The Eritean Express and the Beauty of the World Championships
So today would be the first day of road races in Copenhagen with the junior women and under-23 men. I feel like I’m running a grand Quidditch match at Hogwarts. We have to read names that are Malaysian, Vietnamese, Dutch, Russian, Latvian, Greek and Eritrean.
I love it. I love different language. I love different culture. I love the world.
To quote Joe Strummer: “I’m so bored with the U.S.A.”
After a night of bad Richard Gere movies that ran too long and Skype to home that ran too short, I awoke to an alarm. For me this is rare. I have this weird knack for waking up about five minutes prior to an alarm actually sounding.
I crave the day I sleep in, not because my schedule allows but because my body allows. I’m kind of a stressed person, I suppose.
But I nearly hit a button which would have led to me oversleeping ….. That would have been bad. I love this gig. I actually like stumbling through French. But I’m still somewhat of an outsider. People in this organization are kind to me, if not downright affectionate. But they are also equally stressed and I’m trying not to cause them additional stress. I do not get invited out; I do not get pulled over to tables; I do my job…and quite well, thank you. But I spend my nights alone in a hotel room writing this stuff.
Copenhagen sounds exotic, I know, but I’m not on vacation. I spend time researching riders. Do you know how futile it can be to find info on junior cyclists? And the Under-23 riders are just as tough. Guess what I did today before the U23 race? I spotted a French rider’s bike during the sign-in ceremony and snapped a photo of the stem.
Now most of you are thinking this thing had a Garmin or a Power-Tap or some other ridiculous device. No, this thing had the Rosetta Stone of the race. The rider had the list of numbers to watch taped to the stem.
Look, I got to watch guys such as Baden Cooke and Tom Boonen race as Under-23s. That’s on top of several great American and Canadian stars in the making. But in the moment of seeing them we are all like “Who?”
The U23 race is where to get the autographs before the lines get long. This is where announcers build up their mental data banks.
But this guy’s list gave me the info on who to watch.
The World Championships is ALL about protocol and pageantry; and I’m all about rock ‘n’ roll….So maybe it’s a bad fit. But I’m playing by their rules. And I learn a lot.
The day starts at breakfast with everybody, the officials, the UCI staff, the dignitaries, etc. busting down the door for the hotel breakfast. Then it’s off to the races held 30 km to the north of Copenhagen. I drive with Philippe of the UCI, a great guy who four years ago spoke no English but today can carry a conversation with me. My French is about 20 percent of his English…. We get along great. But like all my friendships here they are on wobbly stilts of language. English to French; English to Dutch; English to Flemish; English to Danish.
English is not superior, but it is the global default. It’s the second language of nearly every culture on the planet.
We arrive in car lathered in UCI stickers and get access everywhere; this is a far cry from 1980 and showing up with Dave Cox and Billy Rudnick in a VW Beetle with five bikes and no hotel room. That is where my cycling odyssey began 30 years back.
I unload, find my way to Lars the sound guy, get a microphone, and meet up with Peter. Then starts the pageantry.
The junior women must sign in, go to have their bikes inspected, and then assemble by nation. They are wonderful athletes but the sheer magnitude of the World-Holy-Crap-Championships flusters all. They stumble with cleats and wheels and the sheer spectacle of it all.
Peter Piil, a super announcer, rocks the sign-in next to me, calling each name. Then we dash to the start line with a French guy whispering in my ear to speed it up, to have all the riders assembled with five minutes to start, to interview that dignitary with the flag in and clear the media and be on that side of the fence or the other and I do it all with a smile to show that I am not nearly as stressed out as I truly am.
The poor junior women feel the same stress.
We get them to the line at 9:24.50 and start them at 09:30.00. I pride myself on that like a pilot.
These poor ladies roll about a kilometer and then smash into the fences, with a New Zealand rider down next to Jessica Allen of Australia, who won the world championships three days earlier. Game over. Winner gets a trip to a Danish hospital.
Racing just 70 km these women race brilliantly despite a few more crashes. This boils down to a bunch sprint with Lucy Garner winning to get Great Britain its fourth medal. Jessy Druyts breaks the drought for Belgium with a silver. And the Danes get their fourth medal with Christina Siggaard winning the bronze.
I took great joy in watching Thi That Nguyen of Vietnam (pronounced Tee-TAT Gee- YEN) attack solo and then ride to a solid finish. Kids from Asia and Africa and South America who may never get to some coveted European club can earn their berth on the start line here. And then they can prove their worth and valor by attacking as she did or by simply finishing with the bunch.
After a short break we start the U23 race, a 168 km race; 12 laps on a 14 km loop. There is the same drill with the sign-in ceremony and then the same French guy whispering in my ear that we need to start on time and “der are too times as many ridoors in these race.”
Peter and I pound out the procedure. The ceremonial starters would be Michael Plant, VP of the Atlanta Braves and a member of the UCI Management Committee (a great guy) and Tom Lund, president of the Danish Cycling Federation and the Cycle City Copenhagen program (And also a great guy). I interview Mike in English; Peter interviews Tom in Danish. We start on time.
The race unfurls in a curiously negative fashion. Although Brazil has just two guys in the race they both go up the road in separate two-rider breakaways. They are doomed.
With three laps to go they are finally recovered and a counter attack is launched. After assorted skirmishes a breakaway forms with riders from Denmark, Italy, South Africa, Kazakhstan, the Netherlands, and Eritrea.
…..Upon reading this a sound of a needle scratching a record should run across your brain. Eritrea?
Do you mean war-torn, impoverished, African hell-hole of a nation, Eritrea? Yes. Eritrea has become a cycling-crazed country. They had dozens of flag waving fans at the finish line. I spotted them and tried to give them a sporting experience like never before.
They started three riders, two of which would hang in the field, one of which would end up sideways in the feed zone, but one of which Netnael Berhane, rode in mythical terms that only Homer could describe. The kid crossed a gap to a breakaway and went right to the front to take his pulls. And he never missed a pull.
As announcers we both played this up. And the Eritrean fans went nuts, banging on signs, waving flags, and dancing.
Sure, Australia and Belgium and Italy would organize the chase and retrieve this break.
But with less than one lap to go, when they were caught, Berhane was the last one to surrender the break. We love that the Spartans fought the Persians to the death. We admire the 54th Massachusetts for charging into the cannons at Fort Wagner. And we revel in Cool Hand Luke defying all the authority. But this kid from Eritrea is what makes the UCI and the Worlds a great thing.
The heavily favored Australians took control of the race with newly crowned TT champ Luke Durbridge pounding to the front to set up their ace, Michael Hepburn, for the win. But they found themselves stranded on the front. The Italians swarmed from the left; the Belgians swarmed on the right; and they still had 800 meters to go. They were characters in Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade, left with an impossible task.
And as the bunch swarmed to the front and made a right turn to charge uphill to the finish, Berhane of Eritrea dug in and stayed right in the wedge. Amazing.
Just like in the junior women’s race, all the cannons fired too early. The French emerged on the front with not one but two strong riders; the British found a door and pushed through. As Italy and Belgium faded, the French surged forward to finish 1-2. And the Brits put on a late charge to score their sixth medal of week.
Oh, the Americans? They did not place a rider in a single breakaway and only managed to get Jacob Raathe in 81st place. Not a single medal yet this week for America. They rode well but fell short when it counted.
And the so-called Rosetta Stone taped to the French guy’s stem? Not one of the 34 numbers listed on his stem of the “Riders to Watch” made the podium. And only one made the top 10.
These riders all spent way too much time looking at each other. They would attack, stop, and look back. I stated on the speakers during the race, Merckx, Kelly, Maertens, Hinault….those guys never looked any where but straight ahead when they attacked.
And how about the French guy who had those numbers taped to the stem? He rode to second place. As Ulysses S. Grant said in 1864 about Robert E. Lee, “stop thinking about what he is going to do to you and start thinking about what you’re going to do to him.”
The Eritrean guy got 28th. Frankly, he deserves a pro contract.
Thanks for reading. More to come.
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