Archive for April, 2011

We Can Meet Heroes

April 27, 2011

Words: Guy Andrews Photos: Wig Worland

Eddy Merckx won 525 races.

Most professional riders are lucky if they win one.  And he is, as we all know, the greatest cyclist that will ever live. For this reason alone he is at the top of any cyclists’ list as the number one – the cycling hero to top all cycling heroes. So what’s a man so super-human really like? Finding that out is no small challenge. Eddy is an interesting foil for journalists: not that he’s impolite or terse or difficult or anything, really. He’s just – as the gentlemen of the press will tell you – ‘a bit tricky’. I’ve met him a few times and so it’s hard to fathom why I can’t seem to get him talking. He’s just a man after all. I’m not blaming him – he’s a nice guy, Eddy. It’s clearly my problem and a strange one at that, because you usually can’t shut me up. But when Eddy Merckx shakes my hand I just can’t get the words out… He won Milan-San Remo seven times, the first time at 20 years of age. Just a man, then, Eddy Merckx.

By matter of contrast Italo Zilioli was one of those riders who, by the sounds of it, rode a bike pretty much for fun. He was unlucky in that he was born into a time when the world was rich in cycling talent, but he doesn’t seem to mind: he’s happy to have been there even if it was on the second rung of the ladder and often in the shadow of his Belgian colleague.

And these men agreed, through many strings pulled, mainly by the Sykes and Peracino contingent, to come to the inaugural Rouleur Supper Club, to help us launch Herbie’s new book, Maglia Rosa. I had to write that down, just to prove to myself that it actually happened… Eddy turned up, he brought Signor Zilioli, his best friend in cycling, and Phil Liggett managed to stop them behaving like a couple of overactive school kids long enough for them to chat to our eager audience. Brilliant.

By his own admission Herbie Sykes was never much of a bike rider. However he is a great writer about bike riders as his latest work, Maglia Rosa, shows. Herbie pursued Giro winners all over Italy to tell the story of this great race, then tracked some down a second time to get them to sign the special editions – such is Herbie’s unquenchable dedication to the Giro and all things Italian.

Phil Liggett didn’t win many races either, but he can claim to have raced with Eddy, which in itself is palmares enough. As a journalist he’s been slightly more successful. One of his trade secrets is the unrivaled ability to get people to open up. I’ve had the dubious honour of sharing a few racing experiences with Mr. Liggett and for anyone wanting to have a stab at journalism, it’s an education. He has this extraordinary knack of sticking at his subject no matter how closed the interviewee may be and relentlessly pursuing, often making fun of them in the process, until he gets his answer. So when Eddy Merckx is on top billing, it’s better that Phil does the talking…

As the night progressed we learnt that Eddy Merckx and Italo Zilioli were more that mere racing acquaintances. These two were best pals when they were racing and it still shows. And it showed best earlier in the evening as they signed copies of Maglia Rosa before last night’s supper at the Blueprint Café. It’s a bit like watching two kids on the back seat of a school bus – punching one another and laughing. A close and enduring friendship made on the road regardless of any hierarchy, status or power.

I’m not sure if you should or shouldn’t meet your heroes, but noticing that they’re enjoying being out in London, and happiest in the company of fellow cyclists, makes you realise we’re all just a big band of brothers and sharing the experiences, albeit of those at the sharper end of the sport, has a strange way of bonding us closer together. That may sound a bit corny, but as one of our guests, Alan Sandell, who was more than happy to have met his ‘hero’ last night, told me as he left :

“I grew up with Eddy.”

Prima Tappa

April 19, 2011

Eddy Merckx and Italo Zilioli come to London next week to help celebrate the launch of Maglia Rosa – triumph and tragedy at the Giro d’Italia by Rouleur regular Herbie Sykes. In this extract, Merckx wins his first stage in the Italian race. Look out, world…

Vincenzo Giacotto, the former manager of Carpano, called his old friend Nino Defilippis and told him to meet him on the road to Cervinia, at the foot of the Matterhorn. Charged by Faema, the coffee machine manufacturer, with building a new team after a four year hiatus from the sport, Giacotto was in need of a Giro winner. He had a hunch. It was the spring of 1967.

The formidable, precocious young Belgian, Eddy Merckx, already being touted as ‘the new Rik Van Looy’ for his extraordinary strength in the single day classics, was the hottest property in world cycling. Merckx, his contract with the French bicycle manufacturer Peugeot due to expire at the season’s end, had greatly impressed Giacotto with an outstanding performance at Paris – Nice. A former World amateur champion and already a big winner amongst the professionals, Merckx found himself paying his own expenses at Peugeot. He’d sought to renegotiate but no avail; the winner of Milan – Sanremo continued to buy his own tyres from the local bike shop.

He’d come today because he knew that Italian cycling was better paid, and because he was anxious to meet Giacotto, about whom he’d heard great things from the Belgians he’d managed at Carpano. Almost to a man they had said he was progressive, clever and honest, unusual qualities in the arcane, often grubby world of professional cycling. For his part Giacotto had gotten it into his head that if he could get the youngster to, as he put it, ‘think Italian’, he could challenge Gimondi, considered now the world’s best cyclist, at the Giro.

Defilippis, twice maglia tricolore and formerly Giacotto’s Captain on the road at Carpano, agreed to meet his old boss, though in truth he’d pretty well lost interest in cycling since his retirement. What he saw as Merckx powered his way up the mountain, though, had him agog at his untapped climbing brilliance, and would re-ignite his interest in racing. More immediately though it had him, and Giacotto, scratching about under their car seats, desperate to have Merckx sign something which might constitute, in some way, a pre-contract. The back of a cigarette packet, anything…

Keen to impress his would-be employers, Merckx performed expertly at his first grand tour, the 1967 Giro. When Zilioli attacked on the big mountain stage to Block Haus, he confounded expectation by first following and then dropping him to claim his first Giro stage win. The Gazzetta opined that ‘…our climbers were embarrassed by a Belgian sprinter.’ They, and their scalatori, need get used to the idea. Merckx won again two days later, this time a bunch gallop at the seaside, and would finish ninth on general classification without apparently giving it much thought. In so doing he seemed to confirm Giacotto’s perspicacity. That he possessed bludgeoning strength, a prerequisite for winning the classics, had never been at issue, but he was a tremendous, bullying climber as well, and could time trial with the best. Here indeed was a potential Giro contender.

On Friday 2 September 1967 Edouard Louis Joseph Merckx signed, for 400,000 Belgium Francs a year, a three year contract with Faema; it represented an increase in salary of over 300 per cent. The following day, across the Dutch border at Harleen, he celebrated. In outsprinting the local favourite, Jan Janssen, he become only the second man in history to claim both amateur and professional versions of the world title. Thus, by the time he arrived at Faema’s winter training camp on the Ligurian coast, 22-year-old Merckx had won not only the great Ardennes classic Flêche – Wallonne and Milan – Sanremo (twice), but had handed Giacotto, on a plate, the rainbow jersey of the World champion. It had been a decent day’s work at Cervinia…

Merckx made for the partenza of the Giro with an impressive Spring campaign under his belt. As the peloton barrelled towards the finish of stage one, beneath the Novara’s giant Basilica of San Gaudenzio, the sprinters had themselves in position, entirely as forecast in view of the flatness of the percorso. Two kilometres from the line, however, Merckx bolted, and held off the lot of them to win by six seconds. His was an extraordinary feat of speed and strength, but categorically not the action of a rider intent on winning a three week stage race. Guido Reybrouck, Faema’s designated sprinter, was aghast, Pifferi, Basso and the rest of the Giro’s velocisti humiliated. For his part a delighted Eddy Merckx, the new maglia rosa of the Tour of Italy, didn’t really understand what all the fuss was about. Vincenzo Giacotto simply shrugged his shoulders; this Merckx was something, wasn’t he?

Merckx’ show of force had the media speculating, quite reasonably, that he was at the Giro in search of stage wins, and to a degree they were right. There had been a stage to win, he had won it, and now there were another 21 to try to win before the Giro finished. The next day he went out and won again, this time in the mountains of Aosta. As he made his way towards the podium Merckx was grabbed by a TV reporter from RAI;

‘Bravo Eddy, did you always have it in mind to go for the win today?’

‘Why do you ask me that? Why do you think I’m here? To watch the others win?’

The Pavé Buzz

April 13, 2011

Words: Ian Cleverly  Images: Kadir Guirey

I have seen my team win at Wembley – and lose, for that matter. I have witnessed the Tour de France at close quarters on many occasions: from the roadside, inside a team car, in the mountains, on the flat, at the finish.

But nothing – and I mean nothing – comes close to the experience of seeing Paris-Roubaix in the flesh. Standing amidst the crowd at the top of the banking in the velodrome, applauding each and every finisher of this true monument of a race with equal enthusiasm to that accorded winner Johan Van Summeren, brought a tear to the eye that caught me totally unawares.

It was hastily wiped away. Pull yourself together. Man up. That is no way for a Millwall supporter to behave.

The thing was, I had no intention of being in the stadium for the finish. Lazing by a sector of pavé with a picnic and a cold bottle of Duvel was the plan, but the offer of a ride with Team Europcar was too good to be missed (thank you, Richard Goodwin from Hutchinson for sorting). Having the team doctor, Hubert, at the wheel seemed like no bad thing. Being a nervy passenger no matter how many times I travel in the race convoy, the imagination runs riot when you are hurtling across the cobbles in a dust storm, just feet away from the preceding car. I figured we were in safe hands with the good doctor. Or as safe as could be reasonably expected under the circumstances.

First stop was the feed zone at Solesmes, home to Rue Jean Stablinski (as I discovered while wandering around), the former miner and World Champion whose bright idea it was to include the tortuous Arenberg Forest in the parcours. Nice one, Jean.

No major dramas at the feed and Europcar were happy enough, with their Canadian David Veilleux sitting pretty in the break, so we stormed ahead to Sector 19 at Quérénaing à Maing, held up wheels and bottles and hoped the wheels would not be needed. Any rider requiring mechanical assistance from this ham-fisted, left-handed luddite would have to be desperate.

The editor, meanwhile, had taken a more relaxed approach to the art of Paris-Roubaix watching. Guy was holed up in a well-appointed camper van with Rouleur’s good friend Kadir Guirey, enjoying the spectacle at the relatively quiet Sector 11 at Bersée. He’s done the whole chasing around from point to point thing enough times before, so decided to park up and take it all in. Good call.

The second feed zone, coming some way after Arenberg, saw a dramatically changed field of riders passing through. Most of the pre-race favourites had hauled themselves into contention. A succession of smaller groups, caked in dust and grime, reached out for musettes and pressed on, knowing they were effectively out of the race, yet determined to finish. A battered and bruised Geraint Thomas, a solitary figure in the no-man’s land of Northern France, pushed on regardless. There goes my £10 bet…

Another mad dash cross-country (with just the one near-miss exiting the motorway) and we were in the velodrome in time for the finish, Van Summeren pushing for all he was worth whilst trying to keep on the blue interior band of the track due to his flat tyre, Cancellara and co entering just half a lap adrift.

I’m still buzzing four days later. And planning next year’s trip. Now, where’s the number for that camper van hire company?

Spare a thought for the spanners…

April 7, 2011

Leopards on the cobbles

The week between Flanders and Roubaix seems harmless enough. Scheldeprijs was a welcome added distraction and the balmy spring sunshine has been a bonus. We are sharing a very comfortable hotel with the Leopard-Trek team and sitting in the breakfast room with Cancellara and co isn’t so bad…

Easy life for some, but the team mechanics are having less of a relaxing time – parked outside our bedroom window is the Leopard mechanics’ huge work truck, a wonder of modern coach fitting with a better equipped kitchen than most of us have at home and a workshop that I can only dream about. I just wouldn’t want the job to go along with it.

The chainrings are changed for Roubaix's flat but ferocious parcours - usually 53x44 or 46

Between Flanders and Roubaix, the bikes change completely, and it’s more than the wheels and tyres getting switched, too: this is full-scale rebuild time. Leopard’s mechanics, Roon and Roger, work 18-hour days to get the 16 special Trek Madone’s prepped for the Enfer du Nord. For the mechanics it’s been relentless – the back of the truck is open before I draw the curtains in the morning. And we’ve been out for a ride, had dinner and chatted in the bar until late and they’re still at it when we head off to bed.

Leopard’s Trek Madone bikes have longer wheelbases and added clearance for 27mm tyres that have the look of tractor tyres compared to the usual race rubber. Trek has done this by simply altering the shape and design of a longer rear dropout, so that the tyres will clear the brake bridge and seat tube. The forks are different too, with a longer rake for safe steering on the cobbles. The rest of the frame is standard geometry and the components are no-nonsence stuff. I’m happy to report the wheels are all of the standard handbuilt 32-hole variety, all apart from Cancellara’s that is, but I guess he knows what he’s doing…

The Leopard riders trained on the course today and looked in fine form at breakfast this morning. As former winners, Fabian Cancellara and Stuart O’Grady looked pretty relaxed about it all, although Wouter Weylandt looked less comfortable with some serious road rash after his pile-up at the Scheldeprijs yesterday, but he was out at the truck, first thing, asking Roger what tyres they were running and, later on in training, staying with the team until the last sector. Tough fella, Wouter.

Trek Madone, Roubaix-style

Not such a great day for team Rouleur however, as Leopard slipped through Mons en Pevele like it was a country stroll, our tired and less than tough little car smashed into a large hole as we hotly pursued them, and now a worrying drip has developed from the engine bits. I can’t really ask Roger to take a look as he’s still sticking tyres – they still haven’t stopped, they’re out there now, with Slayer and the Sex Pistols firing out of the stereo, so I’m off to find a garage that works as late as he does.

Roll on Sunday.

The tubular of choice

Arenberg awaits...