After a bleary early morning wakeup and a shuttle crossing to Calais, I cruised up the motorway to Antwerpen to watch the midweek Scheldeprijs race.
Arriving at the race, I’m greeted by a scene unlike any you’ll experience outside Belgium. There are people everywhere, all dressed in their smartest clothing, the beer is flowing and the air is thick with the smell of frites. It feels more like a Sunday, I almost have to pinch myself to remind myself it’s a Wednesday, and that only four hours earlier I was in London.
I’m here of course to take part in the Paris Roubaix Challenge on Saturday, but it made sense, in my head at least, to come over a few days early to get in the mood, as it were. Watching the Scheldeprijs race has certainly done that. By the bucket load.
I still get goose bumps the first time I see a couple of team cars and buses when coming to races like this one. Due to the race completing several laps of a finishing circuit, it meant we had several opportunities to watch the race. So we made the most of this and watched the race pass us several times, once in the feedzone which if you’ve never experience up close is something to behold – soigneurs trying to spot their riders and hand them up a bottle must be one of the hardest jobs in cycling – and something I highly recommend.
To cap it all we flashed our press passes at the marshals on the finish straight and gained access to the area just past the finish line and podium, and set up camp with the gaggle of photographers and soigneurs (each ready with a backpack full of fizzy drinks, recovery products and water for their respective riders) that always cluster reach to catch the riders the moment they finish.
We watched the race unfold over the last few kilometres, the lead constantly changing as no one team seemed able to take charge, the heart-stopping crash just metres from the line and the euphoria as Mark Cavendish erupted from the group to take the race win, his third Scheldeprijs victory. The sound of people thumping the advertising hoardings attached to the barriers lining the course was deafening.
Then, as the riders slowed after crossing the finish line to be greeted by a wall of press, I enjoyed the rare opportunity to see the riders in their first moments of recovery, the 200km of racing clearly visible in their faces, in their eyes, the dust covering their exposed skin, chests expanding and contracting at a rapid rate as they let their heart rates slow down.
One rider collapsing over their handlebars, letting his head sink into his arms as his soigneur opens a can of fizzy drink. It’s downed in one long, thirsty swig. The rider rubs his eyes, looks into the far distance, then clips in to his pedals and painfully rolls away into the melee, looking for his team bus.
It was quite an experience. One I won’t forget in a hurry.