Monday, May 12, 2014

The Peloton Vanishes

Giro d'Italia in Antrim
Up the winding coastal road framed by stark, peaty hills, walks a man in Tinkoff Saxo cycling kit, carrying a pole topped with a cluster of flags. As he makes his way up the incline, the pole flexes and the flags flutter frantically in the wind that's been picking up since morning. The bursts of colour in the gray drizzle commandeer the attention of roadside onlookers. On top is the green, white and orange of the Irish tricolour. Below it, the bright pink of the Giro inscribed "Giro d'Irlanda." And beneath those, a yellow flag with the cryptic "John 3:7".

Giro d'Italia in Antrim
As I kneel at the side of the road and photograph his journey's progress, a police car slows down beside me. "Is that your car parked over there?" says the officer.

"It's not," I reply, continuing to compose my shot.

"But I think it is," replies he. "The fellows there say 'That girl in pink with the camera just come out of it'. Look if it's your car, you need to come with me."

"It's not my car," I say.

From across the road a group of people watches intently.

Giro d'Italia in Antrim
Since the early morning, we are on the Antrim Coast between Ballycastle and Cushendall, by the spooky, mist-covered Vanishing Lake, waiting for Stage 2 of the Giro d'Italia. The idea is to get the peloton coming through an unmistakably local landscape. Not the prettiest landscape with the most dramatic coastal views, but one that captures the feeling of what cycling here is really like. Perhaps we do too good a job in that respect. The sprinkles of pink against the otherwise bare, green-gray-brown background only accentuate the surrounding emptiness and surprising lack of festivity. The crowds are thin, the police unfriendly. There is a vague but unmistakable tension in the air. And that's before the drizzle becomes a downpour.

Giro d'Italia in Antrim
On a grassy bank a cluster of spectators attempts a picnic, now clasping soggy clumps of food under their ponchos.

Giro d'Italia in Antrim
Others fare better under the canopies of enormous caravans that seem home to entire cycling clubs from nearby counties.

Giro d'Italia in Antrim
The road has been marked with words and slogans, including tributes to Irish riders Nicolas Roche and Dan Martin

Giro d'Italia in Antrim
The flags are slowly making their way to the hilltop.

Giro d'Italia in Antrim
Cyclists - solitary and in groups - parade up and down the car-free road in anticipation.

Giro d'Italia in Antrim
Until they too are told to clear out. The breakaway is 20 minutes away. 

Giro d'Italia in Antrim
The air grows thick as we wait. We wait for the riders to overwhelm us with the power and energy and colour of their presence, while at the same time worrying that they will not - that it will all be over too quickly, that it will make no difference at all, that nothing - not even the 2-wheel stampede of a magnificent world-famous race - can stir this ancient, tense place. 

Giro d'Italia in Antrim
When the first team cars go by it is a welcome change from the echelons of police vehicles, tow trucks and vans peddling pink t-shirts which no one wants to buy. People begin to shout. They get close to the cars, run after them.

Giro d'Italia in Antrim
When a Movistar car pulls over to the side of the road, it is politely swarmed. The tanned men inside roll down the windows and speak in bemused tones with thick accents to the crowds who ask rapid-fire questions and seem unable to stop themselves from touching them. 

"When is the break-away coming?" 

"Ten-eh minoot-ehs." 

Ten minutes, ten minutes!

Giro d'Italia in Antrim
Things happen quickly after that. First we hear sirens and the sounds of a hovering helicopter.  Then we see them, in quick procession. The red lead car.

Giro d'Italia in Antrim
The black motorcycles with pink "Race" decals on their windshields.

Giro d'Italia in Antrim
And immediately after, a string of 4 skinny riders, pedaling hard up the long incline, as the helicopter circles above. 

Giro d'Italia in Antrim
This seems to go on in slow motion, and at the same time it is a blur. I am not the only one who has no idea who the riders are, as the spectators can be heard referring to them by the colour of their kit. First comes the neon yellow one, with the green one close behind. Then after a gap, comes the red one, followed by the black one. More team cars and motorcycles go by, and in the distance we can see a dark cloud that is the peloton.

Giro d'Italia in Antrim
What do I expect the peloton to look like as it goes past? I am not exactly sure, but not the way it does. Perhaps I expect it to be long, narrow and orderly - a drawn out echelon of maybe 4 riders abreast, vying for position elegantly. Instead it comes at us in one fat messy clump that takes up the entire width of the road, and looks unexpectedly haphazard. 

The riders in the bunch appear not so much tired from physical exertion as weary, even a little bored. Some are chatting and chuckling about something that must have annoyed them, with a shake of the head like "whatcha gonna do." A few are glancing around and actually yawning. One smiles and another winks at me. Which ones are doing all these things? I have no idea. The entire peloton looks to be wearing black with the exception of the refreshingly smurf-hued Astana guys, so those are the only riders I can even identify by team. 

Giro d'Italia in Antrim
I do not get my bearings in time to smile back, or wave, or shout anything encouraging. I am using a big film camera, advancing the knob at a rate I would not have thought possible, clicking away and hoping for the best in the 5 seconds it is all happening. 

It is over as soon as it starts. 

Giro d'Italia in Antrim
After the peloton I expect more. Small groups of stragglers, a drawn out procession of some sort. But after a colourful blur of team cars, the road is empty and silent again. It takes me some time to realise it is actually finished. 

Giro d'Italia in Antrim
Before long, people are walking and cycling on the road again. Cars are permitted to leave. And, just like that, off everyone goes, encouraged by the lashing rain. Was I hoping for a street party? Hardly. But the speed at which everything reverts to its pre-Giro state is more than a little anti-climactic. The Giro has been through the Antrim coast and all I got is this soggy hair and water drops on my camera lens.

Giro d'Italia in Antrim
The peloton has vanished, and with it the spectators, and the scraps of pink, and the bicycles, and the Irish flag on the hilltop. Only the Vanishing Lake itself, near-invisible earlier that morning, now swells and deepens into its brooding ripply-gray existence, nestled contently amidst the soggy peaty glens. 

42 comments:

  1. love your style of your reportage. Thanks. If you once will have more action and fun you will have to go to Alpe d'Huez for a TdF stage.

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  2. Great report. I wonder what the NI tourist board thought of all that TV coverage showing the riders going through rain and grey clouds, but hey, you don't organise anything at anytime in Norn Iron without assuming it may be raining ;)

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    1. Ironically we had an entire month of the most ridiculously warm and sunny beach weather here, until the Giro preparations began.

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    2. The is why criterium races provide a better spectator experience. Amazing athletes, high energy, cool bikes, picnics, and it's not over in a flash.

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    3. The Gran Prix of Beverly last summer was fantastic example of that.

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  3. We were standing just up the road; about 500m from the summit. It was a remarkable day. Arrived in Ballycastle to sunshine and warmth, rode around Torr to Cushendun and Cushendall as the clouds began to muster and then headed back to Loughareema with a light tailwind, light rain and closed roads. The first downpour hit just as we reached the summit but by that stage it didnt matter as my saddle bag was loaded with food and drink so I was well set for the 2hr wait. It was quite remarkable and, if I'm honest, was topped off by clipping past club cyclists on the decent back to Ballycastle on my Raleigh Randonneur with VO trimmings and Carradice bag.

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    1. "on my Raleigh Randonneur with VO trimmings and Carradice bag."

      Oh wow, I definitely saw you.

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    2. In a funny tie-in, I rode my first Super Randonneur series in, ahem, '88 on a Raleigh Randonneur which I remember fondly. I got a ding in the top tube that year too, when friends and I bumped into (well, not literally) the then world champion, Stephen Roche, in the Wicklow mountains. He knew someone in the group and stopped to chat. I leaded my bike against a pole in too much haste, but at least I had a ding with a story...

      The other part of the tie-in is that the 600k in that SR series took us up to Norn Iron. I'm still shocked that I and my fell forçats de la route had the liathroidi to knock on someone's door at two in the morning (well, the lights were on) when we couldn't find the mountaineering centre near Newcastle, Co. Down (IIRC). This when The Troubles were still spoken of in the present tense. However, the inhabitants didn't bat an eye lid, and were able to direct us down the road to said mountaineering centre as if this were a regular occurrence.

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    3. Went to the Famous 1989 Tour de France on a Raleigh Randonneur. Three weeks riding in the alps. Saw the actual bike earlier this year waiting for the Magilligan Point ferry. It has covered tens of thousand of miles - the owner acquiring it in the early nineties and being an old school mile muncher racked up huge miles.

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    4. Makes me wonder whether the Raleigh Portage was ever a common sight around these parts?

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    5. The Portage seems quite similar to the Randonneur (http://www.retrobike.co.uk/forum/download/file.php?id=224998). [Aside: How does one embed an image in a comment?] The former seems to have a fancier engraved fork crown and a curved seatstay bridge, while the latter had brazed-on spoke holders on the chainstay (of which, one of those spokes was needed on my 600k).

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    6. Spoke holders!

      I don't think you can embed an image into a blogspot comment; best you can do is an a href link in html.

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    7. Mine has spoke holders on the left chainstay. Its one of the mid 90's models with the bizzare Reynolds 708 tubing. Wonderful bike. Just need a decent handlebar bag and and a set of Grand Bois Cyprès to complete it.

      Anyway, it will be living in P'stewart from June. If you see it around the coast then give it a wave.

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  4. Uh oh someone got a pink jacket.

    Hey I told ya that was gonna happen. Shoulda done the Belfast thing.

    Break up the road, cold, wet GC riders just stretching their legs. Slow pace = clumped mass. Sprinters' teams know exactly when to hit the gas and nail them back quickly. No need to chase early.

    That cop doesn't read your blog, otherwise he'd know about the car thing.

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    1. Men's Rapha rain jacket c.2011.

      Belfast didn't happen, which was probably just as well. Photos of riders and teams I don't know in a city I've never been to before can't have been very meaningful.

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    2. Pageantry vs. this abjectly-described, depopulated, colorless back road? Of course no photo op's there at all.

      I think you're saying there's not one interesting thing you could have taken a photo of, nor invented a narrative of it.

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    3. i found her narrative to be a very interesting description of what it was all about.

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    4. This is just a slice, that sliver of pizza some restaurants give you to entice you to buy the whole darn thing,.

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    5. Wait. Wait, this is important. Where are these restaurants that do this (certainly not in New England or NI!)? I want pizza.

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    6. Oh yeah baby. A newish one will give you a sliver if you get a glass of wine, knowing you can't resist. People buy pizza w/o getting the wine a lot of times, but people getting wine during happy hour have been known to completely cave.

      P.S. We have lotsa, lotsa different styles of PIZZA out here. When I was young and trained I could eat an entire stuffed deep dish large Chicago.

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    7. This post left me with mixed feelings yesterday, but the more I read it the more I like it. And I get the sense that most of V's readers missed the subtext of the flag and police car scene.

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    8. Anon 1:34 - oh yeah I got that. There are many subtexts going on in this blog; that one didn't need a comment from me.

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    9. Ok, now I see it. The flag carrier is Christ, the cops are Pontius Pilate, the breakaway is the crucifixion and the peloton is the resurrection. Bravo.

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    10. Unbelievable. The pizza situation here is unfortunate, though the availability of good cheap wine is surprising.

      Subtext? You got me. The flag carrier is the pizza boy. He bears slices of many delicious flavours.

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    11. Pizza requires tomatoes. Ireland doesn't have enough sun for tomatoes. Visits to sunny Italy strongly recommended. Tomatoes from cans are not the same.

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    12. "Ireland doesn't have enough sun for tomatoes…"

      tell that to my neighbour's yard - she grows her own, no problem

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  5. What was done about the wayward car?

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    1. If the owners couldn't be found, badly parked cars were towed.

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    2. I'm thinking it was not a U.S. proportion tow truck, what with the narrow, hemmed in road, spectators, crew and cyclists.

      You and the others who arrived via bike had the right idea.

      Love the contrast between the vivid green grass, black road under the grey haze.

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    3. Maybe the other "girl in pink with the camera" moved the vay-hicle in time, before it was clamped or towed...

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    4. Actually it was an enormous tow truck that took up the entire road, the kind that fits several cars on the platform.

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  6. Set off on my usual Saturday run to Ballymena, planning to see the Giro coming north there. Enjoyed deserted roads from Ballybogey south, until the police stopped me at the start of the dual carriageway. Not sure how a southward cyclist on the other side of the central reservation might have interfered with the peleton's progress.....

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  7. What was your impression of the sound of the peloton?

    I was close by the finish line of the San Jose-Santa Cruz stage of the 2011 Tour Of California. They zipped by at astonishing speed, nearly a blur, but the whoosh->buzz->rumble->whir of them passing was a really distinctive sound. I'll not soon forget it.

    And yes, it was an amorphous, organic mass.

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    1. I expected there to be Sound, but somehow that did not make an impression at all. Could be that the pouring rain or the nature of the landscape muffled it.

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  8. Excellent. You made me feel as though I was there. The Tour de California passes a block from my house and I can well relate to your post. Thanks.

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  9. As a Garda said where I was waiting "a minute of cars and 30 seconds of bikes". It wasn't even that more like 2 seconds on a flat road approaching a sharp right turn. All the waiting and it all just tears by in a flash. Loads of anticipation and excitement though around those waiting.

    You did well getting those pictures. Good to see spectators too. People did turn out as its a long time such a race was in Ireland. Back in the 80s and 90s there was an annual event called the Nissan Classic, that used begin and end in Dublin city centre. That was on the days of Kelly, Roche and other Irish riders.

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    1. Paul Kimmage (Lances buddy) and Martin Earley the lesser known other irish pros of that era.

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  10. Buddy lol ! Kimmage did write interesting stuff that not everyone in the sport agreed with.

    Funny the time the TDF came to these shores a few years back, it was overshadowed by revelations and scandal.

    Back to the Nissan Classic, I remember going into O'Connell Street on the final Sunday a couple of times. Several sprint laps up and down the street were pretty exciting with crowds looking out for the Irish lads. It felt like having our own Champs Élysées style finish back then.

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    1. This is the Nth time over the past couple of days I hear mention of the Nissan Classic. Someone was saying they're thinking of bringing it back.

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  11. the end of the stage is where all the circus is found. having been the site of many tour of california finishes, it's usually busy and chaotic and exciting with sprint finishes.

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  12. What a completely different experience to the one I found

    Friday was spent cycling round the TTT course in Belfast, talking to people, local and so many 'Europeans’. Soaking up the atmosphere at each stop and the crowd on the climb at Stranmillis was electric.

    Saturday was on the Ballymoney bypass and the climb up from Carrick-a-rede. Both viewing points were different, Ballymoney was a family affair and the Carrick-a-rede was a definite cycling enthusiast venue and great fun.

    Initially i was sceptical of the bikes whizzing past in 30 seconds but then i realised the point of this event wasn't the race but the community, about who you meet and how they feel as much as watching some bikes

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