Ponferrada ’14: Norway’s Day In The U/23’s
Roadside PEZ: With the World’s next big stars battling it out in the U/23 Road Race there was nowhere else our veteran reporter and talent spotter Ed Hood would rather be than roadside in Ponferrada soaking up the atmosphere and action. Here’s a look at Ed’s first day roadside at the 2014 World Road Cycling Championships.
The Aussies nearly pulled it off, but not quite, with super fast Caleb Ewan grabbing silver.
And whilst Thor Hushovd may have called ‘time’ his successors are queuing up with not one but two Norsemen on the podium, Sven Erik Bystrom taking the rainbow jersey and Kristoffer Skjerping claiming bronze.
In a frantic last lap the young Norwegian perhaps delivered a portent for Sunday, winning the race not on the climb but on the descent.
But let’s start at the beginning . . .
The Belgian Elite team left their homes in Belgium at 08:00 in the morning, got a flight out of Brussels at 10:00, a flight to Madrid, a connecting flight to the North West of Spain and then spent three-and-a-half hours in a coach, getting to Ponferrada at 11:00 pm.
From that, you’ll gather that the venue for the 2014 Worlds isn’t the easiest to get to; I had four-and-a-half hours in a train out of Madrid to get here. As former British Road Race Champion and team manager for Canada, Tim Harris told me; ‘the only place I’ve been this year which was more awkward to get to was the Isle of Islay in the Hebrides of Scotland !’
And to add insult to injury the local hotels have spread their arms in welcome to visitors by charging five star prices for no star rooms – hence Casa PEZ is some 80 kilometres from the start. We’ve teamed up with freelance photog. John Young of fietsenphotography who did the digs homework and organised the car.
On the subject of the car, you have to be inside ‘The Bubble’ of the start/finish/press centre area before 08:00 am or you’re ‘locked out.’ The BlackBerry blasted at 06:00 am – ouch !
Next up, credentials; the creds centre is in what will be Spain’s National Energy Museum – appropriate in an area where coal used to be king – but it doesn’t open ’til 09:00 and the ‘don’t mess with me, hombre’ cops wouldn’t let me near the press centre, next to which is the press watering hole wherein is cafe con leche and tortilla, PEZ’s essential race food when in Espana. So, I had to be abandoned at the creds centre with an hour to wait.
The centre is right on the famous pilgrimage route, The Way of Saint James – marked by sea shells – which ends up in Santiago de Compostella where the Vuelta’s final TT took place.
There were already walkers aplenty following the sign of the shell which marks the route. I decided to follow the route for a ways and was rewarded for my devotion by a bar wherein I was reminded of the revitalising properties of cafe con leche; especially when it costs one Euro. And to add to my joy, there was a copy of today’s AS, sports paper.
Worlds coverage was tucked away on page 35 with ‘Purito’ Rodriguez and Valverde – who they called ‘The Green Bullet’ back in his Kelme days – telling readers that; ‘we’re not rivals, we’re colleagues.’
Well… Creds collected, tortilla tracked down – time for work. There are 162 starters from 42 nations in the U23 champs.
If you’re in the Turkish team there’s a hired mini bus and pin your own numbers on.
But if you’re a rider for Australia there’s the GreenEDGE team bus and all the World Tour trimmings.
The sun is high and hot when the flag drops at bang on 13:00 hours, the peloton is gutter to gutter and there’s the multiple ‘clack!’ of chains dropping into smaller cogs as the attacks go already – 10 laps to go… Time to start walking.
The early part of the parcours isn’t easy on the eye, high rise, wide, straight roads but there’s a bar and shade – lovely. Lap two starts and three have sneaked clear, it’s split behind but it’s early days. The beer isn’t bad and I get a wee tapa for free – salami on bread, very tasty.
John and I were around the circuit last night, there are two climbs, the first long and straight out of town then a tricky little descent which crosses a dam as it bottoms out then a shorter, sharper climb before a long, sweeping descent back into town. It’s not too tough – but 14 laps in and the hammer down on Sunday, it’ll be savage.
The circuit isn’t getting any more photogenic by the time the TV helicopter’s rotors hacking at the warm afternoon air announce lap three. Our three renegades have a minute plus but there’s little concern in the Aussie lead peloton. The fourth circuit approaches – Ponferrada Castillo, that’s better. If only I had some burning gear to take those lamp posts out…
The castle was home to the Knights Templars, warrior monks from nine centuries ago whose role was to protect pilgrims.
Our three boys have extended their lead, I make them #20, Roman Kustadinchev, Russia, #73 Sebastian Schonberger, Austria and #129 Adil Barbari, Algeria. The bunch is strung out but nowhere near ‘full gas.’ The castle is too photogenic not to get from another angle – conveniently, there’s a bar where the shot is. That’s a coincidence.
Meanwhile, up on the big screen there’s a lot of chat in that peloton – maybe that long drag out of town isn’t as hard as I thought it was? All that chat in the bunch has let the gap grow on lap five and Poland take it up; those boys with CCC on their shorts are used to riding tempo, you can tell.
Patatas bravas, a beer and a cafe con leche let me catch up with the papers. The ciclismo is even further back in Marca than it was is AS, page 40; and Spain has ‘limited expectations for her U23’s’ a sad statement given the nation is ranked number one in the UCI rankings. Sport, the third of Spain’s daily sports papers devotes but one column to the Worlds telling us that Valverde is ‘the man’ and Purito is ‘segundo’ – second.
Lap six and we’re a man down, just the Austrian and Russian out front now, our Algerian is spent.
Timo Roosen for the Netherlands is trying to bridge and there’s no chat in the peloton now as they kick up the dust and litter against a back drop of Knights Templar murals.
Meanwhile the Norwegians have taken over Cafe Rabel – how appropriate. The seventh circuit at the bottom of the long drag out of town; but I’m going to cut across town back to the start/finish. Our two boys are still clear but there’s a group coming across, six or seven with a South African in there.
The Aussies definitely don’t like this situation and they have most of the team up front of a strung out peloton.
I cut across town and pick them up just off the final descent which comes just before the red kite. On Sunday it could all be decided on that drop. But back to today and there are now four up front, one of whom is our Dutchman, Roosen. Two are in ‘no man’s land’ and the peloton cranking up as a wind stirs the flags around the circuit. It’s straight and flat for perhaps 500 metres into and out of the red kite, then there’s a sweeping right hander and 500 to go, straight and flat past apartment blocks to the line.
Anthony McCrossan tells us over the PA that my South African was Louis Mentjes who’s now solo ahead of another group and an Aussie inspired peloton. Two to go – he’s brave.
He’s in a mega gear along the finish straight but the chase group is breathing down his neck and scoop him up at the castillo. Big screen time; the peloton is 18 seconds back on a group of maybe a dozen riders, now. On the long grind out of town the bunch can see the break but are happy to let the tiring Aussies chase. Every rider in the race knows they have the fastest finisher in Caleb Ewan – he turns pro with GreenEDGE on January 1st.
The escape is still clear off the climb, over the dam and into the last, steeper climb. Kevin Ledanois goes for France, he can sense those Aussies are coming up, fast. Three come across but the Colombian plays games and let’s Ledanois ease away, again – he corners on the ragged edge. He tortures himself up the finish straight – surely he can’t survive ?
He’s past the castillo, the Frenchman still clear – but succumbs on that horrible drag out of town. Silva of Portugal goes clear, driving hard and opening the gap – but it’s a long, long way to the top. A gaggle of six or seven, then four or five more try to get up, the Aussies have lost control. Silva starts to tie up as Colombia’s Ramirez powers clear. Silva, Tanner Putt of the US and an Italian are chasing – but there’s been a regroupment behind as Ramirez throws himself down toward the dam.
Ramirez drives the final climb as the Italian over cooks it and down he goes – and a Venezuelan comes down. It’s death or glory stuff up there. The Kazakhs chase but it’s blowing apart, every man for himself as Ramirez is caught. A Norseman tucks in low and drops off the top with a gap; it’s Bystrom – with three K to go. He has 11 seconds, he doesn’t look back, he daren’t, it’s not a peloton, it’s a pack of savage wild boar hungry for blood.
The last right hander, he’s going to do it he has time to salute – Thor will be proud.
Seconds later, Ewan demonstrates why no one would work with the Aussies – he finishes as if he’s just been catapulted off an aircraft carrier flight deck.
Norway take third too, a great race for the Scandinavians and an excellent finale – roll on Sunday.
It was November 2005 when Ed Hood first penned a piece for PEZ, on US legend Mike Neel. Since then he’s covered all of the Grand Tours and Monuments for PEZ and has an article count in excess of 1,100 in the archive. He was a Scottish champion cyclist himself – many years and kilograms ago – and still owns a Klein Attitude, Dura Ace carbon Giant and a Fixie. He and fellow Scot and PEZ contributor Martin Williamson run the Scottish site www.veloveritas.co.uk where more of his musings on our sport can be found.