Sunday, January 4, 2009

Adventures in Oz II: Meeting Cycling's Greats in Melbourne

It wasn't on the agenda at all. Jeff was revelling in the chance to read a local newspaper over breakfast at our B&B when a story jumped out. It was about Darren Lapthorne, an Aussie cyclist whose sister disappeared without a trace a few months ago after leaving a Yugoslavian nightclub, then turned up dead 3 weeks later. It went on to describe how Darren was the winner last year of the Australian Nationals, i.e. the cycling championship of Australia, and was returning to cycling despite the shock of this tragedy as a way of honoring his sister, whom he described as "his biggest fan." And he was going to do it the next day in a Melbourne suburb. And he was racing against Robbie McEwan, Stuart O'Grady, Baden Cooke and Simon Gerrans.

Blazing Bike Saddles!!! They've just named four of the five most famous Aussie bike racers in the game, all of whom we've watched win stages of the Tour de France in the past few years! OK, guess what we're doing tomorrow?

It was easy getting there using light rail and our weekly transit pass. We walked around the finish line area scoping out where to stand later when the main race would take place, when who is standing in front of us, but PHIL LIGGETT. Phil Who, you're asking? Phil Liggett was a British racer good enough to get into the Tour de France several times three decades ago, but not as one of the dozen or so who have serious hopes or dreams of winning it. But after he retired he began a second career as a commentator, and today he is THE voice of bike racing in the English-speaking world. Listen to a broadcast of any Tour de France (or virtually any other major bike race, for that matter) from the past twenty years, and it is Phil's wonderfully warm voice and boyish excitement that you'll hear. And here he was! Jeff waited a few minutes for him to chat with others, introduced himself, and found out firsthand why Phil is so beloved in cycling circles. He started chatting as if he'd met us many times before, told us more about the race series (this was day 1 of 5), and encouraged us to take the train the next day to Geelong for stage 2 of the race. Geelong is about 3 times as far from downtown, but he said it was on an intercity train line and easy actually to get to. "Oh, it's a great race course they have there, and the town is just nuts for cycle racing." We ended up taking Phil's advice.

There were three races each day, each involving 80 - 100 riders: not-quite-pro men, then pro women, then pro men. They were also on short courses, from 800 meters to 2 km per circuit depending on the day, so you could stand in one spot and actually see a lot of the race. On the 2 km circuit, for example, the men came by every 3 minutes, 20 times in the hour-long race. We watched the first two races that first day, then heard an explanation for why everything was running a bit late: Robbie McEwan and a teammate had had their flight cancelled last minute by the airline, and were coming in via another flight. Since it wasn't their fault, the race organizers agreed to delay the start for them to arrive. Sure enough, a cab drove onto the closed race course in due course, and out popped two riders and their bikes right at the start line. One warm-up lap around the half-mile course for them, the race queued up, and off they all went.

Bike racing isn't just about being the fastest rider. The physics of wind resistance means that you can use about 30% less energy drafting behind someone else, particularly at the high speeds of bike races. This is the main reason why tandems are generally faster than the same two riders on separate bikes. In this racing series each team had 5 riders, and they try to help out the teammate with the skills to go very fast in a sprint finish. For the most part, the riders stay in a bunch, known as the peloton from the French word for "platoon."

Occasionally, of course, someone breaks away at the front, usually not too far from the finish line, and hangs on to win. A 19-year-old woman named Josie Tomic pulled that off in the women's race, and won the stage and the right to wear the yellow jersey the next day as the overall leader. In the men's race a group of four broke away, seen here a few laps from the end, and held the lead right to the finish, though their 25-second lead shrunk to about 1 second as the sprinters mis-timed "the catch," the furious rush to the line that was supposed to slip by the four just before the finish line. Simon Gerrans, whom we saw win a stage of the Tour de France last year, used good tactics to stay behind a few of the others in that group of four until the last few meters, when he pulled around them, sprinted just a bit faster with that saved energy, and won. As he returned a few moments later heading for the podium and his yellow jersey, we caught this shot of Simon getting a "Good On You, Mate!" from a teammate.

With Phil Liggett's encouragement and the excitement of day one spurring us on, we decided that night to attend day two. It did require an hour's train ride down to Geelong, about $9 US each r/t, and we got to see Geelong's unusual bollards all over town on the way to the race. Once again we found spots right on the fence close to the finish line, with the added attraction of being close to Robbie McEwen's team tent. Sure enough the Big Guy showed up, except that he's a pretty short Big Guy. But watch out for him on a bike, he's won over 180 bike races (most professionals are lucky if they win a two or three dozen in their entire career), including 12 stages (day's ride) of the Tour de France. Put a bike between his legs and he's one of the fastest people on the planet!

Superhero of cycling that he is, the poor guy had a crowd watching his every move, but he took it in stride, signed a few autographs and posed for a few photos -- including yours truly once again -- and headed out for a better warm up than the day before. Meantime the women took off on their race, and as you can see they're every bit as intense as they guys. It was a great finish, with Kirsty Broun seen here edging out the previous day's winner of the green jersey for best sprinting and the yellow jersey holder, young Josie Tomic. Later in the awards ceremony, they announced that all three were tied for overall points as race leader, so they spontaneously held hands and raised their arms together as joint winners. The ruling was that the winner that day would get the yellow jersey and the bottle of champagne, and Kirsty showed she knew how to handle the bubbly just like the boys do at the Tour de France.

As the men's race was almost set to go, we saw another superstar getting interviewed, Stuart O'Grady, but alas it was not his day, or Robbie's, or Simon's. There was a classic rush to the finish by all the hot shot riders pulling forward out of the peloton, and this day the gods were shining on Graeme Brown, here getting his own post-race interview. Robbie McEwen came in third, however, and the local announcer asked him about that on the awards podium where the top finishers and jersey winners get recognition. He said he had to let Graeme win once in a while. By the way, on the way to the stage Robbie set his bike down near us, and any of our readers who are bike techie, you may want to click on the photo to enlarge it and check it out.

We have been sightseeing in Melbourne and in fact are now heading down The Great Ocean Road, a famous route along the south coast of Victoria, but we'll save our non-bike-related tourism for the next blog. Happy trails 'til then.

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