Memories from World Championships past: Part I

I’ve been fortunate to attend ten consecutive UCI Road World Championships. I worked as a volunteer at the first few which gave me an opportunity to make a number of friends whom I continue to meet up with at various cycling events. My first WC was Salzburg 2006 and my last was Richmond 2015. I ducked out of Qatar and Bergen, and was due to attend this week’s in Innsbruck but work intervened! So I’m having a bit of a gander down memory lane revisiting the highlights of championships past with my dear friend Ute who’s manning the reception Desk in the Press Centre in Innsbruck this week.

Salzburg 2006

We first met in Salzburg when we both worked as volunteers. She assisted with the podium ceremony – flags, anthems, flowers etcetera – while I dished out packed lunches to the 2,000 or so volunteers, army, police and municipal workers. Now I appreciate that hers sounds the more glamorous job but mine afforded me the opportunity to see all the racing and catch the action on the podium. Let me explain.

Valeria – another friendship cemented in Salzburg – and I were billeted in a large tent at the back of the press area right next to the all important television chow wagon. That’s right, no packed lunches for us – we were royally fed all week. Most of the volunteers dropped by to collect the lunches for their team but a few had to be delivered giving us an opportunity to get out and about and check on the action.

Super Mario

In Salzburg all the races took place on the same circuit. We watched the race unfold on the adjacent big screen, emerging only to watch the riders pass by from the specially adapted platform for handicapped fans. Now this is going to sound a bit callous but it was a) in a great spot right by the finish and b) they weren’t going to leap up from their wheelchairs and spoil our view. We weren’t the only fans who shared this opportunity. Guess who we met? I have to confess both Valeria and I went a bit weak at the knees, he drips sex-appeal.

Salzburg wins the award for being the best volunteer experience. Largely I think because everything was pretty much in one place, the atmosphere was terrific and, of course, it was our first. You never forget your first anything, do you?

Stuttgart 2007

18 months post-Puerto, the Germans were reluctant hosts and it showed. This time Valeria and I were working in the luxurious surrounding of the UCI’s Congress Hotel in the centre of Stuttgart manning their VIP welcome desk where we provided, and I’m quoting a high-ranking UCI official here, “the best service ever …”

Bert and Me

This was where we first met Bert,who used to attend the Congress on behalf of New Zealand and whose lengthy service to the world of cycling had been recognised by the UCI, Queen and country. He was an old charmer, everyone knew and loved him. I’ve lost count of the number of World Championships he attended but it must be close to 80! (That total includes a few on the track, MTB etc.) He’d seen Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali race and had a whole raft of interesting tales to tell, if only you took the time to sit and listen.

 

Valeria and I both agreed our favourite moment was meeting the incredibly humble, but oh so charming, Miguel Indurain who signed what seemed like hundreds of autographs at our behest for other volunteers. I do believe Valeria still has the photo I took of her snuggled up to Miguel wearing that rather Bet Lynch-ish low-necked leopard print top!

Stuttgart stands alone in not winning any prizes whatsoever, rather we’ve awarded it a big fat raspberry.

Varese 2008

Drawn by Nathalie and signed by Tom

Home to the Mapei centre, the town of Varese embraced and celebrated the World Championships with a style not seen before or since, by me at least. I was staying in a small guest house not far from the town centre where I was working in the accreditation centre: more long but enjoyable days.

Mine hosts served breakfast whenever I wanted and would rush to comfort me when I arrived back from a long day’s work with herbal tea and home-made cake. I never wanted to leave, have remained in touch and visited many times since. Ute was again manning the flagpoles. I worked with a great crowd of largely local students and bonded with fellow fan Nathalie. We’ve kept in touch and frequently meet up at Italian races.

Varese wins my prize for the nicest volunteer outfit by a street mile. Grey trousers, light blue polo shirt, navy blue v-necked sweater and quite my favourite backpack which I still use. Sadly, the trousers had matchstick legs, they probably only fitted the hostesses and podium girls.

Mendrisio 2009

Swiss boys: Fabian with my friend

Again I’d volunteered but as it was only 10km up the road from the previous year’s event, the organisers were swamped with applications and decided not to take anyone from outside the region. Ute threw a wobbly and, fearful of an international incident, the organisers wisely gave her a position in the Press Centre. I stayed with my friend in Lugano, helped out on the Santini stand, saw all of the racing and rode my bike on the road race circuit. My friend Nathalie was a hostess in the VIP stand where, with the exception of Sunday, staff outnumbered guests. We chatted using sign language as I was camped out on the 50m to go line opposite.

My favourite moment came when I was riding along the flatter part of the circuit and seemed to be drawing a fair amount of excited interest from the fans on the roadside. I looked around to find none other than Fabian Cancellara sucking my wheel. I flicked my elbow and he obligingly came through. I stayed on his wheel for another five or so kilometres, admiring his fluid pedal stroke, until the road turned upwards and I slid off said wheel.

Mendrisio wins my prize for the most exciting racing. You may recall Cancellara won the time trial so easily he was celebrating 100m from the line and Cadel Evans won the men’s road race having demonstrated he was indeed an attacking rider.

Should you wish to know more about my trip and the racing, here’s the links to the posts I wrote back in 2009, the year I started the blog:-

Observations from Mendrisio

Postcards from Mendrisio I

Postcards from Mendrisio II

Postcards from Mendrisio III

Melbourne 2010


This wins my prize for the best organised and most fan-friendly event despite it being staged some 70-odd kilometres from Melbourne in Geelong. Fans had access to both sides of the finish line while the UCI’s guests and sponsors tents were at the base of the final drag. Viewing spots with refreshments and a big screen were dotted all over the course and given different nationalities. I was again camped out on the 50m line next to the hard-core Tom Boonen fan club that had turned up even though their hero hadn’t. Shame, really, the course would’ve suited him.

I again rode the course, this time on a hired mountain bike. I was glad of the lower gearing on both of those strenuous climbs. One moment sticks in my memory from Melbourne. I was enjoying a coffee in the Spanish team hotel when they found out about Alberto Contador’s positive test for clenbuterol. They were shocked, devastated and extremely upset. That news effectively killed off the Spanish challenge.

Again, here are the links to some of the posts I wrote about the racing:-

Postcards from Melbourne III

Postcards from Melbourne IV

Postcards from Melbourne V

Memories of Melbourne I

Memories of Melbourne II

You’ll find my thoughts on the UCI Road World Championships from Copenhagen 2011 to Richmond 2015 in Part II.

Observations from Mendrisio

I think three world championships and one Tour de France allows me to label myself a serial volunteer. The attraction for me is not the proximity to yards of Lycra, more my fascination with the organization of major events. Naturally enough, I’m most interested in what works really well, what doesn’t and why. Here’s my take on a few things.

This year, in order to gain access to the start/finish area, spectators had to purchase a pin. This also entitled you to free travel on the local trains and buses. An inspired decision as it sped up the mass movement of spectators. Unfortunately, having encouraged the use of public transport, they then failed to lay on any additional trains and buses – much less good.

The catering facilities in the start/finish and exhibition area could only be described as woeful and an encouragement to bring your own. This may have been why many nationalities chose to hang out at bars in the town. The Dutch, for example, took over a bar on the Acqua Fresca climb while many of the French, Belgians and Italians set up camp around their mobile homes. Missed opportunities, I feel, for local businesses.

Shipping in a load of schoolchildren to fill the stands and provide a wall of sound was a great idea but why so few and why only on Thursday? It would have been much better to fill the tribunes, particularly on Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday with OAPs and schoolchildren, rather than leave them empty. Indeed, Swiss TV (RSI) had real problems avoiding shooting the empty tribunes, where there were even seats going spare on Sunday. I was faced with a similar dilemma in Salzburg where I was on guard duty barring entry (to all bar VIPs) to the VIP Tribune for the Men’s TT. Realising this was not going to look good on the big screen, I surreptitiously shipped in a bus load of elderly tourists who were thrilled to have a grandstand seat. They obligingly made plenty of noise each time a competitor came past. 

The Swiss army had been heavily deployed but, since most were not local, had no real idea of where things were situated and many spoke only Swiss-German. It might have been an idea to provide them with detailed maps, a more thorough briefing and put the more linguistically gifted in key areas.

Many of the shop windows in Lugano and Mendrisio had a cycling theme, but not all. This was much better executed last year in Varese where the town totally embraced the championships. But then the Italians are more passionate than the Swiss about most things.

Everything was spread over too wide an area. Accreditation was based at a hotel in Mendrisio well away from the race circuit. The UCI were billeted in Lugano and used the University there for their Congress and other meetings. The start/finish and exhibition area, just outside of Mendrisio, was open air,  set up on agricultural land with no nearby facilities and a good 20 minute (my pace)  walk from the train station. There was no sign of the promised shuttle buses although I did see one or two VIPS clambering inelegantly in and out of army jeeps.

I learned that the Organising Committee had decided not to accept volunteers from outside the region on ecological grounds. Indeed, roles were allocated to volunteers based on where they lived: not on prior experience, linguistic ability or any other rational reason. Many of the volunteers (both Swiss and Italian) had worked at Varese 2008 and they concluded that last year’s Championships had been both better organised and more enjoyable.

Lake Tessin, Ticino
Lake Tessin, Ticino

The cinematography of the race was very disappointing. Far too many overhead shots from afar so no one, including the broadcasters, had any idea what was happening at key points in the race. RSI had plenty of time to prepare for this event. Could they not have learnt from the masters of this, the French? Ticino is a beautiful area with lakes, mountains and charming small towns and villages but all the viewers saw was the roads and industrial estate around Mendrisio. Do you not want to boost tourism in the area? Obviously, not.