Thursday 15 March 2007

"He's Not Going to Make It!"--My Day Riding the 2001 Tour of Germany

The Deutschland-Tour has, since its inception in 1999, come to be regarded an excellent one-week pro stage race and has moved up in importance in the racing calendar. Here is my account of my participation in the third edition of this race, back before I knew anything about racing. This was the only timed event in which I participated during my four years in Germany.

Tuesday, May 29, 2001

Swans On the Alster, Hamburg

Having seen Germany's national bicycle stage race start in Berlin its first year (1999) and end in Berlin its second (2000), I was shocked to see that it would not be coming anywhere near the capital this year, meaning my perfect attendance record would be broken. But not to worry: I signed up to actually ride the first stage of the race this year, beginning in Hamburg and going around 96 kms to Uelzen, wherever that might be. This is the Jedermann Tour (Everyman Tour), something that seems to becoming quite popular in this country.

Warehouse District, Hamburg

Before a professional race, amateurs are allowed to go over part of the same route, enjoying the closed-off roads and police support. The distance is, of course, much shorter, but the riders still have to maintain a reasonable speed. Although the professionals start several hours later, it would not take them long to catch up to someone rolling along leisurely at 15 km/h, for example. Our official goal for the ride was an average 29-30 km/h. Although I know that you can go much faster in a group and especially without having to worry about traffic, I was a bit concerned about maintaining the average for what would really be 103 kms. In my standard 32 km training ride in Berlin, I have yet to do it at an average of 30 km/h. Anyway, I figured that in the 1,000 riders who had signed up for the Jedermann Tour stage, there had to be some others even slower than me.

The Rathaus, Hamburg

After my soggy walking tour of Hamburg the day before, I was of course very worried that there would be terrible weather for the ride, but in spite of heavy clouds, there were patches of sunlight shining in the window when I woke up. Getting ready and repacking all my stuff so the essentials fitted into the cloth bag the organizers gave me, I took my leave of my Hamburg hosts by 8 am.

I had a very pleasant ride along the bike path following the Alster River. I crossed under the Kennedy Brücke and then rode along the Binnenalster. Hamburg is really very compact and it was only a few minutes of riding before I passed the Rathaus and was at Möckenbergstrasse. It was all cordoned off and there were already a lot of riders around, even though we were not scheduled to leave for another hour.

As is usually the case with these events, nobody seemed to know anything but I eventually found the correct big yellow Deutsche Post truck where I could leave my bag of clothing. The first two trucks were for the roughly 300 riders who were doing the whole Jedermann Tour, with stages of the Deutschland Tour every day from May 29 until June 4. The organizers put up the Jedermann riders in a hotel and transport their bikes to the start each day. They have to pay a fair amount for this but they get VIP treatment compared to the miserable likes of me, who only do a single stage. For people wanting to only do single stages, there were three opportunities to do this, but the Hamburg one was the opening day of the race.

By 9 am, we were all in position on the Möckernbergstrasse. First came the Promis, celebrity riders like the German defence minister, Rudolf Scharping, who has actually written a book about a bike tour he did following the course of the Tour de France, and other people who probably were not sure which end of the bike was at the front. Then came the multi-stage amateurs, then the One Day Wonders, including yours truly.

At 9:10 we thought we heard a starting pistol go off, but it was just someone's tire exploding, probably from over-enthusiastic inflation. What an awful thing to happen five minutes before your ride! Anyway, five minutes later, the gun actually did go off and, with a huge collective cheer, we rode out of Hamburg.

The oldest part of Hamburg

This took a while since the first seven kilometers were "neutralized," meaning that you were only supposed to ride at a relaxed pace as you went through the city streets with the big group. We were cruising along at a very sedate 24 km/h or so, leaving me with plenty of opportunity to look around again at Hamburg. We covered much of the same ground I had done the day before, including passing by the warehouse district. Soon we were crossing a big bridge over the Elbe on the outskirts of the city. Well, not crossing is more accurate as everything came to a stop because it was a lift bridge and we all had to wait for it to come down again. There was a strong breeze on the bridge, but it was not bad as it was blowing crossways.

Once rolling again, we soon reached a sign marked Kilometer 07.5 kms from where we started-- and now things began to happen. Instead of the constant stop and go of the big group, the peloton gradually spread out as everyone found a comfortable pace and a suitable group with which to ride. There were police motorcycles everywhere and all the cross streets had been sealed off, so we quickly were able to raise our speed. We passed little towns, where it seemed as if everyone there had come out to cheer us on. I particularly liked the fact that all the primary schools had let their children out to watch and they were particularly enthusiastic.

We followed the same route the professionals would do later in the day (they would leave at 11:00), riding through the small towns of Bullenhausen, Winsen and Wittorf, passing by farms advertising potatoes for sale and riding along the edge of the Elbe in places. The towns are very orderly and almost all the buildings are made with the distinctive dark brown brick so prevalent in Northern Germany, as well as in Holland.

For most of the ride, we enjoyed a tailwind, but when the road turned we paid for it with a quite gusty headwind. I had been riding with a student from Hannover at a strong pace, but I was not prepared for the headwind when it came and I had to fall back and find a group where I could find some shelter and recover, so I let him go on alone.

Many of the small towns have traffic-calming features, such as islands that divide the lanes into boulevards or planted areas that stick out of the sides. Of course, when you are travelling on a bicycle at a rate probably faster than the local cars, you have to be especially vigilant of these hazards. At one point just ahead of us, two riders collided when one moved to the centre of the road too quickly, and they both went down. This is the only crash I have seen on all these rides, but I was reminded yet again how quickly it can happen.

At 62 kms I was starting to feeling the distance and the pace, but as we rode through Lüneburg, there was a huge crowd lining the street and cheering us on. I had taken some Hammer Gel a bit earlier and with all the people shouting, I could feel the power coming back into my legs and I once again cranked up the speed. I tore through the middle of town at nearly 40 km/h, passing under the sign for the sprint bonuses that the pros would earn later.

From the point on, the road became a little hillier and in each town and village, there were more and more people. After a short but sharp hill at around 72 km, I was a little winded when I got to the top and I heard one spectator say "He's not going to make it." And he was talking about me! Of course, 100 meters further and I was fully recovered and winding up the big gears again. There was a long gentle downhill followed by a long gentle uphill and I felt so good that I did both parts in the big chainring, climbing past all sorts of struggling cyclists. This was the ideal kind of hill for me where my power overcomes my weight, but I was still surprised when I got to the top and there was a banner for climbing points! I knew that there was one 100 m hill to do on the otherwise flattish stage, but this was certainly easier than the Havelchausee in Berlin, which is much steeper but only 78 m. I decided that this was not the threatened hill, but only an introductory climb.

Of course, I was having so much fun that I do not notice that I had ridden right by the food stop. I had caught up to the student from Hannover again and he told me this, but it did not matter as I had plenty to eat and drink with me and was riding at a very comfortable albeit fast pace.

At 90 kms, the children were shouting encouragement and telling us that there were only 14 kilometers to go. Soon there was a sign to Uelzen showing that it was only 9 kms ahead. I had been riding with several groups, gradually riding ahead and joining the next one, but now I found myself alone, riding through a pine forest. The road was excellent and I felt strong, so I decided to ride the last stretch as if it was a time trial. Riding in the drops with my head down, I quickly found myself maintaining a very steady 39 km/h, both up and down hill and quickly overtaking anyone else. Someone on a nice Bianchi passed me and I drafted him for a while, but when I moved to the front, he could not keep pace at all.

Finally we reached the outskirts of Uelzen and I could feel my legs finally start to tighten up as the lack of food began to hit home. I geared down and kept a more relaxed pace. Now the crowds really began to appear and there were barriers on both sides of the street. At this moment, somebody passed me and said "Let's sprint for it!" as the finish line was in sight. He took off, but I could not respond anymore, so I just increased my speed a little and let him go. It did not matter; the crowd would have cheered wildly even if I had pushed my bike down the street. But I had certainly not walked my bike anywhere: my average speed for 103 kms was 32.2 km/h, which amazed me. Considering our slow start, I probably was averaging 34 from Kilometer 0. The ride took me 3 hours and 10 minutes, an excellent effort, but shows just what you can do with no traffic, a police escort and fast drafting.

Our instructions were to continue to the sports hall further down the road, which we found very easily. I grabbed my clothing bag and went for a shower, after turning in my transponder and receiving my little Deutschland Tour participant pin. Needless to say, the showers were pretty busy, but nobody spent too long under the water, since it only came in the cold--ice cold--variety. After getting dressed I picked up my stuff and was about to go outside to reorganize everything, when I saw the bathroom and a chance to brush my teeth. I put down the bag and popped in to use the sink, but when I came out, the bag was gone! With my wallet, credit cards, house key and train ticket. Not to mention my special shoes, my bike computer and so forth.

Spaghetti time!

After looking around fruitlessly, I went to the organizers and told them that it appeared somebody had taken my bag by mistake and that if anyone turned it in, I would come back and pick it up. I visited the pin officials and the bag officials and even talked to a policeman. If nothing showed up, I would need a police report of some kind so that I could get a train back to Berlin. With no money or keys, I was really stuck. I went back to the bathroom twice more to check, but no luck.

Third time lucky, though and there it was. Obviously, somebody had picked up the wrong bag since they all look the same except for the felt penned number on the side. There were bikes worth thousands of D-Marks sitting everywhere, unlocked, so it did not make sense that somebody would run off with my wet laundry. My biggest worry was that they would not have noticed it was the wrong bag until they had driven home to wherever. Anyway, crisis resolved and I went off to enjoy a lunch of pasta and tomato sauce in a much-improved frame of mind.

I was disappointed that I had missed seeing the pros as it was already 13:30. Throwing my bag over my shoulder and wheeling my bike, I decided to go to the train station and see if I could not get an earlier train than my scheduled 17:30 one but as I approached the main road I saw a police motorcyclist waiting at the intersection and lots of my fellow riders lining the street. I quickly got into a good position and waited with my camera. Five minutes later, the full professional peloton came into view, moving at fairly high speed. I managed to snap three fast pictures, but I have no idea who I got on there. The Telekom contingent included Erik Zabel and Steffen Wesemann, Mapei was led by Michele Bartoli, Michael Boogerd for Rabobank and even Alex Zülle was there for Coast. These are all among the very best riders in the world. Many of the other good riders, including Jan Ullrich, were in Italy for the Giro, but the German organizers still had an impressive turnout.

After everyone rode by and the support cars followed, the whole circus vanished, off to Hanover, the goal for the end of the day. The pros were riding double our distance and tomorrow they would be challenged by fierce climbing in the Harz Mountains. At least my record of seeing the Deutschland Tour was intact!

Church doorway, Uelzen

I walked into Uelzen and looked around. Locking up the bike on one of the many bike racks present, I bought a great cherry and banana ice cream cone and strolled around the city. Uelzen has quite a few very old building, including three that I saw that dated from the 14th Century, including the big church. The buildings use bricks and their facades have a very distinctive style. There is also a very nice pedestrian mall.

Shopping in Uelzen

I watched as the Deutschland Tour volunteers disassembled the barriers and took down their signs. It is clearly a big and complex logistical project each day. I took a few pictures and then went to the train station to see about getting out of town.

The station is very interesting in that it is the last artwork of the Austrian artist Friedensreich (also called "Fritz") Hundertwasser (1928-2000). In fact, the building was completed after his death from his detailed drawings. They have taken a rather ordinary brick station and turned it into something quite startling. Hundertwasser liked organic curves and bright colours. It almost resembles something like a modern Art Nouveau and it very cheerful. According to a magazine article I read, it was done for Expo 2000 and cost in the order of 15 million DM to redo the station. It is certainly unique, with its brick mosaics and blue glass columns.

I left Uelzen on an earlier train and went to Stendal. Another rider was on the train with me and we had a nice chat. I was a little worried that I might have a problem on my next train since I did not have a bike reservation since I was early, but on a Tuesday afternoon, not many people are out touring, so I had the whole bike compartment to myself. An hour after leaving Stendal and I was back at Bahnhof Zoo and then home.

Except for the awful rain during my sightseeing in Hamburg, I had had a very enjoyable weekend and a most pleasant ride. My performance at the end was so good that I will turn my workouts a little more towards time trialling, which I seem to have some talent for, unlike most other aspects of competitive cycling. Everyone was very nice, both riders and spectators. I particularly liked the lady on the sidewalk who, on seeing my Maple Leaf jersey, shouted out "Look! Even the Canadians are here!" Here, and even able to keep up.

(I have just checked my official results: My time over the course was 2:47:42.1, giving me an average speed of 33.81 km/h. I was 30 minutes behind the fastest hobby rider and had a final classification of 515th place. Not impressive to you, maybe, but I was not really going all out either. In my age group, I would rank 67th, which is pretty good since many of the others are serious club racers.)