Road World Championships: A few observations

The racing is over and it’s time to go home. But, before we do, I’m just going to capture my immediate thoughts on this year’s championships. One of the reasons I love attending them is the rich tapestry of racing, more so since they added the juniors last year and then, this year, the trade team time trials. Not forgetting the sportive which preceded all the events, where there were 7,000-plus participants enjoying the sufferfest.

I would urge anyone who enjoys watching cycling to put a trip to the Worlds on your bucket list. It’s generally held in a great holiday location and the organisers usually build an entire cultural or musical festival on the back of the cycling, recognising that not everyone’s a cycling fan. I know, unbelievable!

1. A word to the wise

Cycling photographer Graham Watson wrote a book on how and where to enjoy the Tour de France. I won’t need that many words to impart my wisdom. Remember it’s an endurance event. You may spend upwards of 10 hours on your feet at the barricades if, like me, you want to see all the action and soak up the atmosphere. You’ll therefore need plenty of stamina, comfortable shoes, layers of clothing to account for changing weather conditions, patience, sustenance and lastly sharp elbows to defend your spot against all-comers. If you’re on your own it helps to strike up a relationship with the folks either side. If not, add great bladder control to the requirements.

2. Location

The region, which has a rich culture of cycling, was a fitting and scenic choice to host the championships. Indeed bikes and bike lanes are pretty much universal. This was Limburg’s fifth World Championships – not forgetting its annual Classic, Amstel Gold – so it has a number of issues down pat. It even added to its enormous logistical burden by having races start in a number of different areas to maximise municipal inclusion and share costs and benefits.

Limburg 2012: finish village (image courtesy of Limburg 2012)

On the other hand, it located most of the administrative facilities at the finish making it much easier for the press corps. It took four weeks to erect a huge village on grazing land past the summit of the Cauberg. Along one side of the finish were 200m of double-decker entertainment facilities to satisfy the demands of corporate sponsors, plus guests of the various teams. On the other side of the road, spectators willing to trek to the finish had access to two large screens and the podium. Sadly, refreshments were not plentiful other than at the weekends. However a number of enterprising home owners filled that gap from stalls in their front gardens.

3. Tripartite axis

There were plenty of viewing possibilities along the circuit although the lack of big screens rather encouraged clustering in the many bars and restaurants. I sensed some sort of neighbourly challenge as the Dutch, Belgians and Germans formed a useful axis to try and drink the region dry. They were ably assisted by a large Norwegian presence toasting their country’s successes – silver in the men’s elite road race and gold in the junior men’s time-trial.

Phil Gil back to his best (image courtesy of Limburg 2012)

Local pride was assuaged by Marianne Vos’ demolition of the opposition. The neighbouring Belgians were similarly delighted with Phil Gil’s return to his best, not forgetting their win with Omega Pharma-Quick Step in the men’s team time trial. The German’s thrice heard their rousing national anthem: ladies’ and men’s individual time trial, and the ladies’ team time trial.

4. Growing popularity

Cycling needs to appeal to a global audience if it’s to prosper. It was pleasing to see increased participation from countries such as Malaysia, Hong Kong and Japan, though sadly no team from China. Africa was also represented with riders and teams from South Africa, Eritrea, Ivory Coast, Namibia, Algeria, Morocco and Ethiopia, plus we saw increased participation from Latin America.

The region is readily accessible by road, rail and air encouraging a healthy number of spectators from around the world which greatly adds to the event’s ambience. We shared the barricades with fans from Finland, Australia, just down the road, UK, France, Italy, Spain, Colombia, Germany, Belgium, USA and South Africa.

5. Parental pride

While as fans we’re familiar with most of the men’s elite racers and some of the under-23s, the ladies and the juniors tends to be uncharted waters. For many of the younger riders it’s a baptism of fire. They’ve never raced at this level but it’s evident that whatever the outcome everyone’s there to do their best which might be completing a certain number of laps, finishing, or maybe a medal. For a lot of the youngsters just inhabiting the same terrain as the stars of the sport must be hugely motivating. I loved that one of the Venezuelan riders waited patiently to have her photo taken with outgoing world champion Mark Cavendish. You just know that’s going to have pride of place on the mantelpiece back home.

In my mind there’s nothing better than seeing someone you know well race. However we got to share vicariously the racing via the eyes of a number of families while they were watching their offspring. We chatted with Trixie Worrack’s family during the trade team and individual time trial, Max Schachmann’s coach during the junior time trial, Damian Howson’s mum during the men’s under-23 time trial and Germain Burton’s family and friends during the junior male road race. To be honest, the families always seem more anxious than the riders as they comprehend the fine line between triumph and disaster and just how much is at stake.

Of course, I’m secretly hoping that come Doha 2016 I’ll be cheering my friends’ son to victory from a bunch sprint in the junior road race.

6. Allegiances

Tom, going into gladiatorial battle (image courtesy of Specialized)

Local fans, despite the enormous disruption to their daily lives, embraced the championships with vigour – as did their household pets. We were amused to see dogs proudly wearing Rabobank shirts. I also spotted a couple of dogs wearing small Belgian cycling caps bearing Tom Boonen’s photo. Their little faces beamed at me from their camper van after the men’s road race. Clearly no one had told them the result! Fans also dressed up or bore placards and banners displaying their fandom. A couple reprised Tom Boonen’s gladiatorial role but we were more bemused by the man dressed as Zorro.

Quite often in these races, particularly the men’s elite road race, trade team loyalty overrides national ones but this year we saw no obvious evidence of this.

By chance I stayed in the same hotel as the Italian and Spanish teams although the hotel perhaps wisely lodged them in different wings. It was interesting to see their contrasting approaches. The Italians colonised the hotel with the team, their sponsors and supporters holding court in the hotel lounge. The Italians paraded around the hotel in their chic Azzurri outfits, immaculate coiffed and sleek of eyebrow – and that’s just the boys. The Spaniards were far more discreet, gliding quietly from lift to dining room and back again. Fans staked out the hotel for hours for a glimpse, a signature or photograph with their sporting heroes. This daily drama took place under the bewildered gaze of rotating coach loads of Japanese tourists. I wonder, was the plan to try and prevent Belgium winning hatched across the breakfast table?

7. To the victors the spoils

Check out the Superman socks, they made all the difference! (image courtesy of Limburg 2012)

Trade team management are omnipresent to check out the array of talent on display, particularly at the men’s under-23 and elite races. Will anyone sign Ethiopia’s Tsgabu Gebremaryam Grmay, who finished 25th in the men’s individual time trial? He just rode his bike as fast as he could, all power and no style, but looked really promising. Look at how this region of Africa dominates middle-distance running. What could they – along with the Kenyans – achieve on two wheels?

Alexey Lutsenko, who scooped the men’s under-23 road race, will no doubt move up to the Astana ProTeam squad but where will some of the others ply their trade next season? Don’t forget to check out VeloVoices’ transfer chat.

8. This is how it’s pronounced

An essential part of watching any live racing is listening to the commentary which serves to bring the race alive, particularly when the riders are out of sight, there’s no television coverage or some tall northern European’s just blocked your view of the screen. Since my spell at the Tour with Eurosport, I’ve a much greater appreciation of the work involved. Imagine having to talk for ten hours? Yes, I know I can talk the proverbial hind leg off a donkey but could I do it for ten hours? One man who can is the American announcer who co-commentates with the local one. A former professional cyclist from California, he manages to inject just the right amount of infectious enthusiasm. He’s not too familiar with the European riders and came out with some wonderful ‘Porterisms’ such as ‘Marco Pinyatchy’. But on balance he adds rather than detracts from the ambience. However, I’m going to buy him a thesaurus for next year. How many times can one man use the word ‘solid’?

9. Could do better

These events shouldn’t rest on their laurels. More signage so we could better find our way around would have been helpful, as would a shuttle bus from the train station to the finish, a 4km trip on foot. No, scrap that, there would have been more viewers at the finish.

Team buses at the finish were out of bounds to the fans, a fact I know disappointed some. But spare a thought for the riders, they’ve left everything out on the road and just want to change and get something to eat and drink. However, they’re readily available at the start of the races and during the general training sessions on the circuit which afford some great photo opportunities for those without press credentials.

Where was the platform for the disabled cycling fans? Those in wheelchairs couldn’t see over the barricades. There were any number of areas close to the finish which could and should have been used for them.

Inevitably, corporate spectators only show up in numbers at the weekends and for the men’s events. Look at ways to populate these vast wastelands on the other days. Empty tribunes look so bad on the television.

10. Scores on the doors

So where does Limburg rank in my top seven? It’s third behind Salzburg and Melbourne.

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