Two Wheels Good – Part 2

13th August 2018

In Still An Ordinary Spectator, I note that my attendance at some sports events over the years has been based on a straightforward principle: the event was in the general vicinity of where I was living and there was no excuse not to go. Hitherto, the most extreme example occurred in April 2015, when I walked to the end of our street – literally – and crossed over the Auchenhowie Road to the Milngavie and Bearsden Sports Club, where I watched a couple of matches at the Western Wildcats Hockey Club.

For last Wednesday’s Women’s Time Trial at the 2018 European Cycling Championships, I did not even have to go that far, as the course actually included Auchenhowie Road, which I did not need to cross.

It was 9.30 in the morning. We were in a group of about 50 – adults in their cycling gear (“Newcastle West Cycling Club”), young children with their bikes and crash helmets (and parents), some elderly ladies, a keen photographer crouching on his haunches – together with the volunteer stewards and a couple of policemen.

The junction with Glasgow Road was a good spot from which to observe the race. It was a tight right-handed bend, which forced the cyclists to decelerate as they came up from Waitrose before speeding up again along another fast stretch. The light rain and dampened road added to the technical requirements. A couple of riders misjudged the turn and brushed their arms against the spectator barriers.

The 34 competitors had set off at one-minute intervals from the centre of Glasgow, but a number had already changed their places in the irregular procession before they reached us, just over one-third of the way along the 31 kilometre course. One of these was the winner of the event for the last two years – Ellen van Dijk of the Netherlands – who had been the last to depart. After we returned home, we learned that Van Dijk had completed the hat-trick, defeating her compatriot, Anna van der Breggen, by two seconds.

For the Men’s Time Trial, after lunch, we had to walk about 100 yards further on to the Glasgow Road to observe the cyclists make their way towards the traffic lights at St Paul’s Church and up the hill leading to Strathblane. (Their route was 45 kilometres). Although our phase of the race was greeted by pleasant sunshine and a light breeze, the local vagaries of the weather meant that the final run into Glasgow was met with squally rain. As with the morning’s race, the defending champion held on to the title by a very narrow margin: Victor Campenaerts of Belgium was judged to have outpaced the Spaniard, Jonathan Castoviejo, by less than one second after more than 53 minutes of racing.

An obvious feature of the week’s cycling at the Championships was the huge variety of events that were included. For example, although the participants in the Time Trials had their advisors in the support cars and their on-bike computers to inform them of their progress, I sense that it is essentially a solitary pursuit: the rider by himself/herself over a long haul, judging the conditions, sensing whether the speed is fast enough, coping with the pain, dealing with the inner demons…

Contrast that with BMX Cycling. On Friday, we took in the Qualifying rounds of that sport’s European Championships at the Glasgow BMX Centre in KnightswoodPark.

Previously, I had only caught glimpses of BMX racing on television, where it comes across as fast and frenetic and intimate, with the rider in a chaotic maelstrom with the other competitors. I can report that it comes across as exactly the same when viewed in the flesh, but also with its own requirements for skill and control and – in a slightly strange way – with its own elegance.

The stands were nicely full in the early afternoon sunshine and I was not surprised to see many young children – boys and girls – eagerly and attentively watching with their parents. The prospects for the sport look good, if these are the enthusiasts of the future (as well as the present), perhaps to the detriment of the numbers participating in older traditional ball games.

The course started with a precipitous 8 metre descent – I’m afraid that I wouldn’t have got beyond that point, especially at the riders began by pedalling furiously on the way down to build up their momentum – and then ran over 400 metres of variable humps and bumps on four parallel straights bounded by three 180 degree curves. In these Qualifying rounds, the Men’s heats (or Motos) comprised 3 series of ten races; the Women had 3 series of four.

The MC provided a running commentary from the side of the track, his enthusiasm consistently revealed. The British rider Kye White won one of his heats having “crept up like a tiger stalking his prey”. Later, another rider “just got squashed at that corner a little bit”. However, I did think that, at times, the presentation was somewhat rushed; it would certainly have benefited from having individual introductions of the riders and their nationalities before their first appearances.

The races came thick and fast: 42 in an hour and 20 minutes, even with a lengthy hold-up after the rider representing Germany, Liam Webster, had taken a heavy fall. Indeed, one race started before the previous one had technically finished, as another faller had remounted his bike and was just completing the final straight when his pursuers were hurtling out of the start-gate. Incidentally, I was captivated – somewhat morbidly, I admit – by the start itself: the release of the gate following the dull tone of the hooter sounded as if the executioner had pulled the lever of the trapdoor.

Both the Men’s and Women’s World Champions – Sylvain Andre of France and Laura Smulders of the Netherlands – were present and both won their three Qualifying races, although the latter’s younger sister, Merel, did seem to ease up when favourably placed against her in two of them. The following day, the elder Smulders retained her European title. In the Men’s final, Andre finished third behind the tiger, Whyte, and Kyle Evans of Great Britain, who took the gold medal.

My appetite for the Men’s Road Race around central Glasgow yesterday had been whetted by the Women’s race on the previous weekend. (“Two Wheels Good – Part 1”, 7th August 2018). It was the same 14 kilometre course, though the men had to complete 16 laps rather than nine: the equivalent, I suppose, of their respective tennis counterparts playing 5- and 3-set matches at Wimbledon.

We took up positions at various vantage points throughout the city centre: Buchanan Street, St Vincent Street and West George Street (as the week before), the bend leading into the final straight at Glasgow Green, the bottom of the long sweep down the High Street, the short but steep incline of Montrose Street… It was at this last point, about half-way through the race, that we saw that the World Champion and pre-match favourite, Peter Sagan of Slovakia, was suffering from some sort of mechanical trouble and falling behind the peloton. He recovered to join its tail end, but did not last much longer, dropping out with six laps to go.

From the start of the race, a group of seven riders (later reduced to six) broke away from the main field; at one point they had a lead of over five minutes. After they had been reeled back in, another breakaway formed of ten riders. We viewed them at Charing Cross as they headed out to KelvingrovePark and the West End for the last time. On their return, a few minutes later, there were only five: the result, it transpired, of a crash at the far end of the course. It was from this select group that Matteo Trentin of Italy was to win the final sprint for the line on the Green.

It was a gruelling race: nearly 6 hours in drizzly conditions on a wet surface. I would guess that considerably fewer than half the starters completed the course. Amongst the steadily reducing peloton, the grimacing faces were progressively darkened by their continuous exposure to the sprayed wet dirt of the city streets; on their final lap, they looked like miners emerging from their underground shift.

Behind them, the individual stragglers looked to any means to circumvent the rules and ease their passage; slipstreaming behind one of the support cars was not uncommon. I noted that, on two separate occasions, one of the riders from eastern Europe firmly grasped a water bottle being held out of the window of his support car (and did so for some time) as he struggled up a long ascent. “He’s got a sticky bottle”, exclaimed one of the stewards, sarcastically, “He’s not even pedalling”.

I knew it was against the rules, but – perhaps I am getting soft – I also sensed where my sympathies lay. The rider had negotiated over 200 kilometres on a dreich day on a demanding course; he was detached from the remainder of the field; his body would have been sore; and he was a long way from home. I cannot say that I would not have done the same.

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