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
The Tour Down Under
Langkawi. Qatar. Down Under. These are the new code words for the early season. There was a time when conjuring the spring for the PROs used terms like Besseges, Omloop or Nice. Today, early season races like the Tour Down under or the Tour of Qatar give riders a chance to enjoy racing in warm weather at a point when nearly all of us are doing what we can to muster the fortitude to head out the door for a ride that even for the luckiest among us may only nip the 50s. And with the winter we’ve had this year, many riders can’t really even contemplate trying to ride slick 700C tires on the roads and the dream of riding in weather that isn’t frozen is just that—a dream that will go unfulfilled this week, next week, and probably some weeks to come.
It’s difficult to watch someone lead a peloton in short sleeves over a sand-washed blacktop or through monsoon rains. Difficult not only for the fact that the PROs are flying along at 40 mph or more as if they were motor pacing, but difficult because our options are fewer, usually involving either a thermal jacket or the trainer.
We look to the gods of the peloton for inspiration, something us to help suck it up and get out for four of five hours when it would really be much easier just to stay in with a book and the family. We want to see them in jackets and tights or arm warmers, vest and slathered with an embro that could melt the paint off your car.
Little can make us appreciate their suffering more, or wish to emulate it more than a long, quiet shot of the peloton rolling along at 22 mph, the riders hands on the bar tops, the leaders evenly spaced across across the front with the order of bricks in a wall. You tell yourself: See?! Even the PROs know how to keep it in check in the early season.
Never mind the fact that 30 miles from the finish the pace will ratchet up to the fury of the Tasmanian Devil, we love the juxtaposition. After all, nothing can make the peloton seem faster than having seen them ride slow. And that’s what we need right now. Whether you’re braving the elements or the trainer, it’s so much easier to summon the strength necessary to suffer when you know someone else is out there, someone you know is tougher, stronger and more dedicated. That’s the very font of inspiration.
Of course, there’s always the chance that seeing the peloton enjoy weather of which we can only dream may inspire us to log miles no matter how miserable it is outside.
Images: John Pierce, Photosport International
As some of you know, I spent most of last week flat on my back contemplating my robotic mortality and cursing whatever pig-robot (pigbot?) had found a way to infect me with its H1N1 virus. For the most part, during this time, I cut myself off from media. No TV. No interweb.
And yet, some time, mid-week, an email from my friend Gustavo at Embrocation Journal snuck through. What did I think, he wanted to know, of the Tour de France invites from ASO this year. More specifically, he wanted to confirm that I was as angry as he was that Vacansoleil and some of the other small teams (Skil-Shimano, Saur Sojasun) that have so animated the first months of the season failed to make ASO’s grade while underperforming pro teams coasted in on their good looks and the pre-existing agreement the UCI and ASO have to admit 16 of the ProTour teams to the Grand Boucle automatically.
Even in my weakened state, I was able to give Gustavo what he wanted, a frank and terse evaluation of some of the ProTour’s lesser lights, a caustic dismissal of ASO’s motives and a side swipe at some of the peloton’s new entrants.
And as I’m just getting back on my feet this week (or back on my pedals as the case may be), I thought I’d trot out some of my ideas and see if we can’t get some discussion going.
First, let me say I can’t contrive a reasonable argument for excluding Vacansoleil from the Tour. The small, Dutch Pro-Continental team, in just its second year on the road, has won the overall of the Tour of Qatar with Wouter Mol, Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne with Bobbie Traksel and two stages of the Étoile de Bességes with Borut Bozic. Those are their wins, which tell only half the story. Vacansoleil’s riders have placed highly throughout the early season and pushed the big teams at every opportunity. They have done everything you would want a wild card Tour invitee to do and then a bit more.
Instead, ASO picked Garmin-Transitions, Team RadioShack, BMC Racing Team, Team Sky, Katusha and Cervelo TestTeam as their wild cards. If you run through this list, write down their major results for 2010 and then compare them to Vacansoleil, you’ll get very little in the way of difference. Some have won a little more. Some have won less. What you won’t see, but probably know, is that each of these teams has a great deal more money than the Dutch outfit. They’ve signed stars, so ASO imagines they’ll bring more attention to the Tour, as if the Tour suffers for a lack of attention.
Of the wild cards here, the one that actually rankles me most is RadioShack. The Shack have done a lot of not much this year. Every time their leader finds his way onto a television camera he is telling you why the race he’s about to ride is really just a tune up for the Tour and how he’s not going to push himself very hard or be very bothered by not getting a result. Meanwhile, his teammates wrack up no wins. Team RadioShack reminds me a bit of the Jackson’s Victory Tour, a money-spinning gallop across the globe by a former champion and his over-the-hill friends.
Ooooh, that’s harsh.
Still, the Shack’s value to ASO lies completely in the false rivalry between Armstrong and Contador. It’s a story that sells sponsorships, I suppose. And magazines. And yet, does anyone think Armstrong will get near el Pistolero in France this summer? The former champ has had a pretty poor buildup this season. He’s been sick. He’s been tired. And he’s been old. There are half-a-dozen riders or more that will finish above the marketing juggernaut come the final day in Paris.
On top of their lack of results, the Shack have gone about their business in that age-old Armstrong-Bruyneel way, i.e. with very little regard for any race that isn’t called the Tour de France. They’re not even racing the Giro! They’ve chosen the Tour of California “instead.” The ToC is a great race, an up-and-comer, a suitable rival for Paris-Nice and the other one week stage races, but one thing it is NOT is a good reason to skip the Giro d’Italia. A team with a budget like the Shack’s really ought to be able to contest both races anyway.
I could go on and on, but suffice it to say I don’t think the Shack deserves its Tour invite simply based on Armstrong’s legacy with the race and the money he’ll bring to its organizers. In the real world, those are entirely valid reasons for their inclusion. But from my perspective, they stink.
That brings us, rather unceremoniously, to the rest of the truth of this situation, which is that there a number of ProTour teams that just can’t pull their own weight. I’d name Team Milram, Footon-Servetto, Euskaltel-Euskadi among those. Because the UCI paved the way for guaranteed invitations to a group of ProTour squads in a 2008 accord that helped avoid a complete debacle in which ASO took its races and went home, they’re all in, but, if the ProTour had a minimum win number (say 10 races of a certain ranking per year), you’d see more licenses available for teams that win, but I am far from the first to suggest the UCI need a better system for promotion and relegation of pro teams.
Starting in 2011, only the first 17 teams in the UCI rankings at the end of 2010 will get guaranteed Tour invites, with the rest filled at ASO’s discretion. This may be a more equitable way of slicing the Tour pie, but, by and large, what you will end up with is still a race full of the wealthiest rather than the fastest teams. The rest can, perhaps, call Vacansoleil and book one of those summer holidays they sell when they’re not riding bicycles.
All week, as pro riders have been tweeting from the Land Down Under, and fans have been moistening their chamois (What actually is the plural of chamois?) in anticipation of the coming season, I’ve heard a small but distinct contingent of cycling purists who are lamenting the rise of such races as the Tour Down Under, the Tour of Qatar, etc., the so-called “new races,” that seem to be supplanting old races like the Etoile de Bességes and Paris-Troyes and the traditional season-openers in Western Europe, like the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in Belgium.
So this week’s Ride examines the value of tradition in cycling, versus the value of innovation.
Do you like the newer races? Or prefer the old? Why? And regardless of your preference, do you think the new races are better for cycling, spread out as they are, or do you think the future of cycling is going back to its roots?
There are echoes of this debate throughout the sport, as in the UCI radio ban and even in the use of certain performance enhancers, but for now, with the TDU nigh, let’s focus on the races.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International