Story and photos (except where noted) by Kelly Fowler
I turned on the radio this morning as I was headed to Murcia for the final
stage of the Vuelta and was greeted by Sheryl Crow singing "Come on, come on,
come on. Break my heart again". How appropriate. It's strange how quickly you
can become friends with people when you're all thrown together in a situation
They miss their families, I miss mine. I suspect the life of a pro
racer, a production crew roadie, or even a podium girl from Rome wouldn't be all
wine and roses. I guess I could have maintained my journalistic "distance" but,
more than anything I'm a fan, and I can't help but cheer when the guys do well
and worry when they announce there's been a crash in the peloton.
Seeing local boy Alejandro Valverde win the GC at the Vuelta Murcia was a
treat. Here is a kid with a huge smile and a talent to match. He's the first
Murciano in the 24 year history of the race to win the overall title and the
locals were going crazy. Kelme has a history of developing exceptional talent
and it looks like they've got another future star on their hands. It's
consistency that counts in these multi-day races and Alejandro showed us this
week that he can do it all.
Alejandro Valverde. Click for larger image.
The Comunidad Valenciana-Kelme best team. Click for larger image.
Sure it's early in the season, but it's still early for Alejandro as well.
He's definitely one to watch. Chechu Rubiera of US Postal is one of those guys
who'd be a sleeper if he wasn't so dang good. He's not one to demand attention
as he quietly goes about kicking butt and takin' names. Last year Rubiera was
awarded Clif Bar's "Beyond The Podium Award" for being the uber-domestique that
he is. Looks like the fans appreciate all his hard work as much as the boss. I
had a chance to catch up with Chechu today as he was posing for pics with his
crowd of admirers. It seems he's recently graduated with a degree in electrical
Chechu Rubiera. Click for larger image.
Chechu. Click for larger image.
Take it from me, to graduate in Spain with an engineering degree is not only
an accomplishment it's practically a miracle. The schools here are tough! And to
do it while running the circuit as a pro racer? Impressive. Talk about your
Renaissance Man. Now, I wonder if he can cook!
So when does Chechu figure he'll be trading the bike for switchgear
assemblies and Megohmmeters? Well, he thinks he has another two to three years
as a pro and then it's off to a "normal" life. Good on ya, Chechu. We wish you
Since we're talking Posties, Michael Barry is one I had really wanted to talk
to since he has the unique distinction of being married to another pro biker - World Champion, National Champion and T-Mobile team member Dede Barry. Sheesh!
To think I stress out over coordinating my trendy little backpack with my
As you could imagine, the worse part for Michael is the time they spend on
different sides of the world. Those 6 or 7 week absences are tough. Right now
though, Dede is back from Australia where she started her quest for World Cup
gold with a 9th overall in the Geelong Tour. The change in climate from the
sizzling beaches of an Australian summer to the icy rain of a Spanish winter was
quite a shock for her, but being in the same time-zone as Michael cured that
case of jet lag in a hurry. The next race up for this Postie is the Criterium
International in France on the 26th so I'm sure Michael is anxious to get back
to Girona for a couple of weeks of playing catch-up with Dede.
Wanting to write a report each day after the race, I was a little worried I'd
begin to run out of material. I quickly realized though, with 111 guys starting
the race and an army of support personnel, there would be no shortage of
interesting people to talk to.
Enter Maximo. Ever wonder how they manage to pull
off looking so organized throughout 5 days of mayhem? He's the guy that keeps it
all together. He's also the guy that gave me the opportunity to play Giuseppe
Martinelli as I drove behind Damiano Cunego (Saeco) during the ITT. Obviously
he's on my top-ten list from here on out. Five screaming chilies, Maxi!
Maximo's job, simply put, is that of professional babysitter. And he's good.
If you're not where you should be it's "Fuera"! "Out"! If you're a podium girl
it goes something like this - "Maite, Maria! Stand back! Don't block! Alejandro,
come forward! The check, WHERE is the check! Fine. Now the flowers. NO!!! NOT
the kisses yet! Ok, NOW the kisses. Now, Mr. Mayor move forward. NO! Forward!
Fine. Now the cup. CAREFULLY!! Now look to the left, now the right. Raise the
flowers! Fine. Ok, everyone back. NOW, NOW! Move back NOW!"
Maximo at work. Click for larger image.
It's like watching Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic. He
has such complete control that he could have even Armstrong doing cartwheels if
he told him to!
Maximo. Click for larger image.
After watching this scene repeat itself five times each stage, I had been
wondering how the podium girls were going to hold up and I'm sure they were
relieved that today was the final day. Granted, being a podium girl isn't all
THAT tough. But guys, let me tell you, it isn't always easy being charming and
witty with overweight, cigarette smokin' old guys who don't know the first thing
about racing and are only there to bask in the glory of someone else's day in
the sun, all the while having to look like you're headed to the prom!
Podium girls at work with Valverde on stage one. Courtesy Vuelta
Now before you get all weird, I've got plenty of friends that are overweight,
cigarette smokin', old guys. It's that part about not knowing anything about
racing that's unforgivable. Remember, the PG's are there like icing on the cake.
They are not allowed to go wandering around, hangin' out with the riders. After
all, they didn't want another scandal like that one in France!
Since I have a daughter with no interest in racing - though she thinks
Lampre's Juan Manuel Garate is cute (I think it's the hair) - I thought I'd chat
it up a little with the girls since Marina really wanted to know more about life
as a Podium Girl. I had a chance to speak with Maite, Maria, Roberta and Paloma.
Paloma is the only local girl in the crowd and was having a great time hamming
it up in her own pueblo. She said the first day was really tough and she was
nervous and stumbling over everything. Since the races are shown live, that adds
another dimension to the fun.
Maite from Asturias and Maria from Zaragoza are not newcomers to the podium.
For eleven years Maite has been handing out kisses to the boys and Maria's been
along for four. They both agree that the best thing about this work is the
people they work with and the worst part is all the time spent hangin' around
with nothing to do, and of course their favorite riders are the Spaniards.
Maite and Maria. Click for larger image.
Roberta's from Rome and has only been in Spain for 10 months, yet she speaks
fluent Spanish. Please tell me you studied before, Roberta! This girl is as
smart as she is lovely. She's still in school here, has been an "azafata" or
hostess before, but this is her first cycling race and first time as a podium
girl. She says the best thing about this gig is that she's IN the race now.
She's a fan of cycling and has watched plenty of races on TV and for her to be
here, to be able to meet Armstrong, Valverde, Gutierrez and the boys is a true
pleasure. I asked about her favorite rider and she quickly responded "Marco,
Marco Pantani." Ah, the heart of an Italian!
Roberta and Paloma. Click for larger image.
Italy! As I'm writing this we're packing up to head for Rome in the morning.
I had told Roberta we were heading to her hometown and she was anxious to make
sure we had a good time. We exchanged contact info and promised to keep in
touch. That's how it is here at these races. Koldo Fernandez (Euskatel-Euskadi)
even asked ME how I was doing after HE had just crossed the finish line at the
Cima Pantani - the nasty finish of the yesterday's stage. I told him, "Probably
a lot better than you"!
The race today ended in spectacular fashion with the breakaway of Mariano
Piccoli (Lampre), Xavier Florencio (Relax Bodysol), and Mikel Pradera (Illes
Balears-Banesto) only being caught in the last couple of kilometers. Then with
about 1km to go there was a crash in the peloton!
Saunier's Juan Gomis (?) a little dusted up. Click for larger
Fortunately it didn't affect the frontrunners as they flew to the finish in
the heart of downtown Murcia and no one was seriously hurt. In the end it was
Brazilian Luciano Pagliarini of Lampre taking the stage by edging out Erik Zabel
of T-Mobile and Miguel Angel Perdiguero of Domina Vacanze. Alejandro and the
Kelme boys came in just behind with their 1,000 watt smiles lighting up the
Luciano Pagliarini, the stage 5 winner. Click for larger image.
Yep, come on Murcia. Break my heart... my 15 minutes are drawing to a close
and I'm gonna miss you! Thanks Janna for such a fabulous opportunity and
Muchisimas Gracias to everyone for their emails and notes of encouragement.
Danilo may have reached the Cima Pantani but this has been the top of the
mountain for me! I suppose it's time I should take my press pass off now, though
I think it makes a great fashion accessory. Maybe I'll wait just a little
longer... Un beso muy fuerte! Venga, Venga Venga!
Baumann and Evans during the stage. Click for larger image.
The finish. Click for larger image.
The peloton finishes. Click for larger image.
Danilo Di Luca. Click for larger image.
Cadel Evans, third overall. Click for larger image.
Miguel Martin Perdiguero, Mountains jersey winner. Click for
The Kelme team. Click for larger image.
The end of the day...Click for larger image.
...and it's a wrap...Click for larger image.
Click for larger image.