Just like everyone else these days, Bernie Eisel is in lockdown. Instead of jumping into his new role in retirement with GCN, he’s at home in Austria with his wife and three children, aged five, three, and eight months.
Eisel, 39, called quits on his racing career at the end of 2019, with an incredible 19-year run with some of the biggest teams in the peloton. He raced 19 grand tours and started 47 monuments. Eisel made a name for himself as road captain and leadout man for Marc Cavendish, but he also won 16 races.
The one that stands out? The 2010 Gent-Wevelgem.
“After all the years I raced, I can say at least I won one of them,” Eisel told VeloNews. “OK, it wasn’t a monument, but during a 10-year period, the big races were always dominated by a handful of people. They would win 80 percent of the races. So every once in a while, an outsider like me could manage to win one.”
Under normal circumstances, the spring classics program would be clicking into high gear this weekend. Instead, races are canceled, and everyone is hunkering down, hoping that health authorities can flatten the coronavirus curve.
“I really feel for the riders who are missing it. They put so much work into being ready for this period,” he said. “Everyone understands how serious this is, and why we are not racing. Everyone knows what’s happening is bigger than sport.”
Getting its due
It was in 2010 in the year that Eisel won the year the race saw a major facelift. Gent-Wevelgem used to be a mid-week race, almost an after thought between Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. Organizers juggled the calendar, the one that largely stays intact now, with Gent-Wevelgem, Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix held on the next three successive Sundays.
“The prestige is there for the race. More so since it’s on Sunday and it’s longer,” Eisel said. “It really is like a monument now. The big change is when they went from five or six climbs, to now they do 13. That changed the race completely. It made it that much harder.
“They’ve created a real story around the race, with the Flanders Fields and all that,” he said. “The race has such a long history, and it’s such a shame it’s not being raced because of this bloody COVID-19.”
Back in 2010, Eisel was in his 10th pro season, and his fourth with HTC-Columbia. The team was rebuilding from the ruins of the Telekom team, racing under the High Road banner, and had a fleet of young talent, including Mark Cavendish, Edvald Boason Hagen, Matt Goss, and Tejay van Garderen who was in his rookie season.
“That wasn’t our best spring,” Eisel recalled. “So our tactic was to be active, attack and don’t wait for the final. That was the first year it was on a Sunday. There was a change in the calendar that year. There was a different approach to really push for it. That helped me.”
Wind and the Kemmelberg
There are two elements that always mark Gent-Wevelgem: the wind and the Kemmelberg. The former remains a challenge even today as the course loops west along the wide-open flats near the Belgian coast. The latter has been defanged after organizers stopped taking the peloton down the cobbled descent off the Kemmelberg. In 2007, the race was marred by a string of horrendous crashes coming down the treacherous cobbles.
“People talk about how dangerous the Kemmelberg was. But that climb is raced so many times, it was just a normal climb for Belgium. The junior races are going up it. The danger was in the rain,” Eisel said. “If it was wet and you touched your brake, you crashed.
“It was the right decision to take out the descent. We are not circus clowns just to make a show,” he said. “We are professional athletes out there, and you cannot put them at risk for no reason, especially when it adds nothing to the race. Even in the dry it was dangerous with the flying water bottles. Those cobbles are like an ice skating rink when it’s wet. Cycling is crazy sometimes. When you were going down the Kemmelberg, you just have to let go and hope for the best. You know if you touch the brakes you will crash.”
The other element that’s always a factor at the race is wind. Sometimes it’s so hard it will blow riders off the road and into the ditch. In 2010, Eisel turned the wind to his favor.
“The wind is always decisive in Gent-Wevelgem. It’s a war zone out there,” he said. “Well, maybe that’s not the best word considering what happened there before. You really have to be at the front of the race there because it can split and never come back.”
The crosswinds that changed everything
The race selection came in two key moments. The first was when a group of about 15 riders separated from the main bunch. A few teams had more than one rider, and the gap was enough going into the last hour of racing that everyone knew the winner would come from the leading group.
The second decisive move came on a rather innocuous stretch of road with 13km remaining. With a chase group closing in from behind, Eisel went to the front and dropped into time trial position. Eisel looked back and saw danger-man Oscar Freire getting gapped.
“Another group went, and I was somehow the one with the driving force, he said. “We got onto this flat massive road, and I put them into the crosswinds. I just went a little harder, and George Hincapie was there, and when we looked over our shoulder, we realized it was all breaking up. We all pulled through and it was funny to see how a little acceleration after 200km of racing in the crosswinds could change everything.”
Vanmarcke tried to anticipate the sprint and attacked with just over 3km to go. Roelandts, working for Gilbert, paced him back.
“There were six of us coming into the final,” Eisel recounts. “When we came into the sprint, I got on Hincapie’s wheel. George went and then I went, too. Like we said all day, there is no waiting. But I looked up, I was not even at the 200m to go sign, and I thought, oh shit, I went way too early!
“I just kept sprinting to the line and I don’t think it was until 200 meters after the line that I had a realized I had won it.”
‘I was the strongest that day’
Looking back, the victory was Eisel’s most important one-day race of his career. He said a pair of stage victories in the Tour de Suisse also meant a lot to him, especially the stage-win in 2009 that helped him secure a spot in that year’s Tour de France.
“I knew I was in good form, but I was never one of those riders who would say, ‘OK, I am going to win this,’” he said. “I was there in the first splits. It all came back together, but that’s when I knew I had good legs.”
That Gent-Wevelgem win was the last victory of his career. Eisel was already evolving into a road captain and part of Cavendish’s leadout train.
“When I look back at the race now, I realize I was the strongest in that group that day,” he said. “It never happened to me again afterward! Only that one day.”
“I loved racing the classics,” he said. “They were my favorite races. I always said if I had ever won a Roubaix or Flanders, I would retire that day, because it would never get better than that, so why keep pushing for more? I was twice top-10 at Roubaix, and if I had ever won, I would have retired on the spot with that stone in my hand — 100 percent. That would have been the perfect time to retire. I raced Roubaix 17 times, and tied with Servais Knaven. Of course, he won it one time.”
For Eisel, etching his name on the winner’s trophy in one of Belgium’s most important races is something that will forever be his.
“It’s always the big guys who decide the race. They choose when it’s time to go. That has never changed,” he said. “To win the classics, you have to have very good form, and balls.”