Saturday, 30 April 2011

The Tour of Doonhame.

I set off from Bristol in bright sunshine around 9.00am driving the Rapha Condor Sharp van with Dan  and masseur Maria on board whilst Tom drove the team car with Zak  to pick up Ben on the way. Our rendezvous point was a ‘servo’(to us Brits a motorway service station) in Cumbria. The plan was to make Dumfries by 3.30pm so the riders could go for a spin. Well, the British love of spending their Bank holidays parked up on motorways made the journey a long one but we arrived with enough time for them to have a very quick ride before massages, supper and team meeting. Here we put together a plan, a loose one; if there’s a break at least one rider must be in it or if it comes to a bunch sprint it would be Zak or Dean, the others leading them out.
I’m up at 6am and opened the curtains, what the heck??? Everything was soaking wet, where the hell has the sunshine gone? Gone east, it’s certainly not here.  It rained all day making Stage 1 of the Tour of Doonhame a memorable one.
At the start 142 riders rolled out in blotchy rain and 15 degrees, by twenty miles it was teeming down and 10 degrees, at the top of the main climb it was pouring rain through thick grey mist and only 8 degrees. Water carrying little sharp pieces of grit was pouring onto the narrow, winding, potholed, rural lanes. This was a recipe for punctures, mechanicals and crashes. It was carnage, every few hundred meters riders dropped away from the peleton with an arm in the air. The team cars were constantly in action, charging up and down the convoy replacing wheels or pacing riders back to the main bunch. Our final total was seven plus a bike change. Tom did sterling work dropping back to pace his team mates back on or getting back himself back having giving them his wheel. After thirteen punctures, Motorpoint ran out of spare wheels, their rider with the fourteenth plugging on uphill on a flat back wheel as the team car desperately tried to borrow one. I don’t see individual riders in a race, I’m too busy concentrating on my own team, but I spied two local Cornish riders, Chris Opie standing by the road with a wheel in the air and Steve Lampier, looking very strong, as he charged past the car on his way back to the front.
After the final climb we still had four riders in the front twenty eight man group from which the final eight man break formed on the long downhill run back to Moffat. We, mechanic Spike and I, could see the break way down the long sweeping roads but couldn’t make out the riders in it. We waited for the radio to start giving out the numbers, hoping a Rapha Condor Sharp rider was amongst them. When the radio began to crackle my heart started to sink as they are all high numbers (ours are 1 to 7) but then last of all they announced number 6, that’s Zak. Great, his good form could get him the win but he was beaten into second in the sprint by ex Rapha Condor Sharp rider Matt Cronshaw, who with time bonuses took the first yellow jersey, leading Zak by nine seconds.
Even with all the chaos caused by the conditions it was a good day’s racing and second wasn’t too bad.
 The sun came out and it was another good day’s racing, although Rapha Condor Sharp appeared to like the number two. On the second stage, Zak was second again, so was still in second place but now only by two seconds. We had had a plan to take yellow and it so nearly came off.
At the team meeting the previous night it was decided to work for Zak. There were the two hotspots sprints where time bonuses of 3,2, 1 seconds were available and another 10, 6 and 4 seconds at the finish line, the plan was to get Zak into a position to nab the required time to secure yellow. That meant we didn’t want any soft breaks going off up the road to take the precious seconds.
It started well, the team car was second in the convoy and I could see Rapha Condor Sharp riders closing down any attempted attacks. Unfortunately, a single Endura rider clipped off and took the first sprint but we heard over the race radio that Zak had got third place and therefore one second. The deficit was now eight seconds.
 Soon after the sprint another attack was covered by  Dean, it’s just two of them and with sixty miles to the finish; I didn’t think it would be a problem. Then a group of five got across and the lead started to steadily increase. The other Rapha Condor Sharp riders had stayed with Zak. I sat in the convoy, dealing with our punctures, four today and one nasty crash for Dan who needed a bike change(he kept riding but came in well down) wondering and fretting about this break. This is just what we didn’t want, the leading Raleigh team aren’t particularly concerned, if these guys stayed away they would soak up the next sprint and possibly the finish, removing Zak’s threat for the day, so won’t work at the front. The hot spot sprint is reached, the break goes through, we don’t win any time bonuses, flipping heck.
The break continued and I can see the black Rapha Condor Sharp jerseys have taken up the chase. It’s a hard work and they only closed the gap with about five miles to go, after which Ben and Tom, who had been doing the bulk of the chasing, slipped past us, work over. Now the sprint team kicked into action keeping the bunch together and setting Zak up for the final sprint where he collected second place and six precious seconds, still two short.
At the end I was only frustrated with the result but the team roll in very tired. They had to worked really hard to reel the break back with all the other teams having a relative easy day. I wondered how this would affect them but by the team meeting, held after supper, they were back to normal and the plan is simple; Zak needed just three seconds to go into the lead. Three hot spot sprints plus time bonuses at the finish means there were nineteen seconds up for grabs. We planned to take the three we need as soon as possible and then defend the lead.

The stage started brilliantly with every attack nullified by Rapha Condor Sharp until the first sprint where Zack took first place and three seconds, putting him in yellow ‘on the road’. We now had to defend his position and with 80 odd miles to go it wouldn’t be easy. Raleigh, Motorpoint, Sigma and Endura all have riders within a few seconds of Zak. Their attacks came in thick and fast but the men in black maintained a steady pace at the front and brought them back. Eventually an attack established itself and started to make time on the Rapha Condor Sharp led bunch; with no other team helping it was all down to us.
As the break’s lead passed 1.10mins we technically lost the yellow jersey but with 40 miles left I felt it would be OK, they will tire, but at nearly two and a half minutes with twenty five miles to go I was getting concerned. Especially when turning a corner I suddenly spied two black Rapha Condor Sharp jerseys by the side of the road, worse still one is Zak who had punctured. The other  is Briggsey who is giving him his wheel. In the car we flew into action, as I braked to let Spike out, I spotted another black jersey waiting down the road, it’s Dean. We changed the wheel and I accelerated away pulling over just in front of Zak and started to pace him back to the convoy. We are approaching a hill and I suddenly saw two Endura riders attacking up it, shit, shit. I had Zak plus Dean and Briggsey on my bumper and then come across Tom who has also dropped back to help the chase. I was soon back in the convoy and with no commisaires about paced the riders as far as I could before they clipped off and linked up with the rear of the bunch. We had got them back very quickly but they had still got to get back up to the front of the bunch. The radio soon informed us that only one Endura was still off the front but I was concerned about the break as the chase would have been disrupted.
After their one rider is reeled in, Endura and then Raleigh started coming to the front to help pull the break back partly in the hope that our team were tired and so leave Zak exposed to counter attacks. After working all day some of them were, and first Dan, then Tom and Ben, having done their jobs dropped away and trail off behind us. We now had four riders left to take Zak towards Castle Douglas. The break was all but caught, they were just ten or fifteen seconds in front of the bunch, tantalisingly close but the Rapha Condor Sharp riders, still in charge at the front, cleverly left them dangling there as long as possible knowing that as soon as they were caught, counter attacks will come. The final junction was only made with six miles to go and I felt confident that was too close for any other rider to gain time on Zak. He had been in 4th or 5th place at the head of the bunch showing his good form and confidence, whereas the yellow jersey has been sitting in the middle, to me a sign that he lacked it. I felt sure Zak could manage to win now; all he had to do was beat Croshaw in the sprint and we had the race.
Into the final straight we were well behind the leading riders and as I drove up the final uphill straight I was desperately listening or looking for evidence of what had happened. Had we won? Over the line, I spy the boys all grouped around Zak, embracing and laughing. The answer is, yes we had.
So how do you celebrate a race win? You shake all the riders hands, then get to work, drinks and food for the riders, collect race numbers and transponders, fend off an irate Endura manager who Tom had sworn at for his riders attacking when Zak had a puncture, drive to the hotel, pack the cars and van, sort the bikes and start driving south, six hours back to Bristol, arriving back at 11.00pm feeling knackered. Welcome to the world of cycling, job done what’s the next race. I love it.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

East Mids Classic

It’s The East Midlands Classic and my, it’s exactly that, a classic. It starts sedately enough, two circuits of Rutland Water and then from the wide tarmac roads the race turns a sharp left onto fifty odd miles of very narrow farm lanes and tracks, a maze of them crisscrossing the continuously undulating countryside. I soon lose my bearings and as it’s been a dry spring up comes the dust, on the roughest sections thick billowing brown clouds of it, which obscures all but the vaguely distinguishable brake lights of the car just in front whilst in the mirror two murky discs of headlights indicated there was a car behind. The steering wheel is juddering as the car bounces down these tracks, a few ghost-like riders, faces caked, squeeze by, some, legs slowing  dropping back, others desperately trying to fight their way forwards after punctures. That sign ‘Welcome to Hell’ wasn’t far wrong.
Occasional tarmac stretches run for long enough for the dust to disperse then we (mechanic Alex and I) try to see if we can see the main peloton and then it’s another sharp turn and we are back hammering away on the narrow farm roads. I have no idea where the Rapha Condor Sharp riders are, neither have I an idea how far I am behind the front of the race, I guess some distance as the radio communication is intermittent. I started as car 18 in the convoy, which put me a long way back to start with and on these narrow lanes the smallest groups of back riders can block the road as do any attendant team cars. I’ve passed a number but I must still be some distance from the front. I plough on spending my time negotiating my way past these groups but it’s slow progress. I still haven’t seen or heard anything of our riders. If any have suffered a puncture I’m relying on our masseurs, (John H sent three anticipating this scenario) positioned with spare wheels at the end of each of the roughest sections to change them. The riders know that if they puncture there just to plug on till the end for a change.
 I’m feeling quietly optimistic, at the riders meeting last night the team was very upbeat. After I had run through the day’s schedule we discussed the race. Everyone was up for this one, Zack D and Briggsy had taken one and two last week at the Dengie Marshes, a race over similar terrain to this, so definitely have the form. Dan was a close second in the sprint finish here last year and knows the finish well so explains just how to negotiate the vital final corner in detail to the listening riders. Dean is always up for a race, Tom is a strong rider and Jimmy is feeling good.The team talks it all through and when they leave I notice I’m feeling upbeat. Tom started the ball rolling by launching the first serious attack on these narrow lanes, once back in the fold other attacks were being nullified by the team and now all the riders are obviously still in the front group.
The race continues, driving is taking all my concentration, the sandwich I was just starting when we hit the lanes sits untouched on the seat beside me. We arrive on some tarmac and I can look around long enough to recognize that we have passed this way a couple of times before then we duck back into the juddering dustbowl. Sometime later, I spy a black Rapha Condor Sharp jersey in the swirling dust, the shape tells me its Tom, we bump up alongside but he just signals us through, his day’s work over.  We  speed on, next it’s Jimmy Mac, he’s just punctured but fortunately we arrive just as he pulls over so it’s a rapid change and he’s away. It’s our first puncture, thank goodness Alex, the mechanic, put those All Season 25mm tyres on. The riders did look slightly askance at their sausage like appearance but they seem to be working as the only call so far is an early one for Dean’s shoe plate which involved a change of footwear through the open car window.
 We watch Jimmy link back up to a small group and then accelerate past. We are hearing the radio again, so we’re getting closer to the front. The final hard sections are splintering the race, the race is all down to attrition, hard wear and tear on both man and his bike.
 As we arrive we hear the peloton is in three groups so I manoeuvre past two of them, we are now behind the front thirty four riders and we still have four riders up there with twenty five kms to go. I occasionally get glimpses of the front group; the speed is high, the pressure is really on, I can see black jerseys near the front as other riders being spat out of the back.
 One French rider has gone for a long one and is 1.50 min up, this alarms me a bit. I can imagine the top British teams all sitting there waiting for the others to start the chase, nullifying each other as the single rider rides away. At twenty km, relief, the chase has started, his time is coming down, a glance at the front tells me it’s the men in black doing the chasing. I’m trapped behind six riders and it seems the three cars in front are sitting there following their riders. I’ve got to get past, I swing on to the small grass verge and at an odd angle, blast the horn and get past two of the cars but the third car is a commissar who stops me, not allowing me through. Shit, I’ve got four riders in the ever diminishing front group and no  wheel cover in front of them, I’ve got to I push on. There’s not enough space to pull alongside to talk to the commissar so I drive right up to their rear and beep the horn. I think they finally see which car it is and after a quick conversation wave me through. I bounce past and charge forward. Ten kms, five kms, the last rough section with 3km to go, coming out I spy Dean, he’s dropping away, he’s punctured but waves me through, he’ll ride in on the puncture. I charge on passing dropped riders but can’t get up to the race, 2km, 1km, I swing into the final straight, there’s a few riders but not the very front group, they have finished.  I drive down the finishing straight, wondering how it went, as I’m waved over into the car park I hear a loud speaker:
‘No confirmation of the winner’s name but it was a Rapha rider’
 Yes, yes, I see Tom passing on his bike and he nods. Yes, we’ve won, I don’t know who but I take my hands off the wheel, shaking my fists in the air to celebrate. A short while later I hear it’s Zack, who easily won the sprint, Briggsey and Dan coming in somewhere behind having set him up. Brilliant.    

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

It's a beautiful day............

Yesterday was a great walking day, sun up above the coastline, ESE breeze just keeping the air fresh, the Atlantic swell heaving at the cliff line. It was a Saturday and the first day of the Easter holidays, the Life guards are back and coffin boxes are appearing on sleek cars.

Someone set off on this glorious day to walk along the coast path towards Porthleven. Very sensibly they took a 50cl bottle of Evian water with them to hydrate themselves whilst they walked. The bottle of water weighed approximately 530gm when full and they managed to carry it with them whilst (I hope) they enjoyed the day and the wonderful views. It only weighed approximately 25gm when they had finished the water and thought it too heavy to carry any more so slung it off the path amongst the flowering gorse and spring flowers from where I retrieved it. Somehow I was able to slip it into my back pocket and carry it away. It didn’t weigh me down at all.

I was on my way home when I discovered the next offering. There is a small National Trust car park that I pass through. Many people drive their dogs out here to take a shit, the dog shit run. I’m used to that and just shrug my shoulders, it decomposes. But it’s the complete pricks that pick the offending material up in vibrant coloured sandwich bags that they neatly tie up and surreptitiously deposit amongst cliff line vegetation that get my ire. I now have to carry that back with me as well. What did these people learn about non biodegradable plastic that they have forgotten? I blame the poor standard of science teaching in this country. I must write a letter to the Daily Mail.

I would love to appear on Room 101, as it may attract a wider audience.Litter would be my number one choice. What I find so puzzling is that people obviously walk along the path because the coastline is perceived as beautiful. So why oh why do they dump their rubbish in it?  I know the items haven’t been accidently dropped as I have to go off piste to pick them up, it’s deliberate, it’s simply been thrown away.

Whatever, the summer approaches and it won’t be the last time I’m wandering home carrying someone else’s litter.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Source of humour

 I saw an article in a magazine earlier this week about the amount of money being made by comedians these days, apparently the top ones can earn mega bucks. I was wondering where they find all their material. It didn’t take much looking to discover one source. Being in Penzance with a few minutes to wait I called in at the Blue Snapdragon for a ginger beer, it’s the wrong name by the way but Tom who I had to meet indicated that he knew where I actually was. As there was a Daily Mail on the table I absent mindedly started to peruse its headlines. I needed my glasses to read any more but fortunately had left them at home. Just one flick through and I realized this was the source of much of the comedians’ humour. The moral outrage that roared from every page must keep all the readers in a permanent state of anxiety and the pharmaceutical industry in business.  There was even an article about the shocking rates of ‘happy pill’, (their term for anti depressants), usage in the UK. I wondered if it was a double bluff.
The front page was a rant about the money businesses are spending on re-educating the dross coming out the comprehensive education system, supported by two editorials about the lax discipline in our schools, with a photo of woman who is opposed to her daughter’s school taking disciplinary measures against her daughter. Why are these women invariably overweight and dumb looking? I’m not surprised by either article, I gave up giving detentions years ago as at least 50% of them were rendered null and void by parents demanding a better say in their children’s education and using it to tell me that, although they hadn’t been in my classroom or school corridor to witness anything, their child hadn’t done it. Then there’s the daft chase for ‘levels’ which ended up with the teachers virtually doing the exams, especially the course work, for the pupils and of course that wonderful idea that every lesson has to be ‘fun’.
Then there were articles about the signs of addictive stress levels observed in 78% of young people when they are separated from their mobile phone or lap top.  Why is anyone surprised? Just observe their compulsive phone behaviour in any high street or cafe. These were followed by an article about mountain rescue teams berating people who use phone sat navs for navigating as they invariably end up lost, they advised people to use maps. I really had to laugh at that one.
Next a photo of some  female celeb who looks stunning at 57, forgetting to mention anything about Photoshop, air brushing or the amount she has spent on being remodelled. Then an appalling photo of Ricci Gervais who has lost weight, presumably on some crash diet, but now looks decidedly ill compared to the before photo.
Was I outraged? Not in the least, it’s a huge joke, all one needs to do is read a paper like this and they’ve a script written for them. Tell it how it really is and we’ll split our sides. 

Saturday, 9 April 2011

Chinese whispers

The bizarre notes of Pete’s alarm clock alarm clock went off at 5.45am and whilst he stirred I went off for a shower. Today it’s day two and the first proper road stage and as I stood in the cascading hot water I have to admit I was smitten by a sort of stage fright. From the Penzance Wheelers criteriums in the far distances of West Cornwall to the UCI 2.2 Tour of Taiwan is a big jump and the learning curve I was peering at on seemed to disappear into the clouds.
I arrived at breakfast early, Tom was the only rider and I guess one glance was enough to inform him of my concerns. He listened intently as I explained my misgivings, using words like deep water, over my head and sinking. Then he quoted something to me that sounded just right; I saw the door of opportunity and thought all I had to do was push it open and waltz right in. In fact when I opened the door I discovered I was facing a grizzly bear that I had to wrestle to the ground with my bare hands. He ended by saying something like ‘just do it’.
I think he actually said fighting cock but I envisaged a grizzly.
I listened. I’ve always had a vivid imagination so I used it.  I saw a nine foot grizzly bear rearing up on its hind legs, catching it by its fur I smashed it down flat on its belly. The nerves vanished. From then on every time it reared its head I whacked it back down again.
Later as I drove in the convoy Pete outlined a few golden rules to follow and ever the student, I listened and learnt. Never ask the riders a question, always have the answers for them, pre-empt any qusetion by finding out the answers beforehand. All the riders want to do was concentrate on riding and resting. They just want to be told when and where. Well, I had blown that as my mobile had decided to go to sleep as soon as I had arrived and not having a watch I was stuck asking the time. (I decided to buy a watch but never had time to do so until at the airport on the way home when Pete helpfully pointed out a few Rolexes costing some £2,500 which I thought a tad expensive) If a rider asks for anything, do it then and there. If you ever have a spare moment, think what you can be doing to save time later and do it. 
 He also ran through how he wanted me to approach a puncture or mechanical and feed the riders. The key point being that when the radio call comes, gun the motor and use on your horn, use it all the time, that tells everyone where you are and you are doing it flat out. From then on I did just that.
From there on the days followed a pattern, up by six, showered, packed, luggage to the hotel pick up point. Then Pete and I separated, he did the bikes and car, I did the riders. Once at the start it’s the same procedure. The stage passes with the Pete and I in the convoy, driving along listening to the radio with bursts of intense activity when called upon. Stage end, again Pete does the bikes, I do the riders. Then it’s a transfer to new hotels, keys, rooms, dining room, meal times, shopping for tomorrow’s race food and drink, evening meal, riders meeting, discuss the stage, plan tomorrows, tell them the morning schedule and off they go to bed by nine pm. It’s routine, it’s what the riders like.
In many ways it’s just like a school field trip and over thirty years I have done many of those. There were things I couldn’t do much about. We had no masseur, however often the riders wished to have one, I couldn’t magic one up. There was nothing I could do about the food either. There were grumbles about this but I guess they’re not concerned about experiencing Far Eastern cuisine. I thought it delicious.  Fish is banned to the riders as it’s potentially a fast track to a dodgy belly but I ate it. I tried everything bar the braised cow tendon stew; I looked hard into it but just couldn’t bring myself to place any on my plate. I did try something that appeared as an unappetizing purple grey colour but on tasting it I had to have some more not really sure what it was.
The great thing was although I’m not at the top of that curve, it wasn’t as steep or as difficult as I had once thought. I was swimming, maybe not a perfect stroke but I was well above water. After the last stage I lay on my bed contemplating it all, searching for one word to describe the experience. Exhilarating was the one that kept coming into my mind.  
The actual quote is as follows: ‘If you want a life doing what you love you’re going to have to decide between grace and grit. Swinging wide the door so opportunity can waltz in is graceful, but wrestling a blood hungry champion fighting rooster to the ground is awkward as all hell’
Josh Ritter wrote that, good song writer too. Different isn’t it, Chinese whispers.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

The convoy

I take a quick glance at the speedometer, it's hovering  between 90 and 100km, eyes back to the road, there’s a sharp hairpin, the car a few metres in front is about to swing into it, looks a tight one, eyes dart to my mirrors, one rider, descending very fast has suddenly appeared in the spray  between me and the car behind, black kit, it’s Deano, and he’s gaining rapidly. I mentally track his path and adjust my cornering to allow him to pass on the inside, simultaneously blasting my horn to let the front car know of his presence. Then he’s passing, inches from the car, its really tight, rock face and gutter  flash by, I’m round, Deano’s  in the space between me and the front  car , we’re already swinging into the next hairpin,  Dean leans into it and  out of sight, I glance in the mirrors, two more riders have appeared in the spray.
I speed on, checking road back and front; I’ve suspended any thoughts, shoving them to one side as riders shoot by as I hurtle down the descent. Eventually a long straight appears, long enough for me to see a bunch of riders ahead, a gruppetto forming as more dropped riders make it back on. 
Just then the race radio cackles into life, ‘Rapha Condor, Rapha Condor,’
We’re wanted at the front of the race. 
‘Go, go, go’ It’s Pete, the mechanic, yelling from the back seat, ‘floor it, beep, horn it’,
 I’m already doing just that. I don’t know what the call is about, feeding or mechanical or where the main group is but I accelerate the car out of the small convoy and head, horn blaring, up to the front, we use sign language with the commissar’s car, he acknowledges and I whip passed the riders horn  going.
 ‘Floor it, floor it’.
 I am, the engine is screaming as I accelerate, I have no idea where the front group is, I only know we have two riders up there and one needs something and fast. I glance again at the speedo, 180 km, the engine can’t give me much more, shit it’s some gap, and there is no one in sight. A sharp right hand bend, three policeman are signalling - don’t hit them for heavens sake- I sling shot  round, into a long straight, no one is in sight, I speed on , it’s great having  closed roads. It’s a huge gap. I eventually see some lights and then the front convoy of cars, I start on the horn as I approach and start overtaking them.
 Where is our rider? I’m overtaking on the left when through the spray and jumble of vehicles I glimpse a figure standing by the roadside on the right.
’It’s Ben, rear puncture’ I yell to Pete, as I cut across a car that instantly breaks allowing me through.  Pete has grabbed a rear wheel, as I screech to a halt just behind Ben, he’s out of his door ,old wheel out, new one in, rider back on saddle, pushed off, I move up behind. Pete leaps back into car and we’re off, fast change, good.  Ben is yelling, furious about something, I slip in front of him and he latches on and we illegally pace him back to the front group, Pete guiding my speed so he stays right on our bumper until approaching the rear cars I accelerate and pull over sharply so catapulting him back  amongst the cars where we watch him quickly work his way back to the front group. As he passes the neutral service car he turns and abuses them, from that we gather he’s pissed with them not us. (They had driven passed him as he waited for our arrival, a cardinal sin.)
 As he joins the back of the riders I look at the group  to gauge the numbers  and suddenly see a black jersey attacking off the front, even from this distance I instantly recognise the  familiar style. 
‘Tom is attacking’, I yell.
He is rapidly moving away and as I watch another rider responds and chases him. I sit at the front of the convoy long enough to see the rider latch on to his wheel and start to work with him. I scan the mileage, 60 odd km to go, a long way, but after the climb and descent the race is in chaos, it’s a good time to go. I start to drop back to my place in the convoy when the race radio the barks to life.
‘Attack, attack at front, numbers 51 (Tom) and 115’
‘It’s 115, who is it?’ I shout.
Pete checks the list.
‘A Japanese rider.’
‘How far down on time?’
‘About four minutes’
Good, Tom’s crash two days ago lost him seven minutes so neither of them are a direct threat to the lead riders, maybe they’ll be able to slip away. The Japanese are intent on this stage today; they’ve had riders in every break. I sit back ready to listen as Tom’s break is played out. Our riders behind will have to rely on neutral service for the rest of todays stage.
The race isn’t all like this; these are a few minutes of high intensity, squeezed between hours of driving in the convoy as car fourteen, the race just rolling on with just the occasional glimpse of the rear of the peleton. We - Pete, the mechanic and I - chat, munch our way through tubes of pringles, mixed nuts and swigs of water bottles whilst our ears monitor the radio, ready to react at a moment’s notice when it suddenly gives us a call. I thought I would be able to look at the passing towns and country side but it’s surprising how little I notice. Occasional buildings or decorative Buddhist shrines stand out as do the ever intriguing roadside booths, advertised by brilliantly flashing lights, which always display scantily clad young woman sitting in the large front windows. We always observe these booths closely as they are rumoured to be either brothels or to sell drugs, we never seem to come to any conclusion and finally decided we ought to ask, which we would if we knew any Mandarin.
If all is well we usually plan to feed one rider at around the fifty kilometre mark, listening out for the radio call and driving up as fast as possible to pass over the required number of bottles and energy bars for the rest of the team to however it is who’s dropped back. It’s always hectic, as it’s always done quickly. Speed is the essence, getting to the front of the convoy, drawing level with the rider and holding the car steady whilst listening to Pete and the rider exchange bottles and energy bars. Completed, the rider accelerates away back to the peleton, whilst we drop over to the right hand gutter so the other cars can overtake and we regain our convoy position.  We hope we don’t hear anything else as that means mechanical trouble. For the last twenty kilometres we listen more intently to the radio, especially on the flatter stages that we have targeted for a win, listening how the stage is heading to its conclusion. At the 500m mark I look out for the marshals who with whistles blowing and flags waving usher us to our parking spot where we leap out and prepare to greet the spent riders.

Friday, 1 April 2011

The riders

It’s still raining; we (Pete the mechanic and I) are standing out in it in a car park waiting for our first riders to appear. The rain started on the first category climb around the sixty-kilometre mark, some hundred kilometres previously. We know two of our number have just finished, as we had followed them in the lead group. This still left the other three still out on the road, at the mercy of the grupetto.
We have everything ready; cans of coke, water, Re-go, food and cases of dry clothes. We stand out in the rain so the riders can get straight into the car. The first two appear after u-turning past the finish line and pedalling slowly back. They are soaking wet, their exposed skin caked in a strangely grey coloured mud that etches their fatigue deeper into their faces.
They free wheel in, we take their bikes as they dismount. I wonder about asking them about who won but keep silent. I’m not expecting a win today; this isn’t one of our targeted stages, we have already come so close.
Their own silence indicates that neither of them won. One slips side on into a car seat, legs stretched out in the wet. The other just stands still in the rain, neither say a word, both are staring off into an unknown distance.
I quickly offer them drinks but both decline by a shake of their heads. The sparse facilities and inhospitable conditions the riders face as soon as the race is over shocks me. I cannot imagine any other sport where the competitors at this high level are treated in such a way. It would be unimaginable to think of Footballers leaving the pitch unable to talk with fatigue going to change in the car park. 
I wait for them to recover, keeping an eye out for the groups of riders who are coming in to see if our riders are amongst them.  I stand and wonder what it is that drives these men. They have just raced for over four and a half hours over tough terrain in pouring cold rain. They are lagged in mud and soaked through and now they have a car park to change in. No showers, no changing rooms and the first spectators are starting to wander around; staring at the riders and their bikes. Some take photos, sometimes coming face to face with the riders and asking for a close up. The riders, conscious of their role in the marketing world, somehow always responded with a smile and usually pose away through their fatigue.
I give them extra water bottles to wash with as they begin to pull off their sodden clothing and change- exposed as much to the public as the elements. The first two have now recovered enough to tell me who won, and a few bits of information about the days racing. Then whistles blow and on looking up I see our last riders coming up the hill towards the finish. I start to get their stuff ready.
Once all the riders are in and changed they are off to the assembled coaches with a large bag of food, to wait for the transfer to the hotel. Today the hotel is several hours away, this means a long wait until they will finally get a shower and lie down and something to eat, before trying to get as much sleep as possible before they start it all over again the next day.
What do these riders get from this? It’s not money, at least not a lot; this isn’t the pinnacle of the sport where fabulous fortunes are made. These are journeymen riders who set out years ago to live a youngsters sporting dream.
I can only possibly conjecture their reasons, some I know just love riding their bikes, some are trying to avoid the 9 to 5 job market as long as possible. But it’s also the travel, the nomadic life style, the competition and that occasional elation of winning. One rider even claims to do it for the personalized stickers on his bike, while some claim that this is simply what they do.
Whatever their diverse reasons maybe, I can’t help but admire them for it.