Whew. What a freakin’ week. Time to go back to the states and get a job or something.
Today began cold, overcast and windless, and finished up hot, sunny and with a fair breeze. I got to the start just in time to get a few shots of riders, at least two of which weren’t terrible. As you can (kinda) see from that last link, the RobStar looked pretty dang relaxed, eating and being basically the last rider to roll into the start today. I thought for sure he would win. Gun went, bikes rolled, and a Bulgarian broke. He was followed closely thereafter by a Columbian. Eventually, Saul Raisin and a Credit Agricole teammate organized and swept up the others. It was sweet to finally be able to cheer for an American, instead of yelling “Go [American cyclist’s name]” at the peloton as it whizzed by. The group swelled to 6 or 7 as I metroed across town to the top of this small rise at 14k, and at one point had over 10 minutes on everyone else. On the next lap, however, it had shrunk to 3 riders, with only about 7 minutes. I did nail a most excellent photo of the young American in action, however. Note the Camelbak, suggesting he may have planned ahead of time on being the hero of the day.
At 5 laps to go, the Eyeties were like “enough of this crap, let’s race” and threw like 50 guys onto the front of the peloton. I watched it on the Jumbotron, and it was some real Cat 4 BS. Italians up front, pulling but not that hard, then some hole would attack, everyone would let him go and riders would trickle across the gap until the Italians decided the break was too dangerous, and close it down. Thus Raisin and Murayev(sp?) were able to stay away much longer, keeping hope alive until 3 laps to go. Then people really started cranking. The announcer, who would drift from English to FranÃ§ais to Spanish wouldn’t have enough time to announce each break that get a few seconds’ gap in all the languages. So I really had no idea what was going on. Fortunately, neither did the dudes who were supposed to be guarding the Area C grandstands, so I just sort of moseyed my way in there. Much better view of the line this time around. Eventually, some German guy told one of the Spanish security guards what was going on, and they had a highly entertaining argument in English, which ended by the German guys saying “Fine, I’ll get the real cops” and the Spaniard saying “you do what you want.” Some real dirty punk Italians who swooned “Bravo, Paolo” every time the announcer mentioned Bettini, got really nasty and opened up the barricades to sneak into Area B when the cops (the Teutonic gentlemen did, in fact, summon them) became too interested in the race.
Finally, a good move (above) got clear, with Davis, Bettini, Devolder, etc; big names from all the big teams. Except France. They were totally f-ed. And USA, but by this point they had like two riders left in the race, so they brought it upon themselves. I think this move was a fake, to keep people from attacking by forcing the teams without dangerous sprinters to work, before it (the break) would finally relent and be caught coming into the final group kick. But France spoiled the party by working really, really hard. The move was recaptured and it was all together at 1 lap to go (except for Jakob Piil who had like 3 seconds’ lead). Then it went crazy. Attacks flew from everyone. The Dutch were extremely active, leading me to believe they had little faith in Max Van Heeswijk (some Dutch dudes had these orange shirts that said (on the front) “Just Relax” and then (on the back) “the World Champ will be Max.” They looked stupid.) Finally, Vino decided to take them all to school and put down the attack that really opened the race up. Wegemann, Bettini, Boogert, Van Moerenhaut, Piil; pretty much it was a break composed entirely of riders who are awesome. It was sick, it was nasty, and it really looked like it was going to get away. I was at 1.3k/100m to go (the finish doubles back on itself) and the first time they passed, I was like “they’re gonna get clear.” But thank Nick Nuyens, Stijn Devolder and especially VanPeet for cranking the race back together like a set of approved-for-medical-use stiches. The selection committee over in Belga did a damn fine job.
The finish was insane. Crazy insane. Nothing like a good break getting caught inside a k to get the fans on their feet. So much noise. Cheers and claps grew into a maddening, constant shouting, pierced by really high screams and underscored nicely by the announcer’s constant multilingual banter. Things really got going when the chopper noise got damned loud as they hit 200m. Valverde made the Spaniards excited, but Boonen came around him at 150m and was gone, putting space on him all the way to the line. It would have had to have been twice that steep for the duel between those two to be interesting. Though in all honesty, Boonen owes his victory not to his speed today, but to his team. Valverde is nasty fast, but not group-gallop fast. The other pure sprinters (Ale-Jet, McEwen, some others) got gapped by the fury of the Belgian chase, leaving Tom a Stock Car among Roadsters. Somewhere in the mess that followed, Anthony Geslin of France, with nary another result to his name, took third
But no one comes to these things for the racing (except the racers, I guess, though in the case of most of the USA team, I really wonder…). People come out to see their heros up close, cheer like (and in some cases, with) drunken madmen, and to enjoy some time with folks from all over the world who find those two pursuits worthwhile ways to spend a day. This isn’t the Tour de France, so the race site was mercifully free of sunburnt Americans with little round “Lance fan” signs. Instead, Madrid was packed this weekend with Orange-clad Dutchmen who speak fluent English (even to each other) and find everything incredibly funny, oddly-dressed Germans with the hideous notion that three inches is plenty of “personal space,” 15-year old Italians who dislike shampooing and act as if their mothers’ lives hinge on the next attack of Paolo Bettini, and Australians, who were disappointingly unremarkable. The most garish were the Brits and Norweigans, who seem to find no accessory, article of clothing, or body part too undignified to emblazon with their nation’s flag. The noisiest were by far the Spaniards, most notably Tino Zaballo’s fan club, that had an authentic hunting trumpet made from a bull’s horn, the largest cowbell I’ve ever seen, several tambourines, a gong, and no fewer than 6 air horns.
And then there were Flandrians. Everywhere. You couldn’t cut a fart this weekend without flapping a yellow flag with a black lion on it. I suppose you can take the cycling out of Flanders, but you can’t take the Flanders out of cycling. And at the end of the day, they got what they were all hoping for: Tom Boonen in the Rainbow Stripes (just don’t remind them that it’s cursed). While the other podium finishers saluted a relatively small crowd before largely-empty streets (though there was a small spectators’ area opened on the course, most of it was still boarded off), as Boonen’s name was announced, the Belgians, overcome by national fervor, stormed the barricades, clambering into the previously closed streets en masse to salute the new World Champion. By the time the press conference rolled around, so many of them had crowded the exit from the podium area that a second way out had to be fabricated, allowing a police-escorted Tom the shortest and fastest possible route from the cars & trailers to the hotel lobby. It still took him about a minute to make the 75-foot trip. Hometown hero Valverde made the same jounrey almost entirely unmolested, which really makes me think, when the Irish guys said this place lacked the right atmosphere for a World Championships, maybe they were right.