by Marie-Soleil Blais

I went on a long solo ride yesterday, to cap off a week of training with the team in Belgium. I decided to ride the last part of the Flanders race route which I wished I had ridden before racing it last week. The quiet and easy pace gave me some time and mental space to reflect on the events I went through just a week ago, when I ‘survived’ Flanders. I could see every detail of the course with different eyes.

Team presentation Ronde Van Vlaanderen

Every turn and piece of road furniture, even the cobbled Muur-Kapelmuur, seemed smoother like this time over I am floating on gentle waves. Nothing like the chaotic waves of a stormy ocean I was battling against a week ago.

Flanders was like no other race I have participated in before. The whole thing was massive. I was grasped by surprise when we first arrived at the team presentation the night before, where a huge crowd had assembled. I had just got out of the team car when a fan came to me with a card, my name printed on it, asking for my autograph. Then another one.

Fans are serious in Belgium, they know our names, they stare at us, and at our bikes, in a meticulous way that feels so strange. When they are not staring, they ask for pictures, autographs and bottles. If I gave a bottle to everyone who begged me, we wouldn’t have any for the race. It took me a few ones to realize I could never please everyone!

The morning of the race, the ambiance was even more electric. I don’t know if I was excited or overwhelmed. A bit of both. I was definitely intimidated by the size of the challenge lying in front of me. The race started and everything came quicker then I could digest it. There was just too much to process at the same time. The road was constantly throwing surprises at me, turning and twisting in all unexpected directions and elevations. The peloton of unfamiliar faces riding in a frenetic way, attacking every turn like it was the last one, while my director tries to instruct us in Italian over the radio. Oh also, while pedaling at a ridiculous fast pace for four hours.

Like it is typically when you find yourself at the back of the peloton, you get caught behind crashes. These were small pauses, before returning to the chase at full gas. Until we couldn’t anymore. After 120 km or something, I found myself in a group detached behind the race. But no one slowed down, all determined to finish the race. I felt like I had passed my limits a few times already, but it wasn’t over yet, now I had to finish.

There was an immense crowd of cheering fans, so loud and so close to us, on the final cobbled climb of Paterberg, less than 20 km from the finish. I was losing all my senses when a small incident in front of me in the steepest section had me put the foot down. In that moment, I felt like I had hit my final limit. I couldn’t go again. I walked the last few meters of the climb, losing contact with the group. My body was screaming at me, but I couldn’t give up here. I got back on my bike on the top of the climb and the crowd responded in a cheering ovation that brought me to tears. A mix of emotions and extreme fatigue.

At 5 km to go, an official of the race came to tell me I was out of the time limit allowed to finish the race. 5 kilometres. So close, but so far at the same time. I felt confused between disappointment and shame for ending up here, but also pride and gratitude for being here, for having the chance to race one of the biggest race in the world. Thanks for the reminders in people’s messages after the race!

As I replayed the race in my head during the following week, I wondered how I could possibly ride like them. How I could race it one day, not just surviving it. Until yesterday, when I rode the course again, this time capable of seeing everything so easily. It looked like just a normal road. Maybe it was just a normal road after all. Suddenly it all seemed possible again.

Marie-Soleil Blais is a first-year professional with Astana Women’s Team from the Centre-du-Québec. She’s a seven time Quebec champion on the road and track.

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