In His Own Words: Sport Director Martin Barras Previews Westhoek

Fri 19 Apr 2013

Dwars door de Westhoek – it’s the Classics season finale. Some riders may reflect on the previous couple of months and remember with a sense of disgust and loathing of being hammered by frozen rain, pelted by snow and rattled by cobbles. Other riders will think back and remember having some of their most glorious days on the bike in those atrocious conditions.

Westhoek starts and finishes in Boezinge, a city destroyed during the battles of WWI. It’s only fitting that it is in this area where the peloton will fight for the last victory of the Classics. ORICA-AIS enters Westhoek hardened by the arduous spring season and ready for one more battle on the demanding Belgian roads.

In his own words, Sport Director Martin Barras previews Westhoek with his colourful and animated commentary.

For all of us, except Emma [Johansson], this will be our first time racing Westhoek. Normally this would be a cause for mild panic and apoplexy. But once you get your composure back, it becomes pretty simple.

We are in Belgium. It's April, and we have another one day race. We have been doing this for the last two months, and Westhoek will mark the end of the Classics season. We are battle hardened and still very eager to race.

This is only the fourth edition of Westhoek, but the scenario is eerily familiar. We are deep in Flanders and the folks here are barking mad about cycling. The entire Emma Johansson Fan Club (from Zingem, in Flanders, of course) will be there all noisy and supportive of our girl. We will get our numbers from a smoky cafe at the local football club where the locals will only get their nose up from their beer and ashtray to look at the riders as they walk in. In this way they assess their form. The riders will then assemble and teams will present themselves at the local square. Here people mix freely with the teams mumbling amongst themselves about their kits, their equipment and make a further assessment of their form.

Then we get called on and the race will start. It’s 125 kilometres of brutish concrete roads, interspaced with ten cobbled sectors (including the finishing straight) and four "hellingens" - that's hills in Flemish. If you think it sounds bad, then know that the other word used around here for hills is "muur", which translates into wall. Add an endless supply of traffic furniture (the infamous "form f..kers") and throw 30 teams and 180 riders in the mix, and well, you get the picture!

A nice addition to the program is the inclusion in the race bible of the train schedule for the various crossings dotting the course. I am sure this will get a mention in the team meeting!

Since the hellingens are found between 16 and 41 kilometres, you can count on the bunch exploding into many small groups that will then spend the best part of the last 85 flattish kilometres trying to reform into bigger groups. If the composition of the front group is just right, those smaller groups will try in vain to make contact.

The palmarès of Westhoek is made almost exclusively of Flandrians and Dutchies! This is a style of racing particular to this area and one needs a very good understanding of the terrain and race conditions to perform well. It is conducive to a group finish.

We are taking a full mix of riders. Emma has the knowledge of Flanders and will be backed by Spratty [Amanda Spratt], who is also a seasoned campaigner (and a winner) in Flanders. Gracie Elvin has prospered in this style of racing since turning pro and will be very reliable, particularly if it comes to a breakaway getting to the finish. We are covering all sprint options by taking not one but two sprinters – Mel [Melissa Hoskins] and Nettie [Annette Edmondson]. The ever ebullient Sungeun Gu will complete our squad. She has been training in Italy since her second place at EnergieWacht less than two weeks ago and assures me her legs are fully recharged with "Sushi Power"!

After a highly disciplined race this week at Flèche Wallonne, expect to see us take many chances in Westhoek and present a more "unbridled" style of racing. This way we hope to justify the judgment of the locals who will look at us in Westhoek, put their noses back in their beer and assess us to be "in forme".

ORICA-AIS for Dwars door de Westhoek:

Amanda Spratt (@amandaspratt)
Annette Edmondson (@nettieedmondson)
Emma Johansson (@emmaprocyclist)
Gracie Elvin (@gracieelvin)
Melissa Hoskins (@melissamhoskins)
Sungeun Gu (@eun1709)