Tour of Flanders is one of those races where it still means something if you finish. The tiniest country roads, the unforgiving rough and stupidly steep cobbles, the blood sport fight to position yourself before the climbs, and don't forget the weather if Mother Nature decides to show up. Actually, it's one of those races where it still means something if you start and CCC-Liv started perfectly.
No doubt it was the best race we had done as a team. For the first 115 kilometres we had this amazing rhythm, operating like a well-oiled machine and then some. We were riding together, positioned well, Marianne felt amazing and so did I. To have everyone come together like that, it was just another level. We had the goods to pull off a win, we just needed the luck.
The final 30 kilometres is where the big bets are made. I knew we had the fire power to execute the final strategy but as we got together on the Kanarieberg (climb #6) someone switched my wheel. Somehow I didn't crash and, after a quick foot down, I started to chase back. I wasn't too far behind but there also wasn't a lot of time before the next climb, the cobbled Taaienberg (climb #7), where the pressure would continue.
I didn't have a choice: I had to go all in to catch the peloton or it was race over. I didn't even have to think about making a decision, my legs were already powering across the gap and up the Kanarieberg.
Now, I know Belgian roads. I've raced in Belgium for many years. I know the cobbles, the narrow roads, the road furniture, and the wide crack right down the centre of their concrete roads. I'm always aware of that crack. I know it's there but as if two hands reached up and grabbed my wheels, out of nowhere my bike instantly came to a complete stop. My wheels were both perfectly stuck in that centre crack. Like walking into a glass door, it caught me so off guard I only realized what had happened after I hit the ground, slid across the road into the ditch, and came to a stop in stinging nettles.
Grazed and confused, I got up and back to my bike. The drivetrain was all messed up. I definitely needed a new bike but, after the big splits on the Kanarieberg, the team cars were too far behind. Everything had happened so fast that I could actually still see the bunch ahead. It didn't matter what I had, I needed to go all in again if I was to get back.
My body was stinging all over from nettles and road rash but my muscles were working. I got back up to speed and as I clicked into an easier gear as I hit the bottom of the Taaienberg, my derailleur went into my back wheel and fell off! "OK, that's it," I thought with a sigh. With the odds so stacked against me, it was smarter to save my legs for the next race.
Up at the front Marianne wasn't faring much better with a poorly-timed puncture. I couldn't help but feel disappointed; it really wasn't our day. You can have the best legs and the best team on the day but to win a bike race you always need some luck or, at least, no bad luck. Still, we had finished one of the toughest Spring Classics and the magic of the first 115 kilometres made me believe at the next race our luck would change.
Ashleigh-Moolman-Pasio is a world-class climber and the newest member of CCC-Liv (formerly Waowdeals). She has written a regular blog for Cyclingnews since 2016, touching on topics of gender equality in women’s and men’s professional cycling.