Leah Kirchmann: Taking on the Cobbled Classics

Team Sunweb is taking the 2017 season by storm with two wins already under our belt while only one month into the season. We are quickly establishing ourselves as one of the dominant teams on the Women’s WorldTour race circuit. There is an enthusiastic atmosphere on the team and it is contributing to dynamic racing and top results.

Lucinda (Brand) kicked off the season in style with a tactical solo victory in Het Nieuwsblad. It was a perfect situation with her and Ellen (VD) attacking the break until Lucinda launched her winning move with 5 km to go! And Coryn (Rivera) can no longer fly under the radar after her win at Trofeo Binda in Italy, the team’s first Women’s World Tour victory of the season. I already knew about Coryn’s sprint strength after years of going head to head with her on the American cycling circuit, but our speedy American sprinter certainly turned heads taking that victory in Italy after an incredible lead out by Ellen.

A few crashes and a chest cold have presented minor set backs to my Classics campaign, but I am feeling stronger every day now, and have happily contributed towards the team’s success in recent races. Avoiding crashes and illness are one of the biggest challenges of racing during the Spring. The combination of bad weather, travel, and tough racing can easily put you on the limit, and there is a fine line between being extremely fit, and sick.

We have set our standards very high now with this early season success. A podium placing is good, but we are always striving for the top step. It is interesting for me to reflect back on my initial days of racing in Europe to consider how my goals and abilities have evolved over the years. The goal now is for the team to animate the race and go for the victory, but early on in my career, it was all about survival.

My first experience in Europe was a Spring campaign with the Canadian National team in 2010. I was in complete shock coming over from Canada. Everything was faster, louder, and more chaotic than anything I had ever experienced to that point on a bike. The European riders have raced this way their entire lives, for North American riders, it is almost like learning a new sport.

Suddenly I was racing on roads the size of bike paths filled with road furniture in a peloton of two hundred aggressive riders. I would race to line up on the front row with all the other North Americans way before the actual roll out, as this was the only way we could hope to experience the front end of the race! The neutral starts almost scared me more than the races, with riders careening left and right around parked cars and poles, hopping on and off bike paths in order to gain positions. There would usually be a polka band playing somewhere to add to the chaos. My hands would cramp from the constant braking to avoid crashing. The racing tactics were so different to what I was used to, even growing up in the flat and windy Canadian Prairies did not prepare me for the harsh echelons and gutter action that dictated the outcome of so many races.

I quickly learned the broom wagon is more of a symbolic vehicle in most races. This was my first experience racing in Drenthe. Imagine my shock and panic as the broom wagon drove past and I was left riding clueless in open traffic in the middle of a field in a foreign country, with no idea where to go, even if I could find someone to ask for directions. Luckily a soigneur from another team took pity on me and I hitched a ride back to the start. They handed me a world champion’s Rainbow jersey to stay warm, and I remember thinking how far away a goal like earning that jersey, or even finishing a race like Drenthe seemed at that moment in time. I finished that first block of racing quite humbled by the experience. Despite the difficulty, I knew I had to return to have any hopes of becoming a better rider.

It is all about how you respond to challenges that will determine if you make that next step. You can let them defeat you and easily go home and back to your comfort zone, or you can embrace challenges as motivation to improve. Setting small goals, and targeting weaknesses has led to steady progress with every passing season. For me, it took six years of Euro racing before finally winning a race last season. To win at Drenste Acht, a race in the same region of Drenthe where I once found myself lost was the perfect testament to my development as a rider. I am still learning new lessons with every race, but reflecting helps to appreciate the progress already made. The races are hard now because I am racing at the front of the peloton, not simply trying to survive and stay ahead of the broom wagon until the finish line.

I have become a smarter and better skilled racer compared to my earlier days, and this is good because one of the most prestigious races of the year is coming up this weekend, the Ronde van Vlaanderen! With 153 km of tough racing over cobbles and climbs, the strongest team and rider will prevail. The past month of racing has shown that Team Sunweb is built for the cobbles, so we can’t wait for the big show.

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Growing up in Winnipeg, Canada it was always my dream to race in Europe. Two years ago, my dream came true. In this, and future posts, I will be giving you insight into my experiences racing in the European peloton with Team Sunweb.