the Brussels sprouts (yes, they are from Belgium). But for the way that one small country exudes so much passion for bike racing. I love it.
Being back there for the Flèche Ardennaise at the start of the May reminded me of this. Having spent time last summer dodging various pieces of road furniture in West Flanders, it was nice to be back in the country, albeit in French-speaking Wallonia in the south.
We were welcomed back in a typically Belgian way; within half an hour of starting our pre-race recce we were sheltering from a thunderstorm
We were welcomed back in a typically Belgian way; within half an hour of starting our pre-race recce we were sheltering from a thunderstorm under a farmhouse veranda cursing our mislaid trust in the Met Office.
Back at the hotel and dried out, it was time for a bit of downtime before the race the next day. The first stage of the Giro provided the afternoon’s entertainment. It also provided an opportunity for certain team members to try and make financial gain in the form of head-to-head betting – we now know who’s buying coffee, put it that way.
There was also the chance for a massage from our team soigneur, Robert. The common room of a Belgian hostel becoming a 5-star spa for the afternoon. It was a very much appreciated chance to prep the legs ahead of the next day, from a man who’s been there, done that as far as cycling soigneurs are concerned. He talks of how he used to give Mark Cavendish massages and is a veteran of the old BMC Racing Team staff among other big teams – the 8-year-old fan in me can’t help but be amazed.
That night was notably less good race prep. A fire alarm at 2am meant we all hauled ourselves out of bed and groggily searched for the kill switch to stop the false alarm. There was a general preference for accepting the possibility of getting caught in a real fire in order to get a proper night’s sleep. Priorities.
Who knew there were 5km climbs in Belgium? That’s bordering on altitude training for that part of the world
The course for the following day was a brute. 175km with nearly 4000m of climbing, a .2 Liège-Bastogne-Liège, one could say. Who knew there were 5km climbs in Belgium? That’s bordering on altitude training for that part of the world. A super cool course nevertheless that would really wear the legs down.
The race didn’t go that well from a personal point of view. I’d made a plan before the race that I’d try and go for the early break, knowing I’d have to be clever, given I’d share that same plan with around 50 other riders. In attempting to execute that on the second climb, I dug a bit of a hole for myself early on. Not ideal. That caught up with me and I blew my doors off later in the race.
The negatives from that were obvious and left me kicking myself for the week after. The positives were that I’d been slightly smarter than my first-year junior, over-excited self, who’d jump on the first move that went. I’d also stuck to my plan that I wasn’t going to be a spectator in the race, that I’d make sure I’d tried something.
The aftermath of the race provided a second chance for material gain for the team after the earlier betting exploits. Whoever said the Italian “tifosi” were the world leaders in bike fandom clearly never went to Belgium. We had multiple waves of middle-aged men crowding around the camper, bringing various offerings of rather strong Belgian beer in exchange for bottles and musettes. I can only imagine how they respond to riders like Evenepoel and Van Aert if that was how they reacted to the possibility of bottles from foreign Conti teams.
It was, for me, a little bizarre though, stepping off the camper to see a man standing there, smiling, holding a postcard with my face on in one hand, and a sharpie in the other
This level of passion for memorabilia may not be new for seasoned pros who’ve been racing in Belgium for years. It was, for me, a little bizarre though, stepping off the camper to see a man standing there, smiling, holding a postcard with my face on in one hand, and a sharpie in the other.
Like I said earlier and will say again, I love Belgium. If only London’s drivers shared that passion for cyclists…
Featured image: Emma Wilcock/The British Continental
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