28 June 2008

Ster-Electro Tour

With the race in Spain out the way, I had a quick trip up to Holland to start with the men in the Ster-Electro Tour. After the race it was a bit of push to get the girls out of the chairs, into the showers and off to the airport. But I managed to not waste much time, and before they knew it, the girls were checking in at the airport, and I was on the road again. My mission for the afternoon was the north side of Paris, being Sunday night, it was relatively easy to pass through the city. But wait until Monday morning, and you can bet you have a few hours sitting in traffic trying to navigate past this monster of a city. The team had a policy of no driving past midnight, and things were going to be tight, but I managed to take it easy and pass through no worries. The trucks near the French border were gone, the strike must have lasted only a few days, so the roads were clear, the border open, but I was in the Van, so they couldn’t touch me know, even if they wanted to. But how wrong was I, by the time I was leaving the outskirts of Paris, the French truckies had a little surprise planned for the highways. Seems they didn’t want to be out done by their Spanish buddies, and had a nice little protest to slow me down.

Just when the going got good, 420km to my destination, the traffic seemed to be stopping. And when you have three or four lanes of traffic stopping for miles, you know it’s going to be a long wait. I reached the crest of the hill, and as far as I could see in front of me was stopped, the crazy thing is that there didn’t seem to be any traffic on the other side of the highway either. I was thinking it must be a huge accident, closing both sides of the highway. After half an hour of siting still and moving very slowly, coming up the other side of the medium strip, was a whole pile of trucks, in perfect formation taking up the whole road. Big signs on the front of them, protesting the same shit, price of fuel, long hours etc. There was about 50 in a nice little peloton, moving about 15km/hr, blocking everything from coming past. I would probably surmise that whatever was blocking my side was the same protest. And an hour or so later, we started moving, the other side of the highway started as well, there was some pretty angry looking people as well. But it was not the end of it, another 300km later, I was just about to enter Belgium, and what do I see on the other side of the highway, but the same sort of protest. Yep, the traffic was slowing down, and then it stopped, the bastards got me again. They must have thought about it for a while, cause there was no other options for leaving the highway, I was stuck again for at least another hour. Oh well, give them their day, I kind of felt like I was one of them most of the time, as I drive the big trucks a lot of the time, so I had some small bit of support for them. The race did not start until tomorrow, so I had time.

Tony in happier times with the yellow jersey.

Arriving in Eindhoven was almost like going home, I had lived about 20km from here the last few years with Flexpoint, my old team. The teams base and house was close, so I knew the area well. We had 5 stages, including a TT prologue to start with. The race was right on the border with Holland and Belgium, so they would be using all the usual climbs for the races. We had a good little team for the week, Mark Cavendish, Andreas Klier, Bernhard Eisel, Roger Hammond, Gregory Henderson, Servais Knaven, Tony Martin, and last but not least Frantisek Rabon. First up was a small prologue of about 6.2 km, around a pretty small, tight circuit. A few big roads, a lot of small roads, and plenty of right angle corners, not the sort of fast course I like. The boys checked out the circuit while we organised the bikes and trainers for the warming up. It might only be a small lap, but still the same amount of work goes into it from my point, no matter how long the race is. So off first was Tony Martin, the strong German just seemed to put it into the biggest gear (55-11) he had, and it looked like he just cruised around the course. He took the corners at full speed, giving me a few nervous moments. I found out later he had been around the course six times already, checking out just how fast he could take every corner. And it seemed to work, fastest time of the day, but there was still a 100 or so to come behind him. Things got pretty tight towards the end, Tony keeping the lead by the slim margin of 18 seconds, but it was enough to put him into the yellow jersey, and kept the team in the front of the race.

The beautiful countryside during the 3rd stage

Stage 2 was pretty hard for the boys, a few nasty climbs at speed, but they defended brilliantly the jersey, but things were getting closer. Only 8 seconds was the time gap, with four riders at the same time, now the race was really starting to open up. We had a surprise visitor that night, with the teams owner and manager Bob Stapleton coming to pay us a visit. Was nice to meet him for the first time, a bit jet lagged from his trip over, but all the same nice to put a face to the name. Bob decided to come for a ride on the race car for the third stage, giving both myself and the director Tristan a bit of added stress for the day. not that we had anything to worry about, but you know what it’s like with the big boss checking you out for the day. The riders certainly knew it as well, they seemed to be pretty active on the race radio today. More information and tactics getting discussed than ever before, oh well maybe they put on a good show for Bob today, with another win. For some reason, I had a feeling it was not going to be an easy day, and before you knew it the first puncture was happening. I fixed that, then not half an hour later, Tony wearing the yellow jersey had a problem with his headset, I had to sort it out quick smart. The headsets have been problematic since day one, for no reason tightening up, all by themselves, even just resting them over night in the truck was sometimes enough for it to change (something creepy going on if you ask me). So again we stopped and I leapt out and sorted out Tony, he seemed pretty relaxed, it was an easy finish, so the pressure was off him a bit today. Wham, then another puncture, not my day today, third time out of the car, not some very good odds. No sooner did we relax, have a little bit of lunch, talk some history, solve the worlds crisies, then we hear Roger Hammond on the radio with a front shifter problem, one bike swap later and we were on the road again.

The bike in the back, such a shame.

Things were starting to heat up a bit at the front, we were chasing the small breakaway group off the front of the peloton, there was about 5km to go, things were looking good for the team and Tony was looking safe, oh did I say it was raining and the roads were wet, well they were. We passed the 5km to go mark and then crash on the front, shit, I looked up as we sped to the scene, and I see the yellow jersey down, his bike on the ground with the seat broken off, shit. Out of the car for the fifth time, his spare bike straight of the roof, and I ran to find Tony, he was bleeding pretty bad. I had a quick look and there was blood everywhere on his hand and arm, the rest of the body looked a bit open and a bit of road rash, but nothing too serious. He took off slowly, looking a bit at his hand as he left, I then ran back to the car to pick up the bike and get underway. But the car decided to meet me half way, but there was Tony’s bike between us on the ground, the car accelerated towards me, and then I heard that loud crunching, scraping, splintering, snapping sound you never want to hear. Yep the bike was under the car, and it was looking a bit worse for wear. I got Tristan to reverse back a bit so I could get what was left of the bike out, I had to stand on the bits poking out, to stop the bike scraping even more down the road. It was not a good sound, almost like when someone scrapes their fingernails down a blackboard, but worse cause you know just how much the bike costs. After a bit I got the bike out, and the front wheel, which was not wanting to leave the underneath of the car in a hurry. It was one of those times you could use the line ‘this would make a nice wind chime’. I picked up what I could and put it in the back of the car, folding it in about three places. And then jumped back into the car, the car was silent, there was no need to say anything, a moments silence for the dead bike, then we went to have a look at Tony’s injuries.

The view from the back of the convoy, car #19, last car for the day.

He had to stop, the blood was pissing out of his hand pretty bad so we had to have a look. Well it was not so bad, a few holes in his knuckles where he slid down the road on his hand, and a couple of scrapes on the forearm, pretty lucky. We did a bush repair, as the race doctor was busy at the crash site, and our one was in the second car, stuck way back in the race. Tony managed to get to the finish line, but of course lost the yellow jersey. We had now started to laugh a bit in the car, even Tristan was starting to warm up a bit by now. But it was one of those days you never really have, shame was that the big boss Bob was there to share it with us. Hey got to have the lows sometimes, so you can enjoy the highs more. The next day Tony started, but we now had nothing to race for, our best GC rider was in about 67th place, and the car was relegated to last place in the convoy, so we saw nothing anyway. Naughty boy Tom Boonan won the sprint, he had to do something to try and salvage his month. But with the last stage, we did make a bit of a comeback with Mark Cavendish taking out the sprint for the win. So we said goodbye to Bob (he then went to see the boys in the Tour de Swiss, and they lost the yellow jersey with Bob in the car as well, so we didn’t feel too bad after all). A nice short drive back to base, and a few days off, nice.

And of course there are a few more photos here and over here.

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