Kim De Baat, Kaat Hannes, Maaike Polspoel and Nathalie Verschelden are all part of the Lensworld-Kuota cycling team, one of Belgium’s top ladies teams, which also has quite a few international top cyclists among its ranks. They always train on the public road, but this is not without risks.
“When you ride many thousands of kilometres every year, the question is not ‘if’ but ‘when’ you will ever become involved in an accident”, that is the unanimous assessment of Kim, Kaat, Maaike and Nathalie. “You may ride ultra-defensively, you cannot always predict the actions of other road users, let alone influence them”, says Kim. She rides with a racing bike for almost 20 years already and knows what she talks about.
“A car door that is slammed open is the no. 1 nightmare among cyclists”, they confirm in unison. You can hear from their persuasive language that they speak from experience. The number of times that thanks to their own alertness they could only just avoid an accident, cannot be counted on the fingers of one hand anymore. Nathalie Verschelden: “When you then only just succeed in making an emergency stop, the driver in question will always react with an apologetic Sorry, but I hadn’t seen you.” “Parked cars are tricky. Before you know it, a door is slammed open and you have to brake abruptly. You’re in an accident before you know it. That’s why we are continuously looking for eye contact through the rear-view mirrors of parked cars. The entries and exits of highways are other ‘black spots’ where extra attention is required.” Nathalie has already been hit by a car once. Also Kaat Hannes, national Belgian champion in 2016, is aware of the fact that her favourite sport is not without dangers. “Often, other road users completely misjudge the speed at which we move in traffic. They think they have still time to make a quick turn before we arrive, which – unfortunately – is usually not the case. Then we have to slam on the brakes to be able to avoid an accident.”
INCREASED VISIBILITY = INCREASED SAFETY
Maaike Polspoel got a wake-up call when she started riding a motorbike herself. “I soon realised how difficult it sometimes is for people to see me without having a large vehicle around me. Therefore, accessories that increase visibility generate considerable added value. Besides, I feel safer myself when I am wearing them.” She also detects similarities between cyclists and motorcyclists in traffic. “The biggest problem is that other road users often can’t make a good estimation of the speed at which we move. They see that we are still far behind without taking into account that only a couple of moments later we may already have come pretty close.”
Kim sees the rush of daily life as the biggest threat in traffic. “People are always stressed and in a hurry these days. They have no patience to wait a little while, for instance when leaving an exit or turning into an entry, and try at all cost to still make that turn just before you’re there. Absolutely life-threatening sometimes!” Also when training behind a motorcycle, it has happened on several occasions that other road users did not see Kim: “Now, when I am hidden behind the broad back of a pacer, I wear extra visible clothing and accessories.”
“As (semi-)professional athletes, we often leave early in the morning for an endurance training of 5 to 6 hours. In the spring or autumn, I often leave in the morning twilight to come back just before darkness sets in. At such times, I am sometimes not all too visible in the team’s regular clothing. I am aware of this and try to stick out as much as possible by using accessories. Team management also insists during training camps to increase our visibility. They also made wearing fluorescent accessories compulsory. Which I mostly do on my own initiative anyway. For instance in winter, when I join cyclocross tours to keep fit. When we ride to the starting line, it is often still dark. Then it is very important to wear clothes and accessories that increase your visibility. Even if you only come across the postman and people driving to a bakery, accidents are always waiting to happen”, says Kaat with a smile without underestimating danger. She is right there because surveys have shown that 90% of all accidents involving cyclists is partly caused by poor visibility.
CLOSED OFF CIRCUITS?
Although all ladies are well aware they are practising a dangerous sport, they aren’t about to stop. “Only if they would decide that cyclists must train on closed off circuits, it will stop for me”, say both Kim, Nathalie and Maaike resolutely. “That may be fun for once, but it will soon become boring. It is exactly the charm of our sport that you come in different places. During your training sessions, you see such diverse environments. If you would always have to cycle at the same places, the motivation to train will soon evaporate. Only Kaat is not really opposed to the idea of training sessions on closed off circuits. “If all others decide to stop, I may win a bit more races”, she smiles.
To prepare for the cycling season and some important races, the ladies regularly go on training camps to Spain. “You have less separated bicycle paths than in Flanders but motorists always respect the distance of 1.5 metre when passing a cyclist. It is really a relief to train on Spanish roads”, admits Kim. “But if you make yourself visible in traffic by wearing fluorescent clothing, you gain respect from other road users in Belgium as well. You can feel then that they assume much more often a more positive attitude towards you as a cyclist.”
Finally, the ladies do believe that so-called “evening races”, which are already well established in the Netherlands but are still barely known in Belgium, may create added value. “If you’re in a period of your calendar with but a few races, you sometimes need specific training sessions to work on your power and speed. You should be able to imitate real racing situations. This would be very dangerous on the public road. For this, evening races are a good alternative, with small races on closed off industrial sites, for instance, where there are no other activities in the evening”, concludes Kim. “As long as we can alternate these evening races with ‘ordinary’ training sessions on the public road”, the others quickly add.