Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Great Britain: Start to Finish

This would be the big day. The elite men’s 266 km road race. Denmark is infamous for rain and gray skies. But through the entire week only the second half of the women’s time trial had been wet. For Sunday’s elite men’s race Copenhagen received the most spectacular weather of the year.

After breakfast I walked to the start area, dressed in my UCI shirt and suit coat. Peter would be at the road circuit in Rudersdal and I would handle the ceremony of the sign-in and start with help from Jens, a fine guy who handled the Danish with ease.

I arrived to find about 500 people gathered around the fences for the sign-in. But I studied some nearby cross walks and realized rivers of humanity were striding into the venue. It was 8:15.

At 8:30 I started to work the crowd and Jens slipped right in fine. Effectively I just started goofing on assorted countries and telling jokes. It’s sort of fun because I can wheel out the same jokes I’ve beaten to death in America with nobody noticing.

At 8:50 the first rider appeared: Thomas Voekler. We were on a tight time table so I spared him the interview. After a slow start I called teams to sign in and they just poured in the venue. By 9:15 there were 5,000 people in the square. The biggest crush came for the Danes of course but Hushovd, Cancellara and Cavendish drew massive cheer.

As I read off the teams, I realized Germany had built a perfect team for this race with two great closers in Danilo Hondo and Andrei Greipel, with Tony Martin and Bert Grabsch there for the leadout train.

Before they all were done I had to assemble the start. This is effectively a roll call of 200-plus riders by country and then by name. This includes Arabic, Basque, Slavic, and Flemish names. One has to simply be comfortable making mistakes and keep on rolling. The riders don’t mind too much when you butcher the pronunciation and most of them I get close.

Then I hand off the microphone and dash for the Tissot car, leaving Jens in charge. The poor guy’s microphone totally shit the bed and they had no announcing for the start.

We rolled.

I’ll leave the race reportage to the pros, but will give you a couple of insights that may have been missed on some websites.

The crowds assembled along the sidewalks as we rolled out of town for the 28 km from Copenhagen to the road circuit in Rudersdal simply blew me away. As we reached the actual circuit, however, they seemed a little sparse at first. As we approached the final turn, however, the crowds thickened to enormous density. And at the home stretch the place was packed. And those crowds would continue to come in all day. Police called the crowd 250,000! That would be nearly 100,000 more than Australia.

I jumped into the booth with Peter just as the field roared by, with a breakaway of little known riders off the front. That group would gather an eight-minute gap in two laps and then the front of the bunch went all red and blue as Great Britain went to work with Germany helping out.

After about 100 km the most significant event of the race occurred: a curb-to-curb pileup that put defending champion Thor Hushovd, Tony Martin, and American sprinter Tyler Farrar stuck in the back.

With no radios in the riders’ ears, no teams were able to respond to the inventory of crashed riders.

Hushovd was stranded with no team support and never recovered. And Martin never got back. Farrar, however, turned in an amazing performance to get back up to the main bunch and appeared on the wheel of Taylor Phinney for the sprint.

Another great ride was Ben King of the US. In his debut ride at the elite world championships, King worked with the Germans and Brits in the chase. Just 23, King is part of an American youth movement still gaining a place with the Pro Tour riders. King’s boyish looks seemed to hardly help as initially the Germans seemed to be asking him to stay out of their way. But King persisted brilliantly at the front for several laps, at one point over cooking a turn and putting a foot down. I can only fathom how a crash at the front would have been detrimental to his career.

Thereafter the race became a desperate series of attacks with stars: Johan Van Sumeran of Belgium went off and caught the survivors of the break. But British team continued to churn faster and faster, ultimately producing one of the fastest worlds in history, with an average speed over 46 kmh (about 27 mph). Only Cipollini’s Squadra Azzuri at Zolder went faster.

At one point, Nicki Sorensen of Denmark fired off the front. I delivered a Cosellesque "NOW COMES DENMARK! NOW COMES DENMARK! NO COMES DENMARK!" And the place went apeshit, with Peter picking up off that in Danish. The audible roar shook the place.

But the Dane would be retrieved. Still the host country would finish with five guys on the first page of the results, a stunning but overlooked achievement.

Thomas Voekler fired off the front to drive a three-rider break that produced great applause. The French had gone with every move, but that would be the last move.

The British retrieved Voekler, who even went solo before surrender, and started the setup for Mark Cavendish.

They were nothing but fantastic, holding Cavendish at 20th position for five hours. But in the final 3 km they curiously surrendered the front. Australia swarmed on the right; Germany punched through on the left. And suddenly Farrar appeared on the wheel of Phinney! And then Fabian Cancellara appeared.

But this would only be a flourish of the matador’s cape. As they turned to face 800 meters uphill to the finish, Cavendish dismissed the train and got on the back of a motor bike, just one rider, Geraint Thomas.

By the time they leapt off the saddles, the front of the field had no British jerseys for the first time all day. But as the bunch stretched apart, doors started to open on the right side and Cavendish punched through and drove to the line. On the far left of the field, however, rode Andre Greipel of Germany who forced photographers to make a huge gamble on Cav. The Brit paid off. Holding of Matt Goss of Australia and Greipel, who won bronze in a photo finish with Cancellara.

For Great Britain, this would be the first gold medal in the men's road race since the late Tommy Simpson did it 46 years earlier. The entire country lead the medal count with six medals. The US was shut out.

And then done. Really done. I knocked out the awards ceremony with Peter. Received some truly kind comments from people, swapped a few business cards, and moved towards the booth to retrieve my bag.

Please read the race reports elsewhere for more details. Those guys do a good job.

The sheer size of the crowd then overwhelmed me. Despite having all access badges, I could not move in the road and had to go outside the fences and climb back in to get to my booth to gather my things.

This event was like a massive air mattress slowly deflating.

After debriefing and bidding farewell to Peter Piil, I gathered my things and a beer and looked for my ride…..Uhhhhh……

I went from being the toast of the event to being absolutely orphaned.

Finally I just hopped an event van and went to the press center, where I found Philippe. We made the drive back to the hotel for that vacuous lobby procession that follows every event of such a magnitude.

There would be a drink with Peter V. (I don’t dare misspell his last name here on the fly to get this done) and a Belgian agent for television and riders. There were handshakes all around but I stayed in for dinner….again alone.

Crossing the lobby, however, a pile of British folks detained me for drinks. Conversing in English was fun. And only at the tale end of the discussion did they point out Mark Cavendish’s mother sitting at the end of the group. Turns out I was in the epi-center the world according to Cav, whom they had followed and supported since his days as a junior.

These encounters at this event never seem to end. Fantastic.

Good night Copenhagen.

Thanks for reading.

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