In World Cups, the team cars are numbered according to the World Cup rankings, and Hitec were fourth, thanks to Elisa Longo Borghini's win at the Trofeo Alfredo Binda and fourth place in the Ronde van Vlaanderen, Chloe Hosking's fourth place in the Ronde van Drenthe and Rossella Ratto's 8th in Binda. The team were looking forward to this race. You often hear that Marianne Vos, who'd won Flèche four times over her career, is considered unbeatable, but not by Longo Borghini, who seems to see Vos' excellence as a challenge to relish. With Ratto, Rachel Neylan and Cecilie Gotaas Johnsen to help in the hills, and Hosking and Emilia Fahlin to chase down breaks, it was a strong team - and in the car, DS Davy Wijnant and mechanic Juan Verpaelst had high hopes.
It's a strange feeling, being in the team car, because you're reliant on the information coming through race radio - and in Flèche Wallonne, there wasn't much of this, and it was all in French. The team communicated everything in English, and Belgian Davy had no problems with the French, but it made me realise how important language skills are. We see a lot of (male) riders come into women's racing as DSs - sometimes with explicit intentions of using it as a step to men's cycling - but it seems like actual racing experience comes second to people skills, organisation, languages, and driving abilities. So much to learn! Wijnant started as a cyclist too, and his sister was a pro - it was watching her train and race that made Davy decide to work in women's cycling. He was DS for the Norwegian National Team for a number of years, before moving to Hitec this year - and he DSs alongside a day job, using holidays and working overtime so he can follow his real passion for women's racing.
So there we are, in the car, with very little information coming through the radio, but luckily seeing what was going on when the bunch was all together. This makes for a lot of speculation - we were a bit concerned when Marianne Vos was off the back of the bunch, spinning gently, as we left Huy - but then we heard she attacked at 15km - it seemed like she was using the start of the race to warm up. And why not, if you can!
I'd looked at the map beforehand - two 65km laps, each with six climbs, finishing, of course, on the iconic Mur de Huy, with its twists and grients of up to 20% - but I hadn't really realised how rolling the rest of the course is. There were one or two straight sections, but most of the time we were on narrow roads, curling around the hills, or through the twisting valleys. It was a beautiful day for bike racing - the first real spring day of the season, and the countryside was gorgeous in the sunshine - farmland and woodlands full of budding trees. We'd pass groups of people at the crossroads, who were cycling from point to point along the course, people in shorts and t-shirts coming out to cheer in every village and hamlet, and it felt like a friendly, lovely race to ride. Very different from the endless winter, biting cold and vicious winds that characterised the start of the World Cup!
With the first crash happening at the fourth kilometre, there were riders among the cars almost from the start - the poor things doing their best to chase back on. It must be devastating - we'd see riders finally get to the back of the group, and then the road would go uphill, or an attack would happen at the front, and they'd be off again. And those driving skills I mentioned? SO important, because every climb split the bunch and it's important that the caravan keep as close together as possible, for safety - but trying to navigate through groups of riders on the small, twisting roads is NOT an easy task - especially with other cars shooting past to deal with problems for their riders. Rider safety is the number one priority, and the sound of the race from a car is the horns beeping to tell each other about a rider coming past. I've been in a team car before, and once again I was struck by how very, very good the drivers need to be.
Having only one car each makes for difficult decisions. Despite the early attacks, and riders dropping off the back and out of the race through a process of attrition, the race had got to Huy all together, but that climb up the Mur really took its toll. It was the first hot racing day of the year, and the hayfever season had hit hard. On the second lap, we passed Rossella Ratto, who was in one of the chasing groups on the road - she was suffering with breathing problems, and needed water - but Elisa was up the road, dropping back to help Rossella would leave the leader without support. Getting that water to her, too, was hard - because of the narrowness of the roads, there aren't many places to pull alongside rider - and the jury bikes are ruthless in their decisions. No moto would take water back to her for us - and it was an anxious time, trying to get water to Cecilie to take to Rossella. Luckily, Juan could phone the soigneurs at roadside, telling him to make sure Rossella had water, rather than energy drinks - but these decisions have to be made instantly.
But riders aren't as alone as that makes it sound. One of the things I loved seeing was how teams looked after each other's riders, dropping alongside other cars and sharing anything that was needed, and the Hitec team passing drinks to another riders on the hill whose car was way back and wouldn't reach her for ages. The competition is fierce, but there was absolutely no question - it really seemed like if anyone needed help, it was provided without thought for rivalry.
That climb up the Mur was amazing to experience in the crowd. It's so narrow in places, the thick crowds could have reached out and touched us, or so it felt. Whenever we caught riders we'd be surrounded by the cheers of encouragement for them - that climb felt endless from the car, let alone to ride. "Now the race really begins", Davy had said as we entered Huy... and the tension had definitely ratcheted. Sitting in a car, hearing that 8 riders were in front, or 20 had escaped, but not getting names - nail-biting! There were parts of the course where the peloton had turned corners, and we could see the team - Rachel attacking into climbs, Chloe chasing breaks, but on that second lap it was so hard. We knew Rossella and Cecilie were in the group that eventually caught the front - but how was Elisa doing? The identification that did come through the radio was in numbers - Juan identifying them from the start-list instantly. But none of the attacks stuck - and then we'd been over the penultimate climb, and we heard some really bad news, from Elisa's perspective - Tatiana Guderzo had attacked, and had 25 seconds.
This was a real threat - Guderzo is a consummate mountain goat, and a former Road World Champion - if she reached the bottom of the Mur alone, her chances were fantastic. Davy was calling all the updates into the team's radio, but we didn't have much, as we drove along the river towards Huy - a time check at each kilometre, and her time was dropping, but was it fast enough? And then, as we turned the corner to the approach to the Mur, we heard she was caught. ORICA and Specialized on the front, and the much-reduced peloton all together - once again, it would be all about that final climb.
And that was the last we heard! As we turned onto the Mur de Huy, the silence from the radio was killing us - we couldn't believe that nothing was being said! Davy was calling encouragement to Elisa through the radio all the way up, but of course we didn't expect an answer from her. The tension was ridiculous - the cars were crawling behind the riders, and each time we passed one of the loud-speakers, we'd crane our heads out of the windows, desperate to catch anything - but a name out of context - what did that mean? That climb feels endless - Davy would see people he knew at the barriers and ask for information, but knowing the riders had gone past "all together" a few minutes' previously was not particularly helpful!
Then, finally, something came through on the radio - Marianne Vos had won! A moment of disappointment it wasn't Elisa, but this was Vos' fifth Flèche Wallonne win, and Vos is on superb form right now. And there were still two podium spots left - but who was on them? Luckily, news called through the window - Elisa and Ashleigh Moolman were on the podium, but in what order? And then we heard - Elisa was second!!!
Such an fantastic moment! Davy combined yells of triumph with tears on his face, and we finished the slow drive up the Mur cheering and hugging and shaking hands and just full of happiness. All that work, all that stress - and Elisa had done it! I felt so unbelievably privileged to have been able to share this moment with Davy and Juan, sharing their emotion and elation. We were pulled off the Mur, drove round to the team camp, then ran back to the startline to find the team, shouting the results to everyone who asked - although from the look of Davy's face, it was very clearly very good news!
After the finish-line it was mayhem, riders and team staff everywhere - and I hadn't realised how hard it is for the other team members to get the information too, especially if they'd finished later. Seeing their faces turn from worried and tired as they heard the news made me feel privileged all over again - the happiness and the hugs, the transformation from exhausted to elated - it was beautiful to see! Stories were shared from the race - Rossella apologising to Elisa, and being told, with a hug, not to worry about it, these things happen - and then back to the camp, with congratulations coming from other teams and riders. It's such an interesting situation to be around - so many emotions, with some teams, like Hitec and Rabo and Lotto, full of happiness, leg pain forgotten in the joy of the win, while others looked dejected - but still with nice words for the happy ones. Reporters grabbing quotes wherever they could, so many good moments - getting to congratulate Ash Moolman, her face still grimy with the road dust, but her initial disappointment already transformed into a huge smile, as she'd realised her achievement - the first South African, the first African rider to ever get onto a World Cup podium! And one of the moments that stays with me the most - I was walking away from the bus when Chloe Hosking came riding up the back route, and asked me what had happened. Watching her face break into enormous smiles, when I told her Elisa was second, and seeing the team reunited - Elisa lifting Chloe off the ground in a huge hug, while Chloe yelled "Put me down! Put me down!", worried Elisa would injure herself ("That would be awkward!").
All of this is in public, of course, with interested people watching everywhere. It was great to catch up with people in the post-race bustle - the lovely Jane Aubrey from Cyclingnews (you can read her race report here!), Scott O'Raw from the Velocast podcasts, and Ben Atkins, rushing around with a camera to make the official UCI short race highlights video. It was interesting, watching the race "village" start to pack up, and the roads clear for when the men would come through. The Hitec team packed their things into the cars to drive the 3km to get showered, and the race village dispersed.
It was such a strange feeling, realising that the men's race was still going. All the spectators flowed back to the Mur to watch the men cross it for the penultimate time. The women have to hang around waiting for the men's race to finish, before the podium, and I got to interview Elisa and Rachel Neylan in the bar tent, the only place to sit down and rest those aching legs. Then moving across to the podium enclosure - watching the end of the men's race on the tiny screen, while interviewing Ash Moolman - and having this strange moment when Daniel Moreno walked right past me, looking just like a photograph - shirt open, face grimy with road dirt, still glowing with the realisation he'd won - one of those "photos I wish I'd taken" moments.
Then the podium ceremony, surrounded by the happiness of the whole team - Rach Neylan standing on the barriers around the edge of the podium, Rossella cheering in the crowd, Davy just joyous, shooting photos. Then, pushing through the crowds, back to the cars, for the drive back home to the team's base in Ninove, a meal full of more laughter, jokes, prosecco, and debriefing. Elisa full of thanks and gratitude for her team - and everyone already looking forward to what's coming next.
Hitec really are a team worth supporting - and I'll tell you more about them next week, with interviews from some of the riders - starting with post-race interviews with Elisa and Lotto Belisol's Ash Moolman. In the meantime, if you want some actual reports for what happened in the race, read CJ Farquharson's, with her gorgeous photos, on her womenscycling.net, with more of her photos on CJFoto and on Cyclingnews - and there are team reports from ORICA-AIS, Argos-Shimano, a blog by Loren Rowney on the Specialized-lululemon site, a blog by Ash Moolman on her first World Cup podium, and a blog about his first time at a women's pro race from the head of Wiggle, Humphrey Cobbold.
A thousand thanks to Karl Lima for organising my time with the team, and to the riders - Elisa, Rachel, Chloe, Rossella, Emilia and Cecilie - and the staff - Davy, Juan, Stefan and Luc - and everyone else I met at the race, for being so incredibly friendly and welcoming! Follow the team on their website, facebook and twitter for all their news and updates.
I've collected the videos we've found of the race on my blog - and to hear me ramble more about my experiences, you can listen to omne and me podcasting about the race (warning - swearing!) - and there are more of my race photos on flickr. Photos by Sarah Connolly, and all rights reserved.