The MRC invites a small team of young athletes each year to take part in the Gent marathon in the Flanders region of Belgium. This 20km race is a considerable challenge for mostly aged under 16, and who for the most part are not yet ranked in division 3 or above which would give them regular experience of racing over this distance. In recent years, the race has also seen entries from the best Belgian juniors, including world and European junior medalists.
This year our team was comprised of the following athletes:-
JUNIOR MEN C1 Adrian Meikle-Briggs, Ben Phillips (both Richmond)
JUNIOR MEN K1 Matt Hayward (Norwich), Timo Morris (Falcon), Joe Petersen (Banbury), Ben Powell (Richmond), Harry Shearer (Norwich), James Smithson (Leamington), Declan Strong (Chelmsford), Josh Westwood (Wey), Owen White (Chelmsford) , Guy Willoughby (Addlestone)
JUNIOR LADIES K1 Charlotte Avery (Chelmsford), Rose Blackman (Gailey), Ava Dale (Falcon), Flo Duffield (Norwich), Bronte Holden (Fowey), Laura Ruff (Royal), Lily Wong (Richmond) and Rebekah Solway (Elmbridge)
Invitations are based on the commitment and performances observed at winter training days and local/regional time trials, which should have made this winter’s list tough to choose due to the high winds and flooding that disrupted our events throughout the winter. But when it came down to looking for performances, there was plenty to choose from with successful training days in several regions, races like the Essex Winter Series and Wey’s Hare & Hounds, early Hasler races and even the Watersides. In the event it was very difficult to reduce the list to 20 athletes who had not been invited to the race before.
This year’s race had been postponed from the usual late March to late May, which held the promise of better conditions than the driving snow and headwind of last year. Rain had been forecast but in the event it was suntan weather. The 12 mile race involved a lap of the Gent regatta lake, followed by two laps of the Leie canal which forms a loop around parts of the city.
With most of the team arriving that the course on Friday afternoon, we were able to paddle a lap of the river section to get a feel for the water and learn key parts of the course. The benefits of this might sound flimsy, but on this course the water gets very choppy behind a group, so sections of the course are easy to lose time or energy on, and others offer tactical advantage if you are familiar with them. It was telling that the four athletes who had exams on the Friday morning in the UK, and who had arrived too late to paddle the course on Saturday, suffered from both the stresses of the Friday and lack of preparation on the course.
The junior boys race start was second off, immediately after the senior men, and included the current Belgian national champion Daan Cox, and Niels Verduyckt, whose father Erik has his own well-stocked trophy cabinet. Josh Westwood (Wey) made a strong start with the Belgian Cox, and after a lap of the regatta course they had broken clear, with Verduyckt and Joe Petersen (Banbury) in pursuit, closely followed by Declan Strong (Chelsmford), Ben Powell (Richmond) and Timo Morris (Falcon)
The Belgian Cox was able to break away and win by a minute from Josh, with Verduyckt some 4 minutes back. Declan finished well in 4th, Joe 5th with Timo and Ben close behind in 6th and 7th.
The girls’ K1 race started with the boys’ C1 and senior women’s K1. On a bumpy course, Elmbridge’s Rebekah Solway quickly found her way to the front with a couple of Belgians and Chelmsford’s Charlotte Avery and Royal’s Laura Ruff. Rebekah used a quick first portage to break away from the group and establish a lead of over a minute by the finish.
The front runners at the first portage were closely followed by Ava Dale (Falcon), Rose Blackman (Gailey), Lily Wong (Richmond) and Bronte Holden (Fowey)
After a hard first lap of the bumpy water of the Leie canal the order had changed, with Rebekah ahead of Charlotte, followed by Lily, Rose and Laura.
At the front end of the race, Rebekah Solway managed to break away and win from a couple of senior Belgians, with Charlotte Avery the second junior and Lily Wong close behind in third, a highly impressive performance for a 14 year old. Rose Blackman followed in fourth and Laura Ruff fifth.
Adrian Meikle-Briggs and Ben Phillips (both Richmond) had a difficult job in their C1s on such a bumpy course which seemed at times to demand more steering than power on the stroke. They raced together to over half way, before Adrian managed to break away on the final lap.
The team travelled back to the UK on Saturday evening, and it was impressive to see so many of the athletes take part in Reading’s Hasler and assessment races the following day. The qualities of future international athletes are there for all to see.
Thanks very much indeed to the coaching and support team of Katie Williams, Claire and Phil Gunney, Sarah Akerman and Tom Daniels.
And extra thanks to Bruce Blackman and Ian Hayward, who volunteered to pick up the athletes taking exams and bring them all the way to Gent (or is it Ghent?) for the weekend. Your long drive, and short night’s sleep in a tent in a wet field was appreciated by the young athletes.
James Smythe, team manager