Friday, 18 February 2011

My First Pro Race

Updates have been few and far between recently as I have been focussed on training for the Track World Championships in just a few weeks and haven't had time to post. But recently managed to take a break and got the chance to see my first professional race up close and personal.

I admit to being a cycling junkie. I live and breathe cycling – and with that comes a gigantic love of professional bike racing. I follow all the big races and even some of the small ones. I spend hours every week pouring over all the Pro cycling websites and publications and so it was like a (mini) dream come true when I got the chance to see the Pros up-close and personal.

In the most technical sense it wasn't my VERY first Pro race as I managed to be in Paris a few years ago for the final day of the Tour de France. However, that turned into a bit of a debacle when the riders were late to arrive into the city, and I had to leave early to catch my train back to London. I waited all day in a strategic location on the final circuit – on a corner where the riders would slow and pass by several times – but had to abandon my spot and head back to my hotel to collect my bags before they managed to pass me even once. As I was walking back to my hotel, they FINALLY came down the road and whizzed by my in the blink of an eye. My first Pro race experience was over in less than 10 seconds.

So, on a sunny Sunday afternoon, I headed down to the race circuit to search out a suitable spot to park myself to watch the race go by. Having watched most races on TV, I had expected the course to be closed off to the public with barriers all around to keep Joe Q away from the riders. This... was not the case (at least not for this particular race)!

I managed to cycle down to the start line – on the actual circuit itself. I kept expecting the police at each intersection to tell me to get off the road, but they did not. I actually was starting to wonder if I was in the wrong place! It turns out that it was a 'rolling road closure' circuit – meaning that as the riders came around, the lead cars/motorcycles would clear everyone off the road until the riders went by – and then the road was opened up again until they came around for the next lap. (But the road WAS completely closed to cars for the duration of the race.)

As I got myself up to the start line, I again expected to be separated from the riders by a great distance. Turns out I was stood all of about 5 feet from them! Just a flimsy piece of plastic keeping my bike away from theirs! I wandered up and down the start area, trying to pick out some of the better-known riders. I soaked up the atmosphere and watched as the riders casually joked and socialized with their fellow competitors. Not entirely unlike what it might be like at the start of your local race – just friends chatting with each other.

Just prior to the flag dropping for the start of the race, I found myself to one side of the start line – next to a fenced-off VIP area. As I watched, rider after rider started pulling their bikes from the start line and scattering into the bushes. Seems the delay in starting the race gave some of the riders cause to 'lighten the load' somewhat and take a quick 'comfort break'.

Tyler Farrar at the start
One such rider stood out to me. As he was heading back towards to the start line, I had the chance to have the briefest of words with.... Tyler Farrar, sprinter for Team Garmin-Cervelo. I asked him what he thought of his new bike (he was riding the same Cervelo S3 that I was sat on). He, of course, said he thought it was fantastic (but then, he isn't going to say anything else about his sponsor's equipment – is he!?)  Nevertheless, it was a thrill to be able to have a quick word with him.

Eventually the race got underway. It was 12 laps of a road circuit that took it up and down city streets. Approximately 12 minutes a lap – which meant the riders passed by in each direction every six minutes or so. Makes for great spectating (unlike my previous 10-second Tour de France experience). A small group of riders broke away from the main group and spent most of the day trying to stretch out their lead, but as with most bike races, it was not going to last.

Sitting at the side of the road, watching the peleton pass me time after time – it looked like they weren't even trying. Many of the riders in the middle of the pack didn't even appear to be pedaling. They just seemed to be on a casual Sunday afternoon ride. But their average speed was upwards of 26MPH! This is what separates a Pro rider from you or me – the ability to make the difficult look mundane and simple. Their easy spin would be a near all-out effort for me!

As the race wore on, I made my way to the start-finish line and parked myself there with a front-row seat to catch the inevitable sprint finish. With one lap to go, all the breakaway riders had been caught and the pack was now moving with some urgency. And then... they were barreling down the road towards the line for the final time.

Farrar winning the sprint
As they hammered by me, one rider pulled away slightly from the rest, powering past al the rest towards the painted white line on the road. As he crossed the line, hands raised in the air, I saw who it was: Tyler Farrar – the same rider I had spoken to just prior to the start! (Maybe it IS about the bike after all!)

As the crowds began to quickly disperse, I hopped back on my bike and started cycling back downt he road towards where all the team busses were parked. I was almost immediately surrounded by all the riders also heading back to the buses. I realized I was following Andre Griepel while Frank Schlek passed me on the right! Inadvertently, I was in the middle of the Pro peleton!

Most riders just headed back to their buses and jumped inside to perform their post-race recovery rituals. Crowds would gather outside – viewing their bikes, waiting for them to come out for photos or autographs. Children going from rider to rider and bus to bus asking for empty water bottles. It was a real festival atmosphere. I cycled around – taking it all in (and taking pics of the bikes and riders where I could!).

Farrar's race-winning bike
Lastly – I made my way back to the podium to watch the presentation of the prizes. Afterwards, I again found myself all of 6 feet away from Farrar - who was giving interviews to the press. I suppose I could have gone up and spoken to him again or gotten a photo, but decided against it. I did snap a pic of his race-winning bike... and as I rode off down the road... said goodbye to him and congratulated him on the win.
Former World Champion Oscar Freire
Farrar being interviewed