Last week I went back to the races in the Ardennes as a fan. No passes and no privileges, just someone else trying to get a look at the pros, the bikes and to soak up the atmosphere. The ambient story around a race and how it changes from country-to-country is something I was hoping to capture. The more races you attend, a cadence and pattern emerges that seems to be present in all of them no matter where you are, although each will present its own unique personality. Amstel, the Dutch classic, was organized chaos from the start village to the finish. Flèche Wallonne is one of those races that make cycling such a unique sport; how we can get so much access to the stars stuns me. It is the working class race of the Ardennes, the start village sandwiched between a factory and a football stadium. Liege-Bastogne-Liege is ASO getting reading for the Tour. Planned, controlled and everyone kept at arm’s length, at least at the start village. This didn’t seem to stop the riders reaching out to fans, and the course—well that is a whole other story. I pulled a selection of the shots that I got here, but I have enough that I hope to do a book, so that is the plan. Not sure how long it will take, but it is now in the works. More to come on that; in the meantime I would love to hear what you think of the shots.
That bottom right-hand corner of Belgium has a very unique feel, very different to the rest of the country. Let me dispel any myths that Belgium is flat, bar a few bergs. The climbs of the Ardennes are hard enough to test the legs of any of the mountain goats, and the races are long and hard enough to make most race strategies go out the window. In these races, the strongest usually win—they basically wear you down. Their personality carved out of being sandwiched between France, Luxembourg and Belgium has created some not so subtle cycling rivalries. This was demonstrated best when the Nissan/Trek car containing Bruyneel got “bathed” in beer coming up La Redoute, and one drunk young fan removed a nice deep section Bontrager wheel from the roof of the car as a souvenir. Gilbert was born on La Redoute, so the local support is somewhat opinionated, especially about the two brothers from just over the border in Luxembourg.
The weather, not usually a cyclist’s friend in the Ardennes, adds a whole other dimension to riding there. Usually when the drive into a region is marked by a large number of wind turbines, it is a pretty good pointer as to what conditions to expect. This year the low temperatures added to the mix. Standing on La Redoute, the weather was changing so much I started to fear the race would get cut short. We ran into Chris Horner in Brussels airport, on his way back for the Tour of California, who described L-B-L as one of his most epic days on a bike. He abandoned with hands so frozen he couldn’t use his brakes and shifters. Chris Horner is no soft lad. Planning for the weather there is near to impossible. The starts were marked by riders signing on in the sun, then rushing back to the buses to get shells and layers before the neutral rollout. In the space of one 15-minute section at Flèche Wallonne we saw sun – rain – hail – sun. There were numerous stories of riders stranded in the hail too far from team cars on the narrow roads to get shells to cover up, leaving them wet, cold and hungry on some of the hardest parcours in Europe. The site of a cold and bonking Nibali seizing up in the last KMs of L-B-L was hard to watch.
No matter how many times I see Pro riders I am always amazed at how skinny they are. Standing in a cold and damp Markt Square in Maastricht at the start of Amstel Gold, it doesn’t take much to imagine how illness and chest infections can take hold. The young riders on the teams, this maybe their first “big” race, look scared and fiddle with their bikes much to the annoyance of their mechanics. Others (the workers) look resigned to the 265 km of pain that lies ahead. The favorites don’t reveal themselves to the last minute, and bustle their way up to sign-on with their game-faces on (apart from Chris Horner who was riding around smiling and saying hello to everyone, the gent that he is).
There were a few nice moments before the off. Seeing Thomas Dekker welcomed back amongst the Dutch fans, a young guy on a second chance and looking glad to have it. Seeing how Oscar Freire, after leaving Rabobank, is still held in the hearts of the Dutch fans. It is hard to stop cheering for a guy after he’s been doing it for 8 years, and this was before he launched himself off the front in the finale in what is probably his last time up the Cauberg. And lastly, how a shiny new bike never gets old. A Pro build with a slammed stem just looks good. Ten of them lined up against each other, looks even better.
It has been talked about before how accessible the stars of this sport are. Maybe more surprising is how accessible the tools of the trade are. Bikes are touched, lifted and left exposed until the riders throw their leg over. Yesterday we drove around a lot of the Flèche and Liege courses, my first time in this part of the racing world. The Ardennes are hilly, very hilly, and the wind blows a lot, and seems to always be in your face. One down, two to go. I am going to have a lot of photo editing to do….
Hennie Kuiper winning Milan San Remo in 1985.
This Saturday is one of my favorite races, Milan San Remo. Last year I was lucky enough be there in Milan and on the Poggio with the kind hospitality of Specialized, which made me fall in love with the race and the Tifosi even more. Growing up it was one of the few races that we got live on Irish television, in the glory days of Kelly and Roche. I have memories of Kelly literally bouncing of the walls on the decent of the Poggio in hot pursuit of a desperate Argentin. In that period there were not many riders that could get my support beyond “King Kelly” – but Hennie Kuiper was one. This type of rider comes along about once every 50 years (actually in these times of “saving your matches” I am not sure we will ever see them again). He could ride cross in the winter, finsh on the podium in the Tour, win on Alp D’Huez, win a hilly classic like Milan San Remo and Lombardia, win a flat classic like Paris-Roubaix, oh and he also won the Olympic road race and the World Championships. He could win solo or he could win in a sprint. A true Dutch legend, who when he decided to retire went home to Holland to a small cyclo-cross race at Oldenzall near his home, and rode for his own one last time.
There has already been some great racing this season, but despite the “off-season” getting shorter and shorter, March and this weekend is where I really tune in. Although I did really enjoy K-B-K last weekend, and watching SKY click. It looks like they have already got their act together in their 3 weeks down in Mallorca. Business as usual for Cav? This weekend there is a race like no other, Strade Bianche. A race unique in character, and a serious test of fitness and mental strength, as it rolls through and over the stunning Tuscan hills. I selfishly almost pray for rain before this race making it a visually spectacular event, one better suited to maybe mountain bike skills than road.
As it happened they got a dry and perfect day for racing, and a lot of the classic stars showed their form. Cancellara, although not looking as dominant as days gone by, rode away when from the break when it mattered. I feel the “quickening“. One of my favorite riders, Van Avermaet, was animated and in the break, looking like he is setting himself up for another great MSR. Ballan, despite looking like he was riding someone else’s bike (what is it with that guys position? He looks awkward as hell) seemed to have good legs, and Roman “Christian Bale look-alike“Kreuziger seems to have come out of the winter with good legs. This time last year was the start of Gilbert’s romp of a season as he set the the pattern for many of the great one day races. This year, it is a bit early yet to start questioning his form and team move, but it is certainly different. Maybe the biggest stat of all from yesterday, that is either testament to the quality of the race (or riders not wanting to “go too deep, too early) is that out of 112 starters, only 52 finished.
Today the Paris-Nice “mini tour” kicks off, and despite wet conditions and riding conservatively, Wiggins delivered a smoking time trial. So far this season Sky and Omega/Quickstep seem to be the teams most settled and ready to race early.
When asked what it was like upon completing his first Catford Hill Climb, one rider exclaimed “It was the best two minutes of suffering all season“. Traditionally held on the first Sunday in October, this uniquely British style hill climb is a chance to close out your season with an adrenaline pumping, gut busting effort, mixed with a little “Alpine” atmosphere to push you along. These time trials shouldn’t be mistaken for the European monument climbs of the Alps, or even the American icons of Mt. Washington or Mt. Evans. They are unique in their length, type of effort, and setting. Run amongst the hedgerows and country lanes of England, often no wider than the width of a car, they usually average out at around 12.5% for about 1km. They are venues to win winter bragging rights amongst the cycling clubs of your region.
It is not too hard to define what type of rider excels at these types of challenges. The effort is explosive, and the type of rider the French would call “Dynamique” has probably got what it takes. An ability to suck up the pain is undoubtedly needed, but then again what type of climbing doesn’t need that. Track riders are often seen taking to the hill on fixed gears (I mean riders who actually ride on the velodrome), and powering their way through. Road riders strip down their bikes, get in the drops, and hold it for as long as they can, often crumpling into their saddles just before the top. To take a tip out of Cancellara’s training regime for the Belgium monuments, no out-of-the-saddle climbing until March is probably a good way to prepare. Power is the key to success.
One of the oldest events in the UK, The Catford Hill Climb has roots right back to 1887, and earns the auspicious title of “The Championship Of All England”. To give you a sense of the effort, it is held on York Hill and is “707 yards” (646m) in length. The average grade is around 12.5%, with a few bursts of 25%. The record for the climb stands at an impressive 1min 47 seconds, and has stood for 19 years. One note of interest, when the ride started back in 1887 the bike weight limit was 35lbs, even back then riders were obsessed about there bike weight. Riders travel in from all over the country and make the trip worthwhile by competing in the “4 climbs” series, stretching over the Saturday and the Sunday. The UK has seen a resurgence in the format over the last few years, with the introduction of the Urban Hill Climb organized by Rollapaluza in London. Unlike New York, London actually has a few pretty decent hills, with Swains Lane in Highgate providing the course. This year they had 120 riders tackle the 800m ascent with a height gain of 71m.
These events have been occupying my thoughts in the last few months as I have been riding around the hills of Litchfield County and the Berkshires, and it made me think why the format hasn’t caught on here, or in Europe for that matter. The region certainly has the hills–Great Hill Road or Geer Mountain Road come to mind. I also think I know enough riders who would throw themselves up a gradient in search of a little glory and maybe a little prize money. So the research starts now for us to host a Fall event next year in the Berkshire hills. The “Suffer between the hedges” hill climb time trial. I will work on the route and find the prizes. You bring your legs, lungs, and the lightest bike you can muster (no weight limits here), and we will take it from there.
THE FULL KEIRIN PHOTO ESSAY IS HERE
One day I am going to get to Japan, and one of the first things I hope to do is go to a Keirin race. The track racing scene is alive and well in Japan, with annual bets getting up to ¥1,5 trillion ($15 billion). Seats are hard to come by for the bigger events, with more than 20 million Japanese attended Keirin races last year. The riders trained specifically for the 2km event have all earned the privilege of competing professionally by passing through the Japan Bicycle Racing School in Shuzenji. With school days that start at 6.30am, that include 100km road rides before lunch, schooling, cleaning chores and track training in the afternoon, it takes a dedicated rider to stick it out and survive.
Unfortunately graduating does not always guarantee you a ride, with only a percentage of the 150 graduates making it on to the track. Those that do get the “honor” of wearing the green striped shorts with seven white stars denoting “Rookie“. Top professionals can race up to 100 days per year at the 4 day events. Riders are locked down at the tracks during the events and isolated from all contact with the outside world to prevent race fixing. Top riders earn up to ¥100 million a year, a very good living, with some riders sustaining that level well into their 40s. Unfortunately for the pros at the bottom of the league life is a constant test, with each rider being accessed every 6 months. Failure to compete at a consistent level means getting demoted out of the pro ranks, a place where it is very hard to return from.
One of the enduring stars of the Keirin scene is “Tomity“. Toshihiko Tomita is a 52 year old, 29 year Keirin veteran. Yeah, read that line again and think about it for a while. For 29 years Tomity maintained the power to stay at the top of the pro ranks, despite a constant challenge and influx of new young talent. On a trip to Japan photographer Fredrik Clement was able to spend a day with Tomity training at the Seibuen velodrome before he retired. His photo essay presents the opposite atmosphere to that felt on race night. The empty stadiums where the riders train appear cold, empty and emotionless, and behind the scenes the rider facilities present a picture of a harsh and simple life. We were lucky enough for Fredrik to allow us to feature this series. Cheers mate.
THE FULL KEIRIN PHOTO ESSAY IS HERE
There were so many things that made the 2011 Tour a great one, especially after such a chaotic and sickening first week. Sitting today on my first day of no pre or post work Tour to watch… damn I miss it! These were a few of the standouts for me:
Anyone Not Know The Name Hoogerland Now? He has redefined the meaning of gutting it out. After peeling himself off a barbed wire fence he still finishes the stage covered in lacerations and bleeding, into the arms of his visibly upset father. Could there be a better person to have by your side on the rest day after the crash to encourage you to continue? Everywhere he races now will know the name Hoogerland, and the term HTFU. (Going for a spin with his dad on the rest day).
A Tragic End For Vino: He came to this tour knowing it would be his last, with the hopes of a swan song and maybe a day in yellow before he retired into the DS seat. Carrying some of the best form he has had in years it just seems wrong that his career should end on a nondescript shitty descent in the Massif Central.
Ten Dam’s Face Plant: After a spectacular somersault coming into a bend too hot on the Col d’Agnes he did a face plant at speed going over bars. What greeted the medics on the roadside was a disorientated bloody and dirty mess. Ten Dam’s response? He got back on and was monitored all the way to the finish by the race doctor. That evenings tweet “No Fractures” and back in the bunch the next morning.
Let Pierre Roland Off The Leash More Often: Nobody expected anything from Europcar other than maybe a stage win from Voeckler. Not only did Tommy surprise us all with one of the best displays of courage in the saddle and scare the crap out of the GC contenders, the whole team (all French) supported him beyond all expectations. Some names stood out like Charteau and Gautier, but maybe best of all was Pierre Roland and his ride on the Alp. He rode some of the biggest names in cycling off his wheel and applied perfect tactics to take Frances first stage of the Tour, and on Alp D’Huez no less. Hinault eat your words, yes he is the real deal. Welcome to the sport Europcar!!! Sucks B-Box right?
J.C.Peraud Arrives. Better Late Than Never. After spending most of his career as a successful mountain biker, Peraud in the twilight of his career and in only his second year as a pro on the road (and in his first ever tour) managed to finish top ten on GC. Something most pros spend a lifetime dreaming of. It was a stunning ride for someone still learning the ropes of road riding, let alone riding a Grand Tour. This should silence a lot of the doubters. Two ex-mountain bikers in the top 10, anybody know of any road riders taking a mountain bike world cup?
The Lantern Rouge: Fabio Sabatini. Who knows what sort of result Fabio could have gotten if he had been riding for himself. Top 50? maybe even a top 25 with a little bit of luck and strategy? But he wasn’t, he spent most of his days going back and forwards between the cars and the peleton for his team. You ever try carrying eight 2lb bottles up a Cat 1 climb? That is another bike in weight. Sent to the front as disposable power when Evan deemed it was ok to participate in a chase, definitely not the most glamorous of lifestyles, but a priceless role. Chapeau Fabio, you finished the Tour. The Lantern Rouge is something to be proud of.
Lets All Stand For Cadel: The sight of Cadel Evans out of the saddle and dropping serious power up some of the toughest climbs in the Alps. Maybe the most impressive of all was his chase wrestling his bike up the Galibier on Stage 18. When he started at the bottom a select group of 23 riders, some of the best climbers in the world were strung out on his wheel. By the top 4 were left. He got no help and never looked over his shoulder once. He just rode. If you want to win the tour, sometimes you just have to get on with it.
O.T.S.S Or Over the Shoulder Syndrome: The first acute symptoms were spotted at the Tour of Switzerland, and obviously got worse from there. Both the Schleck brothers have a severe case of it, and need a cure quick. Ironically the first day Andy didn’t look over his shoulder going up the Izoard, was the day that he made his biggest impression on the race. Sometimes tactically naive, and more concerned with where each other was the Schleck brothers gave everyone the opportunity to recompose and follow everything they did (just my humble opinion). When you have the legs the finish line is straight ahead (see Cadel reference above). It maybe says more about a lack of confidence in their own ability than anything else.
“Jeremy Roy Is Up The Road Again!” How many times did we say that over the last three weeks? Who is this guy!?! His ride on stage 12 to bridge to Geraint Thomas was a great piece of solo riding, to only get caught on the last climb in the last 8km. The day after at the start of stage 13 he said he didn’t think he was going to be able to finish the stage. Two hours later he was up the road again and dropping Thor going up the Aubisque. Unfortunately Thor had a few things to get off his chest, like riding like a World Champion, and smothered Roy in the sprint. Roy was in the break 6 times over the three weeks, for a total of 700 Km off the front. He attacked on the first day, and finished it off with an attack on the Champs Elysees on the last. An exciting rider to watch.
After untangling myself from the mass of riders on the start line and making it back to the car, a display of fine Italian driving followed. We edged out of our parking spot and in behind the team cars and in front of the team buses and trucks. We followed the caravan through the neutral area behind a Liquigas team car and decided that they probably knew the best way out of the city, so we sat an uncomfortable (at least it was for me) 2ft from their bumper. The rest of the day followed a pattern. Race along the freeway, cut across country to the race route, wait with the locals for 10 or 15 minutes for the race to pass through, run back to the car, race along the freeway, repeat. Each time we stopped the local clubs in all their shapes, sizes and colors had taken a ride out watch the race go by. It was like watch a parade on the history of cycling clothing.
We did this all the way through to the climb of LeMánie where we eventually stopped long enough for my stomach to settle with the help of one of the best coffees I have ever had. The landscape had transformed from the flat farmlands outside Milan to the lush Caps that take you over to the Med. At this point the race had ignited. The crash had happened. The peleton had split, and favorites were missing from the lead group. The race was on. When they came past us on the climb they were strung out into a series of small groups, there was a lot of pain on show and gaps between wheels. At this point they had about 90km to go, and anyone that wouldn’t get back on before Capo Berta or The Cipressa was not going to figure in the final result. That was some big names, Thor, Cav, Oscar. Thor came past on Van Summeren’s wheel with a mixture of pain and anger all over his face. Van Summeren didn’t look much better.
Back to the car, and we raced down to the base of the Poggio. At this point we were on coarse ahead of the race, and had clear roads all the way over the Poggio into San Remo. This wouldn’t have been the way I would have chosen to go over the Poggio for the first time (in a Mercedes at 80kph) but it was good enough to get us to the finish area and onto the Farnese Vini Neri team bus to watch the finish live on TV.
CATEGORIES: From The Saddle,Races
The full Start Village photo essay is here »
There is a pace and pattern in a start village before a race that is pretty special to be a part of. I was lucky enough to get an all areas press pass for Milan San Remo (Thank you Specialized!) that gave me access to areas that, as a fan, I spent most of my time questioning what I was doing there. It is a little uncanny standing next to the current world champion and the previous one, and hearing them talk about the upcoming classics over the next few weeks. We arrived in Milan at 8.30am long before the first team bus and cars had arrived at the start area. It was already starting to buzz with Tifosi and press. Phase One of the pre-race begins with the lumbering arrival of the buses and team cars into the start area. Curtains drawn, they pull up one by one, with fans rushing to peer through the curtain cracks, hoping to get a glimpse of a rider – I actually heard one guy claim “that is Ballan’s leg!” Mechanics remove bikes from racks and the parade of bikes begins. Perfectly built and pristine, bikes are lined up for public viewing by the team buses (but no touching – the unsaid rule). This moment, maybe more than any, is the biggest sales pitch for any brand in the bike business. I wanted to buy 4 bikes after that first hour.
Then, just as the fans are distracted by the bikes, Phase two begins, and there is a mad dash to sign-on. Riders emerge from the buses and in one movement are on bikes and off. In these instances I saw some of the best bike handling skills I have ever seen. Riders track-stop and hop their way through gaps in the crowds that they have no business getting through. Some go slow, soaking up the adoration (Ballan). Others move slow, looking for people they know (all the Italians). Some are “escorted” and have their race face on (Posatto and Cancellara). Others are magnets for everything and everyone (Boonen and Thor), and some riders go sit in a car and contemplate the pain that is about to ensue.
Phase three is a general milling around, as riders wait for the call-to-line. Some use it as a time to talk with ex teammates, and some use it as a time to apologize to riders they took down in a crash the previous week (actually heard that). The more popular riders get mobbed by press or fans, or both. Some riders you want to go up and hug and tell them it will all be ok (Henrich Hausler made me cry once after losing this race by the width of a tub and then collapsing on the road in tears). Others like Greipel look like they might punch you in the face (although I told him after the race “nice ride” and he didn’t, so he is ok). Then before you know it, the general milling turns into a start line and the team cars are lined up and ready to roll. It was at this point that I found myself stuck in the middle of a very large group of riders behind 6-foot barriers. The best way out might have been to get a “backy” with George Hincapie to the end of the neutral zone, but instead I found a gap and ran for our follow car. Next thing you know I am getting nauseous in the back of car for the next 6 hours.
See the full photo essay here »
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In a drug induced sleep last night, brought on by a bad head cold (too much travel already this year spending time inside tin cans like planes and subways, which are really just very large Petri dishes) I had a great dream about Liege-Bastogne-Liege. I was on a team with Tom Boonen, probably brought on by seeing his Roubaix winning bike in the lobby of Specialized last week. We were in a break with Gilbert, Cancellara, and Thor (sorry Champ, I would rather have been on your team) and we had them all deep in our pockets. I kept yelling at “Tornado Tom” that if he didn’t keep pulling hard (as I sucked the life out of his rear wheel) he was going to loose the name Tornado and be renamed “Breezy Boonen“. He started crying because I was shouting so much, and we had to stop at the side of the road to calm him down (watching Fabian wave and ride off into the distance), and promise I wouldn’t call him “Breezy” in the press room after. I then had explain to my DS (Van Petegem, gulp) why I had made big Tom cry….
Man I LOVE Tylenol PM. If anyone is having similar drug induced cycling dreams, PLEASE SHARE. Tonight we dream of the Tour, me and “Big Mig” taking on Delgado and Pantani. I then woke this morning to find an email from Jenny at Freebirdvelo about this new t-shirt, spooky.
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