The pit stops seem to be coming thick and fast. Team cars darting to the sides of the road, for guys to pile out for natural relief. I feel like there’s something I’m not aware of. Apparently if you need to erm…stop, my fellow race compatriots for the day: Paul and Geert, tell me this is the last chance saloon. Once the race “begins”, which in this case for the Tour of Flanders is considered almost 100 km in, the race waits for no-one. Twisting, cobbled, sinuous Belgian roads reduce bike versus machine down to a David and Goliath game of chase. It’s irrelevant how much horsepower the Shimano neutral service car has, the pursuit of a peloton in full flight requires Colin McRae-esque driving credentials just to hold onto their wheel.
As we head out of Antwerp at the back of the long race convoy my heart sinks slightly. This isn’t the view that I imagined you’d get from inside the race. There’s not even a wisp of lycra visible. It’s not going to work. There’s only so many photos of the back of team cars you can get away with in one article, before it bores any reader into a submissive click onto the next.
Disappointment swells inside as I slump slightly. Maybe Paul senses my dejection at the thought of a day following the race from afar. And with no more than a wry smile as warning the car suddenly veers left, his foot heavy on the throttle, we pull out and overtake the rest of the team car convoy. A sideways glance towards him elicits a race update. We change position in the convoy and nestle in behind the lead race commissaires car. So here is neutral service car three’s rightful place. We’re in the thick of it and begin to charge directly behind a flexing peloton. Like a river being squeezed through smaller distributaries things tighten. We coarse like rapids down country lanes, the gentle hum of stones beneath us.
Now the race has started, heart rates elevated, there’s moments of silence punctuated only by the race radio commanding instructions in a plethora of languages. These are the moments not to ask questions. We’re in at the deep end. Paul’s senses conveying streams of live data to his cerebral cortices working on overdrive. Questions can wait.
Team cars pull alongside riders, mechanics’ bodies dangle from rear windows providing mobile assistance at 70 kph. When you’re in the moment fear is sidelined. Everyone has to commit to this form of chaotic functionality. Riders pacing themselves back to the pack centimetres off bumpers leaves no room for being non-committal to speed. The pace concertinas like an accordion. Wing mirrors become makeshift stabilizers, and help keep momentum as riders squeeze through micro-gaps.
A quick glance back and I catch a sharp exhale of breath from Geert as we round another corner at brake-neck speed. Spectators jeering at us all the while. But they come with a warning. While they entice you to reach out delivering high fives, an abrupt warning from Paul to wind the window up is heeded to as beer whistles through the air. Apparently you learn from previous beer soakings to look but not touch.
Like a vintage photo slide projector every corner flashes a new scene onto your retinas; some riders arms in the air calling for assistance, others on the ground, head in hands, bikes strewn across the road. A premature end to their day out. There’s a thousand facial expressions during a race–from a cold emotionless stare, to gurning, to a light flickering and going out. The fans bids of encouragement unable to resuscitate energy levels. Everything is whirring but yet also has that confusing effect that you’re in slow motion.
This adrenaline rush has to have a come down. Six hours and 260 km later everyone can feel the effect of the body’s natural high. The finish line victory salute of one of Belgium’s own signals the end. From within the car our own salute is a round of high fives. We’re done. I hop out the car to a throng of spectators, journalists, soigneurs around team buses. Atmosphere still fizzing. Everyone grappling to hold onto the emotional wave for as long as possible. And who knows, we’re in Belgium. It could be an all nighter!
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Words & Photos: Hannah Troop