Gord Fraser’s Front Row Seat: Recounting the Men’s Olympic Road Race
London marks my return to the Olympic scene. Has it really been 8 years since my inevitably mediocre ride in Athens? That was a race I quickly erased from memory for many reasons. I mean, c’mon. How can a domestic pro who has exactly two, one hour criteriums under his belt in the month leading up to the race possibly compete at 240km with the Tour de France peloton? Big props to Ciaran Power from Ireland who did just that placing an incredible top 20 but for the rest of us it was over when we signed the start sheet. The fact that the race started at 1pm with temps over 100 degrees made the ‘race’ (if you could call it that) even more difficult.
Athens had many upsides. I attended the Greek-USA basketball game; one of the hottest tickets of the entire games. I sat beside fellow athletes and marveled at the passion of the Greek fans. Eventually I introduced myself to some Aussie sitting beside me and it turned out he was the point guard for their team. He was scouting the American dream team as it was his next match. Well, I naturally bragged that I started point guard all through my illustrious high school career and together we dissected the poor defense of both Iverson and Marbury.
After my demise in the road race where my only contribution was to fetch teammate Michael Barry a bottle or two was getting to know my HealthNet trade teammate Jason McCartney a little better. JMac, like myself in Canada, won a dramatic American Olympic Trials race in Redlands that year. Post -Olympic road race he asked me what my plans were which was answered with silence. He then invited me to join his in-laws on the island of Aegina. Since city hotels were booked, it was their only option for games accommodations. So we rode our bikes with backpacks to the ferry for the 45 minute sail and a three day vacation that I’ll never forget. Unbelievable food, riding, camaraderie and above all meeting this wonderful family hold with me to this day.
2012 and I’m experiencing the games from a completely different perspective. As part of the CCC (CyclingCanadaCyclisme) staff I get to finally see all the work that goes on behind the scenes. If I thought directing a pro team was complicated then it has nothing on the amount of details go into preparing a schedule on any training or competition day for an Olympic Team. The extra details revolve entirely on security screening and its time consumption and execution. Allowing extra time everyday for this is crucial.
Leading up to the road race, I was able to ride the recon with Ryder and our three women; Clara, Denise and Joelle. Already the fans were numerous and many local riders were trying to tag along the little groupings of National teams. Our mechanic Chad had to fine tune the front derailleur shifting on Ryder’s machine a few times to perfect its function. A cool moment came when the GB team overtook us. I got an idea on how popular cycling is here in England as the fans went bananas screaming for Cavendish, Froome and of course recent yellow jersey winner Wiggins. As ex-teammates, Ryder slotted in beside the Tour champ and held a chat as CCC boss extraordinaire Jacques Landry and I sat two up behind them. A poignant moment I assure you as not every day you ride behind the winners of the last three grand tours. What strikes first is how similarly lean they are but their styles contrast dramatically. Wiggins comes from the track and has a low torso position and high cadence while Ryder’s mountain bike upbringing may have morphed his more upright and big gear turning.
It was good seeing David Millar. Last time I spoke to him was in his neo pro year in 97 when he was an 18 year old embarking with Cofidis. He certainly looked shocked to see a face from his distant past. Later somehow I ended up next to Wiggins and introduced myself and congratulated him on his recent win. I was surprised when he asked if I rode for Navigators as well as Mercury during my career. Ryder later told me that Wiggins is a keen student of the peloton and does his homework thoroughly.
Our transfer from the posh digs we enjoy at the DeVere Venues in Surrey to the athlete village went relatively smooth. With the road race starting at Buckingham Palace, getting to the venue would be very challenging with dense London traffic. The village lies closer and boasts exclusive Olympic traffic lanes the majority of the route to this famous starting line. With 4 Olympics and 5 Commonwealth Games participations now, I’m used to athlete village life. London is no different. Athletes of all sizes and shapes congregate at the Dining Hall where the food was surprisingly just average. The Canadian tower was tastefully personalized with National treatments. The flag and COC symbol festooned all balconies and windows. A giant Moose at the entry, painted red and a hockey court all helped the nationalistic pride.
After almost passing out due to too many bodies in a crowded manager’s meeting, patience was further tested when the UCI, IOC and LOCOG couldn’t execute the number/transponder distribution on time. Over two hours wasted and excuses given for this inexcusable delay. This is the OLYMPICS after all. We kinda have stuff to do. Since there are 68 countries in the race, the nations fielding smaller squads would have to share cars. It’s not uncommon for there to be 3 or even 4 teams in any given team car. I was hoping we could team up with similar countries like New Zealand, but I would be assigned Russia and Austria. Knowing that a cycling legend Dimitri Konyshev is the Russian boss, I quickly introduced myself and said it would be my pleasure to ride with him. The friendly response said he would rather sit and watch in the feed zone and happily granted me driving duties. His mechanic would backseat and share with his Austrian counterpart.
Day of race and both the Austrian mechanic and I paced the team parking area for what seemed like forever waiting for the Russian car to show up. When it finally did, they neglected to fill the tank with gas. Doing an Olympic road race with half tank is not recommended and I tasked the LOCOG organizers with finding some extra fuel. Needless to say bringing in a tank of gas in a highly secure area was not going to happen. Minor panic ensued but Jacques calmed me to say that the diesel BMW could last the race without going dry.
I took my place waiting the start and no sooner had the caravan turned on the course when a call came for service to Menchov of Russia. Literally, 300 meters in the race and the stubby mechanic was struggling getting Menchov’s spare off the roof. I waited…. And waited…. Laughter from the packed spectators as the stumbling mechanic finally shoved his racer off. Another eternity for him to replace Ryder’s bike on the rack and I’m off burning rubber down the famous Mall doing 90 miles an hour through blind turns by the millions of spectators.
This really couldn’t be happening. I’ve never seen a crowd like this. It was a blur of humanity flashing by my window as I cut apexes hard to keep momentum in the hopes of help pacing Menchov back to the group so his race wasn’t over before it even began. It took me 10 minutes to close the gap-that’s how long this ‘mechanic’ took to get everything properly situated, a foreshadowing moment here unaware at the time. No sooner had I returned to the bunch and the mechanic had given Menchov his original bike’s bottles then Austria is called as Bernard Eisel crashed. We made it up to see Bernie chasing back. No harm no foul but he muttered something like dumb spectator as his surprised look seeing me drive his team car registered.
Menchov must like his spare bike. 15 minutes after gaining the peloton, his number is called over race radio. He is one of 12 riders up the road!!! His teammate Kolobnev drops back to get information. My tardiness in reaching him has evidently perturbed him. After an undistinguishable conversation with the mechanic about the break’s composition and gap, he shakes his head as he pedals back into the field. I look back and the mechanic’s English is now better than I realized. He mutters that Kolobnev is ‘special’ which is international code for asshole.
A peloton size pee break and Ryder floats by. This is the only interaction I have with my rider all day as he snags a bottle. The roads are so narrow and absolutely bursting with humanity on both sides that the UCI Commisaire rejects my request to pass the peloton to see Menchov. In fact, this would be a record; at no point in the entire race would the cars be allowed to pass the peloton.
Everything is backwards. Right hand drive cars (with manuals… WTF??) and left-side caravan and all the riders not knowing which side to stop on. The third Russian racer Isaychev would have a puncture. I gestured repeatedly for him to stop on the left. Evidently my Ruskie sign language is rusty. He stops on right meaning the mechanic gets out in the middle of the road and is immediately almost taken out by a returning rider. Another fumbled wheel change and my rider is off. Some deft pacing and he thumbs up me for the assistance. No Kolobnev this boy.
The race is unfolding and it’s clear the brunt of the work must be done by the favored British team of Cavendish. All the car’s occupants admire the repeated announcements of both Nibali and Gilbert teeing off to make a selection to bridge up the breakaway. They eventually would succeed and the front group is now 22 strong and not a slouch among them. I was begging to hear the 60 called but Ryder was banking on GB’s strength. A sound tactic but not correct this day. 8 more including Cancellara and Valverde would use the final climb to transform the breakaway into a peloton itself with 32 riders. Still no Ryder as the gap was still a remarkably close 1 minute.
The Russian mechanic was growing on me, and we agreed that Cancellara was probably the favorite among the break to take gold. No sooner had we concurred when a crash was announced over race radio. Cancellara would go down by himself and the Swiss would lose two other teammates from the breakaway; Schar and Albasini. Both had been driving the group for their leader. This was an incredible reversal of fortune for Switzerland with only 10km to race.
The gap kept creeping upwards to over a minute and it was now apparent that the British team time trial squad just could not cope with the numbers or horsepower up front. An incredible display nonetheless by their superstars Stannard, Froome, Millar and Wiggins. They came oh so incredibly close from tempo-ing the best peloton on earth to submission all by themselves. Our attention returned up front to hear that Vinokourov and Uran had eked out a ten second advantage. Digesting this news I was vaguely aware of a raucous roar from the crowd when my car drove past. The mechanics both yelled for me to stop. I deciphered that a bike had flown off the roof and immediately I knew it could only be Ryder’s. Evidently my little Russian friend couldn’t and didn’t re-install the bike correctly 5 hours ago. We put the broken Cervelo back on the roof and sped off after the caravan once more.
Vino and Uran would reap the benefits of their audacious move. Gold and silver and a fantastic bronze for Kristoff of Norway while American phenom Taylor Phinney justifies his selection with an impressive fourth place. Great to see Mike Sayers direct an American team who rode with technical precision demonstrated by Duggan and Van Garderen’s sacrifice up front for Phinney while Horner would be plagued with mechanicals all day.
Ryder’s gamble that GB had it under control was echoed by numerous other athletes. I explain to the Canadian press that road cycling is a ‘gray’ and unpredictable sport as evidenced by the tactics that unfolded. We will regroup for the time trial where things are a bit more black and white. No time to rest however as the women’s road race is bright and early tomorrow where we’ll be checking out of the athlete village on the way to the women’s start. It’s been a short stay in London proper, and I’ve had absolutely no time to indulge in any amenities that village life has to offer. It’s all business for Canada now at the Olympics. I like the attitude change as I believe most athletes will perform better with this mindset.
An unbelievable day- witnessed by a non-stop corridor of noise that over one million spectators provided. Tomorrow I will help the staff during pre-race setup and feed zone duties for our women’s team. Yes, being a coach at the Olympics is much different than being an athlete, but I do love wearing the Maple Leaf and the pride my country shows every couple of years whether it’s Olympics or Commonwealth Games. It’s a pride that sometimes recesses living a stone’s throw to the southern border in Tucson but after 8 years I’m glad to say that it has come back just as intense as ever. I’m as big a skeptic to the whole business of this quadrennial event as anyone, but nothing brings a country or even the world closer together then the Olympic Games. I’m honoured and proud to have been a very small piece of it.