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Worlds07: With The Cruise Missiles In Stuttgart
The red cruise missile has locked-on, it’s skimming the ground and will be upon us in seconds – it’s not a real cruise missile, it’s actually super-star to-be, Edvald Boasson Hagen of Norway, but he’s riding at cruise missile speed. I’m in the following car of Gatis Smukulis of Latvia who’s been battering huge gears through these leafy loops around the western side of Stuttgart in the World under-23 time trial championship.

Speeds have run up to 85 kph, but still the Norwegian runs us down. The cops pull us over, I go for the picture and get trees, the blond bombshell was too quick for me, where’s Cor Vos when you need him?

The day started a lot earlier though, the alarm went at 06.30 in Pez fan, Brian Bush’s apartment in Boblingen; with every hotel in Stuttgart booked-up, Brian stepped-in and gave me his house – that’s what you call a dedicated reader. The trains run on time in Germany, so I got my creds at Feuerbach without any hassle and was soon at the start at the Killesberg Exhibition Centre.

Last year I got a ride in the Irish team car, behind Navigator’s David O’Loughlin, without any hassle. This year there was much shaking of heads, sucking-in of air and when the French manager finally understood what I wanted to do, I thought he was going to have a seizure, I walked away backwards; “pardon monsieur, pas de problem!”
Just when it looked like I was going to have to tell Pez that I had no story for him, I spotted the Latvian pits.
I know their national squad doctor, Aldis, very well, he works for T-Mobile and on the sixes; I used this as an intro. Team manager and ex CSC pro, Arvis Piziks (under-23 Paris-Tours, Aarhus GP and stage in the Dunkirk 4 day are among his palmares) finally took pity on me and I was soon crammed-in with the radio and spare wheel.

The rider we were to follow is 20 and comes from the small Latvian town of Smiltene; he rides for the famous VC La Pomme, Marseille, where David Millar and another Latvian star, Romans Vainsteins, served their time. He enjoyed a stellar junior career, winning five junior stage races in one year and this year has five wins, including two French Cups. He’s of the ‘natural athlete’ breed; tall, with broad shoulders, big thighs and ‘footballers’ calve muscles.

The hilltop start suited his big build and in seconds the Skoda speedo was reading 60 kph, despite a bleak weather forecast, it was a beautiful day with the leaves just starting to ‘turn’ on the trees which lined both sides of the course. The pros will ride the same basic course tomorrow with an extra leg, along a dual carriageway added, to take the distance to 44.9 kilometres, whilst we would be covering 38.1 K. The early part is a real ‘big dipper’, up, down, up, down, but not the sort of ‘ups’ that your momentum will carry you over, long, tough climbs to punish anyone not in excellent condition. At one stage Gatis was down to 25 kph as he lifted himself out of the saddle of his Look and stabbed at the pedals. The way the course is designed, riders are passing in the opposite direction for a few kilometres, as Gatis fought the gradient, riders on the way down were going past startlingly fast. At the top of the climb, there were traffic lights at red, but we didn’t stop and as the tarmac headed downwards the speedo climbed again – 50, 60 as he hugged the kerbs to find shelter; I thought he was over-geared much of the way, not quite on top of it, but I sure wasn’t going to say anything.

The turn on the dog-leg was around a motorway inter-change and he proved can handle a bicycle as the Skoda rolled hard on its springs to keep pace. On the return leg he picked-up a tail wind, he eased to blow his nose – it reminded me of Moby Dick venting – and then was back down to the job, thrashing a huge gear at 55 and 60 kph and on some of the dips, up to 85 kph. On a technical part, Arvis nearly smacked the concrete safety fence, trying to keep-up with his boy, the mechanic just laughed, as I grabbed the roof handles.‘Technical’ is the word for the course, sharp bends, climbs, railway crossings and bad cambers all make for a test of skill as well as brute strength.

As we approached the end of lap one, the anxious glances behind started, Tony Gallopin of France was approaching – fast! The ‘Fransman’, as the Belgians would say, looked every inch the roadman pursuiter, very low, flat backed and riding a gear much-smaller than our big Latvian boy.
Gallopin made the junction just at the end of lap one on the finish climb. On the second lap, the spur of having the Frenchman in sight and the fact that he dropped the gears a few cogs, meant that Gatis didn’t let Gallopin go, and indeed would keep him in sight to the finish. I was just thinking how much better our man looked, when there were more worried glances behind.

The cockpit of big Hagen.

It was ‘cruise missile time’ and it wasn’t long before the Norwegian was on top of us, to give three riders in ‘line astern’. But Hagen’s majestic progress stalled a little; not long after the junction was made and through the snaps, hairpins and long straights, Gatis was keeping pace with the two riders ahead. The old mechanic cracked a funny, which I think involved that we were running-out of European countries to be caught-by and there was laughter all-round. Gatis wasn’t laughing; he was riding a better race now, on less extreme gears and looking more fluid.
The three-way pursuit was maintained all the way to the finish, and at one stage it looked like the Latvian may get back up to his two tormentors, but the painful climb to the line put paid to that, as the Frenchman’s high cadence, and the Norwegian’s power took them up to the finish.

We had to ‘deviate’ at 200 and caught-up with Gatis after the line. The sweat was dripping from him, like rain off an umbrella, as he rode alongside the car and told Arvis the story. “He wasn’t happy with his first lap,” Arvis explained; “his legs were heavy, but he felt much better on the second lap. The French guy took a minute in the first lap, but hardly anything on the second. That Frenchman thinks he’s Armstrong, with all that pedalling!
So, you had Vainsteins on your site earlier in the week and now you have us today, it’s been a good week for publicity for Latvia!”

Boasson Hagen, for all that ‘Tomahawk’ speed was ‘only’ sixth at 1-13; Gallopin was 20th at 2-17 and Gatis was 39th at 3-24; he still averaged 43.851 kph over a very tough course. The winner, Lars Boom of Holland, who can win anything from a prologue to a world class cyclo-cross, averaged 46.906 –that’s special; but you need to be, to win a world title.


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