12-10-2021 | Luc Nouwen

WC Gran Fondo: a fight against the elements

As pleasant as staying at Pale is, I would have liked to have done something about the neighbors' dog... The animal wouldn't stop barking which is not ideal the night before my medio fondo. I took my pillow, comforter and smartphone to the other room, but the barking got even louder.

I thought the alarm clock was taking a long time to go off... let's see what time it is. Ah, the smartphone is still in the other room and it's 45 minutes later than I had planned to get up. Sleeping in is an extremely rare occurrence for me; it's a good thing I always plan in time to "change a tire".

In any case, the bike is ready.

Fully wrapped riders

It's raining (as it has been for three days) and it's cold... I leave by car for the starting point in Sarajevo, a good half hour's drive. The parking lot is already full and riders are well packed. It's drizzling, so half an hour to warm up is possible.

Based on my result in the qualification race in August (on the same course) the expectations were not as high as for the time trial, where I managed to get a nice 9th place. However, I did have a battle plan: to be among the first to go uphill after a few kilometers, to stay at the front of the peloton to jump over the speed bumps in the first descent, avoid crashes, cling to the mountain and see where we end up.

Easy start

The departure was rather slow. It started to rain hard again and that prompted some caution. Without much effort I turned second on the first slope; only a Swede really wanted to go full speed. An Austrian rider clearly also intended not to brake for the speed bumps in the first descent and placed an attack. I rode about ten meters in front of the group and executed my battle plan nicely. Then I shelter in the peloton which means I constantly get water sprayed in the face. At the third roundabout the moment arrives. A few meters in front of me a competitor slides out and the cones fall. Since my collarbone fracture, I refuse to crash, which means I do everything possible to avoid it. My track experience comes in handy here: steering away from the crashing and sliding riders; bodychecking against another competitor and pushing on. Of course, I have to take off a first jacket to rejoin the front.

Colder and colder

I start second in the thirty kilometers uphill. And then comes that awkward moment, where they pass me left and right and the pace is too high for my maximum heart rate ... About 25 riders are riding away and I have to find my pace. There goes my silent ambition to finish among the 20 first (43 riders were registered in the category 60-64). Meanwhile, the rain continues to pour down on us and the temperatures drop with each meter to the finish at over 1500 meters.

Six kilometers before Trebevic, the steepest section begins with gradients of 10-15%. I dangle at the back of a group. The steeper it gets, the more I crawl to the front. A hundred meters in front of me there are a few riders. I want to go to them. And I succeed: agonizingly slowly, but even though everything above 10% is torture, somehow I advance that little bit faster than the others in the second half of the pack.

As soon as the steepest part is behind us, a Swiss and I turn out to be the ones who want to do the work. The others eat our plates and in my enthusiasm my water bottles remain full and my gels in my back pockets. As strange as it sounds, I enjoy the fact that I am riding well here, that my legs want to cooperate and that I can hear them panting and puffing behind me. On a steep section, my Swiss companion and I ride away and we stay away.

In the partial descent to the final climb I take the lead. The wind is against me, but it can't go wrong now, can it? Until the Swiss takes over at the beginning of the 7 km long climb and I block... Find my own pace. Keep the Swiss in my sights. Let's look behind me. No one in sight.

Snow

Seven kilometers uphill is a long time when you already have 20 in your legs. Another run on the pedals. I quickly go back into the saddle. The snowflakes begin to swirl down. My hands and feet start to feel very cold. And I keep forgetting José De Cauwer's good advice: eat, drink, eat, drink. Another look backwards at 4 km from the end; no one in sight. At 2 km from the end, I suddenly hear a noise behind me. The group that I had dropped catches up with me. One by one they pass me. Each time I try to catch up, but I'm done. My Swiss friend suffers the same fate. They ate our plate empty. The only one I overtake again at 50 meters from the finish is the Swiss who gets an even harder beating than me.

In a winter landscape we ride to the finish line. The organizers have placed the finish line 200 meters further uphill than during the qualifying race, at the entrance of the hotel sponsor. Two Belgian ladies help me off the bike, give me cookies and drinks. Not a word comes out of my mouth. "Maybe it's a Walloon," one of the women says. I shake my head...

Cold to the bone

Now I still had to get back to the apartment: a 12-kilometer descent. Before starting, I had tucked the rescue blanket that was in my car into one of my back pockets. The ladies help me wrap it around my body. Belgian champion Patrick Cocquyt, who finished a fine fifth, offers me his spare gloves. I say it won't be necessary.

In the meantime the snowfall has made way for pouring rain. The descent takes an astonishingly long time. My hands slowly turn into icicles. I have to give the command "brake" twice. Good thing I bought a new bike with brake discs a few months ago! Here and there the street has been transformed into a stream. I reach the door of the apartment in one piece. Finding the key and getting it back into the keyhole is more difficult than that 15% uphill stretch. I shivered for an hour in the apartment, but after the shower there was a blissful warm feeling.

The result was not overwhelming: 26th out of 38 starters; without a breakdown at the end it would have been 22nd. But it is a world championship and only those who think they are good enough can participate. Patrick was a professional cyclist; Andrej Zvabi (15th) Yugoslavian state amateur. I've only cycled around a bit with the 'students'. So my smile remains big, especially with the top 10 in the time trial in mind.

The next morning a real Bosnian breakfast is prepared by hostess Marjana and then the journey back can begin!

Time for some reflection

During such a long trip (1800 km) alone in the car you have a lot of time to let things sink in. It was interesting to get to know Bosnia and Hercegovina as well as Republika Srpska. There was a lot of good will despite the occasional lame organization. And then you have the nice people you meet both participants and locals. Still the same feeling comes over me as when I left Hungary in the early nineties.

Does this country manage to keep figures like the current Hungarian enlightened despot from power, while the EU summit says much and does little or will it be a cakewalk of the same dough? What do you think of a flag with the values reliability, solidity and service and a constitution based on similarities and respect for differences? "Marjana for president" and things will definitely work out!

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