Joe, Adrian and I disembarked from the Stenna line ferry, in the Hook of Holland, under sheets of rain. The rain continued through the evening’s drive and, when we stopped for the night in Bremen, it was still raining. Saturday morning started dry, but by Hamburg the rain was back and getting heavier. It cleared briefly around Flensberg and for the first few miles on Danish roads, but the strong winds soon brought on another deluge. The winds battered our camper van along the road like a cat with a mouse. Denmark was set to receive a months rainfall in a day. We arrived in Aalborg mid afternoon and quickly put to rest any lingering thoughts of a leg loosening ride aside; it was still raining.
Saturday afternoon in Aalborg
I checked in at my hotel then we went off to register. In respect the hotel’s location was ideal being a quick three minute walk to the start line, however it also sat over a night club along the beating strip of Aalborg’s night life. Every building was a bar or a club, with the more exotic ones at the far end, conveniently placed for business residents of the opposite Radisson Blu. Still the room was comfortable; the coffee and earplugs were free, I could prep my bike and watch the Vuelta. I aimed for an early night, the Danes were clubbing so I popped in the earplugs.
Sunday morning I woke up around 3am to silence. I was nervous about missing my alarm so I took the earplugs out – duff duff duff duff… the Danes were still clubbing. They stopped at 6am. At ten past six a bin lorry came beeping down the road. No point staying in bed now so I showered and went down for breakfast which was tasty, although I’m not entirely sure what kind of atmosphere the proprietors were helping to cultivate with the erotic Tintin artwork hanging on the walls.
All of the guests at breakfast seemed to be cyclists and the majority British. The conversation split between requests for track pumps and wondering just what to expect while discretely assessing the competition. I didn’t really know what to expect. Tough for sure, probably tougher than the Tour of Cambridgeshire; there was talk too that some of the continental riders were high level – ex pros and elites. In the hotel I was struck by the number of riders with no real race experience, but plenty of sportives under the saddle.
Joe and Adrian came over from their campsite about 8am and we headed over to the start. Saturday’s storm had blown over leaving Aalborg bathing beneath clear blue skies, but the wind hadn’t blown itself out; now it was a strong northerly, perfect for the return to town.
The difference a day makes
In total there were about 1100 riders competing and 153 in my age group. Nearly a third of the field were British. I said hello to a Corley rider next to me. The 19-34 age group started and we rolled to the line, or as close as we could get. We waited in cool shade and I was starting to feel cold. I just wanted to get started, so I was more than ready to go when a 10 second countdown started. It got the adrenaline started pumping. Joe and I rolled off in the 35-39 years group at 9.10am. Adrian, 10 minutes later, in the 40-44 group and slated as being one the most competitive.
Rolling under the banner, not to be seen for another 4 hours 45 minutes…
The first couple of kilometres were neutralised, but on the wide urban roads there was plenty of movement for position in the bunch. I felt rather than saw the flag go down; one minute we were cruising and the next we were accelerating to a tailwind assisted race pace. The suburbs blurred by into open country, not unlike South Cambridgeshire except for fewer villages and wider better surfaced roads.
A few kilometres before the first climb we hit a cobbled sector through one of the villages. Each side of the road had a narrow strip of smooth tarmac and the peloton divided between the two. I took the left side only to see the right side was moving slightly faster, so that when we came off the cobbles I was further back than I would have liked. Next we moved into the first proper crosswind. The bunch lined out and holding the wheel in front became a real effort. Eventually the road turned out of the wind but there was no relief as we hit the first of many long and draggy climbs. The lead riders maintained an unrelenting pace and the elastic began to snap. Joe managed to stay in the main group but I felt on the verge of vomiting and couldn’t keep up. I ended up in a group of 6 with a Brazilian, Greek, Swede, Italian and Slovenian and we were the first behind the main bunch. We worked as hard as we could to get back in, through and off is an international language, but the leaders slipped further and further out of reach and the effort, on me at least, was taking its toll. Eventually another larger group caught us and we swelled to around 20 riders. With the larger group the work became more sporadic and it was left to a pair of Norwegians to organise the effort.
In less than an hour I started catching riders from the 19-34 age group; most were in GB kit, blown away by the internationals.
The routes big climb came at just over 80km and my first sight of it came around a sweeping right hander. Blocking out the horizon sat a purple lump of hill, covered in heather and Forest. At any other time it would look lovely, and at any other time it would be an easy, enjoyable climb, but climbs in races are never easy. My legs really didn’t like it. I dropped back through the group and halfway up started to slip away. Realising the danger I pushed harder to get back on, but it wasn’t working. Not that I was the only one suffering. I passed another GB rider and gave him some encouragement, he gasped that he thought he was a descent cyclist before today.
Over the next few kilometres I picked up a couple more dropped riders and we formed a temporary alliance. It was a pattern which set the remainder of the day. I formed Baltic alliances, transatlantic alliances and entente cordiales and each time they would dissolve as we caught another group or, more often, were caught by another, stronger, group. There were other riders following the same pattern. Several times I ended up riding with the same Canadian rider, after being swept up then dropped by another group.
Over the course of the race I formed the impression that Denmark is probably an excellent place for cycling: good quiet roads and pleasant rolling countryside. Racing through it was another matter. The open countryside meant punishing winds which rarely seemed to work in our favour. The rolling terrain meant leg sapping drag after leg sapping drag, while being battered by the northerly wind. There was no respite, no hiding.
At around 100km race commissaires over took the three man group I was currently part of and signalled for us to keep right. The leading element of the 40-44 group was about to catch us and they did just before a rare stretch of fast, tail wind assisted downhill. We dropped back and sat a few metres behind the last rider; a moto judge watched us like a hawk making sure we didn’t try to tuck in. Even if we had I doubt we would have survived the first climb with them and soon they were out of sight and out of mind. More groups started to catch us and one thing I noticed that despite the number of Brits racing, there were few if any Brits in these groups.
We had good support from the locals. There were fewer people lining the than the Tour of Cambridgeshire, but that was simply an artefact of Denmark’s much lower population density – less than a third of Cambridgeshire’s. The Danes compensated with enthusiasm, and having a group of classically Scandinavian women, tall, long limbed, healthy, attractive, blond hair blowing in the gale force the wind, jumping up and down and shouting “Come on England!” does lift the morale as you grind solo along yet another uphill drag.
At 10km to go I was in a small group of riders made up mostly from the 40-44 group. There was a Belgian from my own. The wind was against us. We followed a curving road over the brow of a small bill and Aalborg lay before us. Rarely has a town been such a welcome sight. Passing the 5km sign the and a Belgian and a Spaniard started the attacks. More went and each ended with a muttered “fucking wind” in the language of your choice. It was hardly the high speed line outs of a Grand Tour sprint.
I resolved to beat the Belgian, he became the focus to keep my legs turning. Under the flame rouge banner he followed an attack and left me standing. I forced my legs to turn faster and started to pull him back. We turned into the main shopping street. It was lined with crowds behind guard rails, something I was only dimly aware of. The Belgian wasn’t far ahead so I pushed again. The finish banner was in view. One more dig and I could take him, I ignored the other riders and forced my legs to turn faster. I drew level, passed him and gapped him then I was across the line. The ordeal was over.
Beating the Belgian
I finished 81st in my age group with a time of 4:45:31. Slower than I had hoped for, but then I hadn’t factored the brutality of the wind and the first two hours.
In the evening, over beer, nachos and pasta at Mexican-Italian restaurant (yes really), we Googled some of the top 20 riders. The results explained a few things. The winner from my age group was a Frenchman, an ex-pro who had ridden with Cofidis and Agritubel with a DNF in the Tour de France on his palmares. Another rider had made 5th in GC in the 2010 Tour de Romandie. Yet another had raced for Tinkof Saxo. The 35 and onwards age groups were littered with elites, ex-pro’s and riders good enough to tour Europe’s Gran Fondos to supplement a living from the prize money.
It was a hard day, but I’m glad I did it.
End of the Women’s Race
Sunset over the Hook of Holland – The miserable robots from GB’s border force could learn a few tips on customer relations from the Dutch.