The Never Ending Tour
As Bradley Wiggins rolled toward Paris on the final stage of the Tour de France, counting down the kilometres until he would become the first ever British winner of the race, just in front of the ambling peloton, with a microphone through his car window, race director Christian Prudhomme was telling the world how the imminent victory was ushering in a new era for the sport. With the twinkle of investments from new markets in his eyes, Prudhomme enthused about the fact that Anglo-Saxon countries had now finally taken over from the traditional cycling nations at the very head of the sport.
Just as Laurent Fignon’s defeat by Greg Lemond in the 1989 Tour spelled the beginning of the end of cycling as it had been for decades, Wiggins win will undoubtedly be viewed in future as a moment that saw the sport change once again.
The Britons win, after a season of impressive dominance in smaller stage races, was one borne of new ideas; his preparation (based on training camps that kept him as far away from any kind of uncomfortable challenge or unnecessary travel in the spring as possible) along with his team’s approach to the aggregation of marginal gains, proved that a modern cyclist no longer has to be the robust champion of old. Instead the dawn of a new era of champions has been ushered in. Champions that don’t just peak for one or two events, but who tailor their goals and preparation so precisely that their victories fall as perfectly into place as a Saville Row suit.
In Wiggins world, there is nothing left to chance, and money is never an issue; there are no uncomfortable drives in cramped cars to get to a race on the other side of Europe, no compromises, no nights in a cheap hotel with uncomfortable bedding, there is simply no room for exertion other than that which is absolutely necessary.
But cycling is a complicated creature, and it doesn’t move that fast. As the peloton roared across the line for the final time in Paris, there was at least one rider, only four sets of wheels back from the very first man to actually physically finish the Tour- stage winner Mark Cavendish- who would be continuing a tradition almost as old as the Tour itself. For Kris Boekmans of the Vacansolei –DCIM team, the Tour wasn’t quite yet over.
Boekmans, as with a number of other riders, had contracts to get back to work immediately after the Grand Boucle in the Post-Tour criteriums. A little over 24 hours after he crossed the finish line in Paris, the young Belgian was contracted to be some three hundred kilometres away, pinning another race number on and getting ready for action again.
The tradition of Post Tour criteriums began soon after the inception of the Tour, businesses in towns that weren’t visited by the race got money together to bring the action to their own doorstep. They offered large sums to the stars of the race to come and literally replicate the action of the great race on their own doorstep. These celebratory races have for many years been the most lucrative weeks of the cycling season.
The races are designed to be a continuation of the action of the past three weeks, even down to the jersey winners from the Tour being allowed to race in their respective maillots. In a UCI sanctioned event wearing the leaders jersey from another race would be unheard of, but without any official rules to obey (the races are totally unsanctioned) the organizers can do what they want.
Once upon a time, so too could the bike riders themselves. Before the drugs scandals of the late nineties, the Post Tour criteriums, along with the last stage of the Tour de France, were simply overlooked by drugs testers. The drugs, the travelling, the late nights and the need to perform, all went hand in hand.
Allan Pieper in his book, A Piepers Tale, described the drug culture at these races in the eighties as ‘a playground mentality’, the same, in effect as many other young men going out celebrating and having a good time. One other former professional once told me a slightly more ominous tale, of sitting in a garage getting changed before a Post-Tour crit, and a big bottle of Pot-Belge being placed on a chair in the middle of the room, riders could then dip in with their own syringes to get themselves ready for another nights action.
The Post Tour Criteriums were a legendary circuit of fun that ran on from the celebrations on the Champs-Elysee, through the night in Paris and on throughout the next two weeks. Girls, money racing and drugs- a young mans dream, perhaps. It was, in all honesty what I was hoping to witness when I signed up for covering the story, alas things have changed at least a little bit in 2012.
By the time Kris Boekmans meets me in the lobby of Hotel Concorde Lafayette, the morning after the three weeks before, I’ve already been surprised to see that the guys who’ve ridden the Tour aren’t coming down with filthy hangover’s from debauched parties, but instead they arrive fresh faced with their wives and kids in tow. Boekmans too, arrives with his girlfriend Laura, who has herself followed the entire Tour, at first alone and then with her mother in tow.
For Kris, it is the beginning of an intense, but lucrative period of criteriums; he’ll take part in eight in total, over eleven days. He shies away from letting me know quite what he’s making per day, but with a big grin tells me that ‘he’ll make about a years salary in two weeks’, something clearly worth smiling about.
Ahead of him is a four-hour drive back to his home in Schilde. Amazingly he doesn’t seem even in the slightest bit fatigued by the race, or the journey ahead, amazing that is considering that work hasn’t really stopped for Kris since the race ended.
“I was on a Belgian television show, and I stayed there until about midnight, then I came back and had some dinner with Laura, and by the time we finished that it was 2am, so we went to bed.”
Even though he is making good money, Kris is left to his own devices to get to Aalst. Other riders who have been contracted for the race, the big stars such as Haimar Zubeldia, and Peter Sagan, are flown up to Belgium in the afternoon, but for Kris it is well-trodden path of the highway home.
Awaiting Kris at home is a small family celebration. In a town dotted with symbols of support for the young man, it can be no wonder that he seems to radiate excitement as he gets home. It is a proud moment for all, but the reception is short. In his 45 minutes at home, he has just enough time to swap his team polo shirt for a fresh one, down a bowl of pasta prepared by his mother, and repack his car before heading off again.
His first pit stop is at the local garage; the owner as it turns out was himself a Tour de France rider, the local hero who Kris grew up dreaming of emulating. As the eighty euros of fuel fills the tank, the two talk as men; a moment of mutual respect and recognition.
The trip to Aalst is another hour and a half’s drive, and Kris stops twice more, firstly to pick up a friend who’ll be travelling around the criterium circuit with him, nothing like an extra set of hands. The second stop is to collect his race bike. The mechanics themselves have driven through the day to get to the hotel at Nazareth, where they are straight back to work preparing bikes and kit for the next races. Kris’ bike is as it was when he left it on the cobbled streets of Paris, his race wheels and race number still in place, only the sweat from the Tours final stage has been quickly wiped off by the tired looking mechanic.
Kris’ arrival in Aalst is as incongruous as it could possibly be for one of the stars of the show. Given only a street name and no further instructions, we follow the Google maps on his iPhone around the suburbs of the town for a good half an hour until we realize it is time to retrace our steps and head back into the town we’d already passed through to find the sign on.
By the time Boekman’s follows the blue dot on his phone to the right place there is one hour to go before the start of the action. Time enough to get changed and say some hellos to familiar faces from the last three weeks. There is an air of conspiratorial madness amongst those that have come straight from the Tour to Aalst.
It is one of the worst kept secrets in the world of cycling that the races aren’t real. Even Kris candidly refused to let on to me that the race would be a fix. Unbeknownst to him I was actually riding these races when he was still a Junior: I knew the fix, and I knew the result of Aalst long before I thought I’d ask about it.
I knew the circuit would be deliberately tight, and that the massive primes announced over the PA were never paid out. I knew there was no real prize money and that the top ten was organized in the changing rooms before hand. I knew the riders would be riding the lightest possible gears in order to make their legs turn quickly to create the deception of speed.
I had however always wondered what all this looked like from the outside. Surely the fans could tell? Surely they wanted real action?
Stood amongst the kind of clouds of smoke you can only get in a country where people don’t seem to think that smoking can kill them, empty beer cans, and half eaten bags of chips, I realized that they all knew, but that it didn’t actually matter.
As the night fell and with it the speed seemed to magically increase, the crowd of burly Belgians I was stood amongst got steadily drunker, and yelled louder and harder as the riders went past.
By the time the streetlights were fully illuminated, the crowd was jammed against the barriers, bursting with anticipation of seeing the conclusion to the night’s spectacle. Kris was in the thick of the action, still covering moves and jumping around the race with the enthusiasm of a true professional, not a hint of weariness on his face.
It was twenty past nine in the evening by the time Kris took fourth place behind Tour de France green jersey winner Peter Sagan. By that time the population of the town of Aalst were deliriously happy, they had drunk, they had eaten, and they had been entertained. Kris Boekmans, Peter Sagan and others had come a long way from Paris to be in their town. Kris wouldn’t be home until nearly midnight that night, and the next day he was going to pick up and do it all again. The next two weeks would surely be exhaustive, and required an old-school hardness that would go everything against what the new era of cycling seems to stand for.
Riders, may have swapped the wild days of amphetamines, easy women and crazy pan European drives for dutifully fulfilling their PR duties and quiet nights with their girlfriends in order to deal with the changing sport, but some of them at least are still packing up their kit into the boots of their cars, the morning after the Tour and heading off onto the road.
But the madness of this I noticed wasn’t lost in the sparkly eyes of the Belgian fans. They loved the riders of Aalst for that, for being there, and for upholding one of cycling’s most honored traditions, they made the effort to bring the sport home to the people.