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Julie Van De Velde is struggling.
Way off the back of stage five of the Giro Rosa she looks exhausted. Her pedal stroke is awkward, and salt from sweat stains her shorts along every seam.
Though fairly new to the sport. after switching from athletics, this is her terrain. She can climb. Her best results come in hilly races and 17th overall in her first Giro Rosa last year proves she knows what she’s doing.
She takes water from the race director’s car and pours it over herself, drenching her red and black Lotto-Soudal kit, but you can see hope is fading.
Then she stops. And like the grim reaper, the broom wagon driver is hovering.
“I don’t know what to do,” she says. But the man takes her bike and she is gone. Alone with her thoughts.
“He spoke a little bit of French,” she says the next day from the airport, where she was waiting to fly home to Belgium. “I didn’t cry, but I was close.
“It’s really disappointing, as a rider you never want to give up and you feel like you’re letting your teammates down. I couldn’t do better, unfortunately.
At races I get into some privileged places. My first experience in a race car was behind Elisa Longo Borghini when she won the Tour of Flanders in 2015. Three years later I was so close to Anna van der Breggen I could see every fibre of her calf muscles straining as she rode through the wall of noise that is Via Santa Caterina on the way to winning Strade Bianche.
But being at the back is different.
Less than 100m after we cross the start the car stops. I don’t speak Italian and the driver doesn’t speak English, so I wait. Then the FDJ Nouvelle Aquitaine Futuroscope car flies past with Brodie Chapman stuck to its fender.
In the neutral start the race would wait if a rider suffered a mechanical, but today there is no neutral and it’s game on from the flag. But the Australian is strong and she’s soon back among the cars.
Then she’s there again. A series of issues and misunderstandings mean she is on a team mate’s bike, with no support and the prospect of 90km alone.
“I had to fend for myself and try to finish the race within the time limit,” she explains. “I wanted to help my teammates wherever I could, and that’s pretty motivating, that if you don’t ride as hard as you can now you might be able to ride the rest of the stages.”
She even got within touching distance of the race convoy, but had put in such an effort was unable to make contact as the climbing started. “First I was calm and then I was super angry and then I had to deal with the situation at hand,” she says. “I thought ‘OK, now I know I’m into a long day into a headwind and it was seemingly for no reward.
“I had actually had a few thoughts, like I wonder what this feels like if it’s Annemiek van Vleuten winning the world championships, up the road for 100k solo. So I had to try and flip my thinking instead of thinking I am actually dead last in the race right now. And I know I can pace myself over a super long effort like that.”
Chapman never stopped fighting from behind. It was a huge effort. We gave her water and encouragement and she battled on.
Around three kilometres from the top she rounded a bend and there was Van De Velde. “I knew something must have been up with her, unwell or injured, because no one’s at the back like that unless something’s direly wrong,” says Chapman, who powered past, the two travelling at vastly differing speeds.
“I thought that maybe I could stay with her and we could get to another group and be safe for the stage, but my body didn’t want to do it anymore,” explains Van De Velde, who had been in a solo breakaway on stage two.
“Since the day before I was feeling sick, I survived that stage but in the evening I couldn’t eat that much, so I was completely empty and I felt sick again, so I think the combination killed me.”
We caught Chapman once more, her effort still the same, out of the saddle on every incline, gears snapping up and down the sprockets, attacking the descents, always working. Team staff had waited at the feed zone and she took two fresh bottles before she finally caught sight of the grupetto with just over 10km to go.
“I was closing in on that little group and I gave it one last dig to get there and it and it was honestly the most relieving thing ever. Moniek [Tenniglo] from Mitchelton-Scott was there and she was like a shining light, I was so delirious by then, so relieved and she said, ‘It’s OK just sit on my wheel, it’s gonna be fine. It was really nice to have her there, I felt I was out there in the wild and then I found my people again.”
Chapman crossed the line 14’19” after stage winner Marianne Vos (CCC-Liv).
Van De Velde hopes to do well in the Ardennes next month.
Cycling makes much of suffering, it props up its winners as the toughest, but sometimes the tough ones aren’t the winners, or even the domestiques who set the pace. Sometimes the toughest riders struggle to make the time limit, and sometimes the tough ones don’t make it.