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Tales from the peloton, January 22, 2004
On the road with Panaria-Margres
Simply being able to watch a premiere bike race is a great thrill for anyone but an even greater perspective on the politics, the tactics and the fun bits of the peloton can be found by getting a ride in a team car. Cyclingnews' Karen Forman was fortunate to spend Wednesday's Stage 2 of the 2004 Tour Down Under in the team car of Panaria-Margres.
"Buongiorno Panaria-Margres". The voice comes loud and clear through the radio in the chief commissaire's car, in Italian. Manager, Roberto Reverberi, behind the steering wheel of the station wagon supplied to the team for the duration of the 2004 Jacobs Creek Tour Down Under, responds immediately: "Buongiorno, good morning."
And so the radio check continues down the line of the 11 other team cars. We are fourth in the line-up, behind FdJeux.com, whose director responds in French: "Bonjour". When it comes to the turn of the Australian teams of Team Australia (David Sanders), United Water (Brian Stephens) and UniSA (Michele Primaro), they respond with a hearty Aussie "good morning". And the atmosphere is set for the day.
It's a warm 24 degrees at 11am as Roberto and team mechanic Saul Nencini set off behind the commissaires and other team cars to be on hand for their riders, Australian Graeme Brown, Italian Giuliano Figueras, Australian Brett Lancaster, Argentinian Ruben (Guillermo) Bongiorno, Australian Scott Davis, Ukranian Sergiy Matveyev and Italians Fabio Gilioli and Paolo Tiralongo, for the 157km stage from Norwood to Kapunda.
Roberto, who speaks a little English but is happy to converse in his native tongue where possible, says he is pleased to be in Australia for the first time with Panaria-Margres. He has been the director for six years. Like most other team managers, he was a rider himself - for five years as an amateur - and now rides for fitness and to keep in touch with his riders.
Coming from Italy where bike racing is popular and well supported by the general population, he isn't surprised at the biggest crowds I have seen at an Australian cycling event ever, two - three deep along the streets as we move through the town of Norwood, which is a neutral zone for the riders.
Roberto is happy that people have come to watch, of course, but he's more interested in asking questions about the kangaroos and their "sacks". "Do the man kangaroos have the sacks as well?," he asks.
He does have a chuckle when he sees an entire team of elderly croquet players, with mallets in hand, lined up to watch the cavalcade go by. In true Italian driving fashion, he takes the corners swiftly, drives bumper to bumper with the team car ahead and has an air of urgency and importance about him that is beguiling rather than arrogant.
The race gets underway officially at 11.21am with 93 riders. Robert is straight onto the radio: "Fabio, where are you?" He wants to know the position of one of his domestiques.
He explains that his goals for the team this JCTDU are to win a stage with velocista (sprinter) Graeme Brown and the overall with Figueras, who is the team's Grand Tour rider. Panaria-Margres isn't a Tour de France team, unfortunately: "We are a category two team of 16 riders and that makes it impossible for us to go into the TdF," Roberto says. "I wish we could."
"Can you hear me, Paolo?" He's on the radio again. "The leaders have a three minute gap."
A little later: "Paolo, quattro chilometri" (Paolo, four kilometres). At the King of the Mountain sprint, Bongiorno is in difficulty and we speed forward to assist, right into the thick of the race. Roberto is too preoccupied to notice the fans dressed in colourful orange Panaria-Margres jerseys cheering wildly on the side of the road, but Saul is impressed.
Up the road Fabio is also struggling off the back. "Fabio! Mama Mia!" We go around him and Roberto instructs "passo la maccina, passo destra, eh?" (Pass the car, pass to the right). They're not exactly supposed to do it, but Fabio gets a few seconds blessed relief in the slipstream of the car. During the day we see many other riders tucking in a similar fashion, up the back of the bunch.
Panaria and Margres are both ceramic tile manufacturers - Panaria Italian and Margres Portugese.
Paolo is on the radio. "Si," Roberto assures him. "I will bring it". We accelerate forward, move next to the commissaire and wait for permission to move into the race to hand the thirsty rider a bidon. Everybody else wants to do the same. It's hot and the guys are thirsty. Suddenly we are surrounded by team cars all jostling for space on the road. The commissaire's voice booms out over the loudspeaker, "Team cars take care". For me it feels like being in traffic in Italy or France. It's fun.
All that fluid seems to be having an effect on the riders and for the next 5km or so, they are lined up on the side of the road answering the call of nature. Roberto laughs when I suggest it's not a feed zone, but a pee zone. "What else can you do?"
Fabio isn't doing too well. Apparently he vomited before the race, which Roberto says isn't that common. "It's more common when the race starts. He isn't sick, it is just from the racing," he says. "Now he is empty, not strong." He hands over a bottle of Coca-Cola, hoping the sugar content will give him some fast energy.
It's a nice day out here, the sun shining and a cool breeze. Roberto says it's a "climatico perfecto", a perfect temperature. Ahead of us another team car driver is being chastised by the commissaires for driving too fast between the bunches. There's a fine line, it seems, between following Australian road and police rules, and being able to do what is necessary for the riders on the bike race. A lot of these guys are used to following races in Europe where speed limits are either ignored or non-existent. It is difficult for them to go 80kmh or 100kmh when they have a rider up the road in desperate need of a new wheel or a drink. The commissaires have a tough job.
Two hours of the face to go and three of the European drivers are lined up next to the commissaires vehicle, shouting angrily in their respective languages because he will not let them past to attend to their riders.
"No," he tells them. "Why?" they shout.
"Chief commissaire. I've been told" is the reply. Up the road we can see the riders dropping back off the bunch, waiting for their managers to come forward with drinks. Horns are blaring and it's like being in a dodgem car race.
There's a break and Tiralongo is in it, to Roberto's pleasure. He explains that it's his job to keep an eye on Australian Robbie McEwen, who is also in the breakaway. We are soon called forward again to give some food to Sergiy. But when Saul tries to hand him a packet of strawberry flavoured supplement, the process slows him and he sees the bunch is getting away. "Porca putana." He decides to leave the food for later and gets out of the saddle to drive back into the fray.
Saul says the riders eat two or three of those packets of energy providing liquid each race, along with three to four honey or jam sandwiches.
"Come stai, Paolo?" (How are you, Paolo?) He's in the chase group, 14 minutes behind the leaders.
It's quite hot as we follow the race through the picturesque South Australian vineyards. The race is 109km gone and the breakaway has a five-minute gap. Is this a problem?
Robert gestures, "cosi, cosi" (maybe). There is still a while to go but Brownie is 13 minutes behind the leaders.
As the race continues, Robert is on the radio to his riders, like a mother hen looking after her chicks, constantly asking how they are feeling, if they need to eat or drink. As we get closer to the finish, he instructs Guillermo to work harder, tells Sergio to take some water, to listen to him and to work.
At the 138km mark the leaders have a gap of three minutes three seconds and with 10km to go the gap has narrowed to two minutes 40 seconds. Robert knows that it is not possible for his riders to get up.
The race is coming to an end. Commissaires instruct the team managers to check the board at the finish for the names of riders who will go into medical control.
Panaria Margres' best-finished rider for the day is Giuliano Figueras in 12th. Matveyev was 38th, Gilioli 79th, Davis 86th, Bongiorno 87th, Brown 88th.
After the stage Figueras sits in fifth place on the general classification. But as Roberto says, still smiling. "Tomorrow is another day."