What's Cool In Road Cycling

Worlds’09: The Australians Take Mendrisio!

Roadside PEZ: After walking the pits in the morning and then watching the professional boys roll out to do their stuff, Team PEZ hit the streets of Mendrisio to do a little bit of bike watching, a little bit of people watching, and just enjoy an absolutely fantastic final day at the Worlds.

After the rain of Friday and the wet roads of Saturday morning, it was a perfect day in the southern part of Switzerland for both bike riding and bike watching. While there was no sign of rain, it was not going to be too hot either, meaning for the riders, there wouldn’t be the added complication of severe dehydration, and the fans could avoid a nasty case of sunburn.

Walking the course on Saturday, we not only saw houses that were cut off from the rest of the town due to the encircling fence of the road course, but also people whose houses were actually on the road route who had happily resigned themselves to being prisoners in their own front yard for the near 12 hour duration of the road closures. There were plenty of picnic tables set up and the red and white Swiss flag was being used to decorate all sorts of different structures. The only thing that seemed to be missing was music, but thanks to a lone trumpeter on a balcony above the first left hand corner on the course, each time the bunch went past we were treated to some toe tapping tunes.

The team boxes just after the finishing line, where we spent some time on Saturday, were slightly different to those in the back section of the course. Over the back, each of the teams had their own small tent (and a small drawbridge over a very large drainage ditch) for the staff to work out of. The front section boxes were actually set up inside a parking garage which had numerous TV sets for the support staff to keep an eye on the race. As the riders approached, those helpers who weren’t already outside catching a few rays of sun, emerged from the ground floor to swarm out onto the road in what is best described as the organised chaos of the feed zone.

The roof section of the parking garage was open to the public and made a great viewing and photo-taking platform.

Time For A Feed
Having seen how the riders fuel up for their hard day of work, it was time to start thinking of the rumbling stomachs of the other folk out on the circuit.

This appetising selection of pizzas, being carefully guarded by former Canadian national road coach and current Australian MTB coach Neil Ross, was heading to the Australian pits. We’re assuming it was for the support staff, but with all of the great food smells wafting around out on the circuit, I can’t be sure one of the riders hadn’t called for a few slices over the race radio.

There were more than a few fans who looked like they were going to opt for the ‘all liquid diet’ today (and we aren’t talking protein shakes either), while others had found themselves a nice spot to watch the race while having a hard think about what they might like to eat.

Just off the main circuit, several bars had set up barbecues out front to supplement their usual fare of sandwiches and cold meats.

This particular spread smelled great, looked great and didn’t seem to conform to another Swiss stereotype of ‘you can’t afford anything’.

Even when combined with the lure of free wi-fi at the tables, (to get a jump start on sending off the photos while we ate), the tempting victuals were not enough to have us stop, however. The two very grubby looking men, who were also smoking as they tended the barbecue, had us smiling politely and heading on up the Acquafresca climb to see what else the race was about.

Calm Before The Storm
There’s plenty of fresh water flowing down from the Acquafresca climb and as well as the open stream which is further up the steeper parts of the hill, there are drinking fountains positioned along the footpath at regular intervals all of the way up. These drinking fountains are found in squares and along the sides of the road throughout this area of Europe and normally just tap into a drinkable natural water supply that is close by.

As the fans lined the barriers just a few metres to our left, the stream ran quietly past the houses before disappearing underground to pass through the town.

We were heading for Orange Country and the noise from the cheering, singing, band playing and Rabobank sponsored clackers ‘clacking’ told us we had come to the right place. As the race approached, the noise seemed to increase, but the singing and dancing didn’t really take off until the bunch had passed them by.

The Knechten Voor Oranje are not a bunch of drunken louts just out for a booze-up. Most of them are genuine race fans who crowd the barrier cheering, trying to get a look at their riders as they pass, before heading back to the full on festivities.

The truck with the huge TV screen showing the race had a speaker and DJ, taking turns to lead the crowd in sing-alongs and games while the live folk band took a break and the riders were on the other side of the circuit.

We figured it might make a good picture looking out at the crowd from the truck and so did their speaker. After explaining to the crowd they were about to go world wide on the Internet, which was good advertising for the Knechten Voor Oranje…

…It was “Een, twee, drie… CHEER voor PEZ!”

Trying to move back through the crowd and down the hill, we had to stop about 10 times and take pictures of the fans who all wanted to be on the website. Stay tuned folks, there’s more to come this week.

Mendrisio Goes Off Road
As we were leaving the Acquafresca climb, things were hotting up in the race as the breakaway continued to toil along out in front as the Italians decided to take things in hand and organise a break with some of their top names splitting the peloton on the climb.

With the race heading into the second half, it was time to grab out the map, power up the batteries and pedal our way through the side streets to the back part of the course.

Even with the main road being used for the race, there was no avoiding the fact that we were going to have to go up. After a succession of switchbacks on urban streets to get a bit of altitude, we then moved onto a walking track and started heading up through the vineyard covered hills surrounding Mendrisio.

After negotiating this goat track and fearing once again that we might be lost, we finally met some people who pointed us in the right direction for the course.

Even if we had been going in totally the wrong direction, with the mist gone from the mountains today, the view across Mendrisio was worth the effort in itself.

The Second Feed Zone
Watching the race from the side of the road is great, but sometimes it is difficult to get a good gauge on what is actually happening with the race. So, (and it was the only reason, honest) we ducked into a bar to take a look at the TV and check out the situation.

The particular bar we were in seemed to have a Final Frontier theme and as well as a giant moose head on the wall, the section above the door was jammed full of arrows. I’d like to think they weren’t fired from the bar, but just to be on the safe side, I cheered whenever the commentators mentioned Cancellara or the Italians.

A quick dive back outside to watch the race fly past, had the Italians at the front of the main group. Then when the Aussies passed at the head of the second chase group, trying to get Gerrans and Evans back up to support a heavily outnumbered Mick Rogers, the very partisan PEZ cheer squad gave ourselves away to our hosts.

There were no hard feelings and Cladio, the owner of the bar (who demonstrates his skill with a bow and arrows at www.stam-archery.com.ch), even grabbed his giant bell and posed for a picture.

Getting back down from the hill proved a bit more difficult than we thought. With the roads all closed and some sections not actually connected, at one point we had to ride downhill between the first and second row of a vineyard!

The section of the course with the big hairpin bend was completely inaccessible, but while waiting to cross the road just below it, we were treated to a fine display of bike handling as Fabian Cancellara darted between the cars at a ridiculous speed, and Stuart O’Grady and Wes Sulzberger continued to do their best to get the Aussie boys back into the mix.

The Grand Finale
By taking a few wrong turns and having to carry the bike down the odd step or two, we made it back into Mendrisio just as the main group in the race crossed the line to get two laps to go. With the race not really visible from the press centre, we opted for a bar (again!) on the right left combination corner, after the long run past the train station.

After ducking out to see the riders pass, it was back to the front row for the remainder of the penultimate lap and just like most other places throughout the day, the crowd was a healthy mix of Cancellara fanatics and Italian tifosi.

For the final lap, we opted to hold our ground by the TV and with the action hotting up, it was a wise decision. The camera helicopter came in extra low as the riders made their first turn onto the foot of the climb and every single piece of coloured paper that had been used outside the bar for food tickets as well as about 50 plastic plates and numerous other things that weren’t held down, took off flying across the street and car park under the chopper’s down wash.

With Vinokourov’s attack drawing a huge amount of disinterest from the crowd, there was a momentary yell when Kolobnev attacked as the locals saw blue and thought it was one of the Italians.

Cancellara’s demonstration of his power was awesome to watch, but probably did his medal chances more harm than good as everyone knew he would be impossible to beat if he was away in a group or was within striking distance of the front.

When Joaquin Rodriguez made his move on the left hand side of the median strip while the other riders chose the right, Evans was the one to chase and while everyone else in the bar cursed the Spanish, yelled at the Italians, and urged Cancellara to bring them back, a certain PEZ correspondent was out of the chair with a “C’mon Cadel” to match all of the others combined.

The nationalistic cheering, urging and criticism continued and when Evans went alone things actually got louder. It was a good thing we were on the other side of the circuit as the extra boost Cancellara and Cunego would have got, might have been enough to bring the Australian back.

When Evans crested the top of the climb in Novazzano everyone in the bar, seemed to know it was as good as done. Then, they all started saying his name and nodding their heads, seemingly giving their approval of the way he had used his brains to out-ride the Spanish team, the best Italy had to offer on the day, and their own beloved Cancellara.

It was a strange feeling to have stood around and talked with the Australian team and team staff before the race, told anyone and everyone that while Evans was the favourite, Gerrans was also a man to watch, but deep down, really thinking that any spot on the podium would have been a huge result. Then, to see the team pull it off and that Australian jersey cross the finish line to claim the men’s professional road race title, well, it was pretty emotional stuff.

By the time we had made the sprint back to the press centre for a front row seat at the post race press conference, the jersey and medals had already been presented and the national anthem had already been sung.

At the press conference itself, Evans seemed a little overwhelmed and sat with the thousand yard stare of a very tired man who had just raced the legs off the worlds best, over 260km.

There were some disappointed Swiss fans, especially after the display of strength that Fabian Cancellara put in in the closing laps (or in fact, the past three years!), but the people of Mendrisio soon warmed to Evans as the local winner of their event.

There would be some hard partying tonight as well as some soul-searching, beer fuelled post-mortem sessions. Some, like the Belgian and Dutch fans we saw in their own little enclaves, would be continuing their sessions well into the night, while for others, it all got too much for them early and they didn’t even see Cadel Evans’ solo break to victory on the climb he rides up nearly every day in training.

So that’s it. The world championships are over, I got to go along and see the first ever Aussie winner in a professional road world championship and also see a man who has had more than his share of bad luck, cost him results that would have confirmed the talent he has always had, to those that are constantly critical of the excellent results he has achieved in his career.

There is still more roadside action to come this week as we take a look inside the the race of the victorious Australian national team as well as go on a final lap around Mendrisio on the PEZ-lectric Mobile to look at the people who helped make the weekend the fantastic event that it was.

The final job here is to put up the hand and say, “I’d like the worlds assignment again next year please, boss.” With all of his correspondents based in either Europe or North America, The Pez might have to cut back on the Negroni’s at the Giro next year and start saving his pennies for the airfares.

Seldo and I are already packing our bags for an all Aussie PEZ team to cover an Aussie world championships with an Australian as the defending champion. You know it makes sense, and besides, no one else on the team knows how to speak the language!

Be-uwdy Cobber!

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