Day 1. Prequel – the Travelogue
This isn’t a confessional. Nor is it therapy.
Focus on the cycling. Focus on the cycling.
But in the beginning, there was none. It was the night before… as the saying goes. It started with a narrowly avoided panic attack in the aisle seat (22C) of a KLM plane, next to a quiet but polite guy with a beard who asked for a cup of tea as his complimentary drink with a Dutch accent while I was clamouring for beer. Perhaps for him a nostalgic holding on to a trip or stay now at an end. For me, an admission of self-medication, as my heart and stomach leapt a fraction of a second behind the plane, juddering through the lumpen British clouds, my brain dancing its usual overthinking Irish jig. Irish because nothing else makes that much agitated movement but yet appears so (almost) serene on the outside.
My shaking fingers gripped my book a little too tightly, clammy fingertips fumbling the pages as I turned them. ‘The Beast, the Emperor and the Milkman’ by Harry Pearson. Reading about the cold, Belgian winter while the blinding sunlight seared my retinas in late summer striking a discordant note, yet somehow a comforting distraction.
And so, to land. A smooth transition, pushing down the fear and going through the motions. Pass through passport control. Buy a train ticket. Find the platform.
As the sun pondered its descent over the outskirts of Amsterdam, making up its mind as I drew closer to Utrecht, my nerves sank with it.
I was in one of the most relaxed countries for the start of the most relaxed grand tour. Channel it.
Anxiety doesn’t fit with the Vuelta. And honestly, I can’t imagine a place where I could have walked alone at night through bustling streets and felt so immediately at ease, the tempting scents of grilled fish mingling with cigarette smoke as the shouts and laughter embraced locals and travellers alike.
That was until I remembered I had forgotten my plug adaptor.
Spiralling into sweaty-palmed panic I surrendered to the familiarity of McDonalds and pondered what I’d become, eating cardboard fries in a country where I could get the real authentic version if I looked a little harder while experiencing a minor existential crisis over my reliance on technology.
Piece by piece I talked myself down and made my way to my accommodation via a circuitous route, accidentally taking in the finish of tomorrow’s first stage and feeling strangely detached. As though this wasn’t the real thing; merely set dressing for a dress rehearsal. Not reality. Not mine, at least. The hoardings and red signage ignored by the few passers-by I encountered, a weird, empty façade of something long gone rather than a promise of what was to come.
I followed the Oudegraacht canal – hours earlier home to barges full of pro teams, fans crowding along the railings to greet them, now just echoes swept away on the current – away from the bustle of the dual-level city nightlife and onto a tree-lined street, devoid of lighting, dodging bicycles and mopeds as I prayed the keys in my possession would fit a lock somewhere along here. They did.
I melted onto my terrace facing nothing but the backs of rooves, the privacy a comfort, with the start list for the race spread out in front of me. I stared at the names and willed myself to jot down witticisms but my pen remained lidded on the table. I didn’t know anything. I was out of place.
I got changed and headed out again, chasing the rising clamour of good times being had. I chose a seat in the window and drank a beer and clammed up over ordering in Dutch but said ‘dank je wel’ about 100 times. I alternated between gripping my phone to stay connected, with the communities nestled within its bright screen and satisfying weight, and people-watching: the throngs of young people going about their exciting lives blithely unaware, or uncaring perhaps, that a bike race was about to descend. There was a stubborn continuity to the party, as though it had been going on long before the part-time fans arrived, and would carry on long after they drifted away again. The party in Utrecht is a perma-party.
I wandered home, a piece that didn’t fit into the puzzle yet. I turned on the TV and watched Friends and couldn’t sleep. Tomorrow, at least, there would be cycling.
Day 2. Stage 1: The TTT
Write about the bike race. Write about the bike race. Write about the bike race.
The mantra that’s supposed to keep me on track while I reflect upon the past 24 hours, and yet, the racing itself represents a tiny portion of what I’ve experienced on my Vuelta trip, and actually, it’s not really what I’m driven to write about.
The day started with sun, as we wandered along the course, took in the start ramp and the print on the tarmac that announced the transfers of Dylan van Baarle and Wilco Kelderman to Jumbo-Visma. Took in the long train of team buses (minus Jumbo Visma who were mysteriously absent), and felt the first spits of rain as clouds drew in ominously, and leaned over the barriers as the teams rolled out for their warm-ups. It was the best view we’d have of them all day (Jumbo-Visma once again, were absent – ‘fashionably late’ would be their vibe the whole weekend).
There’s a peculiar reality to face when you choose to watch a bike race in person. You are accepting that you will see little to none of the racing itself. You are surrendering your understanding of the overall situation to gain a slice of the atmosphere; instead of analysing aero positions, and watching clocks tick down from the comfort of your sofa, you are choosing the experience – to ‘be there’ and tick something off some list – ‘first time in a city/country’, ‘first time at a particular race.’ The social aspects that come with it, at the expense of well, your actual money.
It takes on a whole new significance when – sometimes – you’re actually paid to write about this sport.
As it is, I’m not working, and I can’t lie, it’s led to some major existential questioning as I have had to remind myself every five minutes ‘I’m on holiday’ to avoid feeling like an outsider. I reflected on the fact that I’m here as a fan – and it’s because I’m a fan that people read and enjoy my writing on the subject. So this piece comes from that place – where I started – and where I remain, regardless of whether or not I’m being paid for my opinion or my knowledge.
If I was offered a last-minute assignment to write about yesterday’s team time trial, I could wax lyrical about the broader picture – the poignancy of the moment when Robert Gesink donned the red jersey; the significance of Jumbo-Visma crossing the line all together – the collective gasp and healthy dose of schadenfreude as Ineos posted a time one second faster than QuickStep, the latter complete with their aero snoods. But I would need to re-watch the entire thing to provide an accurate report as to how the whole thing actually went down.
It reminds you of the double-edged sword of sports broadcasting – the way you are bound by what the broadcaster chooses to focus on; the way they choose to edit their programme. From the angles they select, to the teams they linger over, to the stories they miss entirely. When you’re there on the ground you have a small inkling of this, if you happen to be standing near a big screen, but you absorb other things. You interact directly with elements of the sport, whether it be locking eyes with a rider as they warm up and trying to work out what’s going through their heads – the dead stare of Marc Soler enough to chill you to the core, witnessing an impromptu Cofidis team meeting (and trying to decipher the French that it was conducted in), or wondering if Thibaut Pinot was looking pointedly at you, or in fact simply contemplating how his team managed to end up on stage in the first place.
You can laugh and wave as the BikeExchange boys troop off-stage, Luke Durbridge conducting the crowd with enthusiastic gestures. They’ve spent the large part of their time in the ‘hotseats’ not sitting on the actual seats, preferring to perch on the edge of the stage with their legs dangling like school boys as they studied the screen to see who would knock them from their perch, with as much keen-eyed enthusiasm, more actually, than the crowd that watched them do it
You can run from start to finish – quite literally as they are just 100m or so apart – and lean over to take a photo as teams streak past, not really considering for a moment how much better it would look if you just took a screenshot from the footage – the same footage everyone else at home is watching. Yet they can’t hear the sound of the wheels on the tarmac, amplified eightfold as the teams whip along in formation, the whirring of the aero wheels on the smooth roads like a quiet song, an eight-part harmony of technical wizardry and physical prowess.
You can give yourself over to the moment – the ‘being there’ of it all. The sights, sounds, smells and tastes of an unfamiliar city, the shared experiences with other like-minded individuals.
The real emotions of the moment, as Jumbo Visma’s Robert Gesink was able to step up onto the stage to don the red leader’s jersey, the appreciation for a Dutch servant of a Dutch team, in a Dutch grand tour opening, made all the more significant as I was surrounded by ‘home’ fans, and theicing on the cake, watching his two gorgeous children just a few metres away, joined by team boss Richard Plugge who crouched down next to them, sharing in their pride. The crowd cheered his name in a relay with the compere, and the obvious joy of his team mates, sharing in his special moment, well… there are tears, yes. The gathering and release of tension, not just from the race itself, but from the last few days of stress and anxiety.
The crowds disperse in every direction and my companions and I drift off to find food and celebrate an enjoyable day. Back at the hotel I think about watching the stage, so I can gain some perspective on the broader context of the race, but tiredness has tracked me down and I give in. Mañana…
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