‘just make sure you don’t get dropped…. oh, and don’t crash anyone.’
these were the wise and terrifying words of advice that my then-teammate Tjarco Cuppens offered with a mischievous smile as we drove into the city of Heerlen, located in the south of the Netherlands in the little tail of the country that nestles between Belgium and Germany. close by is the Mur de Huy, the Cauberg, Valkenburg and a number of other iconic hills, roads and villages made famous amongst cycling fans by the Monuments that are held in the area each spring.
we were on our way to the town’s civic center, where we were to get changed up and ready to compete in the Heerlen post-Tour de France criterium. as we pulled up into the riders’ car park i was giddy as a schoolgirl. i’d been trying to keep calm all day but i wasn’t fooling anyone – it wasn’t that i was overawed by the prospect of the upcoming race, in which Mark Cavendish would be there along with Andy Schleck, Pierre Rolland and Theo Bos, amongst others – it was more an almost overwhelming sense of anticipation. it was like i’d arrived.
this was a post-Tour criterium for Eddy’s sake – one of the famous races that have been held throughout Europe for decades, just after July’s Tour de France, in which the stars of the famous race turn up in their respective jerseys to wow the cycling-loving fans of France, Belgium, and Holland.
held at night under spotlight and deep in the heart of the homelands of cycling, tens of thousands of fans of all ages turn out to each race to drink, eat and cheer their favorites on – as well as, for the first time ever, a certain 39 year-old rider known to you as crankpunk. lordy. the nerves had the taste of blood in my mouth, metallic and a little sour. i had to clamp it shut for fear of them escaping in a yammer of words – or worse…
we put our wheels on, grabbed our bags and helmets and walked round the corner of the hall to be faced with what looked then like a wall of people, maybe 500 of them, all lining up to get a snapshot of the stars. most of them knew Tjarco, the top local amateur for many a year who had featured in several of these crits over the years all over the country, but needless to say they looked at me with a quiet bewilderment.
who the heck is that?
there was an MC working the crowd, standing before the entrance, and he collared us for a word, introducing Tjarco first then me. a hushed ripple of polite applause emanated from those gathered and then we turned and headed in. after getting changed we went out and stood around by the stage as the hall filled up with VIPs and the press. our names were called out and we went up on stage where the MC presented us to the crowd. the news that i was none other than the winner of the Singapore National Road Race Championships went unapplauded, as did a rather disastrous attempt at a joke that i made – note to self, i thought, keep it shut next time. i had a feeling they were saving it though anyway for the bigger fish. sure enough, Cavendish, resplendent in Green, got a massive cheer, but the loudest was reserved for Andy Schleck.
‘i’ll come back and win it next year,’ he said, when asked about his goal for the 2012 Tour, and they hollered and hooted to the roof.
once all that was done i went back into the changing room for an interview i’d arranged to do with Schleck the Younger. he was sat in booth in the restaurant with his girlfriend (now wife) and teammate Joost Posthuma, and though i am older than him by over a decade, i’ll admit i was fidgety, though as soon i asked him why he loved cycling the slightly disinterested glaze faded from his eyes and he sat up, and i relaxed a little.
‘well.. this is my job, so it’s my livelihood, but…’ he paused, his eyes darting about over the tabletop, dissatisfied with his answer so far. then he smiled and looked right at me. ‘you know that feeling, when you don’t ride for a few days? well that’s why – after a few days i miss the pain, and i need to go out and hurt myself.’
that’s a damn good answer.
‘don’t hurt me too much tonite, please,’ i said.
‘you said this is your first time here?’
‘don’t worry. you’ll be fine. just don’t crash…’
there was that word again…
twenty minutes to the off we were back out to the hall. all the riders had massed together, helmets strapped on, bidons full. we headed out in single file. what i saw out there shocked me. the square in front of the civic center, which had previously seemed busy with about 500 people in it, was now absolutely heaving. there must have been 3-4000 people crammed in there. as we walked through the crowds and the spotlights and camera flashes i was right behind Cavendish and could just hear, above the din, the people ahead looking at the riders as they neared them, uttering their names like they were seeing gods before their eyes…
if that wasn’t humbling enough, in the blinding lights i somehow lost the train of riders and wandered along a good 30 meters past the entrance to the course and ended up behind a set of bleachers, stumbling into people queuing for hot dogs. the whole line turned to stare at me.
‘uh… i’m a… rider…’ i said, stating the obvious. ‘um… where’s the entrance to the course?’
someone pointed. someone else giggled. i mumbled ‘thanks’, and beat an embarrassed exit.
the atmosphere was just electric – i know people overuse that phrase but it was, the thrum of the crowd as we went on a practise lap was enough to send shivers up your shin bones. old, middle aged and young faces leered over the barriers, thousands of them, some spilling beers from plastic glasses, others clutching cameras and others still the famous frites and mayonnaise in paper cones. euro-pop blared out of giant speakers, the smell of tobacco and fried junk food and candy cotton fused in the autumnal air, and there i was, this little crankpunk, three years after getting back on a bike again after a near-20 year gap, warming up with the guys i write about on a daily basis an arm length’s away – and i was absolutely crapping myself.
mad as it may sound, i just wanted it over and done with – and whatever happened, i did not want to be crashing some guy who made a million+ euros a year and ending up on the front page of the Heerlen Gazette…
i’m not going to give away the secrets of the post-Tour criteriums – if you are interested you can search them out yourself, i’m not about to reveal anything – but safe to say that i would not have been in the race-winning break under any circumstances, as i spent the vast chunk of the race yo-yoing from mid-pack to the back after every corner. even at 85% of the speed these guys could have gone, their ability to hit the corners and come out with power is phenomenal. i’m not a bad bike handler but it took all my gumption and the most ridiculously intense bout of concentration – 80-odd kilometers worth – that i could muster to keep upright and in contact.
the bizarre thing though was that, almost purely by chance, i ended up at the front of the chasing pack and bagged 13th place, though i must have upset someone’s apple cart in doing so, as an irate Dutch voice was haranguing me as we headed back to hall. i turned to be confronted by Theo Bos, who kept barking at me in Dutch, obviously angry about something – but i just started smiling, thinking:
wow this is so cool, Theo Bos is shouting at me…
i never did find out what i’d done wrong – but at least i didn’t crash.
[stay tuned for Part 3, coming soon…ish]