High above the point where Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands converge sits the Vaalserberg. When I say high, it is actually 322 metres, give or take, but bearing in mind much of the country in which it is situated is below sea level, it dominates the surrounding area. Plus, they have built a tower on top, which we promptly scuttle up to get an unusual perspective for Marshall’s photos.
Below, the opening lap of the opening day of the Hammer Series passes. The race has blown to bits already. Small groups pass the line way beneath our feet, heaving away out of the saddle, mouths agape, before brief respite and regrouping once their points are scored. There are ten more laps to be covered.
Back on terra firma to catch the third passing, it proves to be an interesting group that has formed at the head of the race. Local hero Tom Dumoulin, fresh from his Giro d’Italia win – or as fresh as is possible a few days after a Grand Tour – is eyeballs out, turning on the style for his supporters. Victor Campenaerts of LottoNL-Jumbo is there. So too the Italian Iuri Filosi from Nippo-Vini Fantini. Most interestingly, Movistar’s Carlos Betancur, who I had last seen two years previously in Argentina, looking overweight and totally out of shape, is on fire today. And the young Brit Tao Geoghegan-Hart, whose demeanour the previous evening suggested either apprehension or supreme nonchalance, is racking up the points for Team Sky.
The advice from Quick Step DS Tom Steels to his charges the previous evening was to “race it like juniors” apparently. What is on paper one of the strongest squads here instead race more like amateurs and end the day in, what is for them, a lowly seventh place.
The crowd is surprisingly sparse for this opening stage in what is a fine setting. Dumoulin is big news in the Netherlands right now, yet not many of his countrymen and women have made the effort to come out and cheer him on, which is surprising. If this had been in the UK, the crowds on this climb would have been three deep.
A gentleman old enough to know better pootles up the hill on his mountain bike, encouraged by the crowd and milking the applause. The next minute, the peloton surrounds him and smashes past in an instant. I witness several alarming incidents like this. Nobody seems too bothered about old people on bikes getting caught up with the race, just me. I amble back to the crest of the peak and order one of those Dutch beers that is mainly froth, deciding to chill and stop envisaging accidents waiting to happen. It does the trick.
The race co-commentator is making a hash of pronouncing Tao’s name, plumping for ‘Toe Georgian-Hart’, which is a new one on me. I catch up with him later and help the guy out. “Tay-oh Gay-gun Hart,” I suggest, is the easiest way to remember it. While his Dutch compadre clearly knows his stuff and identifies nearly every passing rider, this fella plays it safe and just mentions team names, which is fair enough. It’s a team race, after all.
But what sort of team race? It is a leap into the unknown, and nobody appears altogether clear on how to approach it tactically. “It’s the cycling equivalent of Twenty20 cricket,” Cannondale-Drapac DS Tom Southam suggests to me the previous evening, reminded of the fast-and-furious cricket format that has revolutionised the game. “I mean, I hate Twenty20 cricket, personally,” he concludes, disturbingly. His team finish the day in tenth. Draw your own conclusions.
The nonchalant Geoghegan-Hart, meanwhile, has switched to full-on exuberant mode, but unfortunately slaps off on a rapid descent and loses touch with the lead group. We watch the big screen at the finish as he picks himself up, dusts himself down, and emits a self-admonishing “Fuck!”
Betancur crosses the line first, arms aloft to celebrate the win, but have Movistar won? It doesn’t take long, thankfully, for the points system to conclude that the Spanish squad has indeed done the business, followed by Dumoulin’s Sunweb, then Sky.
“If I didn’t crash, maybe we would have finished second,” says a bruised Geoghegan-Hart once he has got his breath back. “But third is not too much of a difference. And it is pretty cool to race with Dumoulin a week after he won the Giro.”
Quick Step’s Yves Lampaert had been the first to try his hand once the flag dropped, Geoghegan-Hart tells me. And after that, it was every man for himself. “With five guys, you can only chase a couple of times and then you are done, and you can only chase with one or two guys. You can’t afford gaps of more than 15 seconds or the groups go. That is how racing with a small team is. Everyone knew that is better to be at the front than at the back, and if you had numbers there, even more so. You commit, blow the race apart, and if you still have a couple of guys at the front, you are all good.
“Here you are seeing breaks going all the time, something is always happening. It was very different to what I expected: no control, but that is five-man racing. You see it every year in the Tour of Britain with six-man teams.
“For me, I’m a bit of a purist and fan of the old-style racing, but new races like this are also interesting. Cycling is a really dynamic sport.”
My perspective from following reactions on Twitter was that the usual suspects were predictably negative, while the pros watching from the comfort of their sofas were overwhelmingly positive and would love to be involved.
“It is fashionable to knock something, but if you don’t give it a chance, what is there? We’d be stuck in the 1800s or whatever,” Geoghegan-Hart concludes, before heading back to the bus to tend his wounds.
Graham Bartlett, meanwhile, is understandably effusive about what he has just witnessed. He is CEO of Velon, whose organisation are behind the Hammer Series. “I think a few people were thinking, yeah yeah, they’ll sit up on the bars, have a little chat, just come out of the Giro, pootle around for an hour, then go for it on the last couple of laps. And of course, bang, the flag went down and they were off. Dumoulin said he had blood in his mouth after the first lap…
“That is exactly what we wanted. Hammer racing; high intensity right from the start.”
There were some problems with the TV coverage of the first day, Bartlett tells me, which was unfortunate. The Velon modus operandi is very much wrapped around technology, information and statistics; getting the fans more involved via interaction. It was an unfortunate start for the Hammer, but not insurmountable.
“We had a few technical gremlins, which the boys with the technology worked really hard to fix,” says Bartlett, “but unfortunately it took time. We got lucky with the weather, we got lucky with a couple of other things, we got a bit unlucky with the tech.”
We head back down to the town of Vaals for the leaders’ presentation, switch from frothy beer to a nice cold rosé and consider our options for day two. Confusing? Who cares? It was great racing. That’ll do for now.
Extract from issue 17.5 of Rouleur, published July 2017