Friday, July 3, 2015

Utrecht, The Presentation of the Teams

Though we were all biking into Utrecht from different directions from hundreds of miles away, Vincent, David and I easily found one another yesterday afternoon in the park along a canal in downtown Utrecht where the presentation of the teams was to take place later in the day.  Vincent was sprawled in the grass having a picnic when I stopped by before noon just to scout out the location.  He had arrived in Utrecht the day before, just as I had.  He made the ride from Frankfurt in five days after flying in from Melbourne.  We hadn't seen each other in three years, but we have kept in close email contact, so it seemed as if we had last talked a week ago.  And David turned up several hours later fully resplendent in the bright green PMU jersey he had scored from the publicity caravan a couple of years ago.

I joined Vincent in the grass with a two-pound tub of mashed potatoes, my favorite Dutch supermarket treat.  Its to Vincent's liking as well and he had yet to find any, but he couldn't help me as he had more than enough food of his own.  I couldn't handle it all it one sitting, so after an hour of nibbling while the band and emcee rehearsed on stage we ventured off to visit a few of the museums with exhibits on The Tour.  The Instituto Cervantes had a gallery of photographs entitled "Bicycles, A View from the Road Side."  Most were in black-and-white from the past twenty years.  There were close-ups of haggard racers and fans along the road and other glimpses of the intensity and the passion that epitomize The Race that we were fully attuned to.

Our next stop was the Aboriginal Art Museum.  On the way we stopped in at one of several bicycle boutiques with high quality designer bikes and accessories, including Brooks saddles for an ungodly $320. The owner had recently been to Australia and raved how much he enjoyed it. Many shops, whether they sell bikes or not, featured bikes in their windows.  So did the Aboriginal Museum.  The frames of its bikes appeared to be made with didgeridoos, but they were only wrapped around their cross tubes.  The tires and forks were also painted with white dots in the Aboriginal style.

The large Central Museum had an exhibit entitled "Sport is Fun" that couldn't entice us in.  There was too much bike art on the street and in shop windows to pay to see any.  The emblem of Utrecht, the Dom Tower, the tallest structure in the city and the highest church tower in Holland, was flying yellow flags.

The official town poster for The Tour featured in shop windows and on the sides of buildings was of the tower and a rider in yellow.

Yellow was the dominant color in the city.

Benches and buckets turned up yellow.

 Waitresses wore yellow blouses and t-shirts and trees were wrapped in yellow as well as red polka dots.

The polka dots were almost as popular as yellow.  Canal tour boats had been repainted to acknowledge The Tour.

This being Holland the streets were aswarm with cyclists and not a one was wearing a helmet.  Bikes were parked everywhere, sometimes in masses.

Shortly after Vincent and I returned to the park for the evening presentation David rolled in on his bike, a couple days before he expected to arrive on his ride from Bremen.  He'd had favorable winds and an eagerness to make it in time for the opening event of The Tour.  When Vincent's face brightened with the recognition of a friend as we were talking I expected to turn and see Skippy, an Aussie who has been following The Tour on his bike since 1998, six years more than me.  He had been in town since Monday.  I had stopped by the hostel where he was staying earlier in the day but had just missed him. We were to learn later that he had been told by the manager of The Tour headquarters that he was a "persona non-grata" at The Tour this year and would be arrested if he didn't leave.  

All of us who follow The Tour on our bikes from time to time ignore arbitrary, senseless orders from gendarmes to stop riding the course hours before the riders pass.  Evidently Skippy had gone a little too far last year.  He has a strong exuberant personality who everyone knows, though not all appreciate. He is a strong rider who tags along with teams on their rest day day rides. He is a wonderful animator full of dazzling stories.  We have had many fine times over the years riding and camping and hanging out.  He has introduced me to many riders and tour officials over the years, including Chris Froome two years ago in Corsica as he was helping guide him through the crowds after the team presentation.  Hopefully he will get this matter straightened out and we will enjoy his company in the days to come.

It was still three hours until the ceremony started when we met David.  We were happy to sit in the shade on this hot ninety degree day.  About an hour before the program was to begin we were told we would have to remove our bikes from the park.  There was no corral or sanctioned place to leave them and since they were loaded with all our gear we needed to keep on our on them.  So removed ourselves to beyond the barriers along the parade route the riders would proceed after their on stage introduction.  We found a spot with a vantage of the stage and the large screen showing the proceedings.  The acoustics were strong enough to hear the introductions and interviews of two or three riders from each of the twenty-two teams.  It was conducted nearly all in English.  That's Froome on the screen.

It was actually on ideal spot as we could get a close glimpse of the gleeful faces of the riders as they rolled past responding to the cheers of the thousands who had turned out for the event.  I might have caught the eye of Mark Cavendish as he drifted by slapping hands if I had held out his team water bottle that was on my bike that I had scavenged in Dubai earlier this year.

Albert Contador slapped hands on the opposite side of the road.

A Dutch rider was one of five or six who stopped to give a young boy his autograph.

The fellow in the helmet in the foreground was about the only one of thousands wearing a helmet.  He was decked out in Lycra and had biked from his town twenty miles away for the event.  His nine-year old daughter raced.  They had been in Denmark the week before for a race.  He pulled out his phone to show us a photo of her with The Devil, who had been there.  Boys and girls race against each other until they turn fourteen when the boys start developing faster.  Up until then there are fairly equal.  His daughter had finished third in her last race, beaten by two riders on carbon bikes.  Her bike is aluminum and she thought maybe she should upgrade to carbon.  Her father pointed out that she had beaten other riders on carbon, and that aluminum would be just fine for her, though he knows in the feature the sport could get expensive for him.  He pointed out that whenever one of The Tour riders rode by us, he thought, "There goes ten thousand dollars," the cost of their bike.

After he learned that David was German he told Vincent and I that whenever a Dutch person meets a German they say, "Give me back my bike."  He was somewhat joking but also somewhat serious.  It was no small matter if he thought to raise the issue.  He explained that it went back to WWII when the Germans started to randomly confiscate bikes for their own personal use.  That was about the gravest indignity that one could inflict upon another in this Kingdom of the Bicycle.  He then he added whenever someone they know is going to Germany they say, "Bring back a bike."  I had read about this in a very fine book on the history of bikes in Amsterdam.  It told about a World Cup soccer match in the '70s between the Dutch and the Germans when the Dutch fans chanted "Give Me Back My Bike."  David said the guy was overstating the issue, but it was still quite telling that he would bring this up seventy years since the War.

The small murals painted by school children that line the parade route also gave some insight into the Dutch way.  One across from us featured a marijuana leaf and a joint.  It also had the small head of a white rabbit, a much more common emblem on these mini-banners along with the Eiffel Tower.  Our Dutch companion explained that Dutch children learn to read from books that feature a white rabbit and everyone has a strong connection to them

After the ninety minute program was completed we headed out of town to a field where I had camped the night before.  It was a somewhat complicated route as the many meandering canals prevent roads from going straight.  I had to take three ferries across waterways on my way into Utrecht.  We got near to my campsite but a storm was imminent so rather than continuing to seek it out we settled upon a small patch of grass with a picnic table alongside a bike path and a canal with a deck for swimming.  With three of us we had no concern about being in such a wide open space.  As we rushed to set up our tents Vincent echoed all our sentiments, "There isn't any place I'd rather be."


Bill Burns said...

George, I envy you as you're once again at the Tour, but I am vicariously enjoying your accounts. Thanks again for the little shots of your campsites at the end of your posts. It's fun to see the places you stay on your journeys, the places above any you'd rather be. Bon voyage from the Heartland of the USA on this great Independence Day weekend!

Andrew said...

George good to see that you've found your comrades. Did you also find that super cheap fifty cent chocolate milk that we came across in holland?

george christensen said...

Andrew: Yes, a liter of that rich chocolate milk is the other half of my main diet here in Holland. The bike paths are still a menace and the camping a challenge. Looking forward to getting back to France.

Andrew said...

Have you relented and used an official campground yet (and enjoyed a hot shower)?

george christensen said...

Nothing but wild camping and no need for a shower with the canals to take a dip in. You'll be disgusted to learn that both Vicent and I have been dining on those two for a euro supermarket cheeseburgers in Belgium.

Andrew said...

Sacre Bleu!