The mid week race between Flanders and Roubaix is on Wednesday. The Grote Scheldeprijs. Typically it finishes in a field sprint. I rode this race on the Wheaties-Schwinn European Vacation trip way back in 1988. I was very well suited for Belgium racing. Not so much races like this, which were too flat for my liking, but Belgium racing in general. Especially South in the hilly areas. It was the closet thing to cyclo-x on road bikes.
My recollections of the race are pretty vivid. It was one of the first times we were at a race with the 7-11 guys. I was surprised that Davis was so nervous before the start. I hadn’t ever raced on any of the roads previously, but I knew it was super important to be at the front when you needed to be at the front. I knew one Belgium guy, Carlo Bomans (now Belgian National Team Coach), who I’d raced against in The Tour of Chile, and then I knew Phil Anderson, who rode on the Levi’s Team in the Coor’s Classic. Both of them knew the roads like the back of their hands. And both were nice enough to let me know when the shit was going to hit the fan.
Early in the race, I was way back in the field talking to Carlo and he said, “Steve, follow me.” We turned right into a grocery store parking lot to cut the corner short and, in theory, move up a ton. But, little did Carlo know, but they had built a wall on the exit to the parking lot, so we had to dismount our bikes and jump over this short brick wall. I was surprised how many guys knew of that secret”cut off” and were following us. It looked more like a cyclo-x than a semi-classic. Belgium is so small that most of these guys have raced the same roads over and over again. Ever since they were juniors.
Later on, I remember Davis coming up to me about half way through the race and telling me how stupid it was that we would race for the cobbles, only to have it come back together again after. He thought the racing to the cobble sections was more dangerous than the cobbles themselves. I would have to agree with that. I didn’t agree with his first statement though. Just then, I saw the lead motorcycle do a short left, right swerve. I knew there was a long cobble section coming up.
I sprinted to the front and made the jog in the lead. This cobble section paralleled the main rode. It was way long. And horrible. I was riding on the crown of the road and noticed that there was a walking path on the side that was smooth dirt. I jumped over the tire indentations, that were not ridable, and was comfortable on the path. This was where I made my first mistake. I should of just throttled it full on here. Instead, I used it as a rest break. The cobble guys passed me and got a few bike lengths lead. Eventually, a guy ahead of me got on the path and pretty soon I was pretty far back in line on the path with the other “resting” riders. Meanwhile, the guys on the cobbles were going way faster. So, my 2nd mistake, I decided to jump back onto the cobbles and ride in the faster line. I ended up getting stuck in the tire ruts and deacclerated down to nearly no speed. I came off the back and looked over my shoulder. There was nothing. No team cars, no riders. I hit the pavement about 100 meters off the back of a 25 man group. I hated the feeling of coming off stone and onto the smooth pavement. It was like you had two flat tires and were riding in tar. I barely got back on to the lead group. Phil and Carlo were here of course. Along with nearly the whole Super Conflex Team.
This group keep rotating until the finishing circuits. For some reason, back then, they decided that there were too many crashes at the end of all the races, so all the races in Belgium had to finish on circuits. Something like you had to cross the finish line at least once before the sprint. I’m not sure. Anyway, Davis and a huge group caught back on right before the finishing circuits. I was pretty well rested riding a 25 guy rotation for an hour and a half. Davis was torched. He’d been chasing for 40 miles at least. I said something like, “yeh, that was pretty stupid racing for the cobbles back there.”
The finishing loops were crazy. A 10km criterium on narrow streets, cobbles, and sidewalks. On the back side, 3 km before the end, you could miss a whole 100 meter cobble section by bunny hopping onto a sidewalk. That was my saving grace.
So, coming down to the finish, it was total mayhem. A huge field sprint. I jumped up onto the sidewalk the last lap and moved up towards the front. Then got shuffled back. The finish wasn’t straight. No leadouts. Full on sprinting. I got stuck in the middle, with nowhere to get out and finished right between Carlo Bomans and Phil Anderson. Jean-Paul van Poppel won. I was probably only 2 bike lengths back and just out of the top ten. I thought it was total luck. That was until I saw the local paper and Van Poppel had been either 1st or 2nd the previous 3 years. It was incredible that he could make sense of that chaotic sprint year after year. When the results came out, they put me 20 guys behind Phil and Carlo. They were around 10th or so and I was 30th. It was B.S. But, that wasn’t that uncommon then. Better riders sometimes got better finishes even if they didn’t. And Americans were nothing. The race was something like 260km and took a bit over 6 hours I think. Must of done some training before that.
We stayed over there a few more weeks. We did the Gran Prix of Frankfurt, Wallone and a few more big races. After a month and a half, we all had an itching to get home and win some money racing criteriums. Man, how things have changed.