Michael Nicolson – Belgium

Lifted from the Braveheart forum comes this race report from Michael Nicolson who rides for the Flanders team. Many of my blog readers will have seen this but I thought it was so good I wanted to push it out a bit more widely. Michael’s honesty and touches of humour make this a brilliant write-up, and gives you a sense of the rough and tumble and furious pace of racing in Belgium.

Getting out to Belgium is a way to progress a career in bike racing if you don’t get picked up by the National talent team. There are several races a week. Scottish riders have done this since the 50s and it’s still one of the best ways to test yourself at the highest amateur/semi-pro level available.

Michael at Gifford 2012
image © Ian Henderson

I managed to get 4th the other day in Stekene.

Stekene is between Gent and Antwerpen about 70k from where we are staying. We drove up very early to make sure we had enough time to get lost a few times. When we arrived in Stekene we were greeted by several heavy showers of hail. Not to be put off wee signed on got the bikes ready. The belgians obviously aren’t put off by a bit of hail as there was 153 starters. When we got underway, after a minutes silence for the belgian children that died in the recent bus crash, the pace was hectic. With several of the big hitters in attendance it was set for a tough afternoon. Guy Smet was riding and with over 300 wins to his name he is not an easy man to come up against. Early on I was feeling very sluggish as I have been putting in hard training rides in preparation for the Tour of the North and other stage races coming up.

At the sharp end in a Belgian kermesse, click through for more shots on Roland Desmet’s blog
image © Pomer koersfotografie

After 30 minutes or so a break got away with a few good riders and I decided to try and get across. Off I went into the headwind down the finishing straight. After smashing myself to get up to them I realised it wasn’t the winning break I hoped but a bunch of squabbling belgians and so we were all very quickly back in the bunch. After this the new plan was to stay in the bunch and use as little energy as possible. Around the 2 hour mark, with a break slightly up the road, I noticed Guy Smet moving up along with Bart Van Speybroek. Both of these riders are danger men so I followed them to the front. It turned out they weren’t planning attacking but since I had made the effort to move up I decided to try something. So in the next crosswind section I went to the front and gave it some gas. Approaching the end of the straight I had managed to force a split and 15 or so had a gap. Unfortunately for me I was going far too fast for the next corner and fired into the bushes. After jumping back up and getting going I latched onto the back. Now I found myself sitting at the back of a bunch chasing the split I had just forced clear. Felt like a bit of a plonker. Luckily for me it all came back together.

2011 Scottish crit champs, on the wheel of winner Davie Lines
image © Ian Henderson

Coming into the final 2 laps there was a break of 4 with a small gap. I decided to try and get across to them. In the croswinds I jumped with several other riders. We rode really hard and got up to the 4 just a the start of the final lap. Bad news was that Bart Van Speybroek had put his men to work and dragged the bunch back up to us. With 1 lap to go it wasn’t looking good as big bunch sprints aren’t my speciality. I decided to try my hand one more time. Coming into the crosswinds, just after Guy Smet was brought back, a Profel rider handslung him mate off the front. I followed with everyone on the wheel. When the Profel rider signalled he wanted a spell I went through with everything I had. When I turned around there was a decent gap to the bunch. Pushing on alone with only 3k to go I thought my luck was in. Coming into the last corner 3 strong guy bridged up to me. On the headwind home straight there was some fannying about but with the bunch charging close behind we didn’t want to throw it away. I got beaten in the sprint but held to bunch off to finish 4th. Hopefully if I keep putting myself in these situations I can pull off a big win.

The best thing about racing in Belgium is how many races are on. I will be racing 4 more times before coming back for the Tour of the North.

All the racing wouldn’t be possible if it wasnt for Callum. I can’t thank him enough for helping me over here.

2011 Scottish road race championships
Image Sam Shaw

Michael Nicolson is on twitter.
ASFRA Flanders racing team
Michael Nicolson- suited to Belgian racing- Veloveritas 2010
Braveheart fund- 2009 funded rider
2009 Scottish 50m TT champion