Last Sunday was the day our Strong athlete Imogen Cotter had been working hard for and dreaming off: her first Belgian victory. Starting in a very strong field, riding against World Tour teams - among them Belgian champion Jesse Vandenbulcke (Lotto Soudal Ladies) - Imogen had no idea today would be the day. We wanted to know all about that unforgettable race day. No better way to find out than letting Imogen tell it in her own words.
A rocky road
Imogen starts off looking back at quite a rocky past: "Since I began cycling back in March 2017, I have been putting in a lot of hard work with very little result. In 2019, I finally started to see some progress, when I placed second at Nationals, and when I made it to the semi-finals of Zwift Academy – meaning I had a 1 in 10 chance of a World Tour contract".
After noticing significant progress, Imogen was hoping to turn things around. That's when bad luck came creeping in: "I broke my sternum and my arm last year, so that put a lot of my race plans out the window, and I left the 2019 season frustrated that I didn’t have a chance to show what I was capable of".
After the 2019 season, she put her hopes in 2020 - not foreseeing a world-wide pandemic and lockdown. Her 2-week stay in Ireland turned into a 3,5 months stay at home.
"We were allowed to exercise within a 2 km radius, which increased after some time to a 5 km radius. This very small radius meant that I didn’t really have any other option than to train indoors every single day. I was worried I might have lost too much fitness and that I would be left behind when I got back to Belgium".
From indoor training in Ireland to racing in Belgium
"My coach and I made a plan, and the week before I got back to racing, I did some testing – and set some new personal best! Lockdown hadn’t made me weaker after all – quite the opposite", says Cotter.
A few races into the season, she gained some confidence in Herzele where she was able to get some climbing in. "That race gave me a lot of confidence, because I found myself towards the front of the peloton and I felt the same good feeling I had in my 2019 races".
Last Sunday, Imogen was feeling ready at the start after calling her coach the day before. "I played it a bit smarter in the race. I even felt lazy because I was doing so little", explains Imogen. After closing the gap on a rider that took off, they got caught again by the peloton. "My legs were feeling tired", is what she recalls from that moment.
"With about 1.5 laps to go, a gap opened in front of me, and I just went for it without thinking. After about 1km, I crossed the line and started my final lap with a gap of 16 seconds. I settled into a rhythm. I tried to stay focused on what I was doing. Every time I would start to think ‘I could win this!!!!’, I would say to myself ‘Stay in the moment!".
The peloton however got very close, and towards the last kilometer, they got Imogen in their sight. "I could see them rounding the corner behind me so I just put my head down and went for it. I slowed up once I knew I had the win, and rolled over the line. I couldn’t believe I had won. I was so sure someone must have been ahead of me that I didn’t even throw my hands up to celebrate".
When it all comes together
"It has been a goal of mine for so long to win a race in Belgium, and I couldn’t believe I had actually done it", says Imogen. She reflects on the changes she made this year: "I changed coach to Panache Coaching and have seen steady increases in fitness. A huge thing I have always overlooked was my recovery strategy after sessions and races. This year, with the help of Strong Supplies, I’ve finally nailed that".
Imogen is ready for many more victories to come, hopefully getting that finish picture right next time. Fun fact: on Saturday - the day before race day - Imogen had practiced with her boyfriend what they would do when they crossed the finish line, unaware I'd all be a reality 24 hours later.
Big congrats, Imogen!
Image © 2020 Paul Hinninck