T-Mac Attacks the Belgian Classics
[Worthy Brewing is pleased to bring you “Banging Bars with Travis McCabe,” a blog written by Travis (aka, T-Mac). He’ll be sending us his reports from the racing action all over the world as a sprinter for the new UCI World Tour Team, Israel Start Up Nation. For us, T-Mac is the perfect spokesman for Worthy – he races hard, dreams big, and win or lose will always cap the day with a cold beer and a smile.] April 8, 2020
And the Belgian Classics Bite Back
Alright I’m writing this one while its still very fresh in my mind and hopefully it will be more of a journal that gives you insight into just how hard the racing is over here, because holy sh**! I don’t know if I’ve ever really raced my bike until now.
Here’s why. It’s not just one element, or two, or three that makes it difficult, it’s the entire 200+km of racing. Start to finish, 5 hours of physical and mental stress that leaves you in a state of exhaustion that I’ve only felt a few times. It’s really difficult 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 on, I can only give you my perspective as an American Classics virgin.
I’ve thought about it a lot and I don’t know how much sense this makes but here’s the way I 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 space that was the safest spot, and trying to maneuver around the gym, taking risks that you hoped would pay off by getting to a safer spot. Everyone was your enemy and 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.
Who Shall be Crowned King of the Jungle Gym?
Of course, this game of our youth was more cute than risky. If you fell, whatever, you would be out and then it would be onto the next game, so who cares. Well the classics are a lot like that, except the risks are very high, the rewards are big and tangible, and everyone you’re playing against is capable of winning, and wants be the last man standing. It’s the Jungle Gym Olympics and to the victor, goes the spoils!
I’ve thought about it a lot and I don’t know how much this makes since but 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 space that was the safest spot, and trying to maneuver around the gym, taking risks that you would hope pay off by getting to a safer spot. Everyone was your enemy and 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 a pretty low risk. If you fell, whatever, you would be out and then it would be onto the next game so who cares. Well 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 be the last man standing. It’s the Jungle Gym Olympics and to the victor, goes the spoils! Before the races my director Dirk Demol said that 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 5-hour battle and tensions are high the entire time which means you have to be at your physical and mental best to even 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…
Omloop Het Volk
2020 was the 75th edition of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, formally known as Omloop Het Volk, and is also known as Opening Weekend, which is rapidly succeeded by Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne taking place on Sunday. Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in Belgium is considered the first “real” race of the year. It’s held in high regards because it’s the first race to show who the favorites are to win the big granite trophies. The Belgians are hard boiled mother effer’s. Many Belgians regard the Classics as the only “real” races of the season.
I agree to an extent. The one day classics are like nothing else. Everyone 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 of brutal one day racing packed into a few months. And here I am, the fresh meat from the US getting thrown to the Belgian wolves!
Coming into Opening Weekend, I was pretty nervous about the racing. 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 cobble sectors, which helped, but it only goes so far. The Belgian directors kept going on about how this year was going to truly be a classic and I could see why. The weather forecast was predicting rain and 50km/hr winds; cross winds of course; but on the bright side it would reach 10 C! So, yeah, I was nervous, excited, and anxious to finally experience the first “real” race of the year. It did not disappoint.
On the Point of Taking Bullets
After team presentation, taking photos, signing autographs and actually feeling like a professional athlete, it was 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, it was show time. In the team meeting we discussed the tactics of the team, the race profile, and the most crucial sectors of the race. I was designated as first worker, which meant it was my job to position the leaders, Nils and Mads, into position before the crucial sectors of the parcour. It was my job to use the expend the energy needed so they didn’t have to. This meant, its your responsibility to make sure the team, as a whole, is in a good position.
It sounds easy right? Well, when you’re on the jungle gym with 160 other kids and you have to make sure you keep 7 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 break away of 5 riders to escape because everyone knew it was futile. The first 30k or so was spent 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, its one thing to be up front 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 3 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.
Jesus Take the Wheel
I remember this section really well because we entered while it was wet and I heard someone ahead of me yelling, “DON’T BRAKE!! DON’T TOUCH YOUR BRAKES!” Which for me was a bit sketch because the first sector of Haaghoek is down hill 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, your’e going down too. But I thought, fuck it, if this guy is yelling not to touch the brakes, than 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 climbs for 100 meters, it then flattens out for the final 1,300 meters. The climb of the Leberg proceeds the cobbles and although its short, 1km, its punchy and drains the power out of the legs. So after the descent on the wet cobbles, I hear people yelling Go Phil Go! It took me a second to wonder who this Phil guy was, until it clicked. Philip Gilbert. Suddenly we are off the Haaghoek and entering the Leberg, and bam! Gilbert flies by me and up the climb! So I’m thinking, Ok, I’m not in that bad of position. Well then we turned right, straight into cross winds, the field is still single file and 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.
Blown Out on the Trail
Eventually the field comes back together briefly until the next sector of either crosswinds, cobbles or narrow roads, and it happens all over again. From kilometer 30 to kilometer 160, where I finally fell into lava and had to settle for the groupetto, 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 none the less it was brutally hard, and I loved it. Maybe not so much in the moment, but the experience overall was awesome. It’s given me more motivation to race, and to learn what it takes to be good over here. It’s given me a new found respect to those like Gilbert, and Stuyvens, and all of Quickstep, who make it look so 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, but because 60 riders had also finished, the commissar (race official) decided that the race was over and left the 40 of us who were still pedaling into the finish. The roads were re-opened and we were left navigating our way through cars to the finish where 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 than later.
Kuure-Brussels-Kuurne: The Fight Continues
The next day wasn’t a rest day, it was another fight on the jungle gym. Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, 200km long which typically is a bit easier than OHN and is known to come down to a bunch sprint. This year, the organization decided to make it more difficult than past editions and we found ourselves on tight narrow roads for about 80 % of the time. My job again was to be the first worker, and help put the guys into proper position, and after the dismal display the day before I was hellbent on getting it right. For 130 km I did everything I could to take care of Nils and Hugo and I actually did a pretty decent job. I felt much more confident in my abilities and wasn’t afraid to fight as much to hold the position.
In the end I got caught behind a crash entering a climb and had to unclip. I was tired, everything hurt, and I knew I wasn’t going to make it back onto the field, so I abandoned. This time however I was able to hold my head high, knowing I had done my job as a teammate and it showed with an impressive 6th place by Hugo. I jumped in broom wagon, a rather nice, warm bus, and watched the last 60km of the race on tv. It was another brutal race but as a team, we raced much better as the day before and the results proved it. Opening Weekend was over but the racing wasn’t finished for me. I still had one more trip around the merry-go-round before I could call it a day.
Le Samyn – Victory!
Le Samyn is known as a Semi-Classic and is one of the harder one day races that nobody has heard of. Again, I was on early work duty and I did my job better than the days before. I didn’t make it to the finish, but I put Hugo and the others in position when they needed to be. Looking back I did the majority of the grunt work from kilometer 1 to kilometer 130 where I eventually came off. Three hours of a normalized power of 300 watts was enough.
In the end the team rode a fantastic race and Hugo, the hardcore Frenchie that he is, came away with the biggest victory in his career! It was an impressive win and I highly recommend you watch it. I’ll also post a link to the sectors of cobbles we did so you can get an idea of what these things are like. If you think gravel racing is hardcore, well come visit Belgium and try just one lap of Le Samyn.
After three days of being thrown into the deep end of Belgian racing, I feel like I came away a little beat up and emotionally tired. I was slightly disappointed that I only had DNF’s to show for my efforts on paper, but racing isn’t about what’s on the paper, and in the end I realized that. It’s a team sport, and I did my part as a teammate, and that’s where the results show.
We came away with a top ten and a huge victory and I’m proud to be a part of it. I came to Belgium nervous and weary and I left with tired legs, experience, and the motivation to improve! I’ll be back for another 3 day block of racing in a couple weeks and I hope you all continue to follow along. In the meantime. I’ll be trying not to catch Corona virus, training hard, and day dreaming of more Belgium races and beer!
Legs up in Belgium
March 6, 2020
Check out the wet cobbles of Le Samyn – can you believe we raced on this?
Read Travis’ previous blog here.