We’ve just passed the second climb in the local lap. About 30 riders; that’s what is left of the buch. At top speed we ride towards the village of Dahlem. With only 30 kilometers to go, girls attack continuously. One after the other. I’m very active too, because this is the most thrilling game there is. For a moment, things seem to quiet down, just in front of me. My speed is still high, so why not, and I go – assuming some girls will catch my wheel.
After a couple of seconds I glance back. Gap. I look once more. A pretty big gap, even. I’m all alone. What to do? Race on, I guess. The road drags slightly uphill, I try not to slow down. I look back again. The gap is bigger. Then I see someone coming. Alone. Blue, white and black. It looks like someone of Sengers. It is Anna van der Breggen. Moments later a Rabobank-rider crosses. Lucinda Brand joins us. Anna and I work hard. Lucinda just sits in the wheel. Her teammate, Marianne Vos, is in the group behind, so she’s not allowed to work.
We race towards the first climb. It’s gambling, but I feel Anna wants to try to do the same as I do: stay away. Try to make it to the finish. Of course I’ve been calculating already: Anna was 10th in the prologue, I was 11th and Lucinda 15th. If we make it, we’ll be 1, 2 and 3 in the general classification. If we’ll be caught back, my teammates Carlee and Ashleigh didn’t spend any unnecesary energy and will hopefully be able to finish it off.
Anna rides uphill in a blistering pace. I almost drop, Lucinda passes me, I can just hold her wheel. People are yelling, I hear my name, cheers from the crowd in the climb. At the top I swallow the pain and ride to the front again. We soar downhill, to that awkward u-turn where it smells of brown coal. The second climb starts there. This one is longer. Anna leads the pace again, I am in her wheel and Lucinda is behind me. It doesn’t take long before I feel I won’t be able to keep up. Please ride a little slower, I beg Anna in silence, so I won’t have to drop. I’ll help you again once we’re at the top. Anna rides on, stoically. I drop.
The frustration – to see Anna and Lucinda ride away from me meter by meter, while we’re almost at the top. I clench my teeth, gasp the air into my lungs, stand on the pedals, sit down again and try to push even harder. I can’t. Anna clearly had a motobike for breakfast and I only ate a moped. Finally at the top, I shift to the big ring immediately. In Dahlem I’m back in the wheel of Anna and Lucinda again, but we can feel the hot breath of the group behind us already. Just before we pass the finish line for the last time, I give a big pull to show Anna I want to work on the flat, hoping she won’t drop me in the climb in return.
We hit the climb. My legs explode. Anna and Lucinda ride away from me, the group catches me and them and I drop definitely. I’m alone. Even the crowd is gone, off to the finish line. Finally time to feel the pain. To feel sorry for myself. I shrug these thoughts off angrily. I push through the pain in frustration, still hoping I can come back in the downhill.
Headwind. I make myself as small as possible, a ball on the bike. The cars are not far ahead of me. A cow stares at me in silence. The smell of brown coal, which I also smelled three years ago when I did this race too, exactly in this awkward corner. A smell I noticed for the first time in 1990, when we were on holiday in Dresden, Germany. How is it possible these memories come back at a moment like this?
At the top of the long climb I see the group in front of me is racing at top speed now. It’s only four kilometers to the finishline. Coming back? Forget about it. I ride to the finish alone, while Ashleigh sprints to an awesome second place, just behind multiple-world-champion Georgia Bronzini. I click out of my pedals, coughing like hell. Died on the battlefield. Racing my bike, I love it.