This time I drove up from the Boston area with a group of my CCB cycling club mates. We were a group of spectators with restricted course access and kept more than an arm’s length from our hero’s. Just faces in the crowd. Or were we!
On the first ride into town from our campsite we soon started to experience one of the great delights of the entire Championship visit. Locals were waving to us, cheering us and taking the opportunity to chat with us when we were stopped at the many traffic lights. The citizens of Hamilton had obviously welcomed the Championships with open hearts. We soon discovered that their children loved us even more because their schools had been closed for the entire week. Even the motorists were courteous to us.
Our first contact with the race course turned out to be the 90-degree left-hand turn at the base of the Claremont Access descent. As we rode up to the wire barriers people were immediately attracted to our cycling outfits and bikes. One uniformed official started plying us with course maps, start lists and Canadian flag pins. He wanted to know all about us and in return provided us with advice on how to circumnavigate the championship course. By now the early morning fog was being replaced by warm sun and ever clearing skies. Off came the arm and leg warmers. Now, looking like the guys riding the road on the other side of the barricades we set off for the Start/Finish area along Main Street which was completely closed off.
Smaller side streets to our left fed onto Main Street. As soon as we could see the finish area we turned left, rode a hundred meters or so and straight into the middle of the Squadra Azzura! The whole Italian team was just standing around with their bikes, talking, joking and looking like a cycling club getting ready for their weekly club run. So we simply joined in. Flanked by Paolo Bettini, Giovanni Lombardi, Francesco Casagrande, Danilo Deluca and the rest of the boys was anything but a regular club ride experience.
This unexpected encounter threw us all off guard but soon we were fumbling for cameras and pens while we tried to look cool amongst this phalanx of stars. It’s hard to act intelligently in such situations, especially with a language barrier hampering communication. Like well groomed guests, we did not outstay our welcome and shortly wished them all good luck and continued on our way (with our cameras bursting with great shots). Still buzzing with excitement, our little group pedaled off to the end of Main Street to watch the just started U23 race turn left towards the Beckett Drive climb.
What, we mused, could top meeting Bettini and his Squadra? How about a chat with Eddy Merckx or Johan Museuuw. Ridiculous we thought, people like that don’t just hang around waiting for the likes of us. Well, as it turned out they do (sort of).
Eddy was strolling along a street with a companion in the center of Hamilton heading for the course just as we were cruising in the opposite direction. One of our little band spotted the ‘Cannibal’ and screamed out in disbelief. Hard braking and a nifty about-turn soon had us up near Eddy as we hastily dismounted and then politely approached the ‘great one’. He was the personification of social elegance demurring to our request for a photo and autographs. Shaking in our cleats, we lined up beside Eddy as he gently suggested in that distinctive deep voice of his that we shift our direction slightly to avoid sun glare with the cameras. The consummate professional, caring for his public in a scene that he has enacted hundreds of times. Like bees around a honey pot, the CCB encounter with Eddy soon became a little mob scene as the crowd watching the race started to realize what was going on behind them. Eddy politely excused himself and soon melted into the crowd further up the road.
It was not long before we became the center of attraction. In one incident we rode into the center of town for a mid-day latte. Seated in a shady outdoor cafй we supped our drinks and plotted our race viewing strategy. Thinking that our bill was on it’s way out, the waitress spread open a race promotion poster and asked if we would kindly sign it for ‘Charlie’ who worked inside the establishment and was a real cycling fan. No problem, we had already seen how Bettini and Eddy handled these situations so we signed away as though we did this sort of thing all of the time.
Day 2 – You Can Always Get Closer
Next day we were back in the center of town again for our daily latte. With the unseasonable warm sun we decided to sit in the little gardens just over from the cafй. A very pleasant older lady came up to us and asked if we would mind letting her have her photo taken with us. Taking our cue from Eddy we posed in our racing best. It’s good to be the King!
When the Junior Men’s race was over (Friday afternoon) we hopped over the barriers and made our first circuits of the course. Two climbs, two descents and some flat. Prime viewing locations were noted. We quickly realized that with some initiative we could get our mobile home pretty close to the course. Located at the top of the Claremont Access climb the road split. On the way up the course went to the right. At this Y intersection was a large viewing area, a TV camera and high up on an embankment on the opposite side of the road a big ‘jumbotron’ that provided TV images of the race in progress. The jumbotron was actually set inside the grounds of a church retreat that had a small car park. Our chief negotiator talked our way in and in return we made a good donation to the church youth program. We relocated our 40-foot camper from its distant campsite and from our new HQ we were all set to capture the race action. We could see the descent and ascent of Claremont access from our new base and after an ‘MTB’ type ride through some woods we landed about mid-way up the Beckett Drive climb.
Baseball & Barley Sandwiches
Just up the road from us we made more friends as we joined the locals in their Sports Bar to watch Boston Red Sox baseball games. Disguised in our Lycra, it did not take long for the regulars to engage us in a highly entertaining discussion about cycle racing. With the race course passing right outside the front door every day they had all become enthusiastic fans. Happily matching the locals with beer intake, we set about to educate them on the finer points of our sport.
Racing Up Close
Every morning, except for the Elite Men’s race, much of the course was shrouded by damp fog. By mid-day it was replaced by sunny skies and temperatures around 70degF. Almost every race followed the same pattern. Caution for the most part and race winning attacks only happening during the last few laps. The climbs were not long enough or hard enough to be decisive for world class racing. The descents made it relatively easy to regain any riders that had opened up an advantage. However this does not mean that the racing was boring or easy for the riders. Far from it. Especially up Beckett Drive, you could see the efforts being made by everyone in the peloton. And when a gap did open up you could feel the pressure. In the Men’s Elite race the Moerenhout / Victor Hugo Pena break was promising and long lived. But when the Squadra Azzura saw it get 3mins out they decided that it was time to get to work. Seeing them stringing out the bunch was an impressive sight.
Even more impressive was to see petite Jeannie Longo-Ciprelli in full flight. It was at the U-turn at the top of the far end of the Claremont Access climb that we experienced one of the great sights of the entire Championships. Jeannie had broken away from the elite Women’s field and held a slender lead coming into the U-turn for the last time. Standing at the apex of the curve we were treated to seeing this legend do what she does best. Coming at us head on, with a fiery look in her eyes and a mask of sheer concentration on her face. She swooped around the curve, lifted herself from the saddle and sprinted onto the opening slopes of the descent back to town. While Jeannie was going for Gold we raced back to the jumbotron and along with thousands of others witnessed the drama unfold. As we all know, Jeannie was caught at the bottom of James Mountain Road with about 500m to go. Everyone was screaming and willing Jeannie to make it. At the point of capture the crowd let out a collective gasp of disappointment. Just 500m of racing later the same crowd screamed with excitement at the final sprint. Many spectators, cyclists and non-cyclists alike, rated the Women’s race as the best of the week.
Wherever we went the course was populated with an eclectic crowd of good natured and enthusiastic spectators. The locals set out lawn furniture in their front yards. Some selling drinks and snacks while others just soaked up the atmosphere. Many asked us when we were racing (!) so it gave us the opportunity to engage them in conversation explaining in a little more detail what was unfolding before them. Every now and then we would come across cycling fan clubs from all over the globe. Frantically waving their national flags, they would often be ‘eccentrically dressed’ and sporting posters extolling their hero’s to great things. These ‘super fans’ enjoyed the chance for friendly banter albeit in broken English or with waving arms and hand signs.
The Canadian people had given the cycling world a warm and enthusiastic welcome. We had basked in their hospitality. Using initiative we had penetrated most corners of the circuit to meet fans of all flavors and nationalities. We had seen the elite riders of the world engaged in the sport that we love. Now on our final evening we were partying in the center of town with hundreds of locals and visitors from all over the globe. Next day would be the men’s Elite race.
So what about our final objective – Museuuw? By chance we met some friends who knew the approximate location of the ‘Belgian Club’. We set off across town and found a quaint, ivy covered pub called the “Pheasant Plucker” (no kidding). In we went. Suddenly we were in Flanders. Packed wall to wall, the multilingual crowd was dominated by the guttural Flemish dialect. ‘The Lion of Flanders’ was mid-way along the bar perched on a bar stool looking tanned and fit. Just to his left was the aristocratic looking Patrick Lefevre, manager of the Quick Step team. Time for photos and beer. Belgian fans soon engaged us in conversation and pointed out the various characters in the bar. It was a veritable who’s who of the Belgian elite. We were told that our photo pal Eddy was upstairs having dinner with Roger de Vlaeminck. Do you want to meet them?!! Up we went but they had just left the building for a stroll. However, mission accomplished. We had met Eddy, Paolo and Johann. What a blast.
Next day was the icing on the cake as we watched the Men’s Elite race at close quarters. Tim Johnson (Saturn) and a CCB alumnus, could not miss our distinctive club jerseys and screams of encouragement as he attacked up the Beckett Drive climb.
With initiative, mobility, flexibility, courtesy and respect for the World’s hosts, our little group had really got up close and personal with the greats of our sport. Our vantage points around the circuit enabled us to often be within inches of the race action. Mingling with the crowds we soaked up the atmosphere at every point around the road circuit. We proved that you do not necessarily need journalist or VIP passes to get the ‘best experience’. In fact our ‘freedom’ probably enhanced our visit. Thank you Canada, thank you Hamilton. The memories will endure.
You can get more info on the CCB International cycling club at their website: