Flanders is a historic monument of cycling being over 100 years old. Although the women's race has only been around for 15 years, it still holds the same kind of prestige. For the American readers, simply put - Flanders is like the Superbowl of Belgium.
On their old, narrow, cobbled, and uphill climbs are crazy, passionate, and mostly drunk fans line five-deep on both sides of the road. Reminiscent of American criteriums like Cry Baby Hill in Tulsa Tough, the bell lap of the Super Prime at Tour of America's Dairyland Downer Classic, or really any last lap of a hotly contested criterium. Bells ringing, people yelling and screaming, and the smell of beer. A scene that hits all senses.
The difference in De Ronde van Vlaanderen is that there are fans on every cobbled section or climb along the 153.3km tour around Belgium compared to a one-kilometer lap. The crazy part for me is that it is all a blur because you are so deep in the pain cave to make it over the climb or through the cobbled section with the front group. But what is very noticeable is the energy. I thrive off of such energy, it gives me a boost and I get pumped off of it. Even back in my US criterium days, I always loved that moment where it all has to come together and the crowd is absolutely going wild. The fans also recognize this moment and they are a vital part of what makes this race so special.
Last year was a dream come true. I was coming into the race with a WorldTour win and a podium the weekend before. The team put all the pieces of the puzzle together in Oudenaarde. I didn't wake up thinking I was going to win the race but I knew we were going to race our very best and most importantly together as a team.
In one-day races, it is almost more about the least amount of bad luck versus having any good luck. And bad luck was at a minimum with no crashes or flats. Our positioning was close to perfect on all the key moments thanks to Leah and Floortje. And we had Rozanne off the front setting intention. Then the race started getting heavy on the Kanarieberg, per usual, and Lucinda tried her hand at a couple attacks after the climb.
Later the main break of the day went off over the Kruisberg. Unfortunately, no Team Sunweb riders could make it across. We made the most of the situation and Lucinda chased like there was no tomorrow to get the break back. Lucinda closed the gap considerably at the run-in to the Oude Kwaremont, but the break stomped on the pedals and the gap stretched once again. Ellen was giving everything to be in that group and meanwhile, I was suffering and getting dropped. Still turning it over, I felt the energy from the crowd and I felt my responsibility. I knew I was the sprinter, and all day the girls were working so hard and Ellen was doing her best but couldn't quite make it. That was my cue. I needed to be there for the team. I dug deep to get back to the front group. We crawled our way over the Paterberg, which is usually my favorite cobbled climb in Belgium, but in the moment it was the last thing I wanted to do.
We reset at the top and made the call to reel the break back and set up the sprint. I remember vividly a moment where I wanted to keep our group moving because the time gap wasn't going down and the group wasn't organized for chasing. Then an angry Ellen yelling at me, "Don't you dare take another f*cking pull!" It's racing, we don't take anything personal, but she was right. I stayed calm, took a gel, and focused at the task at hand. "It would be pretty cool to podium at Flanders"I thought to myself.
With Ellen's engine, we caught the break just under the 1km banner. My instincts took over. Once the sprint opened up, all hell broke loose. While sprinting, so many thoughts flashed across my mind at once. I looked up, "Oh sh*t, still 100m to go!" "Keep going!" "Is anyone going to pass me?!" Then we crossed the line. "We just won the Tour of fricking Flanders." "Am I dreaming?" I was overwhelmed with emotions. I couldn't believe it. I'm not necessarily a crying type of person but I was balling my eyes out from joy, from pain, and from disbelief. In my ear, Hans was going crazy on the radio. I gave Ellen a huge hug and as the other girls rolled in they went directly to the press tent to give the biggest hugs.
The team was everything. From Bart and Simon making sure the legs and bikes were top-notch to every girl committing to the plan. I definitely would not have been able to accomplish such a milestone without our teamwork. Teamwork was the key in making the day a success.
To top it off, my dad and boyfriend were in town. I didn't have my phone on me and I was searching for them as soon as I finished. As I was being driven to anti-doping control, I saw them out of the corner of my eye. I yelled at the driver to stop and put it in reverse. I hopped out of the van and jumped over the barrier. It was so special that I was able to share the amazing moment with them.
Later on the podium, it was so wild to hear the the Star-Spangled Banner in Oudenaarde. It is truly an honor to be the first American – male or female – to win the Tour of Flanders.
It's funny because that title has stuck with me since. Male or female? What does that mean? To me, it means no matter who you are, or where you come from, anything is possible if you put your mind to it.
I have the stats of every type of minority: A female in a male dominated sport, an American in the sport of cycling which is primarily a European sport, a person of color with my ethnic background being Filippino. It doesn't matter. Look past it all and just go after your dreams. I'm proud to make my mark in history and continue to help grow American female cycling.
It might be April 1st, but it won't be a joke that I pin on #1 on the back of my jersey on Sunday. The Team Sunweb girls and I will go into the race taking confidence in what we did last year, but we start on a fresh page in a new chapter of 2018. No two years can ever be the same. We will focus on the process, commit to the plan, and execute as team.
Coryn Rivera is a professional cyclist racing for Team Sunweb. She was born and raised in Orange County, California, and entered her first bike race at the Redlands Bicycle Classic kids race. Rivera had a break-out season in her first year with Team Sunweb in 2017, winning Trofeo Alfredo Binda - Comune di Cittiglio, Tour of Flanders, Prudential RideLondon Classique, and the team time trial at the World Championships.