Friday Feature: Road World Championships – Sheree’s lucky seven

Each World Championships is an opportunity to catch up with the many friends and acquaintances I’ve met through cycling. While Limburg is my seventh consecutive road race event, I’ve met many for whom this is their 25th or more.  It’s also a chance to have a bit of a trip down memory lane revisiting the highlights of championships past with my friend Ute.

Salzburg 2006

We first met in Salzburg when we both worked as volunteers. She assisted with the podium ceremony – flags, anthems, flowers et cetera – while I dished out packed lunches to the 2,000 or so volunteers, army, police and municipal workers. Now I appreciate that hers sounds the more glamorous job but mine afforded me the opportunity to see all of the racing and catch the action on the podium. Let me explain.

Well hello Mario!

Valeria – another friendship cemented in Salzburg – and I were billeted in a large tent at the back of the press area right next to the all important chow wagon. That’s right, no packed lunches for us – we were royally fed all week. Most of the volunteers dropped by to collect the lunches for their team but a few had to be delivered giving us an opportunity to get out and about and check on the action.

In Salzburg all the races took place on a circuit. We watched the race unfold on the adjacent big screen, emerging only to watch the riders pass by from the specially adapted platform for handicapped fans. Now this is going to sound a bit callous but it was a) in a great spot right by the finish and b) they weren’t going to leap up from their wheelchairs and spoil our view. We weren’t the only fans who shared this opportunity. Guess who we met? I have to confess both Valeria and I went a bit weak at the knees, he surely drips sex-appeal.

Salzburg wins the award for being the best volunteer experience. Largely I think because everything was pretty much in one place, the atmosphere was terrific and, of course, it was our first and you never forget your first anything, do you?

Stuttgart 2007

18 months post-Puerto, the Germans were reluctant hosts and it showed. This time Valeria and I were working in the luxurious surrounding of the UCI’s Congress Hotel in the centre of Stuttgart manning their VIP welcome desk where we provided, and I’m quoting a high-ranking UCI official here, “the best service ever …”

Bert with his impressive collection of cycling memorabilia

This was where we first met Bert, who attends the Congress on behalf of New Zealand and whose lengthy service to the world of cycling has been recognised by the UCI, Queen and country. He’s an old charmer and everyone knows and loves him. This year he’s attending his 75th World Championships. (That total includes a few on the track.) He’s seen Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali race and has a whole raft of interesting tales to tell, if you take the time to sit and listen.

Valeria and I both agreed our favourite moment was meeting the incredibly humble but oh so charming Miguel Indurain who signed what seemed like hundreds of autographs for other volunteers at our behest. I do believe that Valeria still has the photo I took of her wearing that rather Bet Lynch-ish low-necked leopard print top snuggled up to Miguel!

Stuttgart stands alone in not winning any prizes whatsoever, rather we’ve awarded it a big fat raspberry.

Varese 2008

A portrait of Tom Boonen drawn by Nathalie Novembrini and signed by Tom

Home to the Mapei centre, the town of Varese embraced and celebrated the World Championships with a style not seen before or since, by me at least. I was staying in a small guest house not far from the town centre where I was working in the accreditation centre: more long but enjoyable days. Mine hosts served breakfast whenever I wanted and would rush to comfort me when I arrived back from a long day’s work with herbal tea and home-made cake. I never wanted to leave and have remained in touch spending time with them most years. Ute was again manning the flagpoles.

I worked with a great crowd of largely local students and bonded with fellow fan Nathalie Novembrini who earlier this year kindly wrote an article for VeloVoices. As you’ve gathered we’ve kept in touch and I frequently send her photos of Italian riders and Tom and his magnificent Boonens. Yes, it’s rare to meet a female cycling fan who doesn’t love Tom.

Varese wins my prize for the nicest volunteer outfit by a street mile. Grey trousers, light blue polo shirt, navy blue v-necked sweater and quite my favourite backpack which I use constantly. Sadly, the trousers had matchstick legs and only the hostesses and podium girls probably fit into them.

Mendrisio 2009

Fabian and my Swiss friend

Again I’d volunteered but as it was only 10km up the road from the previous year’s event, the organisers were swamped with applications and decided not to take anyone from outside the region. Ute threw a wobbly and the organisers wisely gave her a position in the press centre. I stayed with my friend in Lugano, helped out on the Santini stand, saw all of the racing and rode my bike on the road race circuit. My friend Nathalie was a hostess in the VIP stand where, with the exception of Sunday, staff outnumbered guests most days. We chatted using sign language as I was camped out on the 50m to go line opposite.

My favourite moment came when I was riding along the flatter part of the circuit and seemed to be drawing a fair amount of excited interest from the fans on the roadside. I looked around to find none other than Fabian Cancellara sucking my wheel. I flicked my elbow and he obligingly came through. I stayed on his wheel for another five or so kilometres, admiring his fluid pedal stroke, until the road turned upwards and I slid off said wheel.

Mendrisio wins my prize for the most exciting racing. You may recall Cancellara won the time trial so easily he was celebrating 100m from the line and Cadel Evans won the men’s road race having demonstrated he was indeed an attacking rider.

Melbourne 2010

Phil Gil leading the charge in Geelong

This wins my prize for the best organised and most fan-friendly event despite it being staged some 70-odd kilometres from Melbourne in Geelong. Fans had access to both sides of the finish line while the UCI’s guests and sponsors tents were at the base of the final drag. Viewing spots with refreshments and a big screen were dotted all over the course and given different nationalities. I was again camped out on the 50m line next to the hard-core Tom Boonen fan club that had turned up even though their hero hadn’t. Shame, really, the course would’ve suited him.

I again rode the course, this time on a hired mountain bike. I was glad of the lower gearing on both of those strenuous climbs. One moment sticks in my memory from Melbourne. I was enjoying a coffee in the Spanish team hotel when they found out about Alberto Contador’s positive test for clenbuterol. They were shocked, devastated and extremely upset. That news effectively killed off the Spanish challenge.

Copenhagen 2011

While Ute didn’t travel to Melbourne she once again volunteered in Copenhagen. I had facilitated her application as the bit on the website calling for volunteers had only been available in Danish. [Is there no end to your linguistic skills? – Ed] She worked once again for a few days in the press centre leaving her to enjoy some of the racing with me.

Mark Cavendish: 2011 world champion (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

We’re not particularly tall so we need to be on the barricades early otherwise we risk having our view blocked by tall northern Europeans, specifically this year tall Scandinavians. I’m quite sure that Norway and Sweden were empty those few days at the end of September while they lent the Danes a hand trying to drink the place dry! After the race on Sunday I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many empty beer cans discarded by the side of the road.

Ute, being German, generally has the upper hand at most years’ races, results wise. But not on this occasion as Mark Cavendish was guided almost to the line by a tour de force from Team GB. I had been tasked by a friend to get him Mark Cavendish’s autograph and while I saw him briefly before the post-race press conference, it wasn’t the right moment. No, that came the following morning as I was checking out of my hotel. Peta and Cav literally bumped into me and I seized my opportunity. My friend was delighted as the autograph is on a copy of the UCI official announcement of the win and is accompanied by the route book and other goodies which my friend Bert had given me earlier that morning as I’d waved him off on his plane back to New Zealand.

Limburg 2012

Ute tried not once, not twice but three times without success to volunteer. However I think staying in the same hotel as the Belgian team, including Tom and his magnificent Boonens, has more than made up for the disappointment of not having a lurid, ill-fitting volunteer’s outfit to add to her burgeoning collection.

The jury’s still out on Limburg although we’re rather loving the fact that few can be bothered to make the trek to the finish line. Well it is 4km from the train station and, unless like me you’ve got press credentials and access to the press restaurant and facilities, it’s pretty poorly served in terms of food and drinks. Still we’ve got a big screen and a great up close and personal view of the podium, so we’re not complaining. Honestly.