The Tom Dumoulin bike park, opened by the man himself just two days earlier, may sound like a piece of opportunistic bandwagon jumping by the good people of Limburg, but I am assured that the Giro winner’s name was always intended to grace this fine new facility.
What may have appeared on TV as a barren moonscape with a ribbon of tarmac weaving around its perimeter is very impressive in the flesh. A testing hill has been fashioned out of landscaped earth at one end of the track, with a cobbled climb running alongside the perfectly smooth tarmac version to give the local kids a taste of Belgium in their own backyard. Another generation of budding Dumoulins will be well served by his eponymous park and, when Hammer returns to Limburg in 2018 and the plants and grass seed have done their thing, it will look splendid.
I pore over the race manual, coffee in hand, and try to get a handle on the points scoring system. Maths was never my strongpoint. That’s why I’m a writer. Defeated, I head off to catch the start. Once again, the commissaire’s flag goes down and racing is flat out in an instant.
Graham Bartlett is grinning like a Cheshire cat. At the opening press conference, a journalist had asked André Greipel if he, like Tom Steels, thought the following three days might be like junior racing.
“Greipel jumped out of his seat,” Bartlett reports, delightedly quoting the offended German. “You think it’s going to be like junior racing? It is full gas, minute one. Have you ever raced in Holland, Belgium and Germany? We don’t hang around. Full gas from the start’.”
Indeed, the ubiquitous “full gas” expression is possibly the most overused cliché I hear over the three days. But it is not wrong. These boys are most definitely not hanging around, although Greipel is sadly not amongst them, having retired following the climb stage, alongside the exhausted Dumoulin.
No matter. There is a delicious line up of sprinters on the roster today, including Caleb Ewan, Fernando Gaviria, Boy van Poppel, Elia Viviani and Niccolo Bonifazio.
By the day’s end, Ewan has crashed out, taking Sunweb’s Ramon Sinkeldam with him, and Gaviria also retires. But after the slightly chaotic opening day’s slugfest, some teams have got a grip on how to race this thing. Trek-Segafredo provide a masterclass, all five of their riders contributing to the points haul. Cannondale-Drapac sprint themselves back into contention, with Sep Vanmarcke contributing the lion’s share, including crossing the line solo on the final lap.
Podium ceremony time and Sunweb take the applause. Except they didn’t actually win. Sinkeldam’s crash and withdrawal had not been taken into account, and all of his accumulated points were null and void. Trek-Segafredo, rightful winners on the day, miss out on the celebrations. This is all a tad embarrassing. It is fine that an innumerate journo can’t work out what the hell is going on, but when the commissaires join in, we are in trouble. It’s complicated, and then some.
I scuttle across to the team bus area, to find a rather more upbeat Tom Southam. “There’s never a dull moment, never a time when something is not happening. For the defence of the race, Movistar had to attack because they didn’t have any sprinters. So it turns everything on its head in that respect.
“We all know Movistar can control a race, but Trek got into the lead and that was the only point in the race that a team had a reason to ride during the stage. Once Trek get a lead over Sky, they’ll stop other teams getting points. There is never a suitable break for everyone.”
Safe to say, Southam had scoured the race manual back to front, done his homework and relayed to his five riders for the day what was required. “I broke it down into which teams have to attack and which can leave it to a sprint. Relaying who is doing what to the riders becomes more important.
“You are always trying to work out who needs to ride now and who doesn’t. It is much more interesting. The only problem is there is no time for a piss stop…
“Yesterday was too selective – it was the same guys scoring all the points. Once they were away, it was all over for the rest. I would suggest a hilly course, but slightly easier. After a kilometre, our race was done.”
Tom Scully, the Kiwi track specialist doing good work for Cannondale-Drapac this year on the road, emerges from the bus looking like a man who has been through the wringer of a six-hour stage in the Pyrenees, rather than a two-hour blast round the flatlands of Holland. “You come here and everyone shrugs their shoulders and says we don’t how it’s going to go, and then you get a sniff of a bike race and everyone’s going absolutely ballistic.”
His team’s performance has lifted them into sixth spot, and the top half cut for Sunday’s chase. “We have turned the results on their head today. I hope it’s a spectacle because it’s really hard racing out there. You have got to be on your toes, all day every day. I think they have achieved what they set out to do.
“It’s this kind of club race feel, but there is something riding on it. Everyone is full gas, but you are racing smart. It creates quite a dynamic.”
Full gas. There it is again.
Geoghegan-Hart also looks suitably wasted. “That’s one way to do a hundred kilometres. Less than two hours in the end, wasn’t it?” He has done his bit for the day, helping put Sky in pole position for the chase on Sunday. Whether he makes the five-man selection for the team time trial with a difference remains to be seen.
I tune in to YouTube and the GCN channel, whose presenters are covering every stage from start to finish. If you have ever seen those peculiar football shows where a pundit is staring at the action while describing what is unfolding before him or her, you’ll get the picture, except the action is also being shown in a corner of the screen, while the lads sip beer and shoot the breeze in the studio. It’s an acquired taste, but actually rather enjoyable, I thought.
Dan Lloyd introduces a short video from Velon, explaining how the time differences are worked out for the all-important chase the following day. The camera cuts back to him at the end. He still looks mystified, and changes the subject. I am also none the wiser.
Roll on super Sunday.
Extract from issue 17.5 of Rouleur, published July 2017