Friday, July 2, 2010

Rotterdam Encounters

Friends: I connected with legendary Tour follower, Skippy the Australian riding his 13th Tour, this morning as a group of handicapped riders was about to set out on the prologue course. Skippy is a great supporter of the handicapped, so it was no surprise that he was there, though it was just by chance that I stumbled upon this event while I was previewing the five-and-a-half mile prologue course, fully barricaded last night. As usual, it is a spectacular course, showcasing the host city's prized landmarks. It crosses Rotterdam's two signature bridges and takes the racers along the lengthy North Sea inlet that makes Rotterdam a port city. The bridges only offer a slight incline.

Once the handicapped race was on its way, Skippy was heading over to the Garmin team hotel to see if there was a possibility of joining the team's training ride, as he often does. I didn't realize it but the hotel was just two miles from where I was camping. I might have guessed, as this morning when I headed into town a young guy wearing a Garmin team jersey was out jogging on the cycle path. I pointed at my Garmin argyle socks as I passed him, though I'm not sure if he could see them.

The Milram and Caisse Espargne teams were also staying at the same hotel. The team buses and mechanic stands were all behind a fenced in area. Only one other cyclist was hanging about as the riders trickled out to get their bikes, so Skippy and I were able to greet everyone as they walked past us, all of whom know Skippy.

Their training ride this morning was a preview of the prologue course, just two miles away. It was closed to all riders other than Tour competitors for about three hours this morning. We could have joined the Garmin guys as they rode in along the cycle path, but Skippy had gone into the hotel to look for a newspaper that had run a story on him this morning.

I was at least able to greet Christian Vande Velde and wish him luck and let him know I feel at least two or three miles per hour faster wearing his Garmin socks. I asked if he was feeling better than last year when he started The Tour nursing numerous injuries. He slightly grimaced and said he'd broken a couple of ribs just two weeks ago and he felt no better than he did last year. So that may mean another eighth place finish, not bad at all. Some consider his eighth place finish last year the greatest ride of The Tour overcoming all that he did. Though Christian wore his usual smile, there was no mistaking the stress and pressure he is under, as the smile didn't have its usual ebullient shine. Still, he couldn't have been more cordial.

Watching the continual run of riders flying past on the course was more interesting than watching the actual prologue when they go off at one minute intervals. I will have no qualms about setting out on the race's first stage early tomorrow with Vincent rather than lingering in Rotterdam until the early evening watching the actual event with tens of thousands of others.

As I rode about town yesterday, visiting sites and also previewing the start of the first stage out of the city I came across only one team out training, the Basque Euskaltel team. It wasn't until that evening at the team presentation that I saw the twenty others.

I had a perfect vantage for the grand ceremony looking down upon the stage from the Erasmubreg Bridge, the bridge that is featured in the time trial and the first stage and was also the entry point for the teams to the presentation. Each of the nine-man teams passed just behind me in five minute intervals led by a pair of motorcycle police and followed by their team car.

The only drawback to my location was that none of the speakers were pointed in my direction. I didn't think it mattered much, as what I could make out all sounded like Dutch, even the mini-interviews with the English-speaking team leaders. I knew that couldn't be the case, so two-thirds of the way through the proceedings, after the Garmin team has passed by me I moved down to the river level and discovered the proceedings were much more English-friendly than I realized.

The interviewer even forced Contador to speak English. He claimed to feel no pressure and was sleeping well. Since I missed Christian's remarks, I asked him what I missed when I saw him this morning. He said not much, and that he was surprised he was even the team member chosen to be interviewed, since one of his teammates is from Rotterdam.

Lance's Radio Shack team was the third to last team presented, as the last few teams were introduced in reverse order of the team leader's finish the previous year. Lance commented how much he liked racing in Holland and how impressed he is by "how integrated the bicycle is in life here." He said this year's race will be very exciting for the spectators from the very start with several very challenging early stages. In year's past his usual concern is simply to avoid crashes the first week. This year there will be challenges beyond that, riding in the wind on stage one along the North Sea coast, the steep hills of Belgium's Ardennes on stage two, and the cobbles on stage three when The Tour enters France.

Moving down towards the stage later and standing on the periphery of the large crowd left me vulnerable to prowling interviewers. I was accosted by two--one with a microphone and a cameraman and the other with just a notepad. The man with the microphone wanted to know about my efforts to ride The Tour and also who I was rooting for. I told him I was most excited about seeing Chris Horner riding for Lance, as last year he was kept out of The Race by Contador, fearful that his presence on the Astana team would tip the balance of support riders in Lance's favor, even though he had ridden valiantly for him in the Tour of the Basque country before crashing out.

Horner is one of the toughest riders and ferocious competitors and brilliant tacticians in the peloton. He is capable of anything. He could be a tremendous factor in The Race, possibly even contending. He will be one of the most motivated riders racing. He's been stewing for a year over last year's exclusion. The cameraman liked my loaded bike so much that when the interview was done, he stepped back to give me and my bike a prolonged pan. Where it will turn up, I know not.

The second person asking questions was conducting a survey for the city on ow much money hosting The Tour was bringing to Rotterdam. I wrecked the averages, spending nothing on lodging and not even ten dollars a day on food. He also wondered how I would rate Rotterdam as a host city. It has had some delightful features I have never seen before, but the team presentation was rather lackluster. There was no welcome from the mayor or the Tour director as is usual. But the biggest disappointment was that the teams were introduced as a whole, rather than each individual. In the past every rider gets his credentials cited and the crowd gets a close up of his beaming face on the large screen as he takes. It always gives a jolt of excitement to be reminded of the races they have won from Paris Roubaix to the Tour of Lombardy. That always revs up the crowd, which this one needed doing.

The presentation began with Holland's two Tour winners, Jan Jost from 1968 just before Merckx began his run, and Joop Zoetemelk, 1980 winner and the man who has ridden the most Tours, riding across the stage wearing yellow jerseys, but not even pausing for a brief interview and applause. I would have loved to have heard what they might have said.

There were a couple of bicycle features preceding the presentation, a six-piece band riding around among the crowd on a six-person bike, and a mini-peloton of four riders led by a gendarme and followed by a support person with spare wheels walking simulated bikes through the crowd, staging a crash and then replaying it and having a flat tire and a breakaway. The piece de resistance preceding the presentation was an aerial act that had nothing to do with bicycling--six drummers and a trapeze artist hoisted up on a giant crane from the river doing their act above the crowd. It was breathtaking, but not bicycle-related.

Today the featured attraction is the Dutch-Brazil World Cup game at four pm in just two hours. I'll watch it with Skippy and Vincent. The streets of the city will be thronged with revelers if the Dutch can pull an upset.

Later, George

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