Tales from the Peloton, August 25, 2005
Riding the Giant Tour, 2005
Every year, bike manufacturer Giant runs a 'semi-competitive' tour in tandem with a major race occurring at the time, where non-professional riders take in the race route. Last year Cyclingnews' Ben Atkins found himself in the enviable position of riding one of these tours and some of the world's best bikes. He's at again in 2005, at the Tour of Germany, and relishing the prospect of some more (at times painful) saddle time on desirable bikes. In Part II he actually gets into some riding, and it's not quite as tough as he thought - check out Part I for an introduction to this event.
Stage 1 - St Märgen to Feldberg, 57 km
Okay, it may seem like a bit of a cheat to avoid the start loop and cut the stage from 90 or so to 57 km, but the memory of the broom wagon at last year's mountainous queen stage still cuts me deeply. The object of the exercise is to enjoy the ride, to get to really experience the bike, and most definitely not to sit in a coach with dozens of other sweaty failures, hanging our heads in shame.
As the day dawned it became clear that the enjoyment of the day was to be of the masochistic kind. We were pretty lucky to escape the rain in yesterday's test ride around the hills of Freiburg (where Jan Ullrich used to live before the German tax man chased him to Switzerland), but it had been falling in large quantities overnight and continued to do so as we tentatively stepped from the team car to get ready for the start.
Most of the Giant Media Team took the start for the full distance, including our VIP/guest/coach/captain Abraham Olano. Only Javier and I decided that discretion was the better part of valour as we hid in the shelter of the village hall. Even the live Black Forest Accordion band couldn't chase us out until we really had to go!
Eventually we braved the conditions and, after a sizeable group that included a few of our guys went by, we joined the course and started the long, wet and cold descent to the valley before the first of the days' big challenges - the first category 'Notschrei'. Despite the water pouring from the sky - and across the roads - the descent passed without incident. The speed was pretty high, but the corners were smooth and wide, and taken sensibly, and before too long we were speeding along the flat roads of the valley towards the climb.
Suddenly I realised that I'd done too much and was having trouble sticking with the group I'd stuck with on the descent. I'd deliberately tried to get as far up the road in as quick a time as possible so that my dismal climbing didn't penalise me too much. This mission had been accomplished - I was well up the field - but now was the time to preserve some energy before the going got too tough. I let the group go, and didn't try to stay with the next one that flew by a few minutes later and settled into my own rhythm for the gradient I knew was coming.
The early slopes were fairly benign and climbing within myself - not touching my 27 sprocket - I made pretty good progress until I passed the sign that I was dreading. A red triangle at the side of the road announced that the next two kilometres had a gradient of 14%! Suddenly Mr 27 was called upon, and would be needed for several minutes as my pace slowed from pedestrian to something more like stationary. I swerved slightly to avoid a slug crossing the road, enjoying the soaking conditions - I swear he was travelling faster than I was!
Despite my woeful progress, and the streams of other riders passing me at speeds that should have put them further up the road already, I was beginning to enjoy myself. The rain was still falling pretty heavily, but being August the water was pretty warm and I was producing quite a lot of heat myself riding with my jacket in my back pocket and arm warmers rolled down. More importantly than that though, was that I was well up on my personal schedule; riders had until 1:30 to get to the base of the final climb to Feldberg before the broom wagon swept them up, which meant that I still had well over an hour to complete this climb and descend to the base of that one.
On reaching the top I stopped to roll my arm warmers up and put my jacket and gloves on, and with shaking hands - from my pounding heart, not the temperature - open a Powerbar to eat on the descent. As I rolled away I resolved to do nothing stupid; normally my descending could show Savoldelli a thing or two, but in these conditions and being well on schedule I was taking a definite 'safety first' attitude here. I don't like crashing - it hurts and I really shouldn't scratch this bike! My conscientious attitude showed as two riders overtook me on the way down. Normally this never happens, you see!
Despite my circumspection the kilometres flashed by and the road immediately tilted in the other direction, the gears clicked downwards and my speed dropped back down to its level from half an hour ago.
It was at this point that the unique nature of the Giant Tour shows itself. Because the pros race is coming through in a few hours, the roads are packed with spectators ready to cheer on us amateurs! I explained to some as I crawled past, indicating the excess baggage I was carrying around my waist that I was a sprinter and classic specialist. Imagine combining the climbing prowess of Petacchi, Boonen and Backstedt, put them on Wesemann's bike and you have me inching up the mountain.
The climb to Feldberg proved to be not as tough as the first one, partly due, I guess, to the hundreds of magenta clad Germans yelling encouragement, ringing bells, blowing horns and doing everything in their power to get me up the mountain. At two kilometres to go the road suddenly flattened out and I found myself going up through the gears and even into the big ring as I sped past the cafes and shops of the main street. It wasn't to last though, as I passed under the red kite the course switched back around a hairpin bend and the gradient was back. No matter though, as I was nearly finished. I powered round the last bend in the big ring, romping up the road as the metre markers counted me down to the finish. Inevitably this couldn't go on and I soon dropped through the gears, but still had the energy to celebrate my personal victory with the crowd as I crossed the line.
William was there to send me down the hill to where Stefan was waiting to direct me to the food and showers. You'll never know how amazed I was when he told me that I wasn't the last of the Giant guys to finish!