Editor’s Note: Korina Huizar, who is a NorCal rider for Vanderkitten Pro Cycling, was kind enough to work on a Euro Diary series with us. She is in Europe with the USA Cycling National Team for the foreboding “Block 1″ of racing. The series begins with her first race on the winding wet cobbled climbs of the famous first ‘semi-classic’, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.
The trip didn’t seem real until I saw Jade and Maura in the airport. Seeing them was a reminder of what this trip is for. I’ve known the roster for this trip for a month, but seeing the girls in person was a reality check. Jade Wilcoxson, I’ve known from track camps, she’s awesome to be around, a master of all trades on the bike. She, along with Brianna Walle, Alexis Ryan, Maura Kinsella, Lauren Komanski, and myself complete the USA National team going to Europe for what was dauntingly referred to as ‘Block 1’. The list of races begins with the famous and first cobbled classic of the year, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, followed by Le Samyn, Hageland Tielt-Winge, Drentse 8, Drenthe World Cup, and Novilon Cup. How did I get here? How did I get on this roster? Someone asked me, ‘How have things changed for you, going from an amateur to a pro?’. For the most part, things don’t change. I have days where I feel like I’m a total badass and I’m confident in my abilities. Days where I can visualize winning races, days where I feel unstoppable, where I can envision things like representing my country at European races, the world championships, and the Olympics. Then I have days where I feel like I have no idea what I’m doing and I hope that nobody finds out. I have fear of failure, fear of getting dropped, or crashing out, fear of letting others down, and fear of letting myself down. But at the end of the day I put all of that aside and I do what I love. I do the things that make me happy and I don’t worry about the ‘what ifs’. I accept and face the possibility of failure.
After landing in Brussels, Belgium after 16 hours of travel my first thought was, when do we get to sleep? I must have said this out loud because Jade responded, “Not until tonight so we better get some coffee”.
We got picked up by Muerick, one of the staff members for “Block 1” and made our way to the USA service course in Sittard, Netherlands. The service course is like Santa’s workshop for cyclists: Bikes, wheels, Osmo, and every clothing article you can think of is here at our disposal.
I opted to use a ‘USA Cycling’ bike, packing only pedals and a saddle into my suitcase – a sure-fire way to feel like you’re forgetting something. We built up our bikes, drank more coffee and went for a ride. If you google ‘weather in the Netherlands and Belgium’, its likely that an image of rain will pop up, and that’s exactly what we got. Megan Guarnier, US Champ turned Euro superstar led us on our ride through the rain. It was a super cool loop that took us on roads that would be deemed paths or trails back home.
It was Friday, the eve of Omloop, and it was time to focus getting our legs ready to race. We rode over to the famous ‘Cauberg’ which is only a little over a kilometer but pitches up to 12%. This was part of the course for Worlds 2 years ago. You could see remnants of paint still on the climb, cheers for various countries, and riders’ names. Seeing the writing on the ground made me envision what climbing it during a race would be like. The road was calm today but you could imagine the madness.
Doing our homework for the first race got us all so nervous. The second I found out I was coming over for ‘Block 1’ I started asking others what racing in Europe is like. The consensus is that, ‘it’s (insert curse word) hard” . Hard to the extent that people who don’t normally curse are dropping f-bombs. Mike Sayers, one of the directors in the USA cycling program, said “The biggest thing is the aggression and and intelligence of riders you face, you’ll be shocked at how aggressive they are. Plus they’re all fast and strong.” Jade recalled her experience last year, “The race is all out, all the time. Last year I only drank a ½ bottle the entire race since there was never a moment that lulled and allowed me the opportunity to eat”.
Saturday’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad has over 7 cobbled sections (the longest being 2.5k) as well as 8 bergs. Bergs are climbs but are short and steep; anywhere from 360 meters to 1.2k averaging around 12% with others ranging from 14-20%. Then you add in the wind factor here. Imagine NorCal’s Snelling road race, but worse. We saw a couple on cruiser bikes riding in an echelon and I realized two things: The wind is so strong here that everyone is constantly aware of it’s direction, and even ordinary cyclists are skilled bike riders.
My goal for “Block 1” is to finish every race and give it my best. It’s hard to set goals when you’re going into uncharted territory. Fitness-wise I’m as prepared as I could be. But how do you get ready for a 200 person field back at home? How do you mimic the depth of talent here? How do you prep for these courses? There are so many unknowns and I think after the first few races I’ll be able to better gauge what my goals are, aside from learning and on absorbing as much as possible.
Omloop Het Nieuwsblad- Race day
The announcer called us up to the stage. You sign in below your number and then the media takes a photo of the team. Standing up there representing the US was a pretty amazing feeling, being here is a huge honor and for that moment I was proud and felt like I belonged, settling my last nerves.
We lined up early, ideally to make it easier to stay at the front. There were Belgians wearing shorts and short fingered gloves while we were in 4 layers, full leg warmers , booties and buffs. Seeing their lack of winter clothing got me thinking: what do they know that we don’t? Also, they must be crazy. I’ll admit I might have regretted one layer, if not two, when racing got underway.
It was full throttle from the gun. Everyone was cross wheeling because it’s the only way to stay up front without having people try and fight you for wheels. My goal was to fight for wheels like Dave McCook, who I’ve ridden with at Hellyer Velodrome in NorCal. That man sees a wheel and it becomes his. Everything about the race was insane, crazy, hard, and beautiful. In my head, I broke the race up into thirds. Its similar to when you have a hard block in training, you don’t look at the entire week’s schedule, you just take it day by day. We just focused on one block at a time, positioning well for the decisive sections, and making small goals throughout the race. Like, find Jade and get to her wheel. Or, move up in position; you’d get up front but a few minutes later you’d be mid pack, fighting to get back to where you were. I just refocused and set another goal. Always moving forward. As Jack, our director, says, “The race is always up front”, so position was always a key objective.
There was a crash early on with a few girls going into a roundabout. The peloton did a really good job about calling out road furniture and culverts. Everyone tried to keep the race safe, which is nice since bike racing is inherently dangerous.
We learned the Dutch words for right and left just in case.
It was a major difference from a lot of the racing I’ve done back home. Some riders race in such a negative manner, refusing to pull for an entire breakaway, not contributing to the race itself. I lamented this situation to my coach, Harvey Nitz, who was a longtime pro for the legendary 7-Eleven team and national team member.
“That crap doesn’t fly in Europe. You don’t do your part and you’ll get run off the road… Racing has really changed a lot since my day and we never had the level of negative racing you see today”. What Harvey said was true, and it was immediately noticeable in the culture of the peloton at Het Nieuwsblad. There is a different level of respect for each other and the sport here.
Sitting in the middle of a pack, six abreast on a narrow road is terrifying but more so because it’s something I’m not use to. The bike handling skills were pretty impressive. I can’t count how many close calls occurred due to the sheer number or riders on a tiny road. Eventually, luck and skill ran out, and there was a second crash; a big pile up on the left with one girl flying down into the ditch. I crashed into the back of a Specialized Lululemon rider and broke my wheel in the pileup. When I saw it was broken I immediately started cursing internally. Nerves were already running high, add in a flat, and you can’t help but naturally panic a little more. Stay calm, you know what to do I thought to myself. I moved to the right side of the road and raised my hand until I saw the USAC car. Muerick, our sougnier, ran over changed the wheel and pushed me back onto the road in no more than 40 seconds. We had gone over what to expect with the caravan in our meeting and Beth Newell sent me a detailed email with tips for the caravan so I knew what would transpire next. Leapfrog car to car, rest a few seconds on each car, take your time and don’t stress, always move to the left of the cars. I tried to relax as much as possible but the fear of the race going up the road got the best of me and I put in a huge effort getting back to the pack. Once on the back of the pack I was able to physically relax for a few seconds – but not mentally. The race was a total sensory overload with a ton of riders, things being yelled in languages I didn’t understand, press motos trying to pass on the left and fans cheering on the sidelines.
The cobbled climb at 65k was insane. Hands down the coolest part of the race. Imagine Cat’s Hill in Los Gatos, but twice as long and on cobblestones. The rider in front of me got a push from a fan and I passed several riders who got off their bikes to walk. Part of me wanted a push, but the other part of me was resolved to ride it on my own. The cobbles are so cool, but man, they instantly zap your power. The race continued switching between cobbles and pavement, then a climb, and then back to a flat section. But then, a crash. Crap! I could hear the sound of carbon smacking the pavement. It was impossible to slow down on the wet roads. I hit the brakes but rolled into the back of one of the motos. It felt like slow motion. I regrouped and went on, only to find Jade on the ground, disoriented and still partially clipped into her bike. I could instantly tell she had a concussion. I checked to see if she needed anything but she said she was fine and to keep racing.
It’s always hard seeing a teammate hurt. I helped her up, checked in to make sure she was ok, no broken bones, and once Muerick arrived I hopped back on my bike. Part of me felt like stopping was the right thing to do but then the other part of me felt like I should have just kept racing. Bike racing is ruthless in this manner and theres always this tension between the moral maneuver and the competitive one.
I hopped back onto my bike but it was too late. The field was going at a steady clip up the road and were out of sight. Crap, I thought; I’m screwed. I hopped onto the back of a car and caravaned with a few cars including our own but it was too big of a gap. Cars were whizzing by which reinforced my fear, that the peloton was far away. Our shattered group worked well together but we blew apart on another cobbled climb. Over the top we took another trail-like road for a few kilometers that spat us out at a busy intersection. A cop signaled for us to stop and I thought we had made a wrong turn. I asked where do we go and he said, “No, you’re done.” “What?” I responded. I wanted to keep racing. My goal was to finish each race. “Sorry, the gap is too big” he replied. “Please, I want to keep racing” I tried bargaining with him to see if I could finish the race. I didn’t care if I had to suffer out there alone. I came here to race and I wanted to finish. But that was it, my race was over. Once a gap is more than a few minutes they instantly pull you. Our USAC van was waiting for me with Jade inside.
She was in good spirits despite being crashed out and concussed. It was tough getting into the car earlier than expected, I wanted to cross that finish line, but Jade did too. Shit happens in bike racing that you can’t control. In hindsight, I shouldn’t have stopped, but seeing a teammate down on the ground is never an easy thing. At the moment the only thing I thought about was helping her; going into the race I wanted to help out the team in any way I could. ‘You win as a team, you lose as a team’ .
We drove over to the finish and waited for our girls to come through. Alexis, Maura, and Lauren had all finished with the second group of the race, and knowing that they finished helped lift my spirits – they had fulfilled their goals. What a crazy hard race. My stomach hurt from going so hard. But mainly, what a huge learning opportunity – I’m happy to have the first race in the books, despite being disappointed about the outcome. I’m incredibly grateful and happy to be here and I’m looking forward to the next race on Wednesday! Le Samyn!
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