Thursday, September 22, 2011

Copenhagen Time Trials

This would be just my second world championships as announcer. The UCI had added the juniors to the mix, so racing started Monday. Although hard to believe, the UCI had not held a world time trial championships until 1994.

And for the first time, the UCI had decided to integrate the juniors with the elite worlds. Here is out it would go: the junior women and the Under-23 riders would go on Monday; the junior men and the elite women would go on Tuesday; and the elite men would go on Wednesday.

There is the second UCI event under way here too. That is the convention of the UCI, its key committee members, its promoters, and its best officials. I was brought in when the UCI changed its official language from French to English. In the Czech Republic, I worked with a guy who spoke Czech. Then came Australia, where we did the entire thing in English. Germany had me work with Germans (but they spoke impeccable English.) And in Denmark, I got to work with Peter Piil (no relation to Jakob Piil). A real pro with nine Tours under his belt, Peter speaks perfect English and has great experience in radio and television doing all sorts of sports.

We met on Sunday afternoon for the awards rehearsal and hit it off. I had pushed through jet lag on just two hours of sleep and had little reserves.

Anybody familiar with time trials would recognize the junior women’s event. The first group would do a 13.9 kilometer loop, leaving at minute intervals. How the officials seeded this event is beyond my imagination but they pinned it right. The last rider to start, Jessica Allen of Australia, rode to a win ahead ahead of Elinor Barker of Great Britain and Mieke Kroger of Germany, who finished second and third respectively. They would launch the medal haul of those three countries.

After a lunch break, the UCI changed it up for the Under-23 race. Instead of one lap, the young elites would do two laps of a slightly longer course to complete a 35.2 kilometer race. I must admit the UCI came up with a brilliant crowd-pleasing idea to do this. They send the riders off in batches. Just as the last rider leaves the ramp, the first rider of the batch nearly completes the first lap and begins the second. And after a 20-minute break on the start ramp, the final rider of the batch has started the second lap. This enables the start of the second batch. This is repeated for five batches. The fans see a lot of action; the Shimano neutral support can support every rider; and the television cameras can cover the event.

On to this technical urban course went the Under-23 riders. The Australians came to Copenhagen sharply focused on medals and titles. Michael Hepburn rode the course with particular ferocity setting the fastest splits at ever check. Then he made a mistake, going off course and on to a sidewalk on a turn and causing tire damage. On a subsequent turn he appeared to suffer a puncture and crashed.

He leapt up, got a replacement bike, and kept pedaling to post a crushing best time of day.

This course would make a triathlete cry. There were a number of tight turns, patches with cobbles, and countless raised pedestrian crossings. Riders were given a tail wind to start but had to jackhammer against a headwind on the way back to the start-finish. Average speeds would drop 5 kph in this wind.

Then came the Danish phenom, Rasmus Quaade (don’t ask by it is pronounced Quail). With some of the sloppiest form I’ve ever witnessed at the World Championships level, Quaade stomped out a time 11 seconds faster. On the hot seat, he had to wait for Australia’s Luke Durbridge, the 2010 silver medalist. He rode a perfect ride, winning by 35 seconds.

After one day’s racing, Australia had three medals, two of them gold. And these riders had about 5,000 spectators watching.

Day two returned to the Junior womens’s course only to have the Junior men and then Elite women completing two laps for a 27.8-kilometer race. The very first bracket saw New Zealand’s James Oram post a blistering time more than a minute faster than any other rider in his bracket. And it seemed fast enough to stick. Most of the favorites fell short until the later brackets. It would be a Dane, Mads Wurtz Schmidt, who bested the time by just 4.11 seconds. With the Danish crowds in a lather, Wurtz Schmidt had to watch the entire final heat roll. One Aussie, David Edwards, seemed capable of beating him but fell short to finish third, behind Oram and Wurtz Schmidt. The crowd went bananas as Denmark scored its second medal of the week and its first gold in several years.

The elite women would go next in the exact same format and same course but in vastly different conditions. The first batch of riders had a clean course, with Canada’s Rhae-Christie Shaw setting the first fast time of 37:46. She took the hot seat and watched her teammate, Clara Hughes roll off. A two-sport Olympian, Hughes had been out of the sport for a number of seasons. She started to best her teammate at every checkpoint on the first lap.

And then it started to rain.
As the rain intensified, Hughes came in with a new fastest time of 37:44. Canada had 1-2 and the course conditions worsened.

In the penultimate bracket rode Evelyn Stevens. But the Wall Street wizard could not master the bricks in the rain. Instead New Zealand’s Linda Villumsen, born and raised in Denmark, rose to the occasion and posted the new fastest time of 27:28.

In the final bracket rode Canada’s Tara Whitten, America’s Amber Neben, and Marianne Vos of the Netherlands. But most attention went to the Germany’s Judith Arndt and defending World Champion Emma Pooley of Great Britain.

At the first time check, nobody on that list shook the standings, save for Whitten. On the leader board were three Canadian flags in the top five positions. As Neben and Vos faded, however, Arndt started to advance. She pounded out a 37:07 to bump Villumsen out of the lead and await the arrival of Pooley. Perfectly built for the hilly course in Australia, Pooley simply could not match the speed of Arndt. She finished third at 37:31, bumping Whitten off the medal stand by just two seconds.

Having started off a bit sluggish, the women’s time finished in electrifying form.

And the women received a huge crowd for their ceremony, with numbers easily exceeding 8,000 on the City Hall Plaza.

Wednesday would be for the elite men. Nobody went to work and the lunch time start drew tens of thousands of spectators around this course, extended out to a 23.2 km course on which these superstars would do two laps.

Preparing to announce the world championships is somewhat futile in that one has no idea who will be riding until the day before. Some federations – such as Italy, Gret Britain, Australia and New Zealand - put amazing focus on the worlds, but others do this event almost as an afterthought. They may have some individuals who give the event its due priority and get some medals. If a federation treats the worlds like it’s just another crit, they get the medals they deserve.

So for an announcer the drill goes like this: walk to the media center to get online. (The Marriott folks chisel their guests here just as badly as back home, not even offering wi-fi in the lobby!). Grab the start list and start researching. With events of last week, I could not do my normal preparation. Peter Piil, my colleague, saved me with a printed booklet of every riders palmares. That said, finding stuff on juniors is nearly impossible.

Then I pen in a coded set of letters and numbers next to each name in the start list giving me a quick reference sheet of talking points. I perfect this thanks to Larry Longo, with whom I have done countless call-ups at mountain bike races over the years. Bringing more than 100 guys to the line is a real challenge that trips up a lot of beginner announcers. I like to think that nobody can match us in doing a call-up.
For many riders there is nothing next to their name. Then I head to the Tissot timing booth, a cockpit of information that includes a television monitor, microphones, timing screens, and our paper work.

To our left sat Phillippe of Belgium and Beatrice of Malaysia. He speaks French and English fluently; she speaks English, Malay, Thai and a handful of other dialects. Phillippe served as the boss at the ‘cross worlds in Germany. The best officials are typically the nicest of people. They can be firm but patient. You know they are in charge.

So in this booth is this amazing kaleidoscope of language and color: Phillippe steadily speaking French and English into a radio; Peter pounding out the call in Danish; and my rantings in English. All the while, the screens are blooming in colors and information used by all to study this speed. If the road race is a poetic MS Word document, the time trial is a linear spreadsheet, an Excel document of speed.

As I prepped for the elite men’s time trial, however, I could not be anything but awestruck by the resumes of the guys in the very first bracket, seeded to be slowest. Just about every guy had been national champion; most had posted UCI wins, and several had scored the podium at the worlds at some point in their career. Almost every name had something noteworthy penned in the margins.

The early star in the men’s event would be Jesse Sergent, a 23-year-old from New Zealand who destroyed the entire first bunch with a 58:10. For non-cyclists reading this dispatch, know that a major achievement of a cyclist is to ride 40 kilometers in under an hour. This means a rider is traveling in excess of 25 mph. But these guys were riding 46.4 kilometers and going under the hour routinely.

In the second brackets Alexandr Dyachenko of Kazakhstan dualed with Nicola Castroviejo of Spain. The Kazakh took the hot seat with a time of 57:03 and stayed there until the final bracket of 15 riders lined up. Each of these guys in the final bracket had two-page resumes, a stock ticker in fine print of amazing results.

But everybody knew this race would not be about anybody but two: four-time World Champion Fabian Cancellara of Switzerland versus the upstart Tony Martin of Germany.

Everybody brought their best. Jack Bobridge, a former U23 world champion in his debut, posted the fastest splits and out-rode his American nemesis Taylor Phinney. Former world champion Bert Grabsch plowed a massive gear to also lower the split times. And England’s Bradley Wiggins whipped about the course with leg speed developed on the track.

When Martin rolled of with number 2 on his back, however, the game was on. He blew away the fastest split time at 10.8 km and kept pouring it on. Behind him, however, was an uncharacteristically flustered Cancellara, who learned with 10 minutes to start that his bike needed to be adjusted to fit UCI regulations.

Like seeing Babe Ruth in a cold sweat, I could spot immediately off the ramp that Cancellara did not have his typical form. His gear was too light; his position unstable; the bike rocking too much. Conversely, Martin’s back could be used to serve hot drinks and not a drop would be spilled. Smooth as glass.

Meanwhile the Dane, Jakob Fuglslang, rode with the country behind him, turning himself inside out in front of 30,000 spectators, delivered top-five splits. He was writing a Rocky Balboa script along the way only to have Martin pound out an Apollo Creed punch line with his subsequent numbers.

Martin rode the first lap and closed on David Millar, who had started 1:30 ahead.
During the second lap, Cancellara and Martin received their splits via radio earpieces. Martin could enter turns cautiously and explode out of them. Cancellara, however, had to take risks, bombing into corners with abandon, only to have Martin continue to add to his margin.

Finally Cancellara took too big of a risk on a cobbled corner, got the bike on a bad line, and went into the fences, barely staying upright and coming to a dead stop. Game over. He had to concede gold then; but the silver had also slipped away as Wiggins rode a perfect race to get Great Britain its third medal.

Martin pounded out a convincing victory with a time of 53:43. This guy rode a technical course on a windy day at an average speed of 51.8 kph. This means if you lined him up with a good regional rider, the fastest guy you ever see riding through your town, and then stopped them both after one hour, Tony Martin would be more than 13 kilometers, or about 8 miles, up the road. That puts him in another area code from the fastest guy in your town. He put 1:15 on Wiggins and 1:20 on Cancellara.

Here’s the medal count after the time trials:

Australia: 4
Great Britain: 3
Germany: 3
Denmark: 2
New Zealand: 2
Switzerland: 1

Note: nothing for the Americans, the Belgians, the French, and the Italians. Zink, zip, nada, zed. Something will have to change in the road races.

And then we are done. I eat alone. Stay alone. And prep for the road races.

Thanks for reading. Tomorrow, I’ll write a bit about Danish cuisine…..That should be a short dispatch!

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