Flashback – Koen De Kort Column (RIDE #54)

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RIDE Media has produced the official Tour de France Guide (Australian edition) since 2003. The 2012 edition will be on sale mid-June. During the production period, we will be looking back at certain features from over the years.

Argos-Shimano wasn’t at the 2011 Tour, but the team’s Koen De Kort wrote about life inside a Grand Tour for RIDE Cycling Review (#54).

tg-team2011-argThe Vuelta from the Inside

Rather than offering just another race report from a first-hand perspective, our Dutch columnist reflects on various aspects that stood out after completing his third Grand Tour: heat, food, drinks, transfers, crowds, politics, fun… etc.

More and more often I read or hear people call me “The experienced Koen de Kort”. I have even heard them call me “a veteran” on several occasions. Not too long ago I was the young Dutch rider who started off with a Spanish team, moved on via Kazakhstan and Switzerland to a team from the Netherlands the last three years. I guess looking at it that way you could say I’m quite experienced, maybe even a veteran, at my 29 years of age with seven years of professional cycling under my belt. Even so, the Vuelta a España was a race I had no previous experience with.

I have lived large parts of the season in Spain now for six years, rode for a Spanish team for two years and was actually selected to do the Spanish Grand Tour when my Astana team got pulled off the start list only weeks before the race a few years ago. I was excited to finally complete the ‘Grand Slam’ of cycling, doing all three Grand Tours: the Giro d’Italia (with Liberty Seguros in 2006), the Tour de France (Skil-Shimano in 2009) and finally the Vuelta a España (Skil-Shimano in 2011).

Of course there are certain similarities between each of the Grand Tours. First and foremost they are all three-week-long races with 21 stages (or 20 and a prologue) and two rest days. But the place on the calendar and the country the majority of the race takes place in are notably different: Giro in May, Tour in July, and Vuelta in September.

The Giro is known for its extreme climbing, dirt roads with extreme gradients or massive mountain stages with unbelievable amounts of climbing but also long, flat sprint stages. It’s pretty much a mix of two extremes – just like the Italian weather in May which varies between sunny 30-plus degrees or snow and sub-zero temperatures.

The Tour de France is a little more moderate in everything, hardly any extremely long stages and no extreme climbs either. Maybe that’s good as well; because of all the media attention and high sponsor interests, every rider and every team has to perform, so the level of racing is very high.

The Vuelta a España is known for its super-hot weather – sometimes over 40 degrees – but also for its late stage starts, short transfers before and after stages and good hotels.

In the case of this year’s Vuelta, I didn’t find all these presumptions to be entirely true; a few were a complete contrast to what I expected. Of course, the stages started late, I hardly ever got up before 9.00am (unless it was an early wake-up call for a doping control). This meant that on some days, after reaching the hotel and getting a massage, we didn’t begin eating dinner until 10.30pm. An extra problem was the multiple long transfers before and after stages, contrary to what the Vuelta is well known for.

Occasionally we had a hotel close to the finish or the start but in general we had more than two hours of travelling before and after stages. It could be worse. Sitting in an air-conditioned luxurious bus with reclining seats and movies or music playing isn’t horrible. But after a long hard stage you only want to lie on a bed and rest.

After the stories I heard I expected to be riding to most starts and have only a short transfer after the finish but in three weeks this September we only rode from the hotel to the start three times, and from the finish to the hotel four times. I heard it said that the transfers were very “un-Vuelta like”.

Maybe we were just unlucky and they wanted to show us too much of the country in three weeks or we raced in areas with insufficient hotels.

Imagine the logistics: 22 teams each with nine riders, five soigneurs, four mechanics, two directeurs sportif, a doctor and a host of other staff. Add to that at least one bus per team, a truck and four team cars. On top of that comes the organisation’s entourage including police, commissaires, media and the publicity caravan with all the motorbikes, cars and trucks. You need a lot of hotel rooms and parking near the hotels. I can’t even begin to understand how much planning and organisation that requires.

On the upside, all the hotels were magnificent; only one night did we have a hotel I would never want to stay at again, not that there were cockroaches crawling around – it wasn’t even as though it was bad – but I found a fashion magazine from 1979 in the lobby which sums up what the hotel looked like: really nice… 30 years ago. It was also a bit strange that we had to walk through a service station to go to the hotel restaurant, but the food on the other hand was really good.

Actually, the food in Spain is great. No overcooked, floppy pasta like we get in France all the time but well-cooked pasta al dente with nice sauces. During a three-week race you have to eat so much pasta, twice a day at least a big plateful each time, so nothing is better than well-cooked pasta. In this regard the Giro is the best Grand Tour by far – but at least in Spain they know how long to cook pasta for. This is something they haven’t seemed to figure out in France.

A lot of teams bring their own chef but at this Vuelta it didn’t bother me that Skil-Shimano decided not to. The only concern I began to get was that most hotels thought that chicken was the best meat for athletes, but after you have had chicken for 18 nights in the last 20 it starts to get a tad boring and I would glance jealously to the table of another team where they were being served beautiful meat skewers or a nice steak. But that’s nothing that would have changed my race performance.

Just no more pasta or chicken for me for a while!

For the duration of the 2011 Vuelta it was, as expected, undeniably very hot. In the three weeks it rained for about five minutes in total and not once did I wear an undershirt during a stage. The first 10 days in particular were almost unbearably hot and every rider on the team drank at least four bottles per hour of racing. Count an extra two bottles of water to be dunked over the head and it’s easy to understand why there were loads of riders in the convoy of team cars behind the peloton at any moment.

I’m sure our DS would have had a very sore left arm by the end of the first week. Even though it isn’t allowed to hang on to the car while collecting drinks it’s quite normal to hold on to the last bottle a little longer to sling yourself back to the bunch.

Lots of teams had ice packs or cold packs to be put under the jersey, to make the heat a little more bearable. Before and after every stage all riders from Skil-Shimano would wear an ice vest, basically a normal-looking team vest with hundreds of ice cubes in it to bring the core temperature down. They also work well during the warm-up on the rollers before a time trial, it’s a lot less hot when going hard without any cooling from the wind that you get when actually riding.

Even though the heat was nearly unbearable for much of the Vuelta I still prefer this over cold and rain that is quite likely to feature in the Giro and, sometimes, even the Tour. For me, the Vuelta wins when it comes to weather!

Something that really struck me during the Vuelta was all the police in Spain to guard the safety of the riders and spectators. They had ‘normal’ police, the slightly scary national guard (Guardia Civil) and very scary Basque police (Ertzaintza). At any time during the race we had at least 25 police motorbikes and 10 police cars and vans around us with extra police in the towns and cities we passed through.

Something very special this year was the Vuelta’s visit to the Basque Country for the first time in 33 years. It was a big deal! Many Basque people don’t regard themselves as Spanish; they have their own flag and language and they have been trying to get independence from Spain for many years. Some try this the peaceful way but there are also violent groups fighting for separation, most notably the Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA).

To guard our safety, organisers employed extreme measures. Our hotels were guarded overnight by the Basque police and everywhere on the circuit where there were groups of spectators there were special police forces, with their backs to us, facing the spectators, wearing black jumpsuits, full-face masks and riot control helmets. The moment we crossed the border from Spain into the Basque Country there were loads of people with banners saying: ‘This is not Spain!’ but also a small army of special Basque police forces. Considering all this you would expect that, within such a highly charged political atmosphere, it would be hard for us to race there but the fact was that many Basque people were happy with us being there, which is what you would expect from a country that is so passionate about cycling. Nowhere else during the Vuelta did we see so many spectators and hear them screaming so loudly!

From the first to the last rider in the race, everyone got cheered on in the Basque Country with the same enthusiasm. Even though it might be the race of ‘the oppressor’ – Spain – they still love cycling and their very own Euskaltel team. I loved racing in the Basque Country and I’m glad I was part of the Vuelta’s return there. I got the feeling I had during the Tour, a frightening amount of people screaming so loud my ears would ring for an hour after the finish. Even though it is slightly scary, sometimes even annoying, when there are so many people it does spur you on. It’s fantastic feeling people get so excited by watching us race.

The downside of the amount of spectators in the Tour is that it’s hard for people to get to the course, especially the starts and finishes. For us it’s amazing to see so many people but my family was much happier following me in the Vuelta or the Giro than they were following me in the Tour. In France they could hardly watch the race or get to me before the start and after the finish, even with accreditation.

In most stages of the Vuelta or Giro it was a lot easier for spectators to get close to the action. If you want to watch the race in a Grand Tour you should go to the Vuelta or Giro but for the whole atmosphere the Tour is the place to be.

I had an amazing time in between the massive amounts of pain during all three Grand Tours. Finishing in Milan, Paris or Madrid was equally exciting so I can’t pick a ‘winner’ of the three, I’ll just have to do all of them again!

by Koen De Kort

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