Bringing Up the Rear

I positioned myself at the top of Carrer dels Tres Pins, because that’s the steepest climb on the Montjuic circuit, attracts the most passionate fans, and slows the motion down to a digestible pace. Of course that motion was still a bit of a blur. Every few minutes a different leader hons into view. You look into their eyes, sense the importance each places on not being caught by those just behind. Then they crest the corner, and accelerate away. Eight loops makes this the ideal spectating option, since the ebb and flow of the race can be read without a television. Although you’d need a television to obtain the result: On the final lap Froome had just attacked coming up the climb, but 5 minutes later it was Valverde taking the win.

It transpires that one does not spectate to see the race, as much as to see everyone else that sees the race. And the action you remember is equally personal. The small details that don’t get broadcast. I have illustrated two.

Roompot Rider Sans Chain
Team Roompot rider, sans chain, running up that hill, the Carrer dels Tres Pins, Volta de Catalunya 2017.

The first shows a rider from Team Roompot running up that hill. I should make clear that Roompot weren’t here to win. Their team bus simply isn’t big enough for winning. Where the likes of Sky arrive in a massive coach with a fleet of support vehicles, Roompot have an understated camper van. And where Trek need to keep the Contador fanclub entertained, even when Contador is nowhere to be seen, Roompot have a burly Dutchman taking a snooze in a deckchair in the sun, with none to trouble him. No, Roompot are making up the numbers, a place for upcoming Dutch talent to learn the ropes of road racing. Still, this Roompot rider probably didn’t expect to break his chain on the climb. As he reaches the top of the hill on foot, presumably resigned to his fate, he looks behind hoping to see his team car, replacement bicycle atop.

Now, what’s not apparent from television coverage is just how many motorised vehicles are involved in these big stage races. Upwards of 20 police outriders. Officials on motorcycles. Medical vehicles. And then after the riders, one, or in some cases two, team cars for each team. The pecking order, which I presume is based on the race position of the team’s best rider, generally does not favour the likes of Roompot, who, we must be reminded aren’t here to win. So our Dutchman is waiting for a car that won’t be here for a while yet. Fortunately, that hasn’t stopped the team’s mechanic, who has decided the fastest way to get a replacement bike to his rider is to extract it from the team car, jump on it, and pedal past the other cars, up to the top of the hill. I had, it transpires, an unfair stereotype of mechanics: This mechanic rode to the top of the hill almost as fast as the professional riders, his commitment just as great. And the reaction of the crowd to this impromptu sight, quite amazing.

One of the beauties of hosting an event on public roads is that the roads remain public whenever the race isn’t physically occupying them. And so while the professional riders completed the rest of the lap, local riders took the opportunity to test themselves in identical conditions. Well, they likely hadn’t just ridden all the way round Catalunya, and probably won’t going to do 8 laps of the circuit either; but in their own minds they were Contador or Valverde or such.

Chris Hamilton
Chris Hamilton performs for the crowd, Carrer dels Tres Pins, Volta de Catalunya 2017.

As the race progresses, more and more professional riders are dropped from the front, and thus dropped from any means of influencing the race. But they still want to get to the finish, so continue to ride, albeit in a far more relaxed manner than those at the front. The crowd loves these riders, and not only because they are riding slow enough to observe properly. There is something about encouraging the underdog, and I guess it helps get these riders to the finish mentally. Some give a little back. Here, Chris Hamilton can be seen climbing the steepest section on one wheel, as the crowd cheers as enthusiastically as they did when Froome powered past them a few minutes before.

I imagine this is true of all sports. It is not that television misleads, it simply tells a different story to the one that those at the event experience. Watching, as we do, these races remotely, it is too easy to see only the story that the television conveys… Oh yes, TDP is about to start a replay of the race. Time to find out what the rest of the world thought happened. With a side quest of spot-yourself-on-TV.

Self Portrait on TDP
Self Portrait on TDP, Barcelona finish, Volta de Catalunya 2017. The people are stood atop the bridge to the Font Màgica, the banner that mounted above the finish line. Television camera angles can indeed be deceptive.