Tuesdays with Wilcockson #4

Hailstones, snowstorms and survivors

I was taken aback last week when I heard about a field of pro racers coming to a halt during the opening stage of Argentina’s Tour de San Luis. It wasn’t because they had to stop for a train rumbling through a rail crossing; no, they stopped to seek shelter from a storm, one of heavy rain and hail.

Wait, I thought, aren’t bike racers supposed to carry on whatever the conditions, rain or shine? Next, they’ll be stopping because it’s too hot, or too cold, or maybe too windy! It wasn’t always so….

In my first multi-day race, the Easter Three-day on the Isle of Wight in southern England, we raced through a violent hailstorm. Within 10 minutes of hailstones hitting our bare arms, legs and heads (we didn’t wear helmets back then), the intact pack was reduced to about a dozen. That was perhaps the most unusual way I’ve ever gotten into a breakaway!

A couple of years after that, I took my bike to Italy to report the Tour of Sardinia, an early-season race that Tour de France champions Jacques Anquetil, Lucien Aimar and Jan Janssen were riding. They would all survive a true winter tempest of lightning, rain, hail and snow on a mountainside of that sparsely beautiful Mediterranean island. British rider Derek Harrison told me the peloton was slowed when an intense part of the storm covered the road an inch deep in golf-ball-sized hailstones, and Tour winner Janssen stopped several times to wipe his glasses clean and another time to scrounge a pair of woolen gloves.

That day, I climbed just ahead of the race to the 4,000-foot summit of the Arcu Correboi pass, where a well-muffled spectator gave me two swigs from a flask of Cognac before the riders arrived. As the hail turned to snow, a white blanket covered the bumpy road. And after the peloton passed, I began the steep descent, where the wind-blown snow stung my face. In order to see, I had to close one eye, leave the other half open and screw my head around at an angle.

My feet, hands and face were slowly freezing when suddenly a great booming sound came from behind, and a high wall of metal loomed into my peripheral vision. It was a snowplow. The driver waved me over, stopped, put my bike in the back of his truck and helped me into the heated cab. He dropped me off 10 miles later in the remote mountain town of Fonni, where a group of villagers crowded around this still-shivering stranger, and one of them took me and my bike into a bar to treat me to another tot of brandy!

I had a more frightening snowstorm experience in the mid-1980s after reporting the Étoile de Bessèges, a February stage race in southern France — where rookie American pro Thurlow Rogers from Southern California was shocked one day when the water in his bottles turned to ice. I covered the race by bike. The next day, I headed east on a back road through the Cévennes. As I gained elevation, the light snow grew in intensity, and fell so deep on the road that I had to dismount and push my luggage-laden bike as best I could; I’d gone too far to turn back.

There were no houses on that desolate plateau, and I hadn’t seen any vehicles since early in the day. I was having trouble navigating in the whiteout, and I was getting colder and colder, despite putting on all the extra clothing I could find in my panniers. What should have been a pleasant two-hour ride was turning into a never-ending trudge … perhaps I wouldn’t even make it.

The snow kept falling. And when the road began dropping toward a far valley, I hopped onto one pedal, scooting the bike, in the hope of getting to a village before I collapsed with hypothermia—well, that’s what was going through my mind after all those hours of plodding alone in that bleak, silent, snow-covered landscape.

Just as I was despairing of ever reaching civilization I spotted a truck moving in the far distance. It didn’t come my way, but when I reached where it had been, I found the road had been partially plowed. I was able to start riding (very slowly) again … and I did reach a village, where I stuffed myself with cookies and hot tea before continuing to a real town. I checked into a small inn and soaked in a hot, deep bathtub. Bliss.

As for the most memorable day of bad-weather bike racing I’ve witnessed, that came in 1988 at the Giro d’Italia — and I don’t think anyone told the peloton to stop racing when heavy rain turned to snow on the Passo di Gavia. I know how cold it was because the French journalist I was traveling with stopped his car on the 8,600-foot summit. We stood in snow being driven horizontally by fierce crosswinds and watched the racers climbing laboriously, one by one, through the blizzard.

I’ve written about that (truly) epic day many times: how first-man-to-the-top Johan Van der Velde was so cold he stopped and climbed into his team car, and stayed there for many long minutes, warming up and changing into dry clothes before continuing; how second-man-to-the-summit Andy Hampsten donned ski gloves and a balaclava before tracking a solo path through snow and fog on the treacherous, dirt-road descent, risking frostbite, before claiming the leader’s maglia rosa in the valley; how several riders went hypothermic; and how only a handful actually quit the race.

Bob Roll, who was one of the survivors, wrote a piece titled “The Day the Big Men Cried” for one of his books. Those big men weren’t stopped by a little hailstorm — as their counterparts were last week in Argentina.

That’s a somewhat harsh verdict on today’s peloton, so I was pleased to see a couple of tweets this past Sunday from pros training on the Spanish island of Mallorca. Former U.S national champion Ben King of RadioShack-Nissan wrote: “Miserable training! 4 degrees C, windy, pouring rain and hail, 2 hrs was the max that [we] could face … and I’m still numb.” World champ Mark Cavendish of Team Sky added: “My cheeks are red and stinging from a hail storm….” Yes. But better that than red from embarrassment.

 

Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson

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19 comments

  1. Jesus from Cancun

    Aaaah, that picture. Grinta!

    However, I would not be too hard on the peloton at Argentina. The Pros were on their first race of the year, with much bigger goals ahead. Almost all the local riders were amateurs. If I had been in that peloton and someone tried to break away in the hail, I would have probably chased him just to throw a water bottle to his head.

    If they had seeked shelter at Liege in April or the Mortirolo in May, then there would be plenty of reason to call them wimps.
    But we all know that ain’t gonna happen.

  2. Deezil

    Another great example of The Hardmen vs. Mom Nature was the 1980 edition of LBL when a vicious snowstorm wiped out half the peloton and Bernard Hinault slogged on to a legendary victory. Just try to imagine that happening today: The reigning TdF champion enduring such conditions to win a Spring classic. I will never question the toughness, perseverance, or will of anyone who has the stuff to race a bike for a living. However, the game has undeniably changed as has the standard for what is considered a Hardman in the modern peloton. Even if everything else were equal, the technical fabrics and purpose-specific apparel available to today’s racers makes comparisons to previous eras moot. It would be almost like trying to compare a single-gear racer to one using a derailleur. No doubt the former would have considered the latter to be a weak-sister and bemoaned the fading toughness of their beloved sport. Everything is relative and every era has it’s heroes and Hardmen.

  3. BikeRog

    I understand that things were always tougher in the good ol’ days. That’s true in every sport, or at least it’s true in the stories you hear, but if I were in that hail storm, I wouldn’t risk my season on a possible injury in a small race that’s likely only a warm up for any objectives I would have for the remainder of the season. Sometimes discretion really is the better part of valor.

  4. dave king

    Just curious, John, when the last time was that you rode or raced in such conditions. I get your point, but this is an early season race … not the Giro. And the peloton appears to have more rights and a stronger will in deciding what is safe and what is not these days compared to the halcyon days of old.

  5. Touriste-Routier

    Please keep this in perspective; the riders briefly stopped to take shelter; the race wasn’t shortened or canceled. It isn’t as if they went on strike, and refused to ride. The stage continued and was concluded in a sprint from a greatly whittled down lead group.

  6. kosh

    Can I encourage you all NOT to follow John Wilcockson’s multiple rose-tinted-nostalgia examples of overdoing it.

    Life is too fragile a thing to risk by venturing beyond your survival envelope.

    HTFU? Sure. But stay within your abilities and preparation. Few of us are lucky enough to ride with a support car at our back.

  7. Scott G.

    Racing has gone to hell since the introduction of derailleurs,
    team cars and radios. Remember when bike racing was a test of
    wills not technology.
    Henri D.
    Somewhere in France.

  8. CAT4Fodder

    Look,

    Not sure what the actual weather was specifically like in Argentina, but there is a difference between snow and hail, and a strong thunderstorm. Lightening is the ONE thing that will not cause me a second thought about seeking shelter.

    I have a feeling that being in the Southern Hemisphere, this was a summer style thunderstorm, and the real fear was being struck by lightening.

    1. Padraig

      M M: That might be the only rational explanation I’d accept for stopping a race in a hail storm. Growing up in tornado alley, I’ve seen what hail can do and I can imagine some frames would end up doing the two-piece tango if they got hit by a grape-sized piece of hail.

  9. sam findley

    I absolutely sympathize with the nostalgia for the good ol’ days when hardmen rode steel, and I was a runner. There’s somethign about the human spirit pushing back and going exactly where Nature is saying you shouldn’t go that is inalterably beautiful.

    That said, I’m still profoundly glad I cancelled, at the last minute, a race I organized last spring, when the rivers started to rise. There’s something about a steepntwisty descent in the pounding rain and a course that’s got about a foot of water running across it at its lowest point, that screams “not worth it!” (especially when we’re talking about 30 cat 4/5’s, and 10 3’s).

  10. velopoint

    @punkture – Hating’s exactly what JW’s doing in this piece – while tootin’ his own horn all along, I might add. In addition to being a big diss on the peloton in Argentina, in paragraph after self-referential paragraph, the piece is an auto-ode to JW.

  11. yerma

    LOL. I’ve been reading JW’s prose for more years than I want to admit and I still admire his style and honesty. Perhaps readers should remember that good writers set a piece up by establishing a premise: ” Wait, I thought, aren’t bike racers supposed to carry on whatever the conditions, rain or shine? Next, they’ll be stopping because it’s too hot, or too cold, or maybe too windy! It wasn’t always so….” Beautiful. The rest is in fact autobiographical, thank goodness! A writer who has spent his life riding and observing the Pro continental scene relates this in context to the set up. Amici this is just good writing. Sam’s observation that pushing the limits when nature and our bodies challenge us to stop is indeed what cycling is about. Good writing on the other hand has a different set of rules. Velopoint: “hating”? Get a clue. It’s not Faux News.
    Thanks John.

  12. Jimmy

    “In my first multi-day race, … Within 10 minutes of hailstones…the intact pack was reduced to about a dozen.”

    “Tour of Sardinia, an early-season race that Tour de France champions Jacques Anquetil, Lucien Aimar and Jan Janssen were riding….Tour winner Janssen stopped several times…”

    Seems like the stalling in San Luis was merely tradition.

  13. Fat Monte

    In my day, we raced pennyfarthings through the Alps, in the winter, and half of us died, the other half went all Donner Party to survive and you know what? We liked it. We LOVED it.

    And then we followed Lewis and Clark’s expedition, and we kept riding even though the peleton was eaten by bears. And you know what? We liked it. We LOVED it.

    We didn’t have no mamby-pamby shifters or gears or helmets and when we fell and our bones stuck out of our skin, we didn’t even have bandaids. The hills only went up, never down. And the sun never came out because it wasn’t invented yet. But we liked it that way. We LOVED it that way.

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