Showdown in the Belgian Ardennes.. From a Special Correspondent..
Halesowen Academy Racing Team were invited at the last minute to go to Belgium to participate in the Philippe Gilbert Classic, a two day stage race for Juniors in the region that the recently retired World Tour Professional calls home. Their trip was supported by the Rayner Foundation Gateway Scheme.
We received this report from their Sports Director/Manager (and Journalist) Will Fotheringham
"I said in a previous post that the Junior Tour of Ireland was our biggest race of the year, but that was quickly out of date. A few weeks after the JTOI we received a late invite to the Philippe Gilbert Juniors two-day in the Belgian Ardennes, our first venture into UCI racing. It was to prove way above the level of our previous races, and it was heartwarming to see how the boys rose to the challenge.
Six riders travelled, all of them with experience of the Junior Tour, while Tomos Pattinson’s results in other UCI races this year was invaluable in getting us the invite. Before we’d even got to the start, we’d been reminded that we were in bike-mad Belgium when, driving along the motorway from Ghent to Brussels, a driver in a rather smart car overtook the team car then slowed down so that he could video it (while driving) as we passed him again. The clue: he had a Mapei sticker on his rear windscreen, so he was either a fan or an employee.
The race start was in the dramatic surroundings of the magnificent chateau at Harzé, south of Liège, with the teams called to the podium one by one and presented to the crowd by a “speaker”, Tour de France style. There were 30 teams, 15 from Belgium and 15 “foreign”, including development teams from WorldTour and ProConti squads such as UnoX, Ag2R, Lotto-Soudal, Total Energy and Intermarché, with the national champions of France, Belgium and the UK all present.
Of the two days, stage one was the “gentler” introduction, 82 kilometres consisting of a run out on main roads before two and a half laps of a hilly finish circuit, with a technical descent before the final draggy hill up to the line. Drawn car 20, we didn’t see much of the race other than the steady stream of riders going out of the back from kilometre one, and the steady stream of riders trying to get back on through the convoy.
As a guest in the car, helping to ease me into the niceties of being a DS on the road at this level, was Tim Harris, formerly Bahrain Victorious Classics DS, now with EF Education; he and his partner Jos are heavily involved with the Rayner Foundation which, as with our trip to Ireland, had offered some financial support for the team.
Good timing then when Joe Brookes sprinted across the line in third place behind France’s Noa Isidore, who has clocked up nearly 20 top 10 places in races at this level, and Belgian Victor Hannes, another habitué at this level. This was a spectacular result for Joe in his first ever UCI race and it made up for the bad luck he had suffered in Ireland in July. Close behind in the group of 85 were Tomos and Aaron Mansell.
The following afternoon the remaining 120 riders faced a 118km stage which was as demanding as anything I’ve seen outside the Alps and Pyrenees, a concentrated succession of massive climbs and high-speed technical descents interspersed with brief spells of valley road, culminating in two climbs of La Redoute in the final six kilometres – the professional Liège-Bastogne-Liège makes do with only one. What this meant was that the riders had to concentrate almost constantly on maintaining position and refuelling, with barely any space for relaxation. There was a steady flow of crashes, mostly minor, with Aaron getting caught up in one but finding his way back to the group with remarkable speed. Positioned at car 3 in the convoy thanks to Joe’s mega ride of the day before, we had a grandstand view…
Behind a four-rider break including British champion Zac Walker, there was a relentless process of elimination from about 45km in, with big groups of riders constantly getting dropped and attempting to get on through the convoy. Aaron hung on well until three climbs out and at least made it to La Redoute. By the summit of the Cote de la Vequée with about 20km remaining, the peloton was down to just 16, including Tom, with Joe bridging soon after with another rider. This was another “yes baby!” moment in the team car, as we were proven to have two of the 20 strongest riders in the race. But better was to come.
About 30 riders bridged back to the small main group just before La Redoute, but the main fight was always going to be between the riders who had made the pace up La Vequée, and when the lead groups sprinted it out the final time, Tom ran in sixth, and Joe 13th, with their previous day’s efforts meaning they ended up 6th and 10th overall respectively. It was a moment to savour, particularly as Joe will now move up to U23. After that, it was a matter of dope control, cleaning out the free buffet at the Channel Tunnel terminal, and looking closely at which of the riders around our two would be riding for which WorldTour development team in 2023.
The trip was made possible with the support of parents Chris Brookes and Ben Richards, with Andy Turner of ATP Performance https://atpperformance.uk and Patrick Fotheringham also helping out at the race; thanks to all for their time and commitment.
Sponsors Secret Training https://www.secret-training.com provided nutrition support, while storage systems from BikeStow https://bikestow.com made the bikes look good before stage starts; additional thanks to our sponsors Mapei UK, BroadBean deli, Swinnerton Cycles and ProVision custom clothing. The trip was also supported like our Irish venture by the Gateway scheme of the Rayner Foundation https://www.theraynerfoundation.org to whom our massive thanks.
Quite the end to the season, deep breath and time for cross…"