Four first year under 16 riders from the club tackled a two stage race in their first experience of kermesse racing in Belgium.
Harrison, Ritchie, Aidan and Dexter went out with a supporting crew of parents, and Bob and Julie, to Damme near Brugges, where they were up against some strong Belgian riders at the supporting nieuwelingen races for the Guido Reybrouk Classic, a UCI Junior race taking place on the Sunday.
There was an early start on Saturday as riders, bikes, kit and cars converged at the Euro Tunnel in Folkestone, ready for their scheduled 7.50am train. Unfortunately, a train fault meant those who had already driven onto the designated train, including Bob and Julie, had to be taken off again, while a replacement train was lined up. Luckily, with only 90 minute drive ahead from France to Belgium, the day’s schedule had enough slack to allow everyone to stay relaxed.
Safely on the continent, the LVYCC convoy headed north and soon arrived at their B&B just outside Damme, where the very accommodating host provided excellent sustenance – apple cake and, for the riders, big bowls of pasta. Suitably fuelled, everyone made the short trip to the pretty town square in Damme, where all the accompanying features for a UCI race were in place – start/finish gantry, stage for the presentations and the euphemistically titled “Supporters Cafe”. That’s a beer tent to you and me.
Aidan, Dexter, Harrison and Ritchie got themselves signed on and numbers were pinned on and, a first for these riders, attached to the bikes too. Having received elbow-sharpening advice from the parents and Julie, all four got themselves into good positions in the pen area before the start, with another 70 or so riders.
Soon they were off and the LVYCC four got themselves into good positions on lap one, up in the lead group. The riders battled strong head and cross winds on the long drag along the canal, before the course took a sharp left over a cobbled bridge and made its way back towards Damme. Each lap was 5.5km and with 8 of the 10 laps to go, things were looking good. Aidan was making his first appearance in an overseas race (the others having raced at the Youth Tour of Assen in the past. He put in a great show for his first continental outing but after a few laps fell off the pack, though not before a good number of Belgian riders had been shelled. With race organisers taking out riders who had fallen behind, Aidan made the most of his lack of understanding of Flemish by staying in the race until the end, at one point being picked up again by the lead group as is came round.
A three-rider attack went off the front after a few laps and there was a moment when, given the physicality of the riders, it was thought they might build a lead that could stick. But one by one they were brought back, with Harrison putting in some heavy turns at the front of the bunch to bring the attack to heel.
Once the first attack was neutralised, Dexter put in an attack of his own and built a lead of about 300m and managed to take a prime sprint in the process. But with the course turning again into the cross winds, Dex’s attack was doomed and he came back to the pack alongside Ritchie and Harrison.
With a lap to go, things looked like they were going to come down to a bunch kick. The winds continued to play their part, with a touch of wheels immediately in front of Dexter meant he crashed with 3km to go – luckily landing on the grass rather than the tarmac. As the race wound up into the cobbled section through the centre of Damme to the line, Harrison and Ritchie were well placed. Their well-honed sprints kicked in towards the front of the field and Ritchie claimed an excellent 10th with Harrison close behind in 16th. A great outcome in their first kermisse.
With racing over for the day, attention turned to the fact that Bob and Julie were celebrating their 35th wedding anniversary, so once the riders were showered and ready, the group headed to the pretty city centre of Brugges for a well-earned meal.
With Sunday’s race also taking place in the afternoon, the morning was a relaxed affair before the riders headed into Damme again, where the town square was abuzz with the start of the UCI Junior race. With the 180 juniors heading off on a long loop through the Belgian countryside, the nieuwelingens took their place on the line. This time a slightly larger field of 80 riders included some additional British riders, with Aaron Stone, Ben Tullett, Tom Portsmouth and George Sloan doubling the UK contingent.
With the wind on Sunday even more brutal than Saturday, the 6km course headed the opposite way out of Damme and included some very tight turns into narrow bridges. The pace was quick from the off but again, Ritchie, Harrison, Aidan and Dexter were safely in the lead group after lap 1. It was always going to be tough in the wind and first to crack was Aidan after a few laps. Then some robust Belgian riding saw Dexter end up on the grass with a buckle to his front wheel – chasing back to a quick group in the wind was not going to happen this time. Not long after, Ritchie lost touch with the leaders with Harrison being the sole Lee Valley rider slugging it out at the front of the group. The winds took their toll and after a few more laps the bunch had been split into three as riders battled towards the finish. Harrison put In a superb effort to finish in the third group across the line, coming home in 28th from the original 80 riders, fewer than half of which finished the race. Ahead, Ben Tullett was the leading U.K. rider, finishing in 2nd, after his 5th place in the race last year.
All in all, a fantastic experience for the Lee Valley riders – and their supporting party – one that they are all keen to repeat before long. The racing in Belgium offers a real alternative to the UK, with brilliant organisation and infrastructure in place. The fields are large, the quality of the riders is excellent and the races are longer – which makes it a tough challenge but one which develops our riders as racers.