Tales from the peloton, December 3, 2006.
Earlier this year, the Ridley bike company hosted a day for riders and media to get together at Belgum's Zolder, the famed race track that claimed the life of Gilles Villeneuve, posting in a couple of laps in race cars in addition to a short time trial. Shane Stokes was a late substitution for Cyclingnews, and here he gives an account of what was an unusual, but extremely interesting, day on the track.
The two may be entirely unconnected, but back in April the high speeds reached at the Ridley riders/media day at the 41 year-old circuit appeared to have transferred to both the Davitamon-Lotto and Unibet.com teams.
Davitamon-Lotto had come under fire in their home media after a somewhat disappointing spring campaign. However, a matter of days after they had hurtled around the circuit, both Chris Horner and Cadel Evans won stages in the prestigious Tour of Romandie. Robbie McEwen missed the day at Zolder but he too topped the podium, taking the first road stage of the race. Best of all, Evans’ stage victory saw him blitz the field in the concluding time trial, seizing the yellow jersey from the shoulders of previous leader Alberto Contador (Liberty Seguros-Wurth) with a high-octane display.
McEwen and closest challenger Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne-Illes Balears) had been expected to scrap it out for final honours in the ProTour race, but both were left inhaling the fumes of Evans in the 20.4 kilometre test.
Unibet.com also seem to have been inspired, with Erwin Thijs winning the UCI 1.1 ranked Colliers Classic/GP Aarhus and thus making it four wins in five days for Ridley-equipped riders. The bike company probably didn’t envisage such a good return from their time in Zolder, but will have been understandably delighted with the results achieved in Switzerland and Denmark.
The afternoon spent on the track coincided with the visit of a large contingent of international media to Ridley’s headquarters in Tessenderlo. After a morning spent there, the journalists travelled back to the luxurious Pits hotel for dinner, situated – as the name suggests – beside the pit area at Zolder, where Mario Cipollini won his 2002 world title. After wolfing down the spread which was laid out for Ridley’s guests, the group then headed to the track for tryouts in one of three racing cars.
Yours truly was summoned to Belgium at short notice as Cyclingnews’ previous invite crashed while out training and broke his wrist. Although a cast enabled him to keep working, riding a bike was out of the question, and so a call was made to Dublin for this writer to embark on a journey to Zolder.
That much was fine, but the one catch was that each of the journalists would have to take part in the Ridley Trophy race to be held at the end of the press day. This would entail each media person being paired up with a professional from either Davitamon-Lotto or Unibet.com, and completing one four kilometre lap of the track at full speed. Given that the pros would be quite a bit stronger (to say the least), the full time guys would essentially be acting as human dernys for those behind.
For Cyclingnews’ intended attendee, a first category rider when back home in Australia, that would have been fun. However a hectic work schedule meant that my own recent excursions on the bike had been few and far between, making the thought of a time trial with a pro rider about as enticing as a two-up swimming contest with a ravenous shark.
Anyway, more about that later. The kind folks at Ridley had decided to treat those in attendance with what the introductory emails said would be a slot co-driving a racing car. Given that the Porsche, Corvette and Mini to be used would all be worth a few quid, the phrase ‘co-driver’ was not to be taken literally. In this case, the title referred to the opportunity to sit white knuckles-a-gripping in the passenger seat, trying not to swear out loud/scream/blubber like a baby as the guy behind the steering wheel let lose with the accelerator pedal.
Not that we were complaining, of course. Chances like this come along way too seldom to turn down, and so that is why the afternoon of April 20 saw a healthy gathering of riders and media, each awaiting their turn with a mixture of excitement and slight apprehension.
For me, the Porsche was the car to aim for. The first reason was that ‘two laps in a Mini’ doesn’t quite have the same ring to it. The second was that another Irish journalist went out in the aforementioned car, only to arrive back deathly pale and with his stomach threatening immediate projectile rebellion. While the downforce of the Porsche meant that it – and to a lesser extent, the Corvette – would stick to the road like glue, the mini was set up to slide sideways through the corners, fishtailing merrily at a very un-Mini like speed.
I could remember all too vividly the way my stomach reacted when I went up in a glider plane during a storm several years ago. It was all in the name of doing a feature on the sport, but the sensation of the craft being pitched around the skies meant that it took several hours for my guts to return to some semblance of normality. With this in mind, I set my sights on the Porsche. Less sliding = less chance for that nice lunch to make a dramatic reappearance; never a good thing in polite company (or, come to think of it, in front of us journalists either…)
Timing things nicely, I managed to be at the head of the queue when the aforementioned Porsche screeched to a halt. After clambering in and being fully strapped in place, the driver eased the car down the pits and out towards the track. That part was civilised enough but once there, he hit the gas and the car accelerated to what can only be termed as 'arrrrrghhh!' kilometres per hour, hurtling through the first corner while the G forces soared to silly levels.
Initial impression: bugger this, let me out of here. However this was quickly followed by the realisation that a) escaping wasn’t an option and b) that it was better to be active rather than passive in the red and white missile which was tearing around the track. While there was no chance in me actually being allowed take the wheel, the experience and G forces seemed noticeably better when you, the co-driver, mentally picked the right line through the corners, looking ahead, predicting the exact path the car was going to go and leaning slightly into the turn in order to take account of this.
Don’t ask me why, but it worked. The experience was still a white-knuckle one, but visualising the path the car was going to take definitely made a difference. The sheer horsepower, speed and braking ability of the Porsche continued to wow, though, with the vehicle hitting 230 kilometres per hour on the straights, quickly decelerating when coming up to sharp bends, and then roaring away out the other side. There was a slight feeling of relief to put feet to solid ground again after the two laps were completed, but also a nice adrenaline rush.
It seemed that most people felt the same way. Many of the journalists emerged from the cars with big smiles on their faces, some queuing up again for another go when the chance arose. The pro riders – who arrived slightly later – also had a ball, with guys such as Baden Cooke and Chris Horner happy to talk about their impressions afterwards.
“It was nice,” said a chatty Horner. “I was in the Corvette and that was pretty impressive. It is a big car, a comfortable ride, but also very, very fast. It was great.”
Cooke felt the same way. “That was fun,” he said. “Very enjoyable. The interesting thing is, we think we are fast but when you do something like that it is very different. When you talk to people who know about motor racing, they say that the theories are the same as when riding a bike on a fast downhill. When you are going into a corner, don’t be looking down, just look at where you are going. I can do that on the bike fine but when I was in the car, I just couldn’t do it.
“I have got a few nice cars, I drive them pretty fast but when you get on the track you realise that these guys really have some skills.”
Other pros such as Cadel Evans, Nico Mattan, Carlos Quesada, Leon Van Bon and many more riders and team personal from the Davitamon-Lotto, Unibet.com and Fidea squads also had a go; judging by the smiles, the race cars were well appreciated.
Spanish pro turns sadist
And so on to the Ridley Trophy. After five o’clock the race cars all pulled into their garages, leaving the track free for the local cyclists to start doing what are regularly-organised (or improvised) group training rides on the same roads that Cipollini thundered to victory on four years ago. As for the journalists, we were all given Ridley bikes to use for the evening and once the positions were dialled in, the group headed to the start/finish area for what would be a very unique race against the clock.
Few people can claim to have had pro riders act as derneys for them, riding in front and helping them set the best possible time for the four kilometre lap. But that’s precisely what happened; more tales for the grandchildren, I guess.
From the look of some of the journos there, they had been doing quite a few miles. Some appeared race fit and took the TT very seriously indeed, beetling off at the start and cooperating well with their professional rider to set the fastest possible time. One media guy seemed to overdo it somewhat, accelerating away hard at the start and leaving his pro temporarily adrift. There was no doubt in my mind that he’d be made pay for that display during the remainder of the four kilometre test. Tip: don’t try to humiliate someone who is far stronger than you are!
Of course, that wasn’t going to be an issue with me. I’d a few things putting paid to my chances of a decent time. First off, the lack of training; never a good thing. Secondly, the lack of decent food the day before, due to a full block of Cyclingnews work on Flèche Wallonne, a rushed train journey afterwards, a late arrival at the hotel and the fact that the kitchen there was firmly closed once I finally arrived at the restaurant area. Two glasses of orange juice and a small (ie tiny!) bowl of crisp-like snacks doesn't constitute good carb-loading. My hunger was such that I would gladly have incurred the exorbitant costs of the mini bar, glutonising myself on whatever I could find therein. However, there wasn’t one in my room, so that idea was quickly quashed.
The third thing which put a spanner in the works was the way the TT unfolded. I was paired up with Unibet.com’s Luis Pasamontes for the test. For whatever reason, things didn’t go too smoothly; he tore off, I chased, I got back on, he floored it again and I was shelled once more. The net result was that I spent most of the lap riding solo, bemoaning the fact that my human derny had a mind of his own and that my legs weren’t up to the pace he felt we should have been riding at.
Outcome: an anonymous showing for Cyclingnews (sorry, guys!). And also some mid-TT sympathy from a Rabobank pro who was riding on the course as part of those big training groups. When he saw me floundering behind the energiser bunny I was paired with, he gave me a couple of big shoves to get back onto the wheel. The thoughts of a man’s hand anywhere near my behind is normally not a welcome one, but on this occasion and under these circumstances, the three or four butt pushes given were appreciated. Desperate times, desperate measures. Still, even with that help, there was no chance of troubling the fitter, better coordinated pairings when it came down to the best ten results.
So who won? Well, the Ridley Trophy for 2006 went to Menno Grootjans (Fiets), who was paired up with Dutch national champion Leon Van Bon (Davitamon Lotto). The duo did the 4048 metre loop in a time of 5 minutes 25.85 seconds, averaging a strong 44.72 km/h. The runner up slot went to Nicola Checcarelli of BiciSport and Davitamon’s Nico Mattan, while Cristian Bertolani and Carlos Quesada (Unibet.com) were third.
And me? Sensing disaster, I thought it was wiser not to go looking for a finishing time. As the old joke goes, you’d have needed a calendar, not a stopwatch.
Still, despite that, it was a great day out, all thanks to Ridley. But it’s now time to do some training, methinks…