Photos by Daniele Molineris
Three riders from the german Bora team sit afront of the group. It is stage three of the race, so from the past days racing, I have some idea on each of their shape. I am counting the seconds before the rider working at the head of his team will explode. Before one of his two teammates will attack. And before the next moments of the race unfold. This is the ‘queen’ stage. However the last 150 or so kilometres were merely the overture. In the next moments the real race will start.
The climb is fifteen kilometres long, a small road winding it’s way up the side of the mountain. An occasional gaggle of fans punctuate the beautiful landscape. Far below, we snaked our way amongst villages and vineyards, workers pausing for a moment to observe the circus pass by their doorstep. Now moments later we race in a completely different surrounding.
If I focus on it, I can hear the breathing and occasional change of gears from the other riders in the group. If not, I am alone with nothing but my thoughts and it is curious the different ways in which my mind distracts itself from the effort.
A bead of sweat drips into my sunglasses as we round a sharp hairpin to the left. The tarmac changes slightly, becoming a little smoother. I adjust my grip on the bars. Focused upon the wheel infront, I constantly assess the situation. I watch my team mates. The subtle tells in their body language, such as the colour of their neck, the angle of their head or movement in their shoulders, reveals a lot about their legs. In most sports one would asses their opponents too. However in this moment, all but two of mine are hidden in my wake. I resist the urge to look back across the hairpin. Perhaps symbolically more than anything, I am only focussed on what lays ahead.
Geraint looks over his shoulder and slowly drifts back in the line. My other team mates adjust their pace to close the bike-length void in the wake of the three riders ahead. I also slowly squeeze a little on the pedals. More power required to remain the few inches behind Pavel where I have spent the last half hour. I watch him a little closer. He looks smooth and calm on the bike. But without seeing his face, I can only tell so much of his condition. After hundreds of training rides and races together over the years, I am fairly confident that I could predict his finish position solely from one look into his eyes.
It’s all in the eyes. And not only the pain or suffering. It’s the hunger, the glory and the fire that drives each of these young men franticly up side of this mountain. As my friend Rigo Zimmerman once so elegantly described, its in the eyes that each rider is truly recognised by his adoring fans, that admiration can be gained and that races can be won, or indeed lost. How can one truly adore a sports person, if they can’t see into their soul, if their heart isn’t laid out bare for all to see. To find that connection with the stars we admire on tv, one must see something of oneself in their heroes, or at least of whom we so desire to be.
As I pass Geraint, I assume it will be the last I see of him for the stage. Nothing has been said, but a rider moving backwards in a moment such as this, rarely returns to the front. I think about him passing back through the group. Riders desperately darting past on either side. It’s a strange feeling to have been at the arrowhead of a group for so long and then suddenly be surrounded by others, almost trapped in, within the guts of the group. Their efforts are noticeably audible, amplified by the contrast. The speed they are travelling too, even if that was the pace you held just moments earlier.
And then you, unless you can refind the rhythm, you are spat out the back. Alone. The commissaire car, your team car, the rest of the convoy, pass by in near silence. Perhaps the Tv motorbike lingers for a second or two, its lens intruding deep into your psyche. But it too soon speeds off. The silence is deafening. You imagine the directors announcing your ejection to their riders via the radio, or at least one probably egotistically longs to be that important. And then you are left, thoughts wandering even further than in the height of the effort.
Leonard Kamna attacks and the trance of the previous thirty minutes is broken. The rider who was working the last kilometres swings off to the left. He’s given his all for the day. The third rider, Vlasov, sits up momentarily, easing off the pedals, extenuating the sudden gap to the full flight Kamna. Vlasov cranes his neck round to the right, no doubt eager to anticipate the reaction from behind. Looking for the wheel he will latch on to as the race lurches in to action. My two team mates infront stand up out of their saddles, long limbs stretching out as if arisen from a deep slumber, their muscles tensing and releasing as they fall down upon the pedals. Their bicycles react with speed. For a moment or two we three become a real life Triplets of Belleville; bikes swaying as we pull on our handlebars, grinding up the climb, heads hanging low over the handlebars in pure effort.
Then I sit down. The pace is fine, my team mates control the gap and calm returns. Geraint rides past me in this moment, going to the front of the group and starting to work immediately. In an instant the thoughts of his journey back through the group regress. The morale I had imagined the rest of the group had taken upon seeing his demise disappears. Again I have three team mates sat ahead of me. Quite the show of strength and control. A perfect situation when sat in the leaders jersey. Geraint later told me he had been on my wheel the whole time. He felt better seeing all his team mates sat in front of him. That champions mindset has become a part of him after so many years in that position. He had simply returned to where he’d always sat, at the back of our team, surveying the lay of the land.
Finally able to ride their own rhythm after an entire climb being dictated to by others, the team look formidable at the head of the group. I know that is a good feeling, to come to the front and stamp ones mark upon a race. With good legs, you feel a certain freshness and exuberance to hit the front, especially after so long waiting in the wings. I doubt there is a bike rider on the planet who doesn’t enjoy that feeling to suddenly be in control.
We continue to ride in near silence. Words unneccesary, the experience of years of riding in this situation creating an unwritten playbook. A journalist asked me later in the week if other teams can sense when a particular team has a great atmosphere amongst the riders. I responded that no you don’t really see behind the curtain of another team. And yet in a moment such as this, perhaps the fact each riders knows precisely their cue, without prompt or script, is the testament to a true team. The bond between some team mates can run deep, and I can only dream that in thirty years time we will sit round a table, glass in hand, recounting moments such as these.
Photos by Daniele Molineris