This Sunday I strongly suggest you find a live video feed of the Tour of Flanders. It’s always a race worth watching, and if watching the Ronde van Vlaanderen doesn’t inspire you to get out there and put in a storming Sunday ride, I don’t know what will. I raced Flanders with 7-Eleven and it was brutally hard. It still is, and it always will be. But as you watch the Tour of Flanders, and Paris-Roubaix the following weekend, there are some lessons you can take away and use for your own performance.
This year I’m looking forward to the Tour of Flanders more than usual because I’m going to ride the whole course on Saturday and be there for the race on Sunday! It’s part of the Belgium Race Experience, one of the events on the 2015 Bucket List. We’ll also be riding the Paris-Roubaix course and watching that incredible race. Stay tuned for photos from the trip and a review of the Ridley Helium and Enve 3.4 wheelset I’ll be riding. It’ll be interesting to experience the course on a bike designed for cobbles and cutting-edge carbon rims, compared to the steel frame and aluminum box rims I last rode on the course in the 1980s!
Let the distance and terrain take their toll
The Tour of Flanders is 264 kilometers this year, including nearly 20 hard climbs and brutal sections of cobblestones. Even if you’re the strongest rider in the race, you don’t have to be the strongest rider in every kilometer. Don’t waste your energy trying to split the field in the first 50km when the climbs and cobblestones will do it for you by the 150th. Even in local and regional racing, riders make the mistake of attacking when everyone is still fresh. That’s like trying to break a green branch. Wait until those branches are dry and brittle, and then break them with a single strike.
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The better you’re feeling, the less you should do
When you have great legs it can be hard to resist the urge to let everyone else know about it, but that’s what you have to do in order to win hard races. To win you’ll need to initiate or respond to the move that creates a selection, and then you’ll have to attack or sprint to finish it off. If you’re a strong rider you might be able to make the selection and be in contention for the win on a normal day. But on the days when strong riders have great legs, they save their best effort for their last effort – the one that gets them to the line first.
Don’t telegraph your punches
Every time you make a move, you’re providing information to your opponents. If you sprint across a gap like it’s nothing, they’ll know you have the strength to be dangerous later on. If you’re attacking or constantly going to the front to push the pace, you’ll become someone to watch. It’s better to be anonymous, so when you attack no one knows whether you’re worth chasing.
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In long events, the final hour separates the Champs from the Chumps
Out of 200+ riders at the start line of the Tour of Flanders, there may be 30 capable of winning a hard 200-kilometer race. Of them, perhaps 20 could win at 220. But you can count on two hands the number capable of winning at 250-265 kilometers. It’s a difficult phenomenon to describe, but riders have a point – whether it’s kilojoules or time in the saddle or a mental barrier – where the lights go out. It takes time and experience to gain the inner strength to keep the motor going strong all the way to the line. And extending that range is a big part of your training. When you know you have what it takes to go the distance, don’t worry so much about the riders who don’t. In the final 40km, when it really counts, they’ll be gone.
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What I remember most about the Tour of Flanders was the energy. You know how a wide river speeds up and turns violent as it enters a narrow gorge? That’s what it’s like to race toward the narrow, steep, cobbled climbs in the Tour of Flanders. As the roads get narrower, the fighting for position gets more intense. When you hit the climbs the intensity goes through the roof and the race fans are loud enough to wake the dead. And at Flanders, it’s as if the river keeps getting narrower and the rapids keep getting bigger, and one by one riders go under to be dashed against the rocks.
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