Cycling: Uneasy riders of conscience

The rhythms of the road return after tragedy strikes at the heart of a tour growing in stature
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The Independent Online
Andrew Longmore

follows the fortunes of

Chris Boardman's team

as he tries to find form

THE cycling community has a robust way of dealing with tragedy. When the young Italian rider Fabio Casartelli died on the Tour de France three years ago, the peloton rode the following day's stage at the pace of a funeral cortege, allowing Casartelli's Motorola team-mates to lead the convoy over the finishing line. The next time the race passed through the Pyrenees the whole field stopped to pay their respects at his monument. No one told them what to do. This was one of their own; history dictated the reaction.

A similar mood engulfed the riders of the inaugural PruTour on the road between Malvern and Worcester last Wednesday. No one needs to remind racing cyclists how dangerous their profession can be, but their wage packets give a clue. Dave Hopkins, the police outrider from the West Mercia force killed in a collision with a car during the early miles of the fifth stage, volunteered for his duties because he was an experienced escort and loved his cycling. His death left the peloton with a peculiar sense of guilt. "I didn't know what the guy looked like, but I do know that a little boy, 15 months old, will grow up not knowing his father," Chris Boardman said. "And for what?" It was Boardman and the leader of the Festina team, Neil Stephens, who had led the response to the news, cancelling the remainder of the stage and donating the day's prize money to Hopkins' wife and four children. Boardman himself has four children, the youngest of them not much older than 15 months.

By the following morning, the teams had rationalised the accident without fully resolving their part in it. The riders held a minute's silence in the sunshine of College Green in Bristol which stretched into the opening miles of the 91-miles stage to Reading. "Only gradually did thoughts turn to racing again," added Boardman. "The foreign riders kick-started it. I suppose they were further removed from the tragedy than most of us."

Slowly the rhythms of the road returned. Radios crackled into life in the convoy of team cars, bringing news of the retirement of George Hincapie, the highly placed US Postal rider, and of a crash involving Niki Sorensen on the Avon Bridge. Mostly, as the peloton played cat-and-mouse through the outskirts of Bath, into Wiltshire and on over the Berkshire Downs, the disembowelled voice of the race director relayed mile-by-mile coverage of a masterclass in defensive efficiency by the Gan team. With Stuart O'Grady leading the race and Boardman a close second, Roger Legeay, the directeur sportif of Gan, was able to dictate terms. "Overall victory is now the most important thing for us," he explained. "So we do not have to attack. It is not our problem."

Keeping the tempo high at the front, countering the stamina-sapping crosswinds by adopting the traditional echelon formation, Gan reeled in every foreign break and slowly discouraged the do-or-die merchants from pursuing their heroics. The day was tailor-made for a workhorse like Eros Poli, the veteran domestique and team talisman. "When Eros starts working, I don't interfere, I just let him get on with it," Boardman says. "My fear was that we would lose a couple of the younger guys. But actually the team really clicked. We just kept up a relentless nagging pace which made everyone suffer. If someone wants to attack, we're saying 'You can do it, but is it worth it? You're going to suffer.'"

The exercise in psychological demolition worked to near perfection. By the time the field winds down from the Downs into the Valley of the Racehorse, the Gan bully boys have subdued the rebellious spirit of the peloton and persuaded everyone to conserve their energy for the final few miles. "The psychology of the peloton is very important," Legeay says. In the bevy of national amateur teams preparing for the Commonwealth Games, Gan, Festina and US Postal are the hired professionals. Festina's top team is on the Giro d'Italia, the French half of the Gan team is on the Midi Libre, but the presence of Legeay has brought the PruTour an unexpected sense of cachet.

Owner of the oldest team in the peloton, a Frenchman from central casting, Legeay has developed an unexpected warmth for les rosbifs in recent years, which has begun to extend beyond the natural interest in his protege Boardman. A cruise through England provides a change of scene, a quiet interlude before the twitchy prelude to his 24th Tour de France in July. A chance too to check on Boardman's poor early season form. "This will be great for Chris, a chance to rebuild his confidence," he says.

Not much happens in cycling outside Legeay's field of vision. He is president of this, on this and that committee. "It is my job to know," he says through the haze of his 20th of the morning. With his team welded to the front, Legeay pulls his car out of the line of chase cars and cruises alongside a black limo to find the day's chief guest, the president of the UCI, the international governing body.

The conversation meanders on for a mile or two over roads usually choked by traffic before Legeay returns to the ranks, his attention occupied briefly by news of another breakaway. Legeay checks his list of riders for danger, finds none and munches his sandwich. His conversation is illustrated by full gestures. The man could drive a Formula One car with his left knee.

Only five miles from the finish does the race burst back into life. A group of 20 break from the pack on the final climb up Sulham Hill, orchestrated by Gan. The pace, already high, has quickened again, leaving many of the amateurs gasping for the air of middle England. But, for once, Gan are caught out, a little climb not marked on the race profile proves an ideal spot for the ageing Russian, Vjatchesklav Ekimov, of US Postal to snatch a precious gap, which he holds to the finishing line at the Richfield Industrial Estate.

Gan keep the race lead. Cycling's pulse returns to normal. Boardman has one final duty to perform. He walks back up the finishing straight to thank a group of heavy-leathered motorbike riders who minutes earlier were happily guaranteeing his safety on the roads.