Friday, January 31, 2014

Hoogerheide 2-The Course

Hoogerheide 2: The Course  

 This drop off is about 350 meters before the finish line. 

 But this run-up (as steep as Northampton's run-up but shorter by say 10 meters) is right before that drop off. 

This is a photo from the 2009 Worlds at Hoogerheide and ashow the expected crowds this Sunday.  
This is inside that double-decker VIP area.

These guests will have a killer view of the riders, but not in the key areas.

The guys are tacking down a foamy carpet on the two-way fly-over.

The course doubles back on itself twice, right in front of the VIPs. The view will be like watching the escalators at Macy's!

At one of the 180-degree turns, you get a clue as to how gooey this course could become. 

You can see the roped-off sections for racing versus pre-riding. The result will be a wide-open course on the race days. 

There a few hard-packed gravel sections that will be fast in all weather.

Some of the wide open grass sections. 

The staff and volunteers, some here joking around on the podium, are perhaps the best I have ever seen. Professional, but fun. 

For  you race nuts, I'll give you the quick rub on the Hoogerheide course. It's not too hard. But any course is only as hard as the riders racing on it.  
There are no barriers, as only Adrie Van Der Poel would have it. 
There are four surfaces: two paved stretches; a gooey mud that can get deep; a thick grass; and some gritty hard-packed gravel pathways. There is neither sand nor major mud stretches ... yet. They have roped off much of the course to force the pre-ride to one side to preserve the key grass stretches. Again, Adrie Van Der Poel wants a fast course. 
There is nothing on it that is SO technical that any decent amateur could not ride. After  all the hub-bub from American riders saying our courses are not hard enough, this is a course event I could ride. 
The final 500 meters has a tough run-up (some claim they saw one guy ride it), a drop-off, and a punchy little up hill before the sprint. 
The sprint is long; long enough to allow a strong rider to wind up a big gear and come past a "quicker" pure sprinter. 
This course favors the strong and fast over the quick and nimble. 
The first turn is super dangerous; but after that stack up the first lap will not be that selective. The course is really, really wide. 
The second lap will allow a lot of riders to come back from mistakes.  
Everything about this course will favor the fast Lars Van Der Haar over the nimble Sven Nys.  
But consequently, Katie Compton will not have to worry about Marianne Vos' quick start; the course favors the strong like Compton. One can come back from some mistakes. 
It's a really good course for Jeremy Powers. 
Patience. Patience. Patience. 
This should be a far more tactical race than recent editions ... which I like.  
Zdenek Stybar will play a key role in the men's race. I doubt he will win, but he will be strong enough to chase down a lot of early moves. He will be the glue in the lead bunch. 
Keep a start list handy and a second computer; you'll want to look up a lot of names you may not know during the first half of this race.
But what the the hell do I know? 

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Hoogerheide 1

Hoogerheide 1

I'm in the Netherlands, more specifically Hoogerheide. OK, I'm actually in Ossendrecht, about six kilometers south. It is a pleasant bike ride along the Wall of Brabant....which is not a wall, so  much as a historically significant ridge that rises up to look out at the windmills standing up to the North Sea.

The Romans, the Spanish, the French, the Germans and even the Canadians all became familiar with this area during assorted military endeavors here.

Hoogerheide means High Heath in Dutch.

Say it aloud: HOOGGGGG-er-HIGH-da.

Do you feel that word in your throat? Cyclo-cross town names sound and feel like the sport itself; gritty and strong, scraping one's epiglottis like a cobblestone.

Most of us enter the world of cycling via road cycling, which features places such as Paris or Rome or Madrid. These are places that roll off the tongue delightfully. You can almost hear Handel or Mozart as you roll into the sport.

Some of us enter through mountain biking, which features pretty places such as Moab and Crested Butte. These places sound like fun campgrounds with pretty post cards. It's like The Sound of Music on a bike.

And those lovely elements of cycling are like gateway drugs, spritzers and lagers.

Inevitably, those who truly love cycling, find themselves drawn like Ulysses to the siren call of cyclo-cross, which is like back-alley heroin, with a soundtrack laid down by The Clash.

Places associated with 'cross sound like what they are: hard. Tabor, Koksijde, Sankt Wendel, Hoogerheide... These are places where the Romans got their asses kicked by savage tribes. And the Spanish are still licking their wounds after the Dutch threw them out after 100 years of fighting. (Few realize that Belgium was referred to as the "Spanish Netherlands" for a long time.)

If you want to know about 'cross - and all cycling for that matter - pore over a map of this region. For a study of cycling in this area curiously mirrors that which happened in history.

I find it curious how many cycling tour operators focus on Spain, Italy and France, but nobody I know of ever brings a group to the Netherlands. Hoogerheide is a short bike ride from Belgium. Antwerp, Ghent, and Brussels are not far away. And all those classics - Flanders, Amstel Gold, Ghent-Wevelgem - are run on the roads of this area.  And Roubaix is perched on the Belgian border, barely in France.

This entire area is effectively the delta of the Rhine River, where it empties into the North Sea. Effectively, these guys ran the toll booth for a vast amount of Western European farmers and artisans and traders hoping to get their goods on a boat or off a boat. So while assorted armies and empires pompously stomped into this part of the world, the Dutch adopted a strategy of forging alliances, giving unto Caesar and all that, and then loaning them money.

...If you didn't pay them back, they made it rough on you to do business here.

One of the traits of Dutch civilization is they don't like such proud people telling them what to do. Like, the Holy Roman Empire....The match of the Protestant Reformation hit the Netherlands like a tinderbox. A lot of the savagery of the Thirty Years War happened in the Netherlands.

Almost poetically, the Dutch and the Belgians embrace 'cross with a similar zeal with which they rejected such empires. The French, the Romans, the Spanish, the Germans, the British can do what they like with their empires, but with government or sport, these guys will do it their way. To some degree, the celebration of 'cross here is a big flip off to the Grand Tours. American fans adore stage racers; these guys live for one-day race champions who race not with calculated defense but with savage offense.

I touched down in Brussels after a pleasant flight with Cody Kaiser, Chris McGovern and Tobin Ortenblad. Fortunately Ortenblad, who dressed like a crystal meth sales rep, did not try to sing on board the flight. I took time to speak with Max Chance, a fine junior from Boulder.

Upon arrival my driver, Bart, whisked me north and east towards Antwerp and into my hotel, just over the border. To my surprise I encountered the bluest of skies and sunshine.

After a brief nap in the hotel, I had to get to the venue for the awards rehearsal.

As I walked out of the hotel, I felt the eyes of three people on me from inside the restaurant. One of them smiled and nodded a greeting. It was a Marianne Vos, who grew up about 40 km away.

I tramped around Ossendrecht in search of a bike shop. Once there I rented an upright Gazelle for 7 Euros a day. I just walked out with the bike, the proprietor kindly stating I could settle up later via the hotel.

This little town has an eery feel. I saw about 20 people total, with most of them pensioners. I felt as if the entire place was boarding up for an invasion of sorts.

I pedaled north by braille, with neither a map, nor a GPS, and not so much as an address, towards the race venue. Keeping the mid-day sun behind me, and following a bike path...uphill into that North Sea wind....I reached Hoogerheide without incident. I immediately found the venue, as this town only has 10,000 residents. The worlds venue will eclipse the town in geographic size and multiply its population sixfold on Sunday.

I walked through much of the venue, watching the forklifts and trucks and workers steadily erect this temporary city out of scaffolding, trusses, bridges, and fencing. The sheer size of this thing is amplified when it is not populated.

I found Kees Maas, the veteran Dutch announcer I first met here at the 2012 Road Worlds in Valkenburg. After securing our credentials, we tramped down to the podium for the rehearsal....Something I find comical each time I do so. Nothing goes right; everybody is freezing in this January wind; podium presenters never have a clue about how to dress for outside endeavors; and we always have fun with assorted course workers playing the part of podium finishers, waving to their adoring co-workers who roar with laughter as we pretend to put on their rainbow jersey.

Adri Van Der Poel drove through the venue in his comfortable Citroen. I pedaled out with my Gazelle, ripping southward with the wind at my back.

Dinner, some Leff darks, and then research, research, research on the junior men.

Some of the highlights of that research include:

Saturday will likely have some rain. The Namur World Cup is likely to be the best indicator of a rider's strength on Saturday. Just sayin'......

YANNICK PEETERS of Belgium is the hands down favorite. He is the World Cup champion, has more than 10 major wins, and proved the winner at Namur. But he did not win his national title, which went to the 17-year-old ELI IZERBYT.

The Belgians had an amazing 56 starters and 26 finishers at their nationals. At issue is just how many of them have a chance to win Saturday; and this Lord of the Flies situation can work against them...Somebody has to be Piggy.

ADAM TOUPALIK of Czech Republic is a favorite. And he is just 17.  He was second at Namur.

FRANCE is always good at this race. They are led by twin brothers, LUKE AND JOSH DUBAU, who shocked all going 1-2 at the Valkenburg World Cup. Josh has not returned a similar result since; Luke, who went ninth at Namur, has been consistent enough to maintain a world rank of seven. But neither won their national championship, which went to SEBASTIEN HAVOT. Watch YAN GRAS, who finished third in the European Championships. Of note with France is that the top eight finishers in their national championships finished within 23 seconds of each other.

I expect to have dinner with Brook Watts, Mike Plant, Tim Johnson and Peter Goguen while here...Stay tuned for that report.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Tuscany 5

Tuscany 5

The Art of Racing in the Rain

Hopefully you watched, or at least read, about the most dramatic pro men's world championships in recent memory. I'll spare you the race details the journalists all covered.

Allow me to provide some behind-the-scenes scenes.

The Italians do not do everything well. They could use a lot of help with airports.

But one thing they do very well - from sculpture to architecture to bike races - is presentation.

The elite men's race started in Lucca, a fantastic fortress of a city about an 80 minute drive from Firenze. While the other start ceremonies were managed by the Italian announcers, either Barbara Pedrotti or Allesandro Brambilla, the UCI announcer traditionally tends to the elite men's race. I drove with Allesandro while he pointed out assorted cycling landmarks in Italian.

We arrive, get a coffee, and then hit the stage. This entire Medieval fortress town is quietly bracing for this event. Everybody is out in the morning rain, all looking as if they were waiting for a bus. We are a feeble intro ... like the guys who jiggle the cables on a stage before The Who comes on.

 Upon arrival I saw the sign-in stage arranged in the traditional fashion, with one grandiose exception. Carpenters had built a complete elevated runway with a ramp, covered in felt, and equipped with a pair of A-frame racks. The crowd fencing had been arranged to funnel the superstars right up the ramp for their sign-in ceremony and a team photo.

The thing looked spectacular.

But the first casualty of battle is the plan. We rambled on with assorted pieces of Italian cycling trivia. I held my own in English, going on about Alfredo Binda and Tulio Campagnolo and such.

Cyrile Gauthier and Thomas Voekler showed up first. They kindly waited. The French team joined and the photo came off well. Up came a lone rider from Algeria. Then the Mexican team.

The famous Mediterranean climate had provided us seven-consecutive days of perfect weather. The luck ran out on the biggest day.  

Rain started hard. Umbrellas came up. None of the spectators moved. But no other riders showed up either. Forty minutes to start and the board remained bereft of most signatures.

Alex Howes, an American I've watched compete since his days as a junior rolled up. Soon thereafter came Andrew Talansky. I got some words with both but they told me what I knew.

Rain adds enormous stress to a bike race. The mechanics, the soigneurs, the directors and especially the riders have so much more to do. There are rain coats, arm warmers, food, shoe covers, hats, lenses, gloves and vests all to find. Everybody knows there will be more punctures, more crashes, more selections, and more abandons.

Now add the enormous stress of racing 277 km in the world freakin' championships. And nobody wants to stand on their legs in the rain any longer than necessary.

As a result of these elements everybody is late to the sign-in ceremony.

After 30 minutes of stalling with jokes, trivia and card tricks (ok, there were no card tricks) we had about 20 of the 208 riders signed in.  And then they all poured up the ramp like freaking Visigoths.

And we had one pen.

Suddenly the greatest pros in the world were stacked up in a massive line. Heaps of bikes were all over the beautiful stage.

And then the rain really started to come down. Suddenly nobody would leave the cover of the stage. The line crammed forward to be under the canopy. Within two minutes the Mount Rushmore of the sport resembled the Marx Brothers in A Night at the Opera.

This platform became a bike dork's dream. I found myself pressed between Cancellara, Cavendish, and Froome. Contador, Valverde, Porte, Phinney and Roche all smeared into this subway car of fame. The whole thing was like an Al Hirshfeld cartoon in The New Yorker.

And into the chaos rolled the Italian team. These $10,000 bikes were heaped up as if in a campus police auction. Vincenzo Nibali skidded off the runway and wedged his foot in the slender gap to the stage.

Throughout this entire process Brambilla is going on and on and on about each rider's palmares.

"Well this is a shit show," I say out loud, catching a laugh from both Cavendish and Froome.  

Through it all Cancellara stood lias resolute as a statue; power resonated from his soul.

Barely able to reach down and extract my phone from my pocket, I see the time: 9:49 a.m.  Off to the side I notice a Colombian rider nearly get bumped off the stage due to the crowding; his teammate grabbed his jersey to rescue him from the fall.

"Screw it," I said aloud and routed  the microphone upwards along my body.


And they all left.

Nobody noticed, or mentioned, the soft spoken Portuguese rider, Rui Costa signing in.

Like the condemned soldiers at Agincourt they trudged into the sloppy weather to contest perhaps the most epic 277 km in recent cycling history. I'll leave that story to my colleagues.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Tuscany 4

Il Circuito Fantastico

FIRENZE, Italy - Sept. 28, 2013 - Fabian Cancellara met my question with a dismissive gaze. Our eyes locked.

"I'm not here to talk about Sunday. I'm only here to talk about the time trial and to celebrate my bronze medal," he said on Wednesday.

The question I had asked was whether his preparation for this celebrated road race circuit had altered his training for the time trial. We were both speaking in code.

Cancellara had arrived in Firenze visibly lighter than he had in Australia, Copenhagen, or Valkenberg, where he brought more weight and hence, more power, to the pedals. And he finished way behind Tony Martin and two seconds behind Bradley Wiggins.

The following day, unbeknownst to him, he would give me the real answer to the question without saying a word. For that would be the day I would get to ride Il Circuito, the final circuits for the 2013 Worlds.

I hold Cancellara in the highest regard for three reasons: 1) He races - and wins - with savage abandon; 2) in Australia I saw him patiently give interviews to every reporter in six different languages in the boxes, including one nervous Aussie college radio journalist I got into the very last reporter box in the line; and 3) when his asshole Swiss teammate came to the sign-in table in a raging tantrum over the protocol required for the 2010 road worlds, screaming at me as he stormed off the stage, Cancellara forced him back to the stage, apologized to me for the guy's behavior, and made him pose for the team photo.

The guy is awesome.

But he was cloaking his priorities for this world championships. He was here to win the road worlds, not the time trial. Because this circuit is perfect for Cancellara.

My first exposure to the circuit came by stumbling on to the route Wednesday morning. I had a few hours, had purchased a map, and simply saw a town that looked interesting and could be indexed by my knowledge of the region. In short, I only had to go the same place I had gone every day and keep going. I rode to Fiesole.

Simply following signs to this town I wound up on the course. Riding alone, the climb cracked me. I pounded up to a beautiful town adorned with bleachers, signage and fantastic sculpture. I realized I was on the course and pressed upward for an additional kilometer of climbing.

The following day would be my lone day off. I ate breakfast and kitted up with my People for Bikes kit, complete to the socks, and rolled towards the circuit. My credential got me on at 10 a.m. when all the teams were to ride on the closed course.

Mind you, the pre-ride on this course draws a live audience that matches the crowds seen in most American pro races. Entire  schools are released to let the kids go course side to cheer on all the riders.....But oh how they waited for the Squadra Azzuri.

Just as I approached the course I came upon the entire French junior and under-23 team. I hopped on.

We rolled upwards towards Fiesole at a comfortable pace, with about a dozen amateurs tagging long like so many remoras on a shark. The boys were just rolling comfortably and I stuck. With such a draft this climb felt easier. The stretches that crushed me the day before were tolerable. As we hit the switchback a French junior turned his head to see me, by then breathing audibly...but at 52 years of age.....screw off kid....I'm still here!

I swiveled my head back to realize I all the amateurs were gone. Just me and the French kids rolled up to Fiesole.

Just as I cracked into Fiesole, expecting to continue upwards as I had the day before and contemplating dropping off, I saw the fencing. Fiesole was the top! I had survived and started the descent.

The climb, it turned out, nearly matched that of Old Littleton Road, aka the "Harvard Climb" outside of Boston. About 4 km with an average grade of 5 percent and a maximum grade of 9 percent. I simply got into the hurt box and stayed there for about 10 minutes.

I stopped at the top. Checked my text messages. Then did the descent ... like a clumsy boxer .... There is just one turn that requires a bit of brakes. And then I hit the Via Silviate, the shorter but harder climb that followed. This climb hits your legs like an eight-pound sledge. The average grade is 11 percent but the steepest pitch hits 16 percent. The effort is about three minutes.

I survived and then rolled down through the technical fast section to the finish, where I paused with some journalists. When asked by Italian television how I viewed the loop for the world road championships, I paused.

I had one word: "Dynamic."

And it went viral. Of the four road worlds I have called, this is the one route that will produce the truest of road champions. This course does not favor pure climbers, does not favor sprinters, and does not favor the strongest teams. This course is for the best all around individual rider.

I did the climb again, but with a large group that included the Austrian national team. I descended with the Belgian and Dutch teams. I charged through the city section, where I encountered Evelyn Stevens, who seemed chirpy about the course.

Then I rolled towards Fiesole for a final loop. I planned to climb alone but noticed a large swarm of red coming up from behind. The Swiss were on their laps. And right in the thick of it rode Cancellara. A flotilla of amateurs had tacked on the back. Of course I did the same.

We were going about 30 kph as the grade became steeper. The amateurs started to pop like circuit breakers. I filled a few gaps and came within a wheel of the man they call  Spartacus. His uphill surge to win Flanders reportedly put out a sustained wattage of 750. This man could pop light bulbs. And yes, I was flickering.

He rode while speaking to a colleague, his hair flowing as if in a photo shoot. With Firenze below us in full splendor to the right, Fiesole above us to the left, we approached the the switchback where a crowd of nearly 500 had assembled just for a glimpse at such men as Fabu.

Swiveling his head to study the route and breathing through his nose, he lifted off the saddle, and pressed the pedals.

I came off like a flake of dandruff.

I almost went paperboy on the climb to recover and then saw Seamus Downey, who raced for the Killian's Red team in the 1980s. His son, Mark Downey, would be in the junior event. With my heart rate settled, I resumed in time to see Gavin Mannion, the young American son of an Irish immigrant Tommy Mannion living in the Boston area, climbing easy.

At the top I regrouped, and checked my text messages to ensure I could secure a ride by 2 p.m. from Barbara to attend a junior conference. She noted instead that she needed to leave by 12:15 for an Italian press conference. I looked at the time: 11:50 a.m. and I'm 8 km from the finish line and another 4 km from the hotel.

I'm also soaked in sweat, kinda hungry, and really thirsty.

I reply: "See you at 12:15"

I bomb the descent, no brakes, and end up catching the other American U23 riders. I hit the savage Via Salviati pretty hard and nearly vomit going over the crest. Then I press the urban turns and roll right through the finish line.

I got to the hotel and even managed to shower by 12:16. We made it to all the appointments.

But in riding it hard I learned a lot about this circuit.

Matej Mahor of Slovenia, the emerging superstar who, as a junior, won the silver medal in the 2012 time trial world championships and then took the road race in a bunch gallop, returned in 2013 to win the Under 23 road race at age 18. In his press conference he confirmed what I had suspected: the Fiesole climb was not hard enough. Mind you he was climbing it at 40 kph, but he noted, as I learned, that at speed there is considerable draft. Ironically, the faster the group goes the easier the climb becomes.

Mahor also confirmed the second climb to be significantly more difficult.  

And after that climb, the technical elements made chasing difficult.

The issue is that riding without radios, riders were struggling to organize their team efforts. Directors cannot drive forward to provide info. There is only the one 800-meter finish straightaway to enable any rider-to-rider communication. The rest must be done while climbing to Fiesole.

There will not be a large eight-rider leadout a la Copenhagen or Zolder. The winner will be the best sprinter of the climbers. But this will not favor Chris Froome or Robert Gesink. The winner will have to get over the Via Salviati and then be able to go 70 kph into the city, attacking and counter attacking, and then manage a drag race sprint in the final 800 meters. The finish is for a true bike racer.

But Mahoric confirmed another of my suspicions. In the press conference he noted that he had shed six kilograms in preparation for this race. And he noted that loss of weight had reduced his power in the time trial.

I had noted that Cancellara appeared significantly thinner than previously seen in time trials.

The pro men will do 10 circuits on Sunday. There are clear favorites: Peter Sagan of Slovakia, Edvald Boasson Hagen of Norway, Phillippe Gilbert of Belgium, Alejandro Valverde of Spain, Fillippo Pozzato of Italy, and Geraint Thomas of Great Britain.

And there are some outsiders to watch: Diego Ulissi of Italy, Bauke Mollema, John Degenkolb of Germany, Carlos Alberto Betancur of Colombia,  and Matti Breschel of Denmark.

Of note is that France's best roleur, Sylvain Chavanel is not on the start list, leaving Thomas Voeckler to carry the tri color into Firenze.

But know this: the Swiss have brought nine pro men to Italy, their largest worlds team in memory. And Cancellara is THE man here.

Oh yeah, one other thing...Forecast is for rain.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Tuscany 3

Tuscany 3

Scooter Culture

FIRENZE, Sept. 27, 2013 - Obviously there are tremendous connections between this lovely country and cycling. Bottechia. Binda. Campagnolo. Coppi. But zero in on Tuscany and you find an even prouder concentration of cycling heritage that dates back to 1473 when Leonardo da Vinci sketched out the first known design for a bicycle. And they boast of hosting the first ever road race in 1870, a contest from Florence to Pistoia, on some of the same roads used for this year's world championships. Gino Bartali. Fiorenzo Magni. Franco Ballerini. Mario Cippollini. Paolo Bettini. All Tuscan cycling legends.

 And there are amazing rural roads I've already discovered in my limited experience here. There is a weekend culture of cafe cycling, riding, sipping, riding more, sipping more. It's fantastic.

Back home, however, one would believe that Italy offers a mechanic on every corner offering to lube your chain in extra virgin olive oil, cars that clear away your path, and children cheering you on every climb.

Reality check.

Refreshingly, I can report that Italy has all sorts of cyclists, but in terms of cycling transit they are barely ahead of Cambridge, Mass., despite the presence 500 km of bike paths.   I see riders rolling the wrong way down streets on dilapidated bikes with under inflated tires. I discovered this after my own puncture downtown resulted in not one but three vagrant cyclists riding with broken spokes and loose axles and even looser racks approaching me, desperate for help. Using only pantomime and pointing for communication, I provided a 10-minute infirmary for these folks whose bikes offered a single  redeeming value: presta valves. And then they rolled off into the darkness, headed the wrong direction on one-way street with no lights.  

But in the urban environment of Firenze (which sounds a lot sexier than Florence, the name of my recently deceased aunt) there is nominal bike culture. I would say New York, San Francisco and even Boston has as much true "bike culture".

And even when I do encounter a cyclist aboard curvaceous carbon-fiber road bikes I realize America has not cornered the market on dorks. Guys here are just as bad with their knees out, their headphones in, their bibs on over their jerseys, and their seat way too low.

One looking for true bike culture would be better served making the pilgrimage to Copenhagen, Amsterdam, or even Portland for the true Valhallas of bike culture.

But in Firenze we find scooter culture has taken root. And it's crazy.  They shoot the gaps at the lights, swerve from lane to lane, dive in and out of turns.

At every intersection they swarm at the front of the line, waiting for the red to go green. I don't mean one or two; try a dozen, revving, smoking, scooters at the intersection. And every green light is like a 12-wide start of a moto.

When my beloved Firefly finally arrived, I dove into the urban setting that night in search of one thing: scooters. The trick is to find a plump couple on one scooter, slowing their start.  Once up to speed, I could get on their draft and roll up to 60 kph.

And despite the noise, the danger, and the smoke, I see the value of scooters in the landscape. When gas hits $7 a gallon in 2016, we will see scooters in America before we see bicycles on a large scale. The good thing here is that Scooters have shattered  the car-only paradigm. They are the mosquitos of the road. Motorists have just learned to assimilate scooters into their mentality.

There is no yelling, no epithets, no horn honking in anger. No matter what the infraction, Italians all just swerve around and keep going. They don't take it or mean it personally, as American motorists so often do.

And with that, the scooters carve out a space - not so much on the roadway as much as the collective mentality - for bicycles.

Of course in all this craziness pedestrians are just screwed.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Tuscany 2

FIRENZE, ITALIA, Sept. 26 - European cities initially disappoint Americans. They simply don't do suburbs well. My experience with most European cities is that of oysters. Brussels, Girona, Maastricht, Paris, Madrid .... Grotesque outer shells concealing marvelous ingredients.

And Italians really don't do suburbs well. The Tuscan landscape, famous for its manicured trees and inviting architecture, had been scratched with graffiti, confusing signage, and curious waste management. My arrival at Hotel Meditteraneo, placed along the historic Arno River, had been marred by my bike's non-arrival.

Arriving early, my room would not be ready for several hours. I walked a bit, took Euros out of the ATM, drank cappuccino, and charged everything I had with a battery. My phone rang.

The voice of Rita Bellanca, all four feet, eleven inches of her, came through the line. Her power triples her size as she - without a single UCI logo on her clothing or a credential around her neck - essentially runs the show. And nobody dares to cross her.

Rehearsal for awards was about to start. The hotel staff had not given me a packet left with my credential and a note regarding the rehearsal. I leapt into a taxi and we took the most un-interesting ride to the finish venue.

Expecting cathedrals, fountains and statues, my short ride was a conveyor belt of dumpsters, scooters, trampled plants, grit, train tracks, grime and improvised fencing.

Expecting the grandeur of Rome, I arrived at a finish venue placed alongside a Soviet style athletic complex, which afforded the organization the necessary facilities for offices, parking, television production and grandstands.

Don't worry, the images on TV will be great.

There are about 100 people on site doing all sorts of things.It's like walking on to a Broadway set before dress rehearsal. Cranes and booms and cables and scissor lifts whirring about. Guys are on scaffolds, on ladders, in trailers, under stages, behind stages....There is a melange of Italian, English and French being spoken....And of course the cigarettes everywhere. Somehow I'm comfortable in all this. Sound guys, TV guys, timing guys, officials, cops, marshals, and sprinkled throughout all this are podium presenters. I cannot help notice this one Italian brunette with long hair and even longer legs stacked atop five-inch heels. Man after man shout to her from a distance. She responds to all with a pearlescent smile. Some get close and she adorns them with the classic double kiss. I can only apply one word to her looks: voluptuous. One man walked by gazing at her and stumbled over cable covers, nearly falling to the ground.

I had work to do. Accustomed to sorting these things out, I sift my way to the awards podium and realize I'm actually early. Traveling in some dirty shorts, a T-shirt, and a sport coat, I'm looking pretty bad. I hardly have a command presence. And with no sleep, I don't feel in command. These rehearsals are where I meet my counterpart in the native language. I've met some great announcers over the years. They are typically journalists who are passionate about the sport, knowledgable about the riders, connected with the promoters. Kaes in the Netherlands, Heinrich in Czech Republic, Mark in Belgium, Peter in Denmark, Rick in Australia, etc., etc., etc. All are good. Real good. Frankly, they all know more statistics and results than I.

Here I encounter Allesandro Barbella, who has worked the Giro and several other prior world championships. And yes, he's good.

We bumble through  through the awards with a small contingent. Then we head inside, where I meet Angelo, who is managing the production for the entire thing. We arrive to discover the largest production contingent I've ever seen pre-worlds. Typically we have about five people: the sound guy, the two announcers, the UCI person, and then the local person.

I count 13 people at the table, 12 of which speak Italian. And then the long tall brunette comes to the table, walks all the way around the table, and introduces herself to me. "Barbara Pedrotti". And she presents a card.

I have no idea what she is doing at the table. Nor can I fathom what the others are doing. After some basics in English, about how the rotation works, who goes where, how we'll be working the "RRRRRRRadio Toscana," what the rotation will be, Angelo turns to me.

"Richard, you are the leader; you are the boss."


Feeling like a child on the first day of kindergarten, I meekly accept the task while listening to how it will work. And then - even filtered through Italian - I realize I DO know how this thing will work. I  discuss the art of "catching" and "throwing" in announcing an event. I discuss the principle of "less being more", working with the music, using "ramps", and pacing the work. All stuff I've learned from Glenn Stillwell.

After I speak for 30 seconds in English, about three minutes of conversation breaks out in Italian. And then we do it again. Increasingly it becomes evident that one person has the greatest command of English: Barbara Pedrotti.

She will be helping as an announcer around the remote starts and as needed throughout the week. All the races start elsewhere and finish in Florence.

Then I learn the radio station has provided some DJs and personalities who will be on site, weaving into the program. I realize these guys really want a big show and they want me to run it. Like high school basketball, I'm running the three-man weave.

Barbara gives me a ride back to my hotel via the most arcane route possible. Only with a few days exploration of Firenze do I now realize how circuitous her route was.

I bid adieu and retire. I still have no bike. I still cannot see the attraction people have for Italia, for Toscana, and for Firenze.


Wednesday, September 25, 2013


Tuscany Chapter 1

Diary Sept. 21
Florence, Tuscany

I type because I can barely speak. My voice is like broken glass, shards of vowels and jagged consonants, only worsened by a wheezing, lingering cough and punctuated by eruptions of phlegm.

I can only pray that eight days in the Tuscan sun will rescue this situation. But I am bringing this shattered voice to the UCI World Road Championships, where I would announce for a week straight.

With more than 20 years experience announcing cycling events, I have developed a set of rules to protect a fragile voice. A voice for a professional speaker is like the arm of a professional pitcher; abused and then restored over and over and over. To protect the voice I have some rules I try to follow. Sadly I broke most of them in the days leading up to this important event.

This chaos started in San Simeon, a lonely California beach town with a Twilight Zone fog that cloaks a hidden neon monster far worse than anything that lured Ulysses into danger. I write, of course, of the karaoke bar.

After working to produce another highly successful Best Buddies Challenge: Hearst Castle, I informed my two guest elite riders, Benny Swedberg and Tobin Ortenblad, that they would not be going up to the Hearst Castle for a dip in the Neptune pool as they hoped. Instead our two elite guest riders were asked to help load boxes from our registration tents. Deflated, they crinkled their pressed suits around the bags, tents, and boxes kindly.

"Grab that," I instructed, pointing to the massive team cup, a silver chalice presented to the highest fund raising team. "That will come in handy."

After a curious look, Tobin, got the cup. We loaded into my rental car and headed towards San Simeon, pulling into the San Simeon Inn, the only institution with a bar still open.

"Let's go," I said, trophy in hand. They were incredulous.

From outside we could see the patrons, most seated, arms folded, legs exhausted from work stretched out, faces flat in response to a dreadful attempt to sing a Roy Orbison song.

The patrons included about two dozen Latino men, most of our event staging crew, a handful of our charity riders who had pedaled 100 miles from Carmel to San Simeon. Despite the occasional attempts by an Elvis impersonator to de-fibrillate these flat-lined corpses, most were too exhausted to move... Or were they?

I strode into this neon blue haze triumphantly, hoisted the cup above my head as if I had just won Wimbledon, and planted it on the table. Swedberg and Ortenblad seemed stunned.

Then it started. Waves of my colleagues and friends and riders and clients entered by the car load. There was whiskey and beer involved, but I swear I kept steering towards ginger ale. I strode about the place giving folks photo ops with the trophy, and little by little this fostered an almost tribal cohesion. Inevitably, somebody filled the cup with beer. And with each song sung, rock 'n' roll, country, Mexican ballads, the cup went to the singer for congratulatory swigs...  

After a day of announcing, I did my best "Get Off My Cloud," "Hey Ya," "Sweet Caroline," and even joined one of our ride teams we've nicknamed "The Mermaids" for a horrific rendition of "Girls Just Want to Have Fun."

The entire place veered out of control like a reckless bus of a party. Tired legs were renewed and dancing broke out, spilling into the sound equipment, the video monitors, and cocktail tables. The woman running the Karaoke with Elvis, an exhausted woman pushing 80 (and pushing it kinda hard), sat in a scowl as we smeared into her space.  Upon learning my colleague Jon Brideau had turned 29 that day, Elvis crooned birthday wishes followed by shots of tequila.... which I wisely avoided.

Surprisingly no ankles were sprained. No glass was broken. No marriages were ruined. No cars crashed. And yes, unlike the 1924 Montreal Canadiens, I remembered to bring home the trophy from the party, which had become a Petri dish of bacteria and viruses shared by all.

That I did not contract smallpox is surprising. But the next morning, September 8, I could feel a monstrous infection growing in my respiratory system. As of this writing on September 25 the last cells of that bacterial terrorist organization remain active in my body.

Sleep is the ultimate elixir for bodies, for minds, for souls .... and for voices. Screw that, right?

After the karaoke chaos, I collapsed into my room well after midnight. I have a problem in that regardless of when I go to bed or where I am on the planet my eyes flip open at roughly 5 to 7 a.m. EST.  

Like .... any where.

This curse is so profound that I rarely turn on alarms. True to form, I  bounce awake in San Simeon and go to work with a) getting everybody packed up, and b) getting my sorry ass to Northern California to visit with the Simpson family, my home away from home in California, and grab a redeye.

Mind you this would be the first of a redeye triathlon. I would do a redeye home from California and karaoke, work a week, ride my ass off, and then catch a morning flight to Las Vegas, a redeye home, and then another redeye to Europe.  

By the time I arrived in Italy my sleep cycle had been so scrambled I could find myself nodding off or waking up at the most unusual times and places.

A key to anything involving your physical being - be it cycling, dancing, modeling, announcing, surviving, etc. - is to hydrate. Makes sense, right? But it is so easy to end up de-hydrated. I firmly believe that a lot of people's hunger is actually their thirst.

That does not mean I actually practice what I preach...

As I swirl towards the World Championship experience,  I find myself drinking anything BUT the stuff I should be drinking.

To really enhance the dehydration process, I travel to the desert town of Las Vegas with about 3 percent humidity.  

So I broke that rule, eh?

Crowded bars, night clubs, sports bars, and any environment that requires one to drive their voice to simply get over the din are brutal for announcers. I have an idea, let's go to the Interbike show in Vegas!

With that, let's just add I announced at 'Cross Vegas, watching Katerina Nash and Sven Nys provide a clinic on cyclo-cross.

That was followed by the next night announcing the USA Crits Final at Mandalay Bay,  a phenomenal crit under the lights. I went from that event directly to the airport for a 1 a.m. flight.

Both events are promoted with a fanfare and production value rarely seen in American races, most of which are conducted as slaughterhouses with rider entries funding the entire enterprise. These evening events only showcase about four events on the card and then focus on fans. And there were 10,000-plus on Wednesday and 4,000-plus on Thursday. The bigger the crowd the harder you push. I push hard.

I pushed hard - really hard - both nights. I worked the first night with John Lefler and Larry Longo, two of the best in the business whom I fly in for Providence. The following night, I worked with Chad Andrews, whose enthusiasm for cycling drips off every word he utters.

As an aside I must say that seeing Dave Towle, who did the live webcast commentary, was a treat. He has a most infectious sense of humor that always results in me laughing hard enough to pass legumes through my sinuses.

So we broke that rule.

Have I mentioned I was serving as a production consultant for the inaugural Connecticut Cycling Festival held in Hartford while I was in Italy? My first pair of announcers backed out the week prior, and I had to scramble to fill their spots with two others. Fortunately I learned of the availability of Ian Sullivan, a new announcer I had yet to hear, and the legendary Joe Jefferson. I had to manage several details, write several checks, and leave several notes before I left for Vegas.

And yes, I'm heading up a great staff putting on the Providence Cyclo-cross Festival, which is like putting on an outdoor wedding for 5,000 to be held Oct. 4-6, about four days after I return from Europe.

So I fly to Paris, unable to sleep on that leg of the journey. I make the most confusing transfer in the world's most confusing airport, Charles Degaulle, to a small plane headed for Pisa.

Boom. I pass out. Like totally zonked to the point where I never even see Pisa for the landing and the staff have to wake me up so they can clean the plane.

Fogged over from the sleep, I stumble down the stairway to the glare of the Tuscan sun which strikes me as  lot like Southern California but in miniature, and hop on a shuttle.  I enter this modest airport's baggage area which is before we get to immigration, only to discover the bathroom is out of order.  I really had to pee.

Although "AIR FRANCE" never appears on any monitor belts begin to whir about with luggage. Shuttle after shuttle empty. Belt after belt churns. I begin to realize half the folks here are American tourists, and most of those are over age 70. And most of those are really cranky about the bathroom the signage the luggage and generally the lack of a Denny's anywhere nearby.

My bags don't arrive.

I really have to pee.

But my beloved Firefly with S and S couplings making its European debut is lost. We manage to find my one suitcase but the bike is lost.

And framed by all those elements, I land in a country where I don't know the language, the geography, the customs, and a single human being, and prepare to announce the most prestigious single-day bike race in the world. In effect, I'm walking into a temple that will hold 300,000 people - of which 100,000 have an encyclopedic knowledge of cycling - and I'm expected to preach the sermon.

Avoid stress you say?

Check that one off.

Completely shattered with little sleep, no voice, a bladder full of urine, sinuses loaded with phlegm, and a cell phone loaded with text message and e-mails, I exit the baggage area without my beloved bike. The electric doors slide open and there stands an unshaven young man in a T-shirt with a piece of notebook paper scrawled with one word "FRIES."

Werner is Portuguese. I'm American. We're in Italy. We pile into a Skoda van, drop the windows, and head for Firenze (Florence). The Tuscan wind blows joy into my body. I'm revived.

And we're off. Welcome the 2013 UCI Road World Championships. Hang on.