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.