Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Of Podiums and Punches

So this whole UCI thing is a curious accident that I enjoy and fully appreciate.
This has been an amazing roller coaster ride I truly wish to stay on. And you should join me. It is way better than the Tour de France with a lot less traffic and a lot more access to cycling legends.

For me this started in Tabor, Czech Republic, where I announced the cyclo-cross worlds in 2010. I arrived in the frigid but fantastic town thrilled but intimidated by the formality of the UCI. Let’s face it, announcing in the states is a back woods affair where the announcer sort of wings it. 

This would be a formal event with exact protocol. So they had me attend a rehearsal for the awards ceremony. This came with a chart and a diagram that had all sorts of dotted lines and arrows and exact instructions. 

I responded much like I had when I first sat in high school chemistry with Mr. Terlinksy and stared at a diagram about logarithms. I glazed over.

There I stood in the cold Soviet athletic facility next to my colleague, Heinrich, a smoking, bearded, heavier version of the Dos Equis world’s most interesting man, looking at this chart. The delightful UCI woman spoke mostly French. Heinrich spoke Czech. I spoke English. And just to help us all out, they assigned us another delightful woman who spoke Czech and German….


I figured it out as I have now on six occasions. Be nice, smile, show up on time, and then use the one American universal mechanism to make people like you: slapstick. 

I stumble, I trip, I pretend to have my eye poked out…all with great effect. I have done so in German, Danish, Czech, Flemish, French and Dutch. It works with security, police, children, racers, officials and timing crew. Just about everybody likes it....except old ladies; but they’ve been on to me for years, regardless of culture. I almost married such a woman who was 30 going on 69.

So I sauntered into this year’s awards ceremony rehearsal with a little swagger. And I brought along 9-year-old Ryjder Hessenfeld along with his dad, Ted. We hung around a bit and then we met the Dutch announcer, a legendary man, Cees Maas…or Kees Maas, depending on the translation. I will write about him later on, but let us just say, I am out of my league with him.
But all we have to do is the awards rehearsal. It is all about the podium girls, the sound guys, and presenters, and not about the experienced professional announcers, right?
We knocked out the individual awards rehearsal without problem. 

Then we had to think. For the first time in recent memory we would be hosting a team time trial awards ceremony with six riders racing for trade teams. Think about it….

The presenter needs six bronze medals…..

Then the next presenter needs six bouquets of flowers….

On to silver….

Then to gold…

 And how big of a podium do we need for 18 athletes plus three directors?  (We even had 18 stand ins, including Theodore Essenfeld and his son, Ryjder.)

Do we hand out six rainbow jerseys? A trophy?  Belt buckles?

Oh yeah, it is trade teams…with riders from several different countries. So what national anthem do we play? We decide to play the anthem from the country where the team is registered…which is curious should Radio Shack win, given this team from Luxembourg does not have one rider on its team from Luxembourg riding. 

I do not in any way mean to ridicule this process. This is why we hold rehearsals for such seemingly trivial affairs. If we sweat the details now, you folks on Sunday will inhale in awe at our pomp and ceremony. 

So figure that all out. On to race day.....
We pound through the ceremony for team time trial without incident, fortunate that Radio Shack did not win. 

Mind you I am stumbling a bit through some of the protocol changes from prior years. And there is always some confusion with the flag guys (think about it, we need flags for more than 70 countries and what would happen if Morocco swept the podium?), and the sound guy who needs to have access to the national anthems of 76 nations including Andorra (…..who has the national anthem of Andorra?) and the podium girls and the medal guy and the flower guy.  Am I getting to you?

And it is all on global television. Mind you the sound guy is frantic when the Russian wins….Because in scrolling down the CD of national anthems, given to him by the French woman, he cannot find “Russia.” 

This is a holy shit moment…..
We are back stage reading, and re-reading this CD label and I am thinking about how China and Japan are about to go to war over an island I did not know existed two weeks ago…Or that four fine Americans were killed in Libya over a movie no American I know has ever seen. Then I thought about the Czech uprising in 1968 which was sparked by what? A hockey game in which the Czechs beat the Russians.

If we could not find the Russian national anthem, I envisioned all the progress of the last 20 years dissolving….. and tanks rolling back into Eastern Europe.

….Then I found it…..”Federation of Russia” is under “F” not “R.” Crisis avoided, no? 

Sort of. 

During the ceremony, and you may see this on TV to the left of your screen, a television camera operator follows the presenter on stage with the camera hand held for the bronze medal. The UCI staff, some of the nicest guys I know, intervene. And they hold the cable to ensure the camera will not go back out center stage.  

“You don’t  go out there.”

“Let go of my equipment”

“You don’t go out there.”  

“Let go of my equipment.”

Enter security.

Voices were raised. 

Announcers tried to conduct awards ceremony.

Fists were clenched. 

Day glow vests shoved.

Orange jackets converged.

Cameras turned away from ceremony to controversy.

Athletes looked confused. 

Announcers tried to conduct awards ceremony.

……We endured a serious moment of d├ętente. 

And then….
"Ladies and Gentlemen," I said. "May we have your attention for the playing of the national anthem The Federation of Russia"


Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

A Geography Lesson for Cyclists

OK, I am writing this from the Netherlands. For too many of my friends (and probably myself up until one week ago) knowledge of this country stopped at Austin Powers’ Goldmember. 

OK, I knew more than that.
But when trying to understand just about any other culture, start with a map. Maps help one understand all sorts of issues: cultural, economic, linguistic, and athletic. 

So open up a map of The Netherlands and then we will continue. Go on…..I will wait…….
Good, you are back.

Try to follow along. Copenhagen, where I worked last year,  is a city; Limburg is not. Limburg is a province of the Netherlands. It dangles down between Germany to the East and Belgium to the west, like a Dutch epiglottis. OK, that helps to explain a little bit of language. Dutch is sort of German with a filter. And Flemish is sort of Dutch with a French filter. And then you have the English and those whacky Scandinavians coming through on occasion. 

Weirder still is that Spain actually ran the Netherlands for a while until a) the Dutch simply could not stand being so uptight about sex, and b) the Brits scored one of the biggest upsets in naval history in 1588. Somewhere in there is the story of why these folks wear the color orange.  (Go read, it is awesome stuff.)

Cyclists today view Holland as a cycling utopia. But there are different reasons. For my advocate friends, much is made of Amsterdam and its massive amount of mode share by bike.  Indeed the Dutch embrace cycling as well as anybody. It is fantastic. 

But those into the sport of cycling will rally around Maastricht and Limburg, the province. Get out your map. Look at the proximity to Belgium and such cities as Liege. It is right there.  All the great cyclo-cross, Amstel Gold, and everything else that is fantastic about Dutch racing. Just to the south in Germany is Aken. To the west in Belgium is Hasselt and to the south is Liege.

But part of it I discovered while driving from Brussels to Maastricht, taking in all the flat landscape.

And then you drop into the valley of the Meure, or the Maas (as the river is called in Dutch), and the terrain changes. The Limburg region is defined by fertile plains with these pronounced ridges. 

I discovered these on my first day here riding with Theodore Essenfeld and his son, Ryjder, who is 9.  I was on a 52 cm bike but enjoying being outside (typically I ride a 55). After puttering about on the bike paths we worked our way towards Valkenburg, where I had a rehearsal for awards.

En route we encountered the cyclo-sportive, with 7,000 riders. Wow. We followed the group. We ended up on a bike path that gouged into these ravines with sharp, overgrown cliffs to our right. There were chalk caves in which I learned the Dutch resistance used during World War II to hide. As a history nut, I drank it in. As a cyclist, I got it. I saw cyclo-cross courses and mountain bike trails and roads woven throughout. 

And this, I would learn, is only in the Limburg province.

We came into Valkenburg. Whistles blew and paddles waved. 

Wow. Team Rabobank came roaring through the turn on their practice TTT ride. Later came Movistar.

And we were rolling through the final turn before the Cauberg, the climb that leads to the finish of the Amstel Gold race. With thousands of riders on the road, I scaled the Cauberg  with this 9-year old boy. The crowds were already clapping and this boy got extra applause.

By New England standards, the Cauberg is a pussy climb. But with a Pro Tour field going up this thing at 40 km/hour  to finish I can only imagine the suffering it inflicts. And there are dozens of them in the Limburg region. And after scaling several of them in the 100k leading into the finish circuit on Sunday, the pro men will then go up the Cauberg 10 times.  Oh yeah, there is another climb, the Bemelberg, on the backstretch. 

Did I mention that I have had fantastic weather? If the North Sea thinks otherwise, this place can be a crosswind cool zone of mist and rain. I love the lowlands the way I love New England. 

Everybody, from the pro cyclists to the postal worker to the old lady to the 12-year-old school girl has something others lack: resolve.

Geography does this.  

This world championship is ambitious. There is just one finish venue in Valkenburg. But there are six different start venues: Sittard, Landgraf, Eijsden, Heerlen (where Eddy Merckx beat Jan Janssen in 1967 to win his first of three world titles), Valkenburg and then Maastricht. 

The Eneco Tour, The Tour of Limburg, the Valkenberg Cyclocross, the Amstel Gold Race and of course this World Championships, the sixth time the UCI has selected this province to host its grandest ball. 
But this entire region is dripping in cycling history that the American charity ride fans will miss by going to l’Alpe d’Huez. I stumble about…..there is Jan Jaansen,  there is Henni Kuiper, Leontien Van Moorsel, Jan Raas, Peter Post, and Leo Van Vliet…Will I see Joop Zoetelmelk? How cool is a country that names a guy “Joop”?
And then there is the bike culture…I need sleep. More to come.
Thanks for reading.

Voice Lessons in Limburg

Like losing my iPad, something about foreign travel makes us stupid and awkward and alone. Whenever I travel abroad for these UCI gigs I feel like a kid who has just moved into a new town and starting school for the first day. On the outside it all looks good…Like I got it going on… But inside one simply feels out of place.  

The UCI folks are getting to know, and like, me. But it remains a cautious thing.

I love travel to Europe and other cultures. And I love traveling alone. But I hate being lonely. This would be fun if I had a friend or my family along.  Because I have to work eight straight days, I must hole up in rooms alone. First I must preserve my voice, which is to profession what  a hand is to a pitcher’s profession: everything. And because of the language barriers – although everybody speaks English the nuances of the language are lost – I end up alone a lot. This makes me come off as introverted, which most will tell you I am not.

At the end of each day I get unsolicited advice on how to fix my voice. 

Tea with lemon.

Hot water with olive oil…

Hot water with salt.

Tea with honey.

Halls….Vicks….you name it, they’ve suggested it. It is not my first rodeo. What works is this:

Throat Coat tea from Traditional Medicinals, which contains slippery elm.  Also I stop drinking beer but take in a glass or two of Grand Marnier. I hydrate with water constantly. And sleep is really important. Most important is that I simply avoid loud bars and restaurants and instead do thinks like long, long walks or bike rides.

But I had struggled going in to this event.  A combination of August allergies, a sinus infection, and a dental problem fostered some problems with my voice. I simply could not recover as usual. A visit to the dentist revealed a broken tooth, which got me some antibiotics. The voice improved but would it be enough to handle eight straight days of announcing at the world championships?

Let’s find out, eh?

I nailed day one, the team time trial. Then the reparation began. Riding the hotel bike 10k back to the hotel is a start. No talking. Then I started the constant rehydration.  Whilst trying to type this, I got drowsy. I rode for 90 minutes on the hotel bike, simply touring Maastricht, before fishing up with pad thai. Everything is done alone. No talking. I return to the room alone. I stay alone. I checked e-mail and then fell to sleep at 9:30. I would sleep for 10 hours, which truly may have been the most important ingredient.


And I got to the venue for day two solid. No problems and actually better than day two.  This is how I will mow down the entire eight-day gig.

But day three proved interesting. I awoke without the alarm…having slept miraculously again….and got ready for my favorite part of European lodging, the breakfast.  I was so ready for those funny looking meats, the eggs, the cheese, the cappuccino and of course the pompelmousse juice. 

As I sifted through my clothes with the blinds drawn I remembered having heard my phone, which is also my alarm, shutting off in the night. I had gotten up to charge it but neglected to turn it on. While brushing my teeth I sauntered over and turned on the phone…..


“Holy shit the junior women were to start at 10 a.m.!!!!!! “ I thought. “Or was it 9?” 

I flew down the stairs sliding on shoes and buttoning shirts and charged to the bike rack. I grabbed bike 2365 and pounded towards Vanderburg.  Whirred through roundabouts with my foot down as an outrigger, and then charged towards the hill. I climbed at a pace as stern as any race I had entered.  I topped off the hill and shifted up for the final 2 k to the event. 

I flipped out the phone….9:49 a.m. as I entered the Tissot booth.  I had ridden 7 km on a hotel bike with a Shimano Nexus 7 speed uphill in 19 minutes. I was blown…..But relieved to learn the race started at 10:30. 

Voice held up fine.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Limburg Worlds: Day 1

Limburg 2012, Day One First there will be no apostrophes in these reports. Why, you ask? This is coming to you via my aging HP Thunderclap. Instead of impressively tapping it on the Bluetooth keyboard and iPad, I am boxing on the broken keys. Actually the letter o and k have no keys. In my sleep transatlantic haze, I left my iPad on the plane. I discovered this 120 km later in Maastricht. So instead of typing out my blog, I spent the day frantically trying to reach United and/or Brussels Airways, which manages its baggage. No, they did not respond. Gone. Sucks. But Holland is fantastic. I arrived under a dull spitting sky to find a lackluster venue next to a construction site. Frankly the Lowlands of Belgium and Holland always present a gray curtain as their stage; you must learn to pull them back to start the show. I caught up on e-mail and then napped. When I awoke I had no sense of time. Neither my laptop nor phone were updating the time. But the sun remained up so I figured it to be around 3 p.m. So I did what has become routine in Europe: I rented a hotel bike. Within 100 meters I rolled under the highway interchange and onto the Fietsnetwork of bike lanes and into the core of the city. Masstricht is a fantastic city tightly woven around the Maas River, downstream from Liege in nearby Belgium. This would be recon ride, getting my bearings: train station, restaurants, bike shops…and then how to get back. The bike costs about 7 euros and I hoped to go back out after I exchanged money and checked on my work schedule. I ended up checking e-mail; when I looked up rain had started slashing on the window. I turned the bike in and returned for more Internet lull. Later I walked about looking for food before I realized with all the jet lag and latitudinal difference it was like 11:45. The place was evacuating by bike; all sorts of couples lazily tumbled the pedals, side-by-side, brushing each other’s hands, smoking or texting as they rode. It is about 20 percent pedestrians, 40 percent cars, and 40 percent bikes. And they ride without helmets comfortably through a city made for all three to get along. No horns. No anger. No more fanfare than we might find at a coffee shop at 8:30 a.m. Everybody is courteous and quiet. I found no restaurants opened. After walking an hour I returned to the hotel bar to find my UCI staff. Marching orders for Day 2. Lots more to come.