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.

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