Shortly after arriving in Deinze on Wednesday morning I bowled up to the Columbia-Highroad team car, tapped on the window and said hello to Brian Holm.
I scanned his face for the trace of a frown and braced myself for the words: ?There?s been a change of plan??
Several weeks ago I suggested the idea of travelling in the Columbia team car at Ghent-Wevelgem and Holm had said yes, provisionally.
The biggest fear was I?d get flicked at the last moment to make way for one of Rolf Aldag?s relatives, or a minor marketing exec from one of the team?s sponsors.
Holm frowned. ?There?s been a change of plan??
Here we go. ?You?re in the back seat. Zabel wants to come with us.?
The back seat? That?ll do me. As long as I can still see the telly on the dashboard.
Then the second biggest fear took over. What if I need the toilet on the way and they don?t stop? Several years ago, I was a passenger in the Linda McCartney team car and Sean Yates resolutely refused to stop, even though I?d told him my bladder was about to pop.
Often, riding in a team car does not offer the fascinating insight it perhaps promises, but I couldn?t have scripted Wednesday better.
CW’s view from the back seat. Sat Nav. Check. Start list taped to dashboard. Check. TV. Check. Brian Holm and Erik Zabel? Check. Let’s go.
Riders were off the back as soon as the race left the neutralised zone, as the wind cut through the bunch. There were anguished expressions as riders battled to shelter between the team cars, trying to battle their way back. The race was barely ten minutes old and these guys were already completely out of it.
Then news that Mark Cavendish had punctured came over the radio and we pulled up behind him. Mark Renshaw had already donated his rear wheel, so the mechanic Nick serviced the Australian and pushed him on his way.
Renshaw?s fight back to the bunch was far from straightforward because already the echelons were forming. There was no bunch to get back to, just a series of groups, some trying desperately to get back, others unable to, and some just riding with a sense of resignation. It was absolute carnage.
At the front, a break of 34 riders formed, Columbia had four in it and after less than an hour?s racing, that was it. The pattern for the day was set in stone. Viewers switching on in the middle of the afternoon to watch the race would have seen the leaders co-operating nicely, and would have watched the chasers giving a good impression of a group trying to close the gap.
But the real drama had happened almost three hours before, out of the view of the television cameras.
Holm told Cavendish and Marcel Sieberg not to panic, that there was still a chance it would come back together. For what seemed like ages the gap hovered around a minute-and-a-half, but up front Cervelo were pressing on.
Then Tom Boonen, one of the riders in the front group, punctured, leaving Quick Step unrepresented. Holm told his four riders in the break not to work, because Quick Step were sure to chase the group and bring it all back together.
Holm?s tone of voice was reassuring. Calm, measured and encouraging. It was all simple stuff, delivered clearly.
The economy of his instructions was surprising, particularly when the consensus is that having riders and managers in constant radio contact means predictable racing. In the main, he let the riders make their decisions, offering only information that could help them make those decisions. ?Two kilometres to the cobbles.? ?Okay, we gonna change direction in three kilometres, then the wind will be from the left.? ?Keep eating and drinking, guys. It?s gonna be a hard day. Don?t forget to drink, even though it?s cold.? ?Gentlemen, we?re going to drop back now, so if you puncture, you have to take neutral service.?
After the joviality before the start, the non-stop mayhem of the first hour of racing, when the car was darting between the groups to take rain jackets, hand out fresh long-sleeve jerseys, dish out bottles and energy bars, the race settled down into a rhythm.
As the race nears its conclusion the atmosphere is business-like. When Aleksandr Kuschynski attacked, Zabel says: ?He?s a good guy to go with. He?s super strong but not so clever.? Zabel meant tactically-speaking.
The second time the race goes over the Kemmelberg, we?re diverted round the climb and sit and wait for the riders to come down the descent. On television, the picture is breaking up a bit, but we can see Edvald Boasson Hagen looking strong.
Edvald Boasson Hagen takes Cycling Weekly’s tactical advice on board as he rides towards Wevelgem.
?That?s it Eddie. Go, go, go,? says Holm over the radio.
As the gap opens, the commissaire car gives Holm permission to move past the chase group to drive behind Boasson Hagen and Kuschynski. As we pass the group, he has a quick word with Marcus Burghardt and George Hincapie. The television screen shows the gap to the leaders is now one minute 25 seconds. Race radio puts the gap at one minute 27.
We pass Bradley Wiggins, the Garmin rider who is trying to reel them back in. ?Two minutes, Bradley, two minutes,? shouts Holm as he passes, one last attempt at mind games, planting a seed of doubt whether it?s going to come back together.
The kilometres tick by and the tension grows. Holm and Zabel both feel it?s in the bag, but they can?t be certain.
With four kilometres to go, we?re pulled to the side of the road by the commissaire?s car to allow the chasing trio to pass. All eyes are glued to the television on the dashboard. Total silence. Boasson Hagen opens the sprint early. Very early.
No one says anything until he crosses the line, then it?s high-fives all round. ?Oh my god, that 200 metres felt like two kilometres,? says Zabel. ?He went so early then. Too early,? says Holm.
?Gentleman, we won the race,? says Holm on the radio, to let the other riders know the result. ?Eddie won. Good job everyone. Great riding.?
Afterwards, Holm?s shoulders visibly relax for the first time in more than five hours. ?At the end of a race it?s so tiring. When I was a rider I thought driving the car was the easy job, but it?s concentration, concentration all the time.?
As for toilet stops ? they took two, and I didn?t need to go either time.
Read the full story of our day with Team Columbia-Highroad in a forthcoming issue of our sister magazine Cycle Sport.