By Susan Westemeyer
Johannes Fröhlinger of Gerolsteiner may be a young neo-pro but he is experienced enough to know what was coming in Thursday's Tour de Suisse stage. "Everything was black at the start. You could tell a bad storm was coming, but the race was started anyway. The race jury underestimated the situation," he wrote on Radsport-Aktiv.de.
Still, he took advantage of the situation and after a few kilometres joined an attack, which had just managed to get away when it rode right into the storm. "I've never experienced anything like that, we were bombarded with fist-sized hailstones. Over the radio came, "The race is being stopped, please find shelter." That was no problem for the peloton, they were in a village and could go into garages and sheds. But those of us in the escape group had more of a problem. I crawled into a hedge, and felt rather like an animal in the forest. Marcus Burghardt found shelter in a [presumably empty] dog house. Looking back, we can laugh about it, but it wasn't funny at the time."
"My arms and shoulders are covered with red bumps and bruises. I feel as if I were beaten up. Some of the teams' cars suffered, too, with some having broken windshields. Two of our bikes had their frames broken."
Thomas Kofler, team manager of Team Volksbank, echoed the theme of the day, saying, "I've never experienced anything like that -- hailstones as big as tennis balls. The riders were sheltered under trees," he said. "Even I ran into the forest because I was afraid to stay in the car."
Volksbank's Gerrit Glomser came close to winning the stage, but first he had to survive the storm, too. "At first I thought it was stones, because it was so loud. Within seconds everything was covered with hailstones, the street was turned into an ice-skating rink. A number of riders lost their orientation, they only saw white because we were going 50 km/h downhill," he said. "Many of the riders took refuge in the car wash. " His teammate Florian Stalder also found an empty doghouse, while Josef Benetseder benefited from a motorcycle policeman, who protected him.
"All of a sudden, ice blocks were falling from the sky," said Wim Van Huffel of Predictor-Lotto. "I've never seen hail that big before." The peloton "went in search of cover," he said on sportwereld.be. "Some went into a sort of bunker, others dove under a tractor, or under a trailer. And me? I threw myself under a small tree. It didn't help a lot but it was better than nothing!"
Discovery Channel's Directeur Sportif Dirk Demol joined the chorus, saying "I never saw a blizzard like that, from one moment to the next there was a hail storm after five kilometres of racing with hail the size of golf balls! Riders looked for shelter in garages. The cars had to stop and in the cars it was really scary. Several windshields were broken. Jurgen [Van Goolen] didn't find shelter immediately and he has some blue spots on his back and arms. Everybody else is OK."
Gerolsteiner's Directeur Sportif Reimund Dietzen was one of the first to report on the storm yesterday, so he must have been the first to say, "I've never experienced anything like that before. All of a sudden these huge hailstones were falling from the sky. Our team cars have several dents and some of the bike frames have been broken from the hail. Beat Zberg, Johannes Fröhlinger, Markus Zberg and especially David Kopp, none of whom could get under cover quickly enough, have lumps on their arms and backs. Some of the other teams' cars had their windshields broken. I saw one rider changing clothes and his back was covered with really big bumps."
Thomas Dekker of Rabobank eventually won the shortened stage but he got hit by the hail and sustained injuries. He was able to continue after treatment. Italian Rinaldo Nocentini was not so lucky and was forced to abandon.