It was my biggest target post-Kuurne, I’d done a lot of training, working on my weaknesses leading up to the race. Unfortunately, I had a nightmare week leading up to it, suffering from a bad cold and cough which had me doubting whether I would be able to ride at all. However, come Thursday, I felt a lot stronger on the bike, going out on a ride made me feel much less congested.
On Saturday morning, we were back waiting for John at Maidstone services. This weekend, I would be travelling with Colin alongside my South East regulars Louis and Ollie, while the Junior Academy riders were in John’s car. After stopping at the supermarket to get a nice ham and cheese baguette, we got on the road again and headed to the course for a recce. Unfortunately, the changing rooms weren’t open which left us having to get changed in the car park, this was pretty chilly and we soon realised it was going to be a very windy race! We all gave our bikes a little spin, just to check they were in working order – for Pidcock this meant pulling a wheelie down the car park. We rolled out of the car park and got behind Dave’s bumper as the heavens opened and it started to rain, nevertheless we went towards the course for the larger laps. The crosswinds were crazy and it was starting to sink in what a tough race it was going to be. After 90 minutes of being thrown around, it was fair to say we were warmed up! We rode back to the town centre and got changed before swiftly going for dinner, which was put on by the race organiser in what looked like a massive church. The deal was you were allowed unlimited spaghetti bolognaise so I helped myself to three servings. It was interesting to be eating off of place mats with Ethan Hayter’s face on them (2nd place in the race last year!) We went back to the hostel, made up our beds and dried our kit from the ride before heading to the hut for some WiFi and to watch the ending of Milan San Remo. We got an early night and I slept fairly well even though I was still feeling quite rough.
Race day had come and we were up for breakfast at 8:30am. I came prepared with my own Wheetabix and had a serving of 6, followed by some bread, ham and cheese – it was going to be a big day! I let Pidcock and Ollie share out the remainder of the box, then we cleaned our bikes and lubed them up. We went back to the rooms, packed our bags and loaded the cars. We had another incident with a missing room key which had disappeared in to John’s back pocket… we finally got on the road and headed to the town centre. Everyone bought baguettes, I had cheese and ham salad with brown bread. We went to the changing rooms – this time they were open, so no more getting changed in car parks! I prepped my bike and pinned numbers, then got our drinks and food ready. We had quite a bit of time to spare, but it flew by and before we knew it we were on our way to the team presentation. Up we went to get signed on, and have our usual team pictures taken. Me and Pidcock had to hang around to go back on the podium and receive some flowers. This was nice, but with no doubt, meant we were going to be marked riders!
It was finally race time. When the flag dropped and the neutralised car sped away, the race was flat out with teams sticking it in the gutter causing lots of splits within the peloton. I managed to make the front split and there was a quite a big gap until the second group. With the first cobbled section coming after only 9km, it was clear that there was a couple of teams who wanted to make it hard. However, despite their best efforts, the majority of riders all came back together as we hit the first sector of cobbles. This would be the first of 9 sections over the race. I made sure I was keeping at the head of the peloton so I could avoid danger and make sure I was on the right side of the split. I kept the powder dry as I wasn’t sure how I would be feeling. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to commit to much until we hit the finishing circuit, so I decided not to attempt to bridge across to the break. The breakaway got up to a minute gap, with about 10 riders in it, but I wasn’t prepared to chase, having my teammate (Tom Pidcock) up the road. The Polish team and Acrog were keen to get the gap down and it soon came down to around 20 seconds. We were on the road heading back in to the final circuit, with only one cobbled section left. The pace was fairly high and by the time we’d hit 6 laps to go of the finishing circuit the majority of the break had been caught, but there was still 5 up the road.
I knew if I wanted to podium in this race, I was going to have to commit. When we hit the final cobbled stretch with 5 laps to go, I gave it everything and got a gap. I grabbed a bottle from JB and got my head down, I was shortly joined by four other riders who had managed to escape the bunch. We were in pursuit of the leaders. Within a lap of chasing, we’d managed to get back on terms with them and were working well together. Over the next couple of laps, the crosswinds and tired legs took their toll on a couple of riders, meaning we were left with a group of around 7 of us. Coming in with two to go, there were a couple of counter attacks but nothing was sticking until one lap to go when a Dutch rider got away. He got a decent gap and then a Belgian set off in pursuit of him with 4k to go. I knew that would be the winning move and I saw my opportunity when we took the right-hander with 3k to go. I stuck it in the gutter going in to the headwind and gave it my all to get across to the second rider on the road. Once I was across, we were both keen and worked well together to pull back the leader, but it wasn’t until we hit the final straight of 300m of cobbles when we caught him. I wasn’t keen to lead out the sprint, but it was clear the other two were not going to either, so I sat on the front. At 150m to go I picked up the pace, and I could see the pain on the faces of the other riders. I unleashed my sprint but was slowly dying off, the riders began to come around me with 50m to go but I pushed as hard as I could and just managed to hold them off by a wheel for the win.
I flung my arm up in celebration, I was so happy. John came over and congratulated me and I was glad to have done him proud. We headed over to the podium and I was shortly presented with flowers, champagne, my very own cobblestone and a cheeky beer. The doping control made it clear we were not allowed to drink the beer, so that was given to Ian the mechanic . We went to doping control where I met the rest of the top 10 finishers. Unfortunately, after going for a wee after the race, I wasn’t in need of one any more, this meant drinking 3 litres of water and finally after about 2 hours, and the rest of the riders completing their test, I managed to give a sample! I went in, filled out my details and proceeded to urinate in the cup they gave me. We were soon on the road home, and I had no time to change out of my kit – it was another car change for me! Due to the doping control, we’d missed our crossing so there was no time to stop for food on the way. I then faced the downsides of drinking 3 litres of water and had to make use of a few bottles in the car..! Back to the euro tunnel and it was another successful trip complete.
I would like to say a massive thanks to John, Dave, Ian and Colin for all their help and also to VC Londres for all their support, as well as all my sponsors. I was really happy to pick up a nice bunch of flowers and champagne for my girlfriend Rachel, to say happy birthday and this win is dedicated to you.