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Tales from the peloton, September 20, 2006
From Roubaix to Wolverhampton - Eric's back at the races
Eric Vanderaerden was one of the heroes of cycling in the 1980's and the winner of the Tour of Flanders and Paris Roubaix. The legendary Belgian sprinter hung up his wheels in the 90's and as the new DFL-Cyclingnews.com Directeur Sportif, he took the helm in the Tour of Britain back in August. Our UK cyclingnews.com correspondent Gerry McManus went along for the ride on Stage 4 as the race travelled from Wolverhampton to Birmingham.
Still with the flowing blond locks that he was famous for, Eric jumps in behind the steering wheel, quickly double-checking the DFL team list taped to the dashboard which includes the riders' nicknames, and then onto the team radio to ensure communication with the riders is working correctly. 'Fonzi' (Russell Downing) had begun the stage wearing the green jersey as points leader. Dean will certainly not be able to live up to his nickname 'Day-Off' as the team will inevitably be involved in defending his brother Russell's leadership.
"1996 was my last year racing," said the former Belgian champion. "Times have changed. Now the young guys start at 22 or 24 and they don't do that many races. They have to learn for one or two years and then move up in the team. I was very young and very strong and was instantly the team leader. From the age of 21, I had all the high pressure on me. I was a pro for 14 years and that's a long time."
It's 10.30 am and the race heads out of town past the Molineux stadium which is home to the Wolverhampton Wanderers football club. Eric dodges the race vehicles moving left and right and watching the rear view mirror for riders getting back to the field after stopping for a 'natural break'. It's bright and sunny as the field accelerates to around 50mph (80.5kmh) on one of the descents on the edge of the West Midlands Town. Think of what it's like when you are on the rollercoaster at the fairground and you'll get a good idea. At least the weather has improved from yesterday's cold and rain.
An early breakaway attempt is just caught and another is created by eight men including DFL's Cameron Jennings. The break grows quickly and we settle back behind the bunch to see how the race shapes up over the next few miles. Tom Barras drops back to the race doctor who is looking anxiously at Tom's back and manipulating various muscles at the base of his spine at 35 miles per hour (56.5kmh). "Tom has hurt his back," Eric explains. "He had a bad crash on the cobbles in a two-race and is still recovering."
Eric continues to tell me what he has been up to since his retirement. "In 2000 I was a coach with Mapei. I was two years with the team until it finished and I didn't get any offers from anybody. Then this year the DFL coach from Belgium called me and asked me to become the Directeur Sportif and I said not yet, at first, but I was ready when he asked me again. I had worked on television a little bit commentating on the races. I haven't commentated on Paris Roubaix but it's nice to watch it knowing that I have won that one."
And on his first race with the team how does he think DFL-Cyclingnews are shaping up? "The Tour of Britain is good for us so far," said Eric: "We have a rider in the green jersey and a man in the break today and I think the race is going to be a big success for us. It would be nice to get a stage win, too." Praise indeed from the man who has previously won the Tour de France green jersey and prologue.
Although the team is British registered and sponsored by the company Driving Force Logistics, the team have made only rare appearances on the UK race scene."There are only a few big races in the UK so we race a lot in Belgium where there are many more. We want to ride in big races so we travel all over the world. This year the team was also in Canada and China and France. If you want to be a rider, you have to learn it in Belgium on the cobblestones in the real hell of the race."
The race radio reveals the other riders in the break. Britain's Mark Cavendish (T-Mobile), Rob Partridge (Recycling.co.uk), Paul Manning (Landbouwkrediet-Colnago), Frederik Willems (Chocolade Jacques-Topsport), Johan Van Summeren (Davitamon-Lotto) and Juan Manuel Garate (QuickStep-Innergetic) are in the lead with Jennings. Their lead is up to 1'07". None of the escapees are a threat to the overall GC and they have a good chance of staying away. Eric's soft tone relays an air of calmness despite the frantic juggling of riders and team cars in the convoy ahead and behind. He continually watches his wing mirrors for marshals and police trying to move forward. Eric lights up a cigarette, a habit he picked up after he quit racing.
Team mechanic and assistant Andy Verrell sits in the back seat surrounded by spare wheels and other various cycling equipment, studying the points classification. Cavendish is the sprinter in the break and, with 15 points on offer to the stage winner; he is a threat to Downing's green jersey. It is decision time for Eric. He asks Andy how good Cameron would fair in a sprint but Andy advises that he is more of a 'rouler'. Dean Downing signals he wants some assistance and we shoot up through the convoy to reach him where Andy fixes the loose cap on his headset while we travel at 35mph (56.5kmh).
Race radio announces that the DFL car is wanted up at the front group. On the way through Eric stops the Unibet team car and asks them to look after Russell while we are away which they kindly agree to. Eric calmly moves on using the horn to warn the riders and moving up the inside in a space not seemingly big enough for the car. But he has watched the peloton moving over to the right and they graciously move further over to allow him safe passage. Tom Boonen smiles and pulls along side to talk to Eric in Flemish and they share a joke.
When the day started, DFL's team priority was to keep the green jersey for Russell but now there's a potential stage win on offer. "With 75km to the finish we have one man in the lead and the main bunch is at three minutes now with Russell in the green jersey," says Eric. "I have got to tell Russell that he definitely has to finish in the first three of the main bunch. If Cavendish wins the stage and Russell is out of the top three in the bunch he loses the jersey. If Cameron wins the stage and Russell sprints well we could have the stage win and the green jersey. But we could end up with nothing and then the team coach has made the wrong decision," he says, smiling wryly.
Race radio is frantic again with the commissaries giving instructions to police and marshals and lead cars and team cars rather like airport traffic control. Meanwhile as we reach the leaders, Eric calls Jennings to the team car on the radio and tells him the lead is over three minutes. He advises him to keep riding but to hold back a little in reserve. "If Cameron stops working and he tries to attack in the last few kilometres then the other riders will say for sure you're not getting away because you haven't been working," Eric explains. "It's a hard world."
Jennings goes back to the leaders working through and off with a cross-wind blowing strongly. They don't contest the sprint prime as they fight to stay clear with Barloworld and the Skil-Shimano teams on the front of the bunch trying to close the gap. Eric gets on the radio to Jennings and tells him about the layout of the finish and about the last KOM of the day. He warns him about Cavendish's sprint. Then, after handing over a bidon for Jennings to the Shimano neutral service car, we drop back to the main field. The lead is still around three minutes and the closed road safety bubble between the leaders and the bunch has burst. We stop and wait for the bunch as normal road traffic rolls past.
At the back of the field we enter the parklands area of Shugborough Hall and bounce around on the speed bumps on the closed roads. Roger Hammond punctures. The British rider sits behind the DFL car as he uses the convoy to get back to the bunch. Suddenly, a puncture to Russell Downing is considerably more of a worry for the team. Faster than a Ferrari pit stop, Andy Verrell does an ultra quick wheel change and gives Downing a push start. It's virtually seamless and Downing is back in contention.
We reach the only KOM of the day at Cannock Chase and the Panaria team put the hammer down. Tom Barras has a mechanical problem of some description and comes back to the car for help then pops back to see the race doctor with a small ailment for a few seconds. Over the hill and Barras fights his way back to the main field joining team mate Alex Coutts. Neither is looking comfortable at the end of one long line of rapidly moving racing cyclists powering their way towards Birmingham. Eric gets on the radio for 'Rat' (Tom Barras) and 'Casper' (Alex Coutts) to move forward but it's easier said than done.
We take advantage of the strung-out field and move back up to Jennings who comes back to the car for some advice. Eric warns him to take it a little easier and not to take Cavendish to the finish. The lead has grown to 5 minutes and as we drop back to the main bunch we know that we won't be able to get to the front of the race again through 'normal' traffic. Eric takes it all in his stride and calmly puts a little balm on his lips while we wait for Russell to come past. We finally lose radio contact with Jennings and he is on his own now.
It's 25km to go and Eric orders the team to go to the front for the last 10km to keep the speed high and hold things together for Russell in the bunch sprint. We wait for news of the leaders on race radio. As the leaders reach the centre of Birmingham, we hear that Van Summeren has attacked with Jennings on his wheel but they only get a 30 metre lead. Manning counter-attacks with Willems on his wheel, but it all goes pear shaped for the British rider as he chooses the long way round the roundabout. Willems takes the shortest route to win the stage followed by Cavendish. Jennings finishes sixth.
As the bunched explodes down the finishing straight, Russell Downing holds his nerve to finish third in the sprint and retain the green jersey by the narrowest margin possible of one point. Eric congratulates the team for their day's efforts and ensures they have everything they need. It's a far less glamorous job than he enjoyed in his racing days.
At least in those days he got to see most of the race finishes firsthand.
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Images by Gerry McManus/www.gerrymcmanus.co.uk