The team house is a bit less crowded in Belgium now after half the team returned to Australia to compete in the Tour of Great South Coast…which they won convincingly. The riders that are left are mostly the bigger flat landers who will compete in a number of 1.1 and 1.2 races in Belgium, France and the Netherlands before heading home via Tour of China I & II. The Koga Slag om Norg which roughly translated means “Narrow Gravel Windy Roads” was a big five hour drive away so we set off early on Saturday arriving in enough time to do a recon of the last part of the course. All up the race was 207km with a big loop to start and then 7 x 15.7km laps of a smaller loop of which roughly half was gravel.
Sunday dawned a mild overcast day with light winds building to about 18km/h. A massive crowd turned out to witness the start with the 1km neutral section proving to be more like the final km of a race with riders desperate to be at the front when the flag dropped. True to form Matt Zenovich decided that the break was the place to be eventually finding himself in a group of 7 riders. They were joined by another large group containing Sean Lake making the break 24 in total and putting us in a strong position. The break slowly gained time and after the first hour of racing having covered 50km they held a 1:30 advantage. Four teams missed the break completely but only Leopard took any responsibility and set about bringing it back.
As the first of the local laps started the break still held a one minute advantage but the gravel caused chaos with punctures and falls leaving a trail of destruction from both the break and the peloton. Unfortunately Sean was involved in a crash on one of the sketchy corners and couldn’t get back to the front. He was picked up by the front of the main field and turned his attention to looking after the rest of the team. Matt was still tapping away in the break which was now split in two groups of 7. The front group continued to push on while the chase group was absorbed by the peloton which was surging hard on the gravel and then regrouping on the bitumen each lap.
At 50km to go and the break still holding it’s advantage the fireworks started in the bunch. A big split in the peloton caused by yet another fall saw all the boys in the back half but a power of work by Sean managed to get them back destroying much of the field in the process. Punctures and crashes were the order of the day and up until 3 laps to go we had managed to avoid all but one crash and hadn’t had a puncture. Then it all fell apart. First Luke fell on a corner. He was back up and riding quickly but his front break was rubbing badly so after stopping to fix it he then had to chase back on which cost a lot of energy. Fraser then punctured on a particularly bad gravel section and had to wait a while for a wheel which effectively ended his day. Then Luke punctured four times in the space of 3km and despite doing his best to chase back on the peloton were now in full flight and due to tight traffic regulations he and many others were pulled from the race. At the same time a group of 7 managed to get off the front of the peloton and ride their way across the gap. Neil was out of position at the time and could only watch them ride away but we still had Matt out front so Neil took a bit of a back seat and tried to look after himself as much as possible in case it came back together.
Upfront and with the “fresh” legs joining the break Matt was doing his best to stay out of trouble. Some big accelerations on the gravel saw the group reduce to just 7 again with Matt hanging tough. At a lap to go the break still held a minute and the chasing bunch which was now down to less than 30 riders that either didn’t have the desire or perhaps the ability to chase them back. Matt was dropped from the break but managed to ride back on only to be unhitched again with less than 10km to go. Neil was following the moves back in the chasing bunch and caught up to Matt on the last sector of gravel but by this time Matt’s lights were well and truly out and he could only watch as they stormed by.
After a big day Neil ended up 16th with Matt 37th after spending the best part of 190km at the front of the race. These races are not easy, made all the more hard by the fact that we don’t know the roads or the other riders. Then the element of chance created by the gravel makes it a bit of a lottery as well. That said the roads are really interesting with constant twists and turns meaning there’s never a dull moment.