Paris – Amsterdam
June, 23rd – July 2nd 2011
DAY 1 June 24: Paris-St Quentin. 1100 meter height, 170 theoretical, practical 185-214 km
It was a shock to the system to start with the longest stage on the first day of the tour. In theory it should have been a 170km stage rolling through the crowded streets of Paris, then along the tree- lined canals of north of the city and then onto the rolling grain field of northern France.
That was the theory. In practice riders went missing or split into groups and some covered up to 214km on the stage. An amazing effort. The day was picture-perfect in terms of weather and conditions. Former professional rider Andrea Ferragato lead the Allianz and Mondial riders, representing six different countries, five Mondial BUs and five Allianz OEs, along one of the classic routes of the tour de France.
Rolling wheatfields, quaint French villages and cheering school children dominated the scenery as the group of riders cycled through the countryside. This is a cycling mad country and maybe some of the schoolchildren thought this was a group of professionals warming up for the Tour de France, which is scheduled to begin next weekend. Maybe … but unlikely.
On this first day of the tour, the riders’ thanks goes out to Didier Lebret and all the staff at Allianz Global Assistance Head Offices for their support and understanding. Special thanks to friendly Sabah for her heartfelt greetings. Thanks to everyone for the breakfast and the warm send off that sent us into the Paris morning traffic.
Day 2 June 25: St Quentin-Roubaix. 600 meter height, 125km
There is a legendary 270 km stretch of road running north from Paris to Robaix that makes hardened cyclists blanche. Running approximately 270km over spine-shaking cobblestones, the stretch is enough to make strong men quake. Small men (under 75 kilo) aren’t even allowed to compete for fear they will be thrown from the saddle. On hot days, the sun beats down mercilessly and dust clouds obscure the view, on raining days the plains are turned into a sea of mud. Amongst cyclists, it is simply known as the “Hell of the North.”
Naturally, counting many cycling “tragics” and could-of-been-champions, we wanted to stay as far away from the stretch as possible. We might be keen, but we aren’t insane. Still, it was worth a look, so tour-guide Andrea obliged by taking the group on a 200 metre stretch – just for a taste.
Those who survived and actually enjoyed it, were then invited to take part in a three kilometre stretch through the famed Aremberg Forest, the making and breaking point of many a reputation. Arriving at the end of the stretch, the group of riders were well shaken – not stirred – and full of admiration for the people who make their living of this tough sport.
Compared to yesterday , the Allianz and Mondial riders halved the height climbed but dramatically increased the speed, despite the inclement conditions (light rain & wind). Whipping through small towns of red-bricked houses, they drove the pace hard to remain warm in the cold conditions. Unfortunately, it was also a day of delays as the bad weather made conditions slippery. While we were lucky not to have any falls (unlike yesterday) there was an unusually high number of punctures. One thing about the Italian style of mending punctures. They swear a lot. Perhaps it helps the blood flow?
The similarity to the Paris-Roubaix was the end point. The cyclists had the honour to roll into the famous Velodrome to the finish point of this classic. Carlo, the main organizer of the tour, led the riders as they raced around the steep-banked track to the cheers of the friendly crowd gathered to watch a junior cycling competition.
Tomorrow it is onto and into Belgium and the Geertruidenberg stretch, 500 metres of cobblestones running up the side of a hill, 200 metres of which have an incline of 20 percent – sounds like fun!
Day 3 June 26: Roubaix-Brussels.1050 meter height, 125km
CORRECTION: In yesterday’s diary, we mentioned that we had one hard climb on cobblestones facing us today. For this misinformation, we wish to apologize. It was actually five vicious cobblestone-lined climbs of up to 27 percent on small country lanes with nowhere to move. These included Kluisberg (11%), Bosberg (11%), Patenberg (20%), Koppenberg (22%) and the Wall of Geraardsbergen (20%). The first people to make the Wall of Geraardsbergen on bikes in the 1950s were considered Begian national heroes and received washing machines and house furniture as prizes.
The Muur were a shock to all the foreign riders who have never had to traverse something as demanding as this. Now we know what Andrea, the former professional cyclist, was referring to in his halting English when he spoke of “five roads.” It was not a general course description!
Known locally as “Muurs,” these challenges are included in the annual Tour of Flanders, one of the most ancient classic cycling races in the world. For the local Belgians, the Tour of Flanders is more important than a world championship. We are talking Bayern Munich championship big, Texas football big. Up to 100,000 people line these normally tranquil Muurs to cheer on their local champions who pit their skills against some of the best in the world. People arrive three days before the even, eating and sleeping on their chosen spot, in order to ensure they have prime positions to view each contest. It is an incredible atmosphere.
On other matters, as you gathered from above, the Mondial-Allianz riders have crossed from France into Belgium this morning. In the afternoon they finally rode into good weather with temperatures reach 28 degrees and the fog finally lifting. Belgium is cycling mad. Groups of up to 40 riders passed the Mondial Allianz riders going in the opposite direction, while smaller groups were constantly overtaking or being overtaken by our riders.
One friendly local dropped in our group for a while and inquired which route we were taking. Upon being told, he said, “Ohh, you’ve chosen a nasty one, but one to remember.” Yes, the Muurs were tough, but most of the Mondial-Allianz managed them, if not quite at the speeds of the professionals.
The other topic of the day was defoliation. How do serious male cyclists remove hair from their legs? Patrick and John favored the razor, though a female type that pulls out an extra link of folical. Corrado last used strips, but mentioned “Never again. The pain was too much.” We turned to Andrea Ferrigato for advice. “I prefer the razor. Once a week. One minute, though other professionals use strips.”
A good tip was provided by one of the women. Use moisturizer and the stubble is delayed from appearing. See these trips are educational as well as enjoyable.
At this point in the tour, we must give a big thanks to the support team of Simone, Gino, Lucio and Fabio. There tireless efforts and constant assistant contribute greatly to making the event such a success.
Day 4 June 27: Brussels-Liège. 850 meter height, 125km
Officially we are reporting from Liege, but unofficially we are reporting from Painsville somewhere deep in Belgium. Feet hurt, legs hurt, butts hurt and shoulders and backs are screaming with agony. The Sad Wagons, the support vans collecting the broken and exhausted riders, are filling up nicely.
Team Canada is struggling. Rob is in the van nursing a nasty bruised knee after piling into a roadside barrier while watching Corrado run through a freshly laid stretch of cement on Day 1. If you have never seen a rider frantically washing down his bike before the concrete sets, you have never laughed.
Anyway, back to team Canada. On this day, Josh also spent a spell in the Sad Wagon with aching knees. Only Jaime has powered through. You may remember Jaime from last year’s tour. She is the woman who took up bike riding two months before the tour started and in the end rode for three days with a broken hand over stretches that could be best described as deplorable. This year she is back with a vengeance and two other Canadians in tow. But, while the lads are in the van, she is riding with what she describes as a slight cold, but to everyone else sounds like double pneumonia. No wonder she is referred to in certain regions of France as ̈La Toughe.”
In comparison to the previous days, the challenges on Day 4 were not as individually challenging, but they added up to perhaps the toughest day yet. Leaving Brussels we were greeted by a serious of rolling hills that in themselves were nothing much, but consistent. Up and down went the course and on each climb the summit was obscured, so that when you arrived where you thought you could begin to coast you were seriously disappointed by yet another rise ahead and had to ground down for another hard for the next spurt.
Ahh having a hobby is fun. Today the Mondial-Allianz riders were joined by Tiziani and Luigi who were able to enjoy the sun beat down mercilessly. When the riders left the Mondial Brussels headquarters after coffee and croissants it was already pushing 22 degrees on thermometers. During the stage, as the riders flashed pass electronic billboards, the temperature read 33 degrees. On the road, surrounded by the radiated heat from the tar, it was recording 37 degrees on speedometers and many an exasperated sigh was given.
Yesterday we described how tough are the “Muurs,” the cobblestoned backlanes of the Belgium countryside. Normally these tranquil paths are pathways used by frantic dairy cattle trying to keep a grip on the steep inclines, but once a year they feature famous international and local riders frantically trying to keep a grip on the steep inclines. Today we faced no cobblestoned Muur; but we did have the toughest climb of all. The Muur de Huy has no cobblestones, but it is a two kilometre climb most of which is over 20 degrees in incline.
Patrick Rumpel managed to beat former professional Andrea Ferrogati to the finish line on the climb to take the points honours. Well, actually honors went to all who finished the climb without stepping off the bike. They were few and far between.
But even on tough days of riding, there are moments of magic. When the Italians stop wize-cracking, when the Germans are reeled in, when the sun and the wind are at your back and the road is new and sleek. Then the bunch buckles down seriously and quiet descends only disturbed by the backchat of freewheeling rear cartridges and the whisper of tires gliding effortlessly across the tar sounds like whispered promises of descents soon to come.
Day 5 June 28: Liege-Aarschot 900 meter height, 157km
The definition of a split second is the period of time between traffic lights turning green and the Italians down the backrows screaming out, “Verde, verde” and “Vai vai” and perhaps some items not fit to print. Logic states that the light change and the shouts can’t start simultaneously, but you’d need an atomic clock to measure the fraction of time that lapses.
Today, the Mondial-Allianz riders passed from Belgium into the Netherlands, through the delightful city of Maastricht and then back into Belgium. Temperatures were already nudging 27 degrees when the riders left the city of Liege in the morning. We probably are not breaking any travel industry secrets by saying that Liege doesn’t have a lot of sights to offer. We know this because we rode around it three times seeking a way out of the city.
First stop was the St Nicolas climb just outside Liege, which the group missed yesterday. The climb is part of the Liege-Bastogne-Liege classic. It was not as tough as some of the climbs already accomplished, so we made up for it by having to climb it twice. Andrea, the guide, explained we have to go back up otherwise we risked losing the vans (the adjoining street was one-way and the rider would have had to go against the traffic flow). One rider, who shall remain anonymous, exclaimed in dismay, “I would rather lose the vans.”
Many of the climbs and fun sprints have been won by German riders, particularly Christoph “the gazelle” Kaspari or Patrick Rumpel. Another strong German rider is Michael Kathrein. As a warm up to the tour, he rode his bike from Karlsruhe to Paris arriving in time to start the tour.
The second climb today was the Cauberg in Valkenberg, which is the end of the Amstel Gold classic. Another toughy, made harder by the weather which was hitting 41 degrees on some gauges. Valkenburg was the last of the climbs – thankfully! Who said Holland was flat? (NOTE: Carlo insists we inform readers that he won the Cauberg sprint).
As it was mid afternoon by this stage, the group had to settle down for a long; hard grind to cover the next 100 km. As it was already 14:30 and we had “only” covered 60 km, this was going to be a challenge. As the pace of over 32 km an hour, the hot conditions and head winds and unprecedented number of punctures took their toll, the Sad Wagons gradually become even sadder as they filled with tired and shattered riders.
It was good to have Valerio back in the group. So far the 73-year-old verteran has had a disappointing tour. Last year the fanatical sportsman was amongst the strongest of the riders, but this year he had a fall on the second day, broke his customized bike on the third, and got two punctures on the fourth when using Andrea’s second bike. One of the punctures occured within 2 km of the hotel. Fortunately, he was back in form today racing up and dozn the bunch, encouraging other riders along and laughing the whole time.
The “Stuff Up of the Day” probably goes to Greg Langley who, during his turn at the front, managed to lead the bunch onto a freeway where they were stopped by irrate policeman at the town of
Genk. Simone, from Mondial Netherlands, managed to sweet talk the police who then gave the group a police escort – lights flashing – for 20 km. What a buzz!
The end was chaotic. Andrea pushed up the pace and riders kept falling off the bunch and were left to wend their way through the countryside in broken groups to the hotel in Aarschot, riding hard to beat out a gathering storm.
June 29: Aarschot-Brugge 165km; Height – hey, get serious, this is Belgium, but we had headwinds that seemed to be about 15 knots
When last we visited our adventurers, the Fellowship of the Wheel had been broken and the riders scattered across the Belgium plains like chaff before the winds of the gathering storm. The three Sad Wagons were full to the brim and Andrea had led the remnants of the main bunch to the safety of the Hertogen Mollen hotel in Aarschot.
Out on the darkening plains small groups of riders were racing to beat the rain. Carlo, Christoph Kaspari and Pietro were suffering the torture of a thousand punctures on the byways. Greg, who had pulled a major shift at the front of the bunch into a strong headwind and then hit the wall, was been sheparded in by Andreas Glaubitz, and Dutch Michael saved Jaimie from the wilderness with the magic of his GPS. Groups of drenched and bedraggled struggled in throughout the night lit by flashes of lightening, while the third Sad Wagon was believed sunk with the loss of all hands.
When we rejoined our reunited heroes this morning, they were still drenched and bedraggled on account of the weather. Drizzling rain fell for the first two hours of the day, soakening the bunch who remained uncharacteristically quiet throughout the ride. Eventually, as they approached the city of Gent, the grey skies gave way to sunshine and the riders became more spirited.
In Gent, the riders visited the family of Wouter Weylands, the young Belgian cyclist killed during the third stage of the 2011 Giro d’Italia in May. The manager of Wouter is a friend of Andrea and, as a former professional, Andrea wanted to pay his respect out of empathy to the family. The family was visibly touched by the visit, the heartfelt zords of Andrea and Carlo and the presentation of a Mondial- Allianz bike top. The promising young cyclist left a girlfriend behind who is seven months pregnant. Contributions to the support of Wouter’s child can be made by visiting his Facebook page.
Wouter’s father then joined the Mondial-Allianz riders for 20 kms to show them the way to Brugge. Shortly after he left, the riders had a reminder just how dangerous cycling can be when a car whipped out from a sidestreet and knocked Jaimie into a grass verge. Jamie escaped with scratches, bruises and a buckled wheel, but tough little cookie that she is, she road out the remaining 30km.
Upon arriving in Brugge, the riders received the news that one of their number was already in hospital. Eight Dutch riders had been expected to join for the following days ride to Rotterdam, but unfortunately Erick had fallen foul of some tram lines and flown over his handbars. After a visit to the hospital, he was on his way home with, we hope, no significant injuries.
One of the strongest riders this year is again one of the oldest. Luigi is 67-years-old and has 22,000 training kilometers to his account for the past year. No wonder he makes all other riders look like they are standing on the climbs. At one point, he commented to Daniëlle that it takes two years to prepare for a ride as rigorous as the one we are undertaking.
“Funny,” answered Daniëlle, “I only took up riding one month ago.” Luigi then looked at her like she was crazy. And must have thought that Carlo was crazy for convincing her to come.
June 30: Brugge-Rotterdam 144 km; height – probably minus, everything seems to be below sea level in Holland
“Godverdorie,” as the Dutch say, we have arrived in Holland. And what a country for cycling! Long, flat and well laid out stretches of bike paths crisscross the country and the landscape (apart from the Valkenburg) is as flat as a pancake. If they could only work out how to get rid of the headwinds, it would be ideal. Bit boring perhaps, but ideal turf to cane the bikes across the countryside at rapid speeds.
The paths themselves are well laid and maintained, an avid cyclists dream. In fact, so good are the conditions of the paths that it would seem impossible to get a puncture. Well, almost impossible. Dutch puncture king Thijs can get a puncture anywhere. To date, he clearly leads the tables with five punctures. The last was in Holland at a café and he simply looked at his bike and then the tube exploded. Clearly he has some magical power. Tomorrow, the riders are running a book on what time he will pull his first puncture. The rider closest to the time sweeps the pot.
Today we were joined by ten riders from Allianz Netherlands in Brugge, which meant we could ditch the Italian GPS systems as the locals swore they knew the way. Still it didn’t stop the Italians from arguing vehemently with them about the directions. At one point the locals said go left and Andrea, reading his GPS, strongly insisted we go right. He wasn’t aware he was standing under a sign clearly marking the bike path to Rotterdam as left. Italian GPS devices don’t seem to be the most robust around. In fact, they seem to have an inbuilt variable in them that automatically increases any journey by 15-20%. Maybe they are programmed to take you past photographic opportunities.
The path to Rotterdam run over the Delta Works of Holland, part of the defenses built against the sea, and the pride of Dutch. An impressive stretch of engineering, but the headwinds sapped the strength of many riders. Arriving at the Rotterdam Allianz offices, they were grateful to be heartily welcomed by the staff with drinks, snacks and then a dinner in the hotel. Many thanks to the staff and management of Allianz for their warm welcome.
Tomorrow it is the final leg of the tour, from Rotterdam to Amsterdam, where the first of the riders will be leaving. In case we don’t have the chance to say goodbye in the rush of the final sprint, we wish all our friends all the best for the future and hope the wind is always at your back and the road slopes gently before your wheels.
July 1: Rotterdam-Amsterdam 125 km
Just when you believe you can depend on someone they go and let you down. Thijs incredibly made the trip from Rotterdam to Amsterdam without incurring a puncture, a busted spoke or suffering anything more significant than the aftereffects of a late night visit to his local bar, the Post Bank (Thijs, Robert and Michael live in Rotterdam). In theory, he would have scooped the “Thijs puncture betting pot” if we ever got around to establishing it. Many other riders also suffered the consequences of the late visit to Thijs’s local and suffered a lack of initiative early on the last day.
Understandably, it was a curiously lethargic group that mounted their bikes and headed of into the blustering headwinds that blown across the reclaimed swamp of the Netherlands. So strong can be the winds in this country that parents walking small children tie them up with rope and let them trail behind like kites in order to prevent them from being totally blowing away. Or at least that seemed to be the case to the riders as they tried to tack their way across the landscape.
At one point six riders, including Carlo and Christian, dropped back to pick up two stragglers and worked in teams to push them back up to the bunch. But with jackets blown wide like ships under sail, at times it felt like they were actually moving backwards.
On its day, the Netherlands can be an astoundingly beautiful country. On other days, when gales blow and rain buckets down, it can be incredibly dismal. The Mondial-Allianz riders experienced both aspects on the final leg as Arco Plomp, a born again bike rider, led them past windmills, down small countryside lanes and past yet more windmills in the Groene Hart, the protected meadow and marshland that provide a tranquil rural escape in one of the world’s most populated countries, and onto the end at the Mondial headquarters in Amsterdam.
As usual, the sniff of the finish line got the Italian and German riders excited, but they restrained their competitive instinct to finish out as a group. Danielle was one of the first across and was greeted with a bouquet of flowers from her two children.
Another rider worth mentioning is Carmelo. Carmelo has been a paraplegic since a childhood accident, but is always one of the cheerful and inspiring of the group. This year he put in an incredible effort including facing some of the cobblestoned roads of northern France without flinching. On the second last day, he set a personal best of 135 km – the highest total he ever tallied in a day. While his handbike is a state-of-the-art, pride-of-German-engineering device, it is still demanding for him to climb hills just using his arms (note: legs are the body’s strongest limbs). Andrea often helped him out by pushing him up steeper inclines but usually Carmelo toughed it out himself and then, being more aerodynamic, passed many riders on the decline (he still holds the unofficial speed record). It was a great honor for all of us to cross the final line again with Carmelo.
Before concluding and hand it over to Carlo for his summarizing thoughts (see below), we would like to thank the organizers: Carlo, Corrado, Simone and all others for their dedication and initiative. Also a big biking thanks to Andrea for joining us and providing first-hand insights into the life of a professional and the rigors of their onroad life and the shenanigans of their off-road leisure. It really brought the stages to life.
Another tour has ended. It was the 4th for many of the Italians. Being one of the founders of this cyclist team, it is a great satisfaction to see that, year by year, this initiative is having success and bringing smile everywhere.
I have been living in France since last November. I am used to working with people from different countries and one of the most interesting things to see is how people can react to daily difficulties. A bike tour like ours could be everyday a surprise for everybody: most of the time you don’t know the places where you are.
Sometimes you have to be ready to face unexpected emergencies: a broken wheel, punctures, accidents, you can feel very tired sometimes, you could have strong wind in face and also storms.
For 8 days we lived in another dimension, far from the family and together with new people coming from everywhere (6 nationalities this time). It’s more than a team building. Day by day you can see how people can react to the rules you must have with such a big group of people. Sometimes it could not be so easy or you could disagree thinking that there might be a better way to do the same thing, other times you can smile thinking that the daily stage instead of 160Km ended after 190Km!
The Italian organization for its nature is not rigid, we love (and we want within a certain limit) to be flexible but always having in our mind the final goal and trying to be ready to face every problem. We took about 9 months to prepare this event in the spare time. It was a big project and we managed it like a real project. Corrado, Simone, Danielle and some others had a defined role in the group. We had to face many problems before the living. More than one time we told each other that this is the last time we take such a responsibility.
During the tour, even if we took a week of vacation, we had a lot of tasks to be managed every day, that’s the reason why we never appeared 100% relaxed. So, where is the secret of this initiative? Why is it working so well?
It’s all included in one word: emotions!
I would like to share with you some of my emotions, I think quite similar to the one lived from the other friends:
Emotion was the wind in my face in a beautiful countryside in the late afternoon (the first day next to St. Quentin when we were divided in several small groups – shared with Greg and Josh);
Emotion is the smile on a tired face after the end of an endless stage (Danielle in Aarschot after 160Km and under a storm);
Emotional are the roads of the Classic Professional Competitions (Roubaix-Liege-Huy…) that I saw at the TV since I was a teenager;
Emotional are the stories from Andrea (he was a winner rider till 6 years ago) about his participation to the same classics and to some Tour de France – Grazie Andrea;
Emotion is to see Carmelo on his hand-bike facing the Roubaix stones; Emotion is meeting the families of some cyclists (Thijs’ parents, Simone’s husband, Danielle’s
Emotion is the visit to Wouter’s family, the cyclist killed during the last Giro d’Italia. As Andrea said: “When a cyclist dies, a piece of you remains with him”;
But the greatest emotions for me were the last day words of some cyclists who told me that: “it was the most intensive and incredible week of my life”.
These are just some of the emotions I lived and that I will have forever in my memory. This is the reason why there is not a better premium for me and the team for all the efforts we had to do.
This is the reason why we really hope there will be a 5th edition in 2012!!!
What I want to say to all the participants (both the cyclists and the fantastic drivers) is THANK YOU because we’ve done it all together.
Other special thanks to our sponsors: Allianz Global Assistance SA – Paris, Mondial Assistance Italia – Milano, AllianzBank-Milano.
And to the ones who welcomed us in their offices offering the group some good beers: Allianz NL – Rotterdam, Mondial Assistance NL – Amsterdam, Mondial Assistance BE – Brussels.
A very special thank you goes to Greg Langley, who wrote the tour diaries in a humorous way and allowed many colleagues and friends to follow the group’s adventures every day. The 8 stages of this tour will thus also remain an everlasting souvenir to all the riders and drivers.