As opportunities go, seeing Kraftwerk in concert and a Tour De France stage in the same weekend is serious one in my book. Chuck in travelling to a new city and it is pretty much unbeatable.
I’ll cover the gig separately.
Utrecht embraces cycling like no over city I’ve been to. Bizarrely, Stevenage in Hertfordshire is the nearest. There are cycle paths that are legible and separated from the main roads. The canal system lends itself to some beautiful quiet routes with ever changing views from the outskirts through to the old part of the city.
There are cycle parks everywhere.
It is the main method of commuting with a super tram and bus system pushing the car to a last resort. 50% of the inner city trips are by bicycle. There are even cycles shelved on the outside buildings.
People just tootle around on their bikes all day like it is the most natural thing in the world.
It is therefore the ideal venue for the Tour De France. This was the sixth time the Tour had come to the Netherlands. The first in 1954 was the first ever Grand Depart to take place outside of France. It was home win from Wout Wagtmans as were the following two editions in 1973 and 1978. The crash prone Alex Zulle won in 1996 before being embroiled in the Festina scandal of 1998.
The last victor was Spartacus himself in Rotterdam 2010, the likeable and personable Fabian Cancellara. It was the year that Sky debuted Bradley Wiggins and gambled by putting their man out early for the 9.6km. It backfired when the weather cleared and the later riders posted progressively better times.
I had hired a rather hefty “sit up and beg” bike myself for my stay.
This was a top move. It gave me the ability to get around the circuit, stopping for beers and food along the way. I noticed that my chunky bicycle was not unusual. Utrecht is flat as a pancake and there is no ego connected with cycling. There were very few flash 27 gear racing machines around, save for those ridden by the competitors. Hardly anyone was wearing helmets, although I must admit I persevered, given the combination of cobbles, right hand traffic and tipsy unfamiliar out-of-towners (possibly including myself).
The crowd took as many vantage points as possible.
Extension leads were trailed out on to the street, fridges plugged in and BBQ’s lit up.
The crowd were enthusiastic and knowledgeable. The Dutch riders of Team Lotto in particular got a huge cheer but everyone was encouraged.
What of the racing? Well as I said the course was flat and it was really therefore built for the speed merchants. Bike handling wasn’t really a challenge but the 14km length meant that it also suited the seasoned timetrialers. Nairo Quintana went earlier than the remainder of the GC contenders and posted a respectable time.
The most startling time was set by the young Aussie rider, Rohan Dennis. He went sub 15 minutes for the first time on the day. It wasn’t totally out of the blue though. Rohan had set the hour track record earlier in the year, that was latterly broken by Alex Dowsett and then Bradley Wiggins.
The time trial can appear an arcane event to the outsider. It’s the “race of truth” – go out too fast and you’ll tank before the end, too slow and you’ll regret not pushing it.
As Alex Dowsett said in Rouleur Magazine:
I start far harder than I ever planned to, and then simply think, “Well Alex, yet again you’ve set the bar higher than we ever planned to, bloody idiot – God help you if you don’t hold this to the finish!” Then it’s a case of hanging on…….
After leaving the Science Park, I headed over to one of the fan areas to watch the last twenty or so cyclists. This had the advantage of a big screen to track the times coming in. We saw the riders head down along the side of the canal, enjoying the cool of the water on a white hot day.
Tom Dumoulin ran Dennis close. The two big guns, Cancellara and Tony Martin, were still to come though. They came, they went and young Rohan sat in the leader’s chair for a very long time and eventually was the victor.
At the time, it felt like a changing of the guard and it may well be. Cancellara was coming back from injury but ended up in yellow at the end of Stage 2. After the carnage of Stage 3 though, he was out of the race. So was Dumoulin, who also crashed out. Was Tony Martin done for? He’d lost the world time title in 2014. Then on Stage 4, he rode extraordinarily away from the Peloton after the last stage of cobbles and remains in yellow as I write. He really is the most effortless cyclist to watch. There’s diesel in Der Panzerwagen yet!
My closing thought is that all Tour’s ought to start like this – a time trial on a sunny day around a beautiful cycling loving city. It really is a great way for the public and the cyclists to get together – and as an added bonus you get to cycle the route after the barriers come down.
Although I don’t think I’ll be challenging for the yellow jersey anytime soon!