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An Afternoon At The Races: The De Panne Finale
PEZ Roadside: It was actually supposed to be an entire day at the races, which would have included the horrifically windy Stage 3a in De Panne, which saw a huge chunk of the field time cut, but alas, we were sleeping. We managed to wake up in just enough time to hurry out of the house and get to De Panne in time for the race’s finale, a 17 kilometer time trial through the residential streets of the coastal town.


Getting there looked easy enough on the map, but unfortunately, our experience and the map’s suggestive idea of simplicity parted ways somewhere about five kilometers into the 120 kilometer adventure. Highway entrances were blocked, mysterious new paths opened and none of them were quick. I guess it’s more the norm and not the exception, so I should stop with the consternation and disbelief whenever it does. As I head closer and closer to adulthood, I wonder, does it ever get any less frustrating to go the wrong way?

We eventually arrived in De Panne after finding out that reports from our friend, Liz, who was already at the coast, were correct: it was in fact windy. At one point, our red hot rod, a ’98 VW Polo wagon, was blown most of the way across the road, somewhere near our exit for De Panne. The people in these parts must really be some hardy, weather beaten, tough folk, because a quick glance at the wind blasted shapes of the trees gives me the idea that a howling gale is not a rare thing, kind of like getting lost for me. Except I don’t lean because of it.

Sure, everyone talks about the typical rainy Belgian weather. That’s not ideal or anything, but the wind, it’s the wind. The wind just batters you, straight through your clothes and skin, right into your soul. It knows no boundaries. A wall might provide some kind of barrier, but it’s still there, beating and clawing against aged farmhouse bricks, or in our case, a beaten down Volkswagen.

I have respect for the people here. They’re born tougher than I’ll ever be.

Anyhow, back to the matter at hand – there was a time trial to be viewed. I’m not very good at chasing races. I’m a lot better at racing, or at least participating in races. We’re still getting used to trying to fill Ed Hood’s mighty big race watching shoes. We’re not anywhere near the level of Ed, who firmly defines the term cycling aficionado, so our history-less perspective will have to suffice for the time being.

Confusion was of course how our De Panne experience began. We debated for a solid two minutes whether it was ok to park in this one spot or the other. Things like that really seem to be important at the time, then I realized, nobody really cares where you park on race day, just as long as it’s not on the course. Lesson learned.

Next up, another chance crossing with Mr. Kristof Ramon. We met for the first time on Wednesday, but we already felt like friends on Thursday. We ended up x-ing out whatever plans we thought we might have had in favor of hanging out with Kristof for the day and watching a real photographic master at work. Team Gruber can even say we played a part in Kristof’s images – Ashley took on a new job for a little while: lighting assistant. Harumph. I was left to snap, snap, snap by myself and be all jealous.



The first thing that hit me upon entering the team bus area – there was no one around. It was a ghost town of monster team buses. A huge chunk of the field was time cut in the morning stage, so many of the teams were left to one or two, or sometimes even no starters for the final time trial. Matt Brammeier was one of the earlier starters. He had some peace and quiet to enjoy his warm-up following a difficult morning defined by a whole bunch of work on front of the vastly whittled down field.





With the team bus area showing few signs of possible entertainment, I meandered over to the starting house, nearly ran into the seemingly perpetually smiling Andre Greipel, then watched a UnitedHealthcare rider set off on his final 17 kilometers of this year’s Three Days of De Panne.



The crowds were small, but still noticeable. They were nothing like they’re going to be on Sunday, but considering the relatively minor nature of De Panne and the nasty weather, I’d give a tip of my hat to the people that showed up to watch, but it’s probably still flying southward to the Mediterranean aboard yesterday’s North Sea tornado.



Skil-Shimano’s Kenny Van Hummel was also an early starter. He has been fairly quiet so far this year, but the hero of the 2009 Tour de France usually doesn’t come to life until the end of April and into May. Just you wait, you’ll be seeing his face in triumph crossing a line in the not too distant future. I went to take a picture of him relaxing on his TT bars, but he preferred to sit up and eye me glumly instead.


Matt Brammeier about to start.





Irish champion, Matt Brammeier, was the next rider of interest to roll up. I chatted with him for a minute, but my recorder didn’t record, so you’ll just have to believe me when I say, he’s a good guy. Ed would say that too, and I know you’ll believe him.



When Matt left for his trip around the curiously shaped time trial course, I grew a bit disinterested with the starting area and headed back toward the buses. There was a bit more action this time around, but I still found myself taking a picture of a clock on prominent display along with a small army of Dura-Ace wheels scattered here and there in the Rabobank area.



Turns out, that clock is there for a reason: even with the help of the extra timekeeper, Graeme Brown found himself in a mad dash for the start line.



I walked on over to the Sky area after the Brown escapade to watch Sky’s only two riders left remaining for the time trial: recent Paris-Nice stage winner, Greg Henderson and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne victor, Chris Sutton. Sutton was trying to find his happy place underneath a dark towel, while Henderson preferred to chat with a Sky staff member.



Realizing that taking pictures of two people not pointing toward me, I decided I’d prefer to take pictures of the things that were directed at me. I tried the rear tire first. That was entertaining for a moment, but I soon tired of that.



Then I went for Chris Sutton’s legs. Not quite as dramatic as Kuschynski’s, but they look the business, as Ed would say.



Down the way a little bit, was yesterday’s stage two winner, Denis Galimzyanov, getting ready. He, along with the Sky team, had a fair little crowd gathered around them.



That might also have to do with the fact that they were pretty much the only riders on trainers, outside, that I saw. I guess many either eschewed a warm-up, warmed up on the road, or took their trainer inside the team bus? Who knows. Not important.



HTC-Highroad’s U23 World Championship road race runner-up and already a two-time winner in his neo-pro season, John Degenkolb, had a pretty quiet environ to ready himself for his upcoming time trial.



I started to head back to the start area with Kristof and Ashley when out popped Niki Terpstra from the Quick-Step team bus. He moved quickly to the starting area. His collarbone would be in one piece for less than twenty more minutes. The poor, in form Dutch champion, crashed at the very end of the time trial in a massive wind gust. Get well soon, Niki!



Highlighting the lack of riders on offer for the milling crowds, this Veranda Willems rider had at least a dozen eager onlookers. He looked a bit baffled by the attention. It’s hard not to forget in situations like this where the Sky bus is literally casting a shadow on the small Veranda Willems RV, that these guys are some bad, bad men on two wheels as well. The monstrous funding might not be behind them, but the leg power certainly isn’t lacking.


Ashley doing a fine job as chief lighting assistant for Kristof.


A quick look in the quiet NetApp trailer.



Back at the starting area, I peeked in the UCI TT bike and rider hangout tent. There were always a few riders sitting idly, hunched low, trying to stay warm on the chilly final day of March. Rabobank’s Dennis Van Winden’s face pretty much sums everything up. Meh.


Off you go, Dennis. Enjoy the ride.


The pre-race wipe down of the tires was an essential part of the team mechanic’s job. No one missed out on a wipe down.



Andre Greipel came by to hang out before his stage start. I really want to talk to him soon. He seems like a great guy.



John Degenkolb, like Greipel, was always quick with a smile and a laugh. It’s comforting to see some happiness sometimes amidst all of the serious, pained faces.


They need no introduction: the legs of Andre Greipel.


See you later, Andre.



After Andre left for his ride around De Panne, Kristof gave me the best present I’ve received in a good long while – a chance to use his flash system…along with his former flash assistant, Ashley. The first efforts of Omega Pharma gregario, Vicente Reynes were absolute failures. This shot took a good few minutes of help to bring the extremely overexposed (read: white) image into some semblance of usability. Since it was my first one, I felt obliged to try to salvage it for posterity’s sake.


I tried a shot on Mirko Lorenzetto, but it was pretty boring.



Kristof reminded me that off camera flash is interesting, because you can put the flash in places you otherwise couldn’t when it was on top of your camera, which was more or less the position for the above picture. With that in mind, Ashley walked right over to Greg Henderson, and I remained back a bit, clicked, and voila! Something worth looking at. Hopefully. Maybe.



At one point, Kristof, described the flash’s capabilities: ‘You can turn day into night.’ I love that idea, I love that look, I love that feel. It was a completely unnerving feeling though – to hold a once familiar tool, but to find it alien now. The addition of the flash and its whole new set of requirements and creative possibilities made me feel like I was holding a camera for the very first time.



Not long after, my five minutes of flash time came to an end. I was still giddy as we left the starting area for the course itself and a chance to see some riders in action. Jens Keukeleire was one of the first we saw go by, and did he go by. The De Panne TT course is FAST when it’s sheltered. There were a bunch of sections later on along the route that were not, and were thus a lot slower, but for us, we had the opportunity to marvel at what all-out speed looks like. Needless to say, it’s a blur, but the sound of a disc wheel in action never ceases to excite me.





We got out there pretty late, so we only saw a few riders. It was enough for me though. Kristof wasn’t quite as satisfied. When we realized that the last rider had passed, Kristof frowned and sighed, “But I have some more shots in me…” A shrug followed, gear was packed, and we parted ways.



We took the short/long/enjoyable way home. It was shorter in distance, longer in time, and a helluva lot more fun to drive. We passed countless small towns on the way back to Oudenaarde. Belgium really is a beautiful country. After the fifteenth frituur, we had to stop and partake in one of Belgium’s most famous dishes.

It was a good day, a really good day.

Thanks for reading!




We’ll be covering anything and everything Flanders and Roubaix over the next couple of weeks, so stay tuned!

Questions? Comments? Email me! Want to see more pictures? Head to Flickr. Want to enjoy the play by play here in Belgium? Try Twitter. If you’re looking for a bit more, there’s always the tried and true, JeredGruber.com

Don’t forget to check out Kristof’s images as well! You can find them HERE!.



 

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