Martine Bras had a long and distinguished cycling career, racing everything but especially the Spring Classics, so it was fantastic to talk to her about what it’s like for riders preparing for the season, and especially Saturday’s 2016 Omloop het Nieuwsblad. Our conversation included Martine’s transition from professional cyclist to motherhood, how the sport changed since she started, who she’d put into her fantasy DS team, and much more. All of that is in the audio interview to listen to (or download directly from Soundcloud) but you can also read part of the interview below as well.
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ProWomensCycling: I always think the Spring Classics were your specialty – would you say that?
Martine Bras: Oh yes. I would train all winter long for the Spring Classics, and I think I forgot a little bit that there was something after them as well! Because they’re really need my house, and I worked so hard all winter, and was really looking forward to starting to race, I think that’s why I was good at them, because I was so passionate about it.
PWC: I always thought of you as a very attacking rider, and the Spring Classics reward that.
MB: Oh, but in the Spring Classics, I never attacked, because I knew I was not the strongest rider in the bunch, because I wasn’t really built to be a Classics rider, I was more a rider who could go uphill better. In the other races I liked to attack, but in the Spring Classics I was really focused about what the race was all about, and the important points. So in the Omloop het Nieuwsblad, you should not attack before the Côte de Trieu. So I always went to watch the race three or four times before we raced, I trained on the parcours, and see what was different. I was more focused at that time of the year, and I was able to read the race and stay calm to the finale.
PWC: What are the most special things about the Spring Classics?
MB: In Belgium, these races are really big, they are really famous. Everybody knows the Omloop het Nieuwsblad, everybody knows the Tour of Flanders, Flèche Wallonne. I knew them when I was a little girl andwatched them on television with my dad every year, and then when I got older and started racing myself, suddenly this race that I remembered from being a child was on the calendar, and I was able to ride it. And that was like a little dream come true. I really enjoyed the racing in that area, with the cobblestones, and all those little climbs, because I was really good in those short, steep climbs, so my love for them grew and grew and grew, but it started when I was watching them on television.
PWC: What do you think the riders will be feeling like, counting down the days to the race? What does it feel like when you’re waiting for the season to start?
MB: You’re just really excited, and you can’t wait – it’s like when you’re a little girl, and your birthday’s in just a few days, that’s how I felt. I was really happy, but also really nervous, feeling a lot of stress. When the race was on Saturday, I was really nervous on Friday, nobody could talk to me, I was really grumpy and had to check my bike ten times, and I felt sick. And then on the day of the race I woke up and felt really confident, really good, and I knew I would have a good race, because I felt very strong mentally, and my body felt really good.
So all the girls will feel differently – some will feel scared, because maybe they feel they’re not good enough yet, and some will be scared because it’s going to be a cold day, and some will be scared because they haven’t ridden it before. All the girls will have different feelings, nobody goes into it with the same feelings, everyone goes into that race with a different emotion, but a few of them will be really confident, and really excited.
When I was riding with Team Gauss, the team manager Luisiana Pegoraro once called me Bambi, because of how I looked when I was scared before a race. She said “I could see it in your eyes, that you’re scared”. So I always remembered that, and if you go to the race on Saturday, if you look in the riders’ eyes, maybe you’ll see little Bambis! You’ll also see really confident girls who are really, really happy to start, and just want to go, and to get to those hills. If everybody felt the same, it would be a different race. It’s not only about the physical strength of a rider, it’s also their mental strength.
PWC: It’s such a hard race, and it’s such a big field too. And some of the riders, it’s the first time they’ve ever raced in Europe. I went there one year, and afterwards some of them just looked shell-shocked.
MB: They’ve never done it, and they also have no idea what it’s like. It’s not as hard as the Ronde van Vlaanderen, but it comes really close.
PWC: When I spoke to you back in 2011, I remember you saying how incredibly different women’s cycling has been, just during the time you were racing.
MB: Absolutely. I’ve seen it grow from almost nothing to now, when there are so many races live on television, and people are working so hard to get it bigger and better, and it’s nice to see. I had a few years when I was able to be a full professional rider, but I also had years when I had to work alongside my cycling career, so I’ve seen all of what happened, and I’m really proud of all the people who worked so hard to make it change, like Marianne Vos, and the sponsors who put more and more money into it,
PWC: You were on Dolmans cycling team the year they came into the sport, and now Boels-Dolmans is this huge team.
MB: The team is kind of a company right now, it’s really well organised. It’s nice to see how it started as a club team and now it’s such a big team. But it’s also good to see teams like Wiggle High5, it’s great to see what Rochelle Gilmore has done with the team, I rally admire her for that. And Ronny Lauke, with his new team Canyon-SRAM, he doesn’t give up, he keeps fighting, and he has a really good team this year. And ORICA-AIS, they keep building and building to get the team better and stronger – and you see that everyone who’s in cycling at the top level keeps fighting hard for it, and it pays off.
PWC: Is it strange, watching the races – because you know all these riders, and have ridden with them?
MB: Not really, I still enjoy it. I still miss it, every day, because it was 24 years of my life, it’s not something you just put away in a box and put in your attic, but I love watching it. I’m really nervous when the races start, and I have my favourite riders – I’m like the mummies and daddies, or the fans who watch it!
I follow all the riders I’ve always been racing with – like Annemiek van Vleuten is still a really good friend, and I wish the best for her, especially in the Olympic year, so I stay involved because they’re also still my friends.
PWC: So who do you think will win Omloop het Nieuwsblad?
MB: I’m not sure about the form of Lizzie Armitstead, but I think it will be really good – she’s absolutely one of my favourites because she’ll be wearing that World Champion’s jersey for the first time, and she’ll really want to show that jersey. – and she loves the race as well. But she didn’t race the Ladies Tour of Qatar, and maybe she’s not on her top form, and might focus more on Flanders. But I believe she can win.
But Boels-Dolmans also have Ellen van Dijk, and she’s always very good at the beginning of the year. So Ellen and Lizzie will be their top riders, and they have such a strong team, they will have my five stars to win.
If I look to the other teams, Trixi Worrack [Canyon-SRAM] has always been very good at this race as well, and with her winning the Qatar, and having a really good, motivated team, she’s one of the riders who can win.
The Omloop het Nieuwsblad is always nice, because it’s the beginning of the season, it could be anybody, so many riders could have such good form, but haven’t shown themselves in any racing yet this year – like the year Tiffany Cromwell won, I never thought she could win that race, but she was on really good form, and she just smashed it.
PWC: A lot of my friends are putting together their virtual DS teams – who would you recommend they put in? And are there any young riders people should watch out for, do you think?
MB: I think it’s too hard for the new riders coming up from the juniors, to be top in the first year. It used to be possible, but not any more. So I don’t think young riders will be winning the Tour of Flanders, or Het Nieuwsblad, I think you have to look at the riders who are already there in the Spring Classics – like Elisa Longo Borghini [Wiggle High5], who is always good in the spring, and she loves it. She’s not a typical Italian rider – she can handle the cobblestones really well, and she’s good at solo riding – and she has this great team around her.
And you always have to watch out for Emma Johansson [Wiggle High5], especially in her final year. She will be really focused and I hope she has a good year. I would put her in my team just out of respect for her, and because I believe if she really wants it, she can do it. And with the help of the team – in ORICA, Emma didn’t have enough support.
Annemiek van Vleuten [ORICA] wants to have a really good year, especially after all that happened last year, with her bad crash. She feels really good at the moment, and she’s trained and worked really hard, so I’d put her in my team as well, just because of her character. When everybody quits, she just keeps on going and going, so she’s always one of the riders you have to put in your team.
And we haven’t even talked about Rabo-Liv yet! With Marianne Vos coming back, and I believe she will have a good year. She’s back on track, and she’s back in her team and she’s training.
She will be happy that she can be racing again, and that makes you stronger, so I believe she will come back very strong. And it’s not only Marianne of course – there are so many strong riders in her team. Like Anna van der Breggen, for sure she will be one of my favourites for this weekend.
PWC: She had such a brilliant year last year – and the way she won La Course by Le Tour de France was so beautiful!
MB: That’s just who she is. She just does it – she just goes, and just believes she can do it. And she’s very, very talented.
PWC: And I liked it, because sometimes people joke that Anna can’t sprint…
MB: If everybody says it’s going to be a sprint, and you’re not a sprinter and you believe what everybody says, you’d better not start, because you’ve ruled yourself out anyway. If you think “Everybody says it’s going to be a sprint, and I’m not a sprinter, so I’m just going to attack”, who’s going to close the gap? Especially in La Course, when everybody lost a few of their good riders because of the crashes.
PWC: So my final question – if people are new to women’s cycling, which ones would you recommend they go to?
MB: Well if you really want to have a fantastic, amazing, great day, you should go to the Flèche Wallonne and see it from the Mur de Huy. The atmosphere is so amazing, and you can see the men pass, then the women start, the men pass another time, the women pass and finish, and you have big screens to watch the men’s race on, but the women’s race is really active, and they’re talking about it the whole time.
And when they go up the Mur, and all those people are there… it’s one of the best races to go and watch, not only for the women, but also for the men’s race. It’s just hard to get there – when you go by car, just go very early! There are traffic jams – but it’s really good to go to, and it’s one of those days where the weather is almost always really good. And there’s so much to see – the women start on the Mur as well, so you can see all the stars, a lot of preparation, and you can see them finish, and everything you want to see in just one place, so that would be my number one.
Flanders is my favourite race to go to, but you should take your car and during the race go from one place to another – or book a minivan with me, and I’ll show you around, that’s always possible! That’s one of the races you really have to go and watch at different points, because at the finish there’s not so much to see. It’s an experience, because it’s Queen’s Day, the biggest holiday in Holland, and the Tour of Flanders in Belgium! It’s like everybody is over there. All those people, and everybody is happy, and it’s a really nice race. And it starts and finishes in Oudenaarde, and you can go and see the Tour of Flanders museum, and do the sportif the day before, so you can make a really nice weekend out of it.
Spring Classics are nice to see, but they start at one point and finish at another, so if you’re not familiar with the area, it’s hard to see the women’s race. So that’s why you should go and watch the race and two or three points, and bring a radio, so you can follow the race on the radio as well.
But if you’ve never seen women’s cycling, it’s really nice to go and watch a criterium, because then you can see them passing so many times, and you can see what cycling is all about. And Tielt-Winge on Sunday is a really nice race to go and watch, because they do four or five final laps, so you can see them pass a few times. But if you really want the big experience, you should go and watch the Giro Rosa. But it can be hard – and with the men’s races you have a lot of organisations that will show you around, but with the women’s races you have to do it all yourself.
PWC: So everyone should follow you on twitter for Omloop het Nieuwsblad!
MB: I will tweet a lot this Saturday, because I’ll be on the spot. I like to tweet a little bit differently, things that interest me – I won’t tweet everything that’s happening in the race, because there are a lot of people who’ll do that, but I’ll tweet those little things about cycling – like seeing what new bikes are in the peloton, because I’m really interested in that.
Make sure you follow Martine on her twitter, especially during Omloop het Nieuwsblad on Saturday 27th February. You can find out more about Martine’s history in cycling in this interview I did with her back in 2011, on Podium Café.
Here’s my guide to following the 2016Omloop het Nieuwsblad and watching Omloop van het Hageland (Tielt-Winge) – and make sure you’re following the race on their twitter, instagram and website, and check out all the action with the #OhN hashtag.
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