By Kimberly Bruckner, In Zolder, Belgium
European cycling fans never cease to amaze me. It is a total circus around here.
Jiri Manus, the U.S. National team director, traveled to Zolder as soon as it was named the home of 2002 World Championships. He staked out the best hotel location for the U.S. contingent, and he did a very good job of it. Our hotels are located right on the course. We can look out our hotel window, watch the race go by, and then rush back to our TV and continue watching it live on EuroSport. I love EuroSport!
The road race circuit is the same for all categories; 13.3 kilometers. The entire circuit is barricaded and once the road racing began yesterday, the public is charged an entrance fee onto the circuit. A Belgian friend of mine who I had dinner with two nights ago told me that the public can purchase a 3-day pass for 35 euro, or pay each day. The price goes up according to the public’s interest in the races. Friday, the junior women’s and espoir men’s race cost 11 euros. Saturday, with the junior men and elite women racing, it costs 15 euros to “get in”.
Of course, the main attraction on Sunday, the pro men, costs 25 euros. There are many outer lying parking lots with buses bringing in loads of fans. They estimate 200,000 fans will be lining the course this weekend. However, I did hear that the San Francisco Grand Prix on September 15th entertained over 400,000 people. But who knows how they get their numbers.
One can’t help but get excited walking around here. In one of hotel parking lots where the Americans are staying, I noticed people having picnics and playing cards just outside their cars yesterday evening. They’ve claimed their prime “camping” space. I can’t believe the number of people sleeping in their cars tonight! The restaurant in our hotel has a great set up. It’s located just at a right-hand corner of the race, just a few kilometers from the start/ finish line. They’ve got a great beer-garden set up along with a huge flat screen tv outside so fans can watch the action live and drink beer to their heart’s content. If I wasn’t racing, I could really have a good time here! After the final race finished on Friday, the circuit was opened to the cycling public. It was still closed to cars and you wouldn’t believe the number of people that got dressed up in the cold weather and rode their bikes around and around the circuit…old men dressed in complete pro-team kits on $4000 bikes, kids on dirt bikes, many on old, creaky townie bikes… all of them loving the fact that they could feel a part of the world championship racing taking place throughout the week. This is definitely a sport that the fans can just reach out and touch. They love it. Earlier yesterday afternoon, the Belgian men’s elite team stopped by our hotel for a beer and left their bikes outside. There were so many fans crowded around their bikes, looking at each individual rider’s name, pointing at them through the windows, that we couldn’t even get back into our hotel.
Anyway, today’s race. The elite women’s America team consists of Amber Neben, Dede Demet-Barry, Laura Van Gilder, Mari Holden, Tina Mayolo and me. In discussing our tactics last night at our team meeting, we laid out our options. We knew with this race that we had absolutely nothing to lose. The circuit is mostly flat, and both races on Friday ended in field sprints. That’s not what we wanted. It doesn’t exactly play into our favor. In case of a field sprint, our chances were slim to none against some of the best sprinters in the world. So our plan was to be aggressive and work for a break. It didn’t matter which one of us was in the break…but a break would increase our chances for a podium finish exponentially.
One hundred and fourteen girls started the road race and from the gun, the pace was so fast. I believe it was the Germans, the Dutch, and the conglomeration of Russian teams that were keeping the pace so high. I was having a hard time even getting to the front! We were racing a total of 133km, 10 times around the circuit. In the midst of the second lap, I saw the German team regroup and immediately drop to the back. Then our director, Jim Miller, came over the radios announcing that Petra Rossner had crashed and was out of the race.
I immediately felt this pit in my stomach. Even though Petra and I were racing for our respective countries, we’d been teammates all year and I knew this was a course suited to her strengths. Going into the world’s, everyone knew that Petra would be the one to beat. And I was so proud of her because of that. If an American couldn’t win, I really wanted a German to win, particularly one of my teammates from this year. Ina rode up next to me and told me that Petra had gone down hard right on her face but the doctors were with her and said she’d be okay.
The first five laps seemed to go by so quickly. A few breaks tried to get off the front, but nothing stayed for long since they were quickly swallowed up by the speeding peloton. The bunch was rather nervous and jittery today and a lot of sudden braking was going on, causing a lot of chaos and crashes. At one point of sudden braking, I wasn’t able to put my brakes on fast enough and slammed into a rider ahead of me. My front wheel got caught in her rear derailleur for a bit and I thought that was the end for me. But luckily, my wheel finally came free and besides my wheel being a bit out of true and my heart rate skyrocketing, I was fine.
Dede Demet-Barry rode a good race and was at the front quite a bit trying to go with attacks. With three laps to go, I received more heartbreaking news over the radio. Now Ina had crashed and was off the back. In a day that was made for the German team, things were just not going their way. With the high pace of the peloton, anyone that came off the back really had no chance of chasing back on again. Ina’s day was over too.
On our ninth lap, Spaniard Joanne Sommariba attacked over a small rise and with her went Swiss Nicole Brandli and Aussie Sara Carrigan. The three of them drove their break so hard and got a good 20 second gap… about the biggest gap all day. The Dutch team was chasing hard behind them and as we began our 10th and final lap, it began to rain. The rain signaled the beginning of the end. Because half of our circuit was on a racecar track, the roads instantly became so slippery from the oil. Plus, there was so much paint on the roads from fans painting their favorite riders’ names all over. And the paint, when wet, makes for a mighty slippery course. The break of 3 was still off but the field was gaining on them. Then, at the top of the small rise on the circuit where the break had attacked the lap before, a fan stuck out a big flag into the road. A rider that was about to hit the flag ducked and swerved, causing a massive pile-up of riders.
Dede, who was closest to the front at that point, had no choice but to run right over someone’s bike. Our entire team either went down in the crash or got held up behind it. And because it was only about 4k to the finish at this point, there was no hope of chasing back on. A small bunch regrouped after the crash and took off after the break. Up the last climb before coming onto the race track, Swede Susanne Ljungskog, Dutch Miriam Melchers, and Belorussian Zinaida Starhuskaia attacked and got a gap and motored their way onto the track. As those 3 turned a corner on the track, Melchers slid out on the wet pavement, going down and taking Starhuskaia with her. Lungjkold, knowing she had to bridge up to the front 3, attacked as Melchers and Starhuskaia were going down and caught the front three about 100 meters from the line, and then sprinted by them to take the gold medal. Brandli finished second and Somarriba finished third.
It was a surprising finish to a crash-marred world championships that everyone thought was going to end in a sprint finish. We finished the race in just under three hours, making our average speeds around 43-44km an hour. With wind and rain, that’s not too shabby. The men’s race is going to fly today. And despite the fact that neither the Germans nor the Americans won, Dede and I and our favorite Belgian joined them last night in a big end-of -the-season celebration. It’s a close on our 2002 season.
See you next year!