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Marianne's Excellent Spring Classics Adventure III
 
By Marianne Werz O'Brien
Date: 4/17/2004
Marianne's Excellent Spring Classics Adventure III
 

Marianne's Excellent Spring Classics Adventure I - The Last 75 km of Flanders
Marianne's Excellent Spring Classics Adventure II - Riding with the Pros

We were fortunate enough to have Daily Peloton’s own Anita van Crey as our guide for Gent Wevelgem! The woman is amazing; she even managed to convince the officials to grant Christopher and me press passes though we had not put in our info within the official time limits. Once the precious cards were handed out, off we went to the team bus area!

It is total bedlam outside the fences, and not much calmer inside. The first cyclist we spotted was none other than Magnus Backstedt! Roger Hammond had mentioned after Monday's ride that Magnus had been his roommate for a few years, and had taught him Flemish. When I mentioned that to Magnus, he laughed and said that had been a few years back, then he quite obligingly posed for this photo.

It would be hard not to notice the Postal-Berry bus when it pulls in, as essentially the entire cadre of photographers and fans swarm to it like moths to a flame. George had previously stated that he was leaving Gent Wevelgem off his agenda this year in order to be better rested for Paris Roubaix, so I was quite surprised to see his name on the start list. In fact, I was sure it was an error.

The first clue that Hincapie had changed his mind came when I saw a breathtakingly beautiful blond girl riding shotgun in a Postal car. There could be no doubt that this angelic face was that of the former TdF Podium Miss who stole Georgie’s heart. If she was here, George was certain to be nearby!

But having learned at the TdF and Flanders that the Postal Berry boys only emerge from the cocoon of their bus at the last possible moment, we decided to wander off in search of more available riders! And who should we come across but Alain Gallopin, the DS of CSC getting his team ready to ride.

CSC is obviously quite proud of their TdF 2003 Team Lion, because he’s still riding in the front of the bus, arms open as though he is beseeching the universe to grant more victories to their riders! Today however, it would be the Lion of Flanders’ team celebrating sweet victory.

As we turn to walk across the parking lot, Jeremy Hunt (Mr.Bookmaker.com) comes up to say hi! Apparently he had been told about my cobble-crashing experience (sigh) and asked if I was okay. Hey – it just would NOT be the complete Belgian experience without a little cobble-induced road rash, right? We snapped this photo of Jeremy with his serious “game face” on!

Next up: Roger Hammond, reigning British National Champ. He popped over to say hello, and give a quick kiss on my cheek. We wished him luck, and left him to prepare for the race.

Now riders were streaming out to sign in and get to the starting line. Time to run over to USPS to see if we can catch a glimpse of George as he leaves! Amazingly enough, we timed it perfectly, and as he started to roll past me I wished him luck and he turned, smiled, said thanks, and was off! (I then floated away to photograph more guys as they rolled past...)

The riders were coming by fast and furious now, so I’ll just give a few photos. First poor Matt White of Cofidis, in what may be his last race for a good while. You have to feel badly for the boys like Matt who just signed on with Cofidis this year, only to have everything fall apart.


Cofidis rider Matt White heads to the start.

 


Then comes Frank Hoj of Team CSC.

 


Followed out by Gian Matteo Fagnini from Domina Vacanze.

And as the riders sped away to the start line, we hopped into Anita’s little red car and took off to our first viewpoint of the race in de Panne - the feed zone.

As we sped down the highway the weather turned ominous. To our right were clear, sunny skies, but to our left the sky was pitch black, a storm at sea that was coming in fast and hard.

We arrived at the feed zone about 30 minutes before the race. Plenty of time to walk past the team cars and inspect what they are giving their guys to eat! The Navigators soigneur said they were putting little apple pies and bananas and such wrapped in easy open foil into their bags.

The Postal Berry noshies were a bit of a surprise though. Freddy was getting ready to add a “Nutz over Chocolate” Luna bar to each bag. The thought of these big studly racers eating Luna bars (which, after all, are specifically made for girls by Clif Bars!) was just too funny and I simply HAD to say so... Freddy turned around and handed the whole stack to me! Hopefully the lack of a Luna bar isn’t what kept George from winning the race...

Suddenly the skies just opened up and the deluge began. We hotfooted it back to the warm dry safety of the car; the riders were obviously not so lucky.

The racers came through the feed with the hammer down! There was a break with three riders away and the peloton was determined to bring it back.  Only one bag was taken as the riders flew past, ignoring the offerings.

I asked one of the Navigators guys what would happen, since this was the only feed for the race. He said that essentially the guys were screwed. The bags were then all loaded into the team cars, in the hopes of getting them up to the riders later.

Now the weather really started to turn foul. A typical cold, grey Belgian spring day is bearable because the rains pass quickly on the whole. Today was a beast of a different colour. The rain poured down non-stop. To add to the misery was a strong headwind, driving the raindrops hard into the riders faces and soaking them through.

We caught up with the peloton again a bit later. The rain continued, never letting up. The guys passed us looking utterly and completely miserable. This race was rapidly turning into hell on wheels. Just when it seemed it could get no worse, the rain turned to sleet pelting the peloton, and then to pea-sized hail....

At yet one more sighting prior to the climbs, still the rain continues, and the cross winds. The guys are pushing on, but... Watching Gent Wevelgem this year was painful. It almost felt like enjoying the race would be sadistic. I mean, these men were truly suffering, I have never seen racers looking so miserable or felt so sorry for them before.

We followed behind the race along the route nearing the turn to the climbs where we started to see cyclists abandoning all over the road. We spot Joachim, Friere, Zajicek, three Ag2R riders, and Flickinger throwing in the towel. Then an FdJeux rider, who was visibly shaking so hard that some folks who weren’t in a team car had taken pity on him. They ushered him into their car to warm up as they worked to strap his bike to the trunk.

We passed the turn to the climbs and continued on to make it to the finish ahead of the racers. As we entered the next little town it became obvious that a lot of riders had the same idea!

We saw a plethora of riders, too demoralized or exhausted to continue, who had also bypassed the climbs. The town of Kemmel had become a gathering place for riders abandoning the race. They were forming little private pelotons, some awaiting the comfort of team cars, others trying to make their own way to Wevelgem.

Some formed grupettos, without the laughter, grimly pedalling on in search of an end to their misery.  Some riders even opted to take their chances on the motorway, being the shortest distance between them and a long hot shower.

The sun finally came out again as the race was nearing Wevelgem. After the race was finally over only one fourth of the men who took to the start line had made it to the finish.

Tom Boonen won, Magnus Backstedt took second, Jan Kirsipuu third and George Hincapie fourth. Any man who finished this edition of Gent Wevelgem is a hero in my book. I find their level of dedication and perseverance awe-inspiring, and more than a little masochistic....

Cyclingnews.com rider Tom Barras, in his diary, described a similar race last year, from a pro’s perspective:

“As usual it was pissing down on the start line as I sharpened my elbows ready for my first soirée into the pelican. The bunch consisted of mainly amateur teams, which meant that there would be a lot of jostling for position with half-wits who will risk their lives in order to see the front. The rain continued to hammer down all day.” Heading to the showers after the race, “It was so cold and wet that one of the lads in my group was crying. I wasn’t chuckling myself either, and wished that I had worn gloves instead of trying to look hard. In the changing rooms, we were all in a right state, with riders huddling under the tepid showers fully clothed.”

Indeed all the riders I saw after Gent Wevelgem looked utterly numb, completely miserable, and totally exhausted. And for a number of them the very next day was yet another race – the GP Pino Cerami. How do they keep on? It is absolutely amazing to me. These guys rock! 

 
Related Articles
Gent-Wevelgem Updated
Marianne's Excellent Spring Classics Adventure I
Marianne's Excellent Spring Classics Adventure II

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