With both Kitty and Sheree making visits to the Giro this week, I’ve taken to quelling my jealousy with thoughts of live races I’ve been to myself and thoughts of races yet to come. Whilst I’m something of an amateur spectator, you could say that Kitty and Sheree move in more elite circles, and take to such ventures in a far more expert and experienced fashion, so I thought I’d see what tales they may have to tell.
I saw my first race when I was about 15 or 16. When I found out that the Tour of Britain and my hero Sean Kelly was going to briefly venture into my home county of Shropshire, I had no option but to find the steepest part of the route and ride to it. There was very little planning involved, I just rode there and stood at the edge of this narrow country road. A snarling Kelly skimmed by, just inches from my face, as he stormed the hill that I had just wobbled all over an hour before, nearly clipping my foot.
Two things struck me. Firstly, how incredibly fast and powerful these guys were, and secondly, that I was just millimetres away from having been schooled by an angry Kelly on the etiquette of roadside support! In addition to narrowly missing wiping Kelly out, I’ve also in my time managed to miss crashes just 50 metres from me, be appallingly positioned for sprint finishes, and almost miss Pedro Delgado and Miguel Indurain saying hello as they reccied a time-trial route. What I’m saying is, I need a bit of advice from our resident experts, Sheree and Kathi, with a few additional comments thrown in by Tim!
What was your first race experience?
Kitty: It was the Tour de France when it started in London. I went to the team presentations, the prologue (My Beloved Cancellara!!!) and the Sunday when they rode out over Tower Bridge. I picked my spot behind the Royal Festival Hall because I knew they would have to go down the narrow and cobbled road and they’d need to go slow. It was the right place to stand because there were no crowds. I could have reached out and touched the Sacred Haunches (but I didn’t).
Tim: The first race I ever attended live was the closing time trial of the 2003 Giro. I loved it instantly, and it’s part of the reason why the Giro is my favourite grand tour. The finish was in the wonderful setting of the main cathedral square in Milan, right alongside the magnificent Duomo. The atmosphere was as relaxed as it was passionate. Oh, and those Domina Vacanze zebra-stripe jerseys – now those were memorable!
Sheree: It was the 2006 Tour Méditerranéen. Two stages: St Laurent du Var to Menton and San Remo to San Remo. Cyril Dessel of Ag2r won the overall. I was somewhat taken aback by how easy it was to chat to the riders, the lack of fanfare and paucity of spectators in France (it was much better in Italy). As I didn’t ride at the time, I totally failed to appreciate the effort required to ride at those speeds.
Ant: Oh I appreciated the effort in the Tour of Britain! I could hardly manage that short sharp climb and then a club rider paced me back to Shrewsbury, only about 15 miles, but it nearly killed me! For all the books I’d read, and videos I’d watched, that was the moment that I realised just how incredible guys like Sean Kelly were.
I need to get better at watching races, so it’s crash course time! What is your top tip to get the most out of the race experience?
Kitty: Try to see and experience stuff you don’t see on TV. Go to the sign-ins, go to the team buses, talk to fans beside you. You can always watch highlights later.
Tim: Do your research, identify a good spot and get there early to soak up the atmosphere. Unless you’re watching a circuit race or a TT, your experience of the peloton is a brief one, but what you’ll remember most is the noise, the colour and the chatter. Like many other sports, if you want to watch the racing stay at home and put the TV on – if you want an experience, go see it live.
Sheree: Have a plan and stick to it. Get to the start early – decide whether you want to stake out the buses or grab a front-line view of the sign-on. At the finish, find somewhere on the barriers where you can see the big screen. Bring sufficient food and drink and dress comfortably, you’re going to be standing for a long time. Take a friend to keep your place when you need to nip off for a comfort break. Be patient!
How do you prepare for a race day? What are the must haves and must dos?
Kitty: Get to the barriers early to get a great place. I always take a book because if I’m next to people who don’t speak English, it can be a looooooooong wait. A few years ago I read an entire biography of Robert Capa on the Champs. (It was a good book – I was sad that he died). This year, I’ll have Panache with me so I won’t need a book! Take water, some snacks. Talk to people beside you. Have a great time.
Sheree: I have a big bag with all my essentials: water, food, stage and rider information, recorder, mobile phone, additional clothing, sunscreen, camera. In addition, I dress comfortably and wear shoes that I can happily stand all day in. I also have a plan of who I want to see, talk to and photograph. It doesn’t always work but I have found that persistence pays dividends.
So planning and focus are key, but what about what NOT to do? What is the biggest faux pas at a race?
Kitty: I once saw a guy camcording the video screens of the race – for hours. Why? He didn’t actually look at the cyclists going past! LOOK at them – don’t see everything through a lens, see it with your own eyes! And don’t be oblivious when you do have your camera up – you could be blocking other people or knocking a cyclist off his bike.
Sheree: Don’t talk to riders at the end of a stage when they just want to get into the bus and get to the hotel. The only exception is the last day of a grand tour.
Ant: I can only refer back to my own near miss with Sean Kelly, which could so easily have been not too dissimilar to Zdenek Stybar in Paris-Roubaix this year, along with countless other fan/racer interface issues. Don’t get too close to the road!
With so many excited people in one place, there are often some great sites, aside from the racing itself. What is the funniest thing you’ve ever seen at a race?
Kitty: An American guy who stripped down to a pair of Stars & Stripes Speedos when Dave Zabriskie was in the starthouse at the prologue for the Tour de France in Rotterdam. He climbed up on the barriers and screamed “USA! USA!” Zabriskie gave a wry smile. Oh, and the giant Yeti and chicken dancing together.
Sheree: For me, it has to be the sight of Bernard Hinault providing podium security at the Tour de France.
What is your favourite race day anecdote?
Kitty: I went to the TT for the Tour de Suisse a few years ago (I tell this story all the time), to see Cancellara, resplendent in his World Champion’s white skinsuit. The crowd went crazy when he was in the starthouse – including the two 80-year-old women in front of me who had been waiting in the rain for him for hours. They started screaming and shouting like they were teenagers. It was one of the best things I’ve ever seen. I hope I’m like them when I’m their age.
Sheree: It was probably the 2006 World Championships in Salzburg where I was photographed and interviewed by the local newspaper. They thought it was rather neat that an Englishwoman, living in France, volunteered to help out in Austria. I was chatting to Eddy Merckx (I’m such a name dropper!) when a lady said she’d seen me in the paper and would I sign a copy of the article. I obliged and was about to ask her if she wanted one from the great Eddy Merckx when she turned and scuttled off!
Ant: These two anecdotes are lovely and really capture what I think is great about the experience. A whole range of people, bucketloads of love and enthusiasm, rubbing shoulders with legends – you just can’t top it, and I don’t think any sport could come close to this. My own favourite anecdote though is a bit more Benny Hill really.
It was the end of the 1994 Paris-Tours. I’d positioned myself right on the finish line and managed to miss the entire bunch sprint because I was too penned in and too short to crane my neck back up the beautiful Avenue de Grammont to see. I made my way around to the team buses to see what was what. It was quite busy, and all of a sudden the crowd in front of me halted, but the guy behind me didn’t. I was bumped forward and into the path of Bjarne Riis, who promptly tripped over my foot and, still waddling in his cleats, nearly went over. Me and my bloody feet!!
Well, thanks guys, I feel a lot better armed now to take on a visit to a race without making a total idiot of myself (again), and will now set about planning my next trip. With that in mind, my final question for you is, what race would you most like to go to?
Kitty: Paris-Roubaix. Next year I want to be on the sidelines as they go through the Forest of Arenberg.
Tim: The Vuelta. I’ve sampled both the Giro and the Tour – I’d like to complete the grand tour hat-trick!
Sheree: While I’ve not yet been to every race, I would like to kick off next year at the Tour Down Under and follow that up with the Tours of Dubai, Qatar and Oman. Please contact me if you’re interested in funding this trip. I’ll write loads of articles – promise!