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VUELTA’17 ROADSIDE: One Day To Go!

Vuelta’17 Roadside: Contrary to appearances, this year’s Tour of Spain is not setting off from Bahrain, though by this race’s parochial standards the French City of Nîmes is exotic enough. Daniel Thévenon is at the start of the 2017 Vuelta a España in France. Here is how his first day at the Spanish Grand Tour went down.

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Unlike its French and Italian fellow Grand Tours, the Vuelta only seldom ventures outside the borders of its home country. Before this year’s start in Occitanie, the race had only twice begun on foreign shores: once in neighboring Portugal back in 1997, and another time up north in the Netherlands eight years ago.

Though it lies far from the Spanish border and is sometimes called ‘the French Rome’ due to the spectacular vestiges of the Gallo-Roman era on display along its streets, Nîmes is also strikingly Spanish in other regards. It has a museum devoted to tauromachy and its superbly preserved Roman arena regularly hosts bullfighting events.

Every year, bulky black bulls are brought here from Camargue to take part in the traditional feria. On occasion, the organisers might even splash out and import an elite breed from Spain, along with a toreador or two. “Nîmes”, the Provencal poet Frederic Mistral once quipped, “is full of bitter Frenchmen keen to excel in the cruel and sublime art of tauromachy to protest against the injustice that saw them born on the wrong side of the Pyrenees”.

The organisers of the Tour of Spain did not choose this city by chance. They will feel confident that come Saturday its streets will resonate with cries of “Viva la Vuelta!”

“I fell in love with Nîmes”, race director Javier Guillen confides. “I came here to see my friend, the torero Jose Tomas, perform in a Corrida and I realized how magnificient this city is. The Roman culture, the bullfighting, the flamenco concerts… It has many connections with Spain.”

Not everyone in town is aware that la Vuelta is starting here, or even of the race’s existence for that matter, but most of the locals agree that “from Nîmes to Madrid” definitely has a certain ring to it.

All around the city, preparations are under way to welcome the cycling season’s third and final Grand Tour in style. Nîmes is draping itself in red and yellow.

The car of el director, crimson as a matador’s cloth, is parked on a small square in the heart of the city. Javier Guillen, the man at the helm of his country’s flagship race, will occupy the iconic vehicle for the next three weeks, driving it through crowded cities and parched plains, over majestic mountain passes and lush hills, along the Costa del Sol and the Costa Blanca.

The riders of the Orica formation roll along one of Nîmes commercial boulevards. During Saturday’s time trial, the roads will be closed off to ordinary traffic, but today the Australians are having to make do with the local motorists, who are very warm-blooded and aggressive in this part of France. An impatient road hog has overtaken their team car and now prepares to honk his horn at them. “Laissez passer!”

At the front of the blue Astana bus, stationed in the parking ground of a nearby hotel, a homage to the late Michele Scarponi is a tragic reminder of the toll taken by wayward automobilists on cyclists over the past year.

The red and black of BMC is on display a little further down the road. The Swiss team’s swashbuckling, long-haired Italian Daniel Oss zips past, cool as a cucumber, after returning from a spin along the neighboring avenues.

Team officials chat in Flemish outside the Logis Nimotel. No less than four teams have been billeted in this large, three-star establishment.

The lobby is busier than one of London’s train stations at rush hour. Antonio Nibali, Vincenzo’s younger brother, somewhat uncharitably dubbed ‘the Carp of Messina’ by a malicious British journalist, casually saunters in, followed by a posse of Sunweb staff who have clearly made it their mission to appear as fit as the riders they work for.

An elderly gentleman wearing a Bahrain-Merida sweatshirt waits politely at reception while the plump woman manning the desk drones away on the telephone. He eventually loses patience and drifts away with his enquiry unanswered, crossing the paths of Lotto NL-Jumbo’s cocky cook and Lotto-Soudal’s hurried press man. Then ‘the Shark’ himself marches in, preceded by his faithful pilot fishes, and vanishes into one of the lifts.

Outside, the Lotto NL-Jumbo team has established its quarters. It will be black bikes with turquoise lettering and streamlined bidons for the time trial, and their classic turquoise bikes with black lettering and round bidons for the following stages. All Bianchi, natuurlijk.

The canteen area is abuzz with gossip, delivered in a prodigious diversity of languages. The Nibalis dine at the back, while Kruijswijk and company guzzle their culinary wizard’s concoctions close by. The Sunweb crowd, for its part, has yet to arrive. When it does, Barguil and his boys will get to choose between sparkling water and white wine. The champagne is for later, all being well.

After lunch, Steven Kruijswijk answers an interview for PEZ, one of the best in the business. Since his amazing performance at the Giro d’Italia in 2016, which he would surely have won but for a terrible crash in the snow of Col Agnel, the LottoNl-Jumbo leader has entered the exclusive club of Grand Tour contenders.

The Dutchman is calm and collected and answers every question with a smile. There is an aura of serenity about him. “I know that the first week will not be my best week”, he says. “For me, it will be damage limitation. I’m happy to go under the radar while the other favorites do battle and then I hope to emerge when the going really gets tough near the end.”

Some journalists have dubbed him ‘the Eagle of Eindhoven’ but it is not a nickname Kruijswijk particularly likes. “I wasn’t aware that they called me that”, he states. “I’m not really from Eindhoven, only the suburbs.” “My friends call me ‘de Kleerhanger’ (‘the Coathanger’) because of my wide shoulders. I prefer that nickname. It created itself so it’s nice.”

Spain’s Guardia Civil guards the entrance to Nîmes’ Musee de la Romanite, commandeered for the occasion by the Vuelta to serve as its ephemeral headquarters, the Oficina Permanentes. It is not uncommon for a national police force to operate outside of its jurisdiction in the course of a Grand Tour, though the legal framework can prove perplexing.

In the auditorium, Johan Le Bon (FDJ), Alexandre Geniez (AG2R-La Mondiale), Warren Barguil (Sunweb) and Anthony Turgis (Cofidis) prepare to face the press. Only there’s a catch: today’s merciless questioners are ten year-olds, selected from among their peers for their interrogative sharpness. “Los ninos toman la palabra”, the official program announces. It is the first time the Vuelta trials a Kids Press Conference and the Gallic quartet can expect a thorough grilling. “The riders will answer all the questions asked by their youngest fans, who will become cycling reporters for one day.” Nervousness is written all over Geniez’s face.

“Does the public at roadside ever annoy you?”, the undaunted Leo asks Barguil. “No, but sometimes it’s dangerous”, the Breton prodigy answers tactfully. “Then again”, he adds, “if there were no public the races would not be worth competing in. At Peyragudes, in the Tour, we had to climb up a deserted col, with no-one but the race motorbikes and our team cars for company. It was surreal, there was nobody there.” “I was there”, the child candidly protests, as those in attendance roar out in laughter.

“How many bikes do you own?”, another schoolboy shoots. “Well, let’s see”, says the hero of Bastilles Day, counting on his fingers, “there’s the one I have at home, and then the one I race with, which I have changed every now and again, and the three the team mechanic keeps in his truck, plus the one on the roof of my manager’s car, without counting the bikes for the time trials”. “How many do you have?”, the Vuelta’s press lady Laura Cueto asks the young reporter. “I only have one”, he replies, staring severely at his mother.

“How many kilometers do you ride in a year as part of your training?”, a boy interrogates Le Bon. “Last year I swallowed 27,000 kilometers”, the dark-featured athlete from the Cotes-d’Armor proudly affirms. “As a general rule, a professional worth his salt will manage between 25,000 and 30,000 kilometers.” Turgis looks concerned. “I must be doing something wrong”, the young Cofidis rider avows, “my total is nowhere near that. Boy, I need to get to work!”

Moments later, however, Le Bon’s confidence is shattered as a killer question catches him off guard. “Which stage of this year’s Vuelta suits you most?” The FDJ man stares blankly at the juvenile journalist and confesses that he has not yet had time to look at what is on the menu. “We’re looking at it tonight, promised”, he says. Geniez, on the other hand, has done his homework and does not allow a potentially lethal, banana skin-style follow-up on his least favorite stage to trip him up. “Easy, that would be the Madrid stage”, the baroudeur exclaims, a reference to the typically sprinter-friendly nature of the Tour of Spain’s traditional epilogue.

After the children are done ruining reputations, the parents step in. “For a young rider such as yourself”, one father asks Barguil, “is it difficult racing against champions that you once watched and admired on the television?” “You know, it’s funny but I don’t actually realize it during the race”, the jovial grimpeur explains. “To me, cycling is like a game and the others are players, just like me, with two arms and two legs. It only really dawns on me who I actually was competing against after the race is run.”

With that said, it is time for a group photograph, before the day’s press aces are promptly sent to bed by their mamans. As for the riders, they can take heart from the fact that over the course of the next three weeks, however difficult it may get, they are highly unlikely to face anything as tough as this again.

A day later, the Movistar riders gather outside the Hotel C Suite and prepare to set off on a training ride. The mercurial Colombian Carlos Betancur asks a team technician to attend to his handlebars, while the rangy Spaniard Jorge Arcas councils his stocky Ecuadorian team-mate Richard Carapaz, and the young golden boy Marc Soler receives instructions from one of his sporting directors. In the absence of the Spanish formation’s two headliners Alejandro ‘the Green Bullet’ Valverde and Nairo ‘El Condor’ Quintana, its less fabled athletes may get their chance to steal some of the limelight.

Carapaz looks more delighted than anyone to be here. After competing in the Tour of Ecuador, this will be a big step forward for the good-spirited twenty-four year-old.

Inside, a poster informs every member of the team where they will be sleeping tonight, from the cyclists to the soigneurs, the doctors and the mechanics. Jose Joaquin Rojas, the two-time champion of Spain, will have a room all to himself, whereas Carapaz will be Ruben Fernandez’s roommate. No bedroom, apparently for Movistar’s general manager Eusebio Unzué, who will presumably have to settle for an uncomfortable makeshift cot in a cramped corridor or opt instead to sleep in the car. It’s not the life it’s made out to be…

In the conference room downstairs, Spain’s Alberto Contador is holding a much attended press conference. El Pistolero will be bowing out after the Vuelta and for him and the Spanish journalists that have followed him throughout his career it is a moving moment.

Contador’s right-hand man Jacinto is on hand to translate the Madrileno’s utterances into English. “When did you take your decision to retire from cycling?”, a reporter from El Pais asks the leader of the Trek team. “During the Tour”, Contador explains, “I knew that the Tour would give me the answer”.

“I will give the maximum in this Vuelta, as I have always done”, he says. “My intention is to remain professional until the very last day of my career. Of course, I would also like to enjoy it, but I’m coming here with the ambition of winning the race.”

A platform has been prepared for Friday night’s team presentation in the Jardins de la Fontaine, a picturesque park adorned with ancient statues. The stage is now set for this year’s Vuelta a España…

# More from Dan on Saturday from Nîmes and his full exclusive interview with LottoNl-Jumbo’s Vuelta a España leader, Steven Kruijswijk, on Wednesday. Don’t miss the Vuelta PEZ Preview HERE. Keep it PEZ for everything Vuelta. #

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