Tales from the (journo) peloton, August 31, 2004
The Seventy Gentlemen (and Two Ladies) of Verona
Much Ado About Journo World's
After missing the start of the Journo World's in Zolder in 2002, then passing the baton to Chris Henry in Switzerland in 2003, Cyclingnews' Chief Online Editor Jeff Jones finally made it to Verona this year for the fifth edition of this friendly competition organised by the AIJC (International Cycling Journalists Association) and Mondiali Ciclismo 2004. With a few apologies to Bill Shakespeare, here is his tale:
Act I, Scene I: Now is the August of our discontent
Let me start somewhere near the beginning. August will do nicely, as it's the time period After the Tour and I can complain about the weather. August started off quite well, following on from late July with a week of 30+ degree days. Being Belgium, this is as good as it gets and it was. When the weather finally broke, it rained for 17 of the next 18 days (I disquietingly keep track of these things).
Riding in the rain and cleaning the bike a lot became a completely normal thing, even though I wondered some times what the hell I was doing wearing leg and arm warmers in what is normally a Summer Month. I wondered the same thing for most of July too. I accept that the weather's going to be bad between October and March here, but the Belgian weather deity should go easy in the summer I reckon. I love complaining about the weather as there is nothing I can do about it, except perhaps drive a car more often.
Thus it didn't surprise me that while typing frantically on the Thursday night before the one and only Journo World Championships in Verona, I started getting that good ol' sore throat. Actually it did surprise me, because in the week before I'd managed to eat several cooked meals in a row. Maybe it was my body reacting to all those terrible health foods. "I want instant rice, dammit!" I could hear my stomach saying.
On Friday I went to the only chemist that was actually open near me (there are at least four) and stocked up on echinacea throat lozenges and nasal spray. I was also trying to eat enough garlic so that my neighbours would think I was Van Helsing. Armed with these mighty anti-sickness weapons, I merrily set off into the rain on Friday afternoon to Gent Sint-Pieters station to catch one of many trains that would eventually get me to Verona.
Act II, Scene I: Trains, trains and trains
The wheels threatened to fall off once I got to Brussels as my connection to Lyon Part Dieu was 25 minutes late. I calculated that would leave me just a few minutes to change trains at Lyon for Geneva, so I was hoping that the trusty TGV would try to make up some of the deficit on the way down through France. It didn't bother, and we arrived 26 minutes late, causing stress.
After sprinting with my bike bag in tow from one platform to the next, I made it in time and was Swiss-bound. It had stopped raining too, a novelty. The train to Geneva was pretty well empty, which I thought odd because I could have sworn that there was a convention happening there. Once I got to Geneva, I had to go through customs to get onto the next platform for the night train that would take me to Verona. The only thing I had to declare was that I had a sore throat, I was sick of traveling and I wanted to get there already.
The Geneva - Verona overnight train was my first experience at such a thing, and I won't forget it in a hurry. The Swiss conductor looked at me with a bemused smile on his face as I lugged my bike bag into the carriage. He told me that there were no more places for bikes on the train so I would have to keep it with me in the sleeping compartment. I thought that might be OK until I tried to manoeuvre it into the cabin, realising that it would take up all the available floor space and probably piss off my other three travelling companions. I eventually tied it to a railing in the narrow corridor outside, hoping that it would get stolen during the night so that I didn't have to drag it around any more.
The sleeping compartment supposedly slept six people, although I couldn't for the life of me figure out where the other two were going to sleep as there were just two seats and a bunk above each one. I was hoping it wouldn't come to that anyway, as it was crowded enough with four people. All (except me) were fluent in French, but one of them was actually a Londoner who had lived in Amsterdam for eight years and knew All the Languages. He obviously felt he needed the practice as he and his girlfriend talked non-stop until about 2:00am.
Having eaten my emergency box of muesli bars and apple somewhere between Lyon and Geneva, I was getting a bit peckish. There was apparently no dining car but we were able to get three bread rolls, butter and salami and water from the nice conductor, which made for a truly sumptuous repast! We were living like royalty on this train I tell you.
We rolled on at ridiculous speeds into the night and reached a mutual agreement to try and get some shut-eye, especially as the train was due in Verona at 5:37am. I was scoffing echinacea tablets, which were doing nothing, and snorting nasal spray like it was going out of style, trying to prevent my sore throat and headache from getting any worse. Fortunately it didn't, even when two Koreans who I thought were Dementors clambered into the carriage at 12:54am and took the remaining two sleeping positions. These were magically created by folding down the tops of the seats. One of the Dementors made noises about a lack of a pillow, so I generously donated my second one that I had stolen in the hope of being more comfortable. Besides, I didn't want to lose my soul on a train bound for Verona.
Somehow, sleep did claim me between about 2:00am and 5:00am which was better than I'd hoped for. In true Ian Thorpe style, I'd set my alarm for 5:17am in order to give me enough time to get myself up and out of the carriage by the scheduled arrival in Verona at 5:37am. But when we reached Brescia at that time, I knew something was amiss and that we were running late. 40 minutes late to be exact. Jeez, I thought Mussolini had fixed all that?
Armed with two stale croissants and some orange juice (our Official Breakfast) I finally disembarked in Verona Porta Nuova at 6:20-ish. After some searching I found the bus that would take me to Bussolengo, arriving there at 7:30-ish. It goes without saying that I missed the stop right outside the Tower Hotel, so I had a pleasant early morning stroll through the streets of Bussolengo, bike bag in tow, feeling just a tad under the weather. Fortunately, the Tower Hotel was impossible to miss. It was the only multi-story structure in Bussolengo and with its glaring mirrored purple windows, stood out like a sore thumb.
But I wasn't complaining once I got inside, expressing enormous relief to the receptionist who informed me that there was a room ready for me and I could go up there after leaving my bike bag in the garage. It was the nicest hotel room I'd ever seen, although my judgment was possibly impaired by last night's train trip. I saw two beds, climbed into one of them and was lost to the world until midday.
Act III, Scene I: Awake! Awake!
Feeling sub-human now, I put the bike back together and prepared to go for a bit of a cruise. I'd printed out the parcours and was curious to check it out, so armed with a series of Internet maps, I didn't even get lost between Bussolengo and Veronello, where the parcours was situated. It was 9.8 km along some of the smoothest roads I have ever ridden on: there was exactly one pothole along the entire course. The signs told me where to go for the Journo World's and I also noticed signs for the real World Championships in October. Some of the time trials go along these roads, which would explain why one part had been re-asphalted recently. It was a bit sticky in the hot sun, but I preferred that to the Belgian 15 degrees, mud and rain any day.
Apart from the road quality, the parcours was very nice. There was a series of short climbs just after the start/finish, none of them particularly hard on their own but the cumulative effect could be interesting. The first one was only about 300m but it wasjust steep enough to take the sting out of your legs. Then there was a slight drop before the next "climb", which was more like a drag with a steeper pinch at the top. That was followed by another downhill, then across a bridge over the autostrada before turning left onto the second sector of the parcours. This part was not easy: about 1 km long and all steadily uphill at perhaps 2-3 percent. It would be enough to make a difference, given what came before.
After the top (3 km), there was a gradual descent then another up/down/up to a roundabout in Cavaion (km 5.6), a nice little town overlooking Lake Garda. Then it was a kilometre of flat into a cross/headwind before the final part of the course, which was pretty much all downhill. The first part was gentle but fast enough to hit 50 km/h without trying. Then a sharp left hand turn onto the new asphalt through Calmasino, then another left hander onto the final 1.5 km, which was very slightly downhill. All on beautifully smooth roads. Bliss.
I headed back into town with 45 km on the odometer, now starting to feel very ordinary again. But there was no time for rest, as we had a big night planned!
Scene II: A night at the opera
At 6:30pm Italian time (about 18:45 CEST), the various journo's and their wives/girlfriends/partners that were staying at the Tower Hotel bundled into a bus bound for Verona for an evening of Culture. First up was a welcome by the Mayor in the City Hall of Verona, where many important people spoke and were presented with various gifts of honour. This was a big thing for Verona and I was suitably impressed, annoyed that I didn't bring my camera.
After that we had a rather pleasant outdoor meal in the piazza opposite the amphitheatre, where we were going to see Rigoletto later on. Given that we paid a ridiculously low two-figure sum for the whole weekend, I guessed that there must some sponsorship involved. After speaking to one of the Italians at dinner, I was informed that our main patron was the president of Mondiali Ciclismo 2004, Giovanni Rana, a big (both literally and figuratively) pasta producer who owned the "Tre Corone" restaurant that we were dining at. The pasta, filled with some sort of potato and egg mix, was superb. I just wished that there were seconds! Alas there were none, but carbo loading is for wimps anyway. This was a meal to be appreciated for its aesthetic quality, not its calorific value.
After bolting down dessert (hey, we were served last), we were herded off to the amphitheatre for a bit of a look at the opera. Tickets? Sorted. Thank you Verona. The opera was Rigoletto, a tragedy by Giuseppe Verdi. A tragedy means that the wrong person dies and in this case it was Rigoletto's daughter Gilda. Sorry to spoil the plot. With the full moon rising over the amphitheatre just as the music began, it was a magical performance.
The somewhat extended intervals meant that it didn't finish until well after midnight, and by the time we were bussed back to Bussolengo, it was after 1:00am. I'm actually used to that with my work hours, but tonight I was dead tired and very grateful to crash into bed again. The sore throat/headache hadn't got any better, but at least it hadn't got worse.
Act IV: Scene I: A day at the races
I set my alarm for 8:10 am, Jeff Jones style, and instantly regretted it when it went off. I'd had far too little sleep in the last week but I had to get up that early in order to eat breakfast, let it digest, then eat lunch at 11:00. My head felt as though it wasn't there and for one of the few times in my life, I really didn't want any breakfast. I forced it down, felt no improvement, and staggered back to bed for two hours. That helped and I felt better by 11:00 for lunch, but still not hungry. It was one of the least enjoyable plates of pasta I've ever eaten, even though it would normally have been quite nice. I even had only half a cup of coffee. I rarely get nervous for a race but this one was an exception.
Then it was time to get ready and load the bikes into the trailer for the bus ride out to the course. It was only 10 km out there, but we being lazy journalists... I also spotted the defending champion Andrea Agostini and Italian legend Francesco Moser outside the hotel and they were looking the business. Today wasn't going to be easy.
We drove out through wine country towards Veronello and I realised that most of the parcours went through vineyards. It was a beautiful day; sunny and 31 degrees, with barely a breath of wind, and I was definitely looking forward to donning my brand new Cyclingnews jersey and doing battle with the Italians on their home turf. There were plenty of them at the sign on, which seemed to take for ever, and I noticed that most of the Italians were wearing the azzurro jerseys as worn by the Italian national team. It looked pretty formidable but I figured that a) at least they were riding for different newspapers, and b) being Italian, the co-operation might not be perfect. All up, there were about 70 men and just 2 women racing. And the women's field was twice the size of last year!
It was time to get changed and I saw that I had been given number 1, which was a bit unnerving as it's normally reserved for the defending champion. Oh well, I hoped that it was a premonition of things to come. I warmed up for 10 km and the legs felt good, so I was eager to get started. We had a minute's silence on the line for the Italian journalist Enzo Baldoni who was killed in Iraq (many of the Italians were wearing black bands today) and we were waved off.
Scene II: Battle in Veronello
You can read a description of what happened in the race here. I really don't like referring to myself in the third person but I guess I was in a good position to know what was going on in the race, and no-one else would have caught the details. I will add a few things from a personal point of view:
Although classed as flat, the course was not so. The Dutch and Belgians weren't impressed, as they know what flat means. The accumulation of sharp hills at the start of the lap, ending with a kilometre long drag, was sufficient to keep the pressure on, and it was a hard course for a peloton to organise a chase on.
I was disappointed not to get the jersey but at the same time happy to be on the podium. I was also very happy with the way I rode - definitely feeling no effects of illness - and how the race went. I really enjoyed the battle with Agostini: we were both prepared to attack each other until the end and that made for a very satisfying race. It was like a high speed game of chess. Taking an optimistic view, I would say that we were more or less even on the attacking front but he clearly had a much better sprint than any of us. Not having Riparbelli there as a "semi-teammate" for Agostini would not have changed who won, and I have to credit Riparbelli for hanging in there and having enough to get past me at the finish.
Overall it was the best organised race that I've done, which shouldn't surprise me as the same organisers are in charge of the real World Championships. We had full road closures with police escorts, a timing moto, a TV/video moto, a photographer moto and Shimano neutral support, just like in "real" races. I could have done with a few more Aussie-piloted motorbikes to attack behind ;-), but it was a completely and utterly fantastic experience to race that way.
Scene III: The spoils of victory
Unlike most races, we were all instructed to have a shower and get changed before the official presentations. While it would have been a little more spontaneous to have the ceremony right after the race, I quickly understood that this would not be a five minute post-race affair. Suitably freshened up, we all headed out to the large tent set up next to the Veronello sports complex and arranged ourselves in various tables. I sat with the Dutch contingent and indulged in a post-race white wine (ooooohhh dear) and waited for the action.
The prize giving ceremony was fairly long winded, but none of us were in a great hurry so that was OK. Firstly Francesco Moser was awarded as the winner of the Consultants (ex-professionals) category, and he received a trophy and flowers and a few kisses. We moved on through the Women's category, which was twice the size of last year in that it had two finishers. Hats off to Samantha Profumo who had finished with Moser and won her category ahead of Slovenia's Lucia Bosnik. Then the Over 50's category, where our table took first and third with Peter de Groot and Bennie Ceulen, and finally the Under 50's, which included me.
I must say that it was very nice to be on the podium at a World Championship, and we were all endowed with weighty prizes. We each got heavy trophies, a large coffee table book on Lake Garda and flowers. Agostini got the nice green rainbow jersey (green is the colour of the press accreditation at the Tour and many other races) and a digital camera. The president of the AIJC, Jean-Yves Donor, was present as well as representatives of the organisation. Tres bon, even though it was difficult to keep hold of all our prizes on the podium!
The buffet got into full swing after that and there was more prize giving. Everyone's name was put into a large metal hat carried around by two...rather odd looking chaps, and we all took turns in drawing the numbers out, which meant that everyone got a prize. I ended up with an Italian watch which will go nicely with my Credit Lyonnais watch, but some of The Others weren't so lucky. Somehow our table "won" two enormous chunks of parmigiano cheese, and even the Dutch were looking somewhat dubious about taking them home. We asked some of the Italians how much they were worth and were informed in the region of € 100-150! Anyone want to exchange for a jersey?
Epilogue: The journey home
After another night of 4 hours sleep I began the long trip home, which occupied all of Monday. No sleeping compartments this time (I could have done with one) and my stores of echinacea placebos were running low. 16 hours from Bussolengo to Gent - via Switzerland, which was nice. Next time, I'll make sure I get a flight.
[Tuesday, Gent time: Belgian doctor to Jeff: "Boy, you're sick. That'll be 18 euros."]