The Hitec team for this race was a real mix of nationalities and experience, set up around the team leader, Elisa Longo Borghini, the 21-year-old Italian talent who has already won the Trofeo Alfredo Binda World Cup and come fourth in the Ronde van Vlaanderen. She was supported for the climbs by fellow Italian and 2010 Junior World Championships silver medallist, Rossella Ratto, 2012 World Championships silver-medallist, the Australian Rachel Neylan, and Cecilie Gotaas Johnsen, a Norwegian in her 30s with a PhD and a 5-year-old son, who's still very new to cycling; and for support chasing down the breaks, super-sprinter and ball of Aussie energy, Chloe Hosking, and Swedish time trialling star, Emilia Fahlin.
That's a very dry way to introduce the team - and it doesn't describe their personalities at all! I met them as they had come back from training rides (Rossella describing how she'd beaten Elisa up the Mur - Elisa maintaining that it was only because Rossella had started her sprint while Elisa was still in the corner - which sounded like great tactics to me!) and they were very much in race mode. I felt a little bit shy - they were just about to race the Flèche Wallonne, for goodness sake, one of the very biggest races of the year, with one of the hardest finishes in cycling! The last thing they'd want, I worried, was a hanger-on interrupting their preparations. They're such different personalities, and as this was the first time they've raced as this iteration, they were getting to know each other too, and still meshing as a group - but they couldn't have been nicer, or more welcoming - genuinely friendly and kind.
For the women, the race begins on the Tuesday afternoon, with a team presentation in the Place in Huy, in front of people drinking coffee and beers in the open-air cafés, and each team having a theme tune, played by the live band. Hitec had Eye of the Tiger, from Rocky, while Team USA had the opening bars to YMCA, for example - with the teams laughing about the music and grinning at each other on stage, while the compére whipped up excitement about them. It was a lovely evening - the square full of people, some of the teams having a coffee and watching, or greeting their friends in the peloton, with the usual crowd of photographers and journalists who follow the races doing their work, and autograph hunters pouncing on their favourite riders. The main attraction was, of course, Marianne Vos, who's still got her golden glow after her brilliant 2012. She's a total professional, very friendly and patient with everyone from small children to journalists - and my fangirl day was complete when she stopped to say hi to me - seriously, she's a lovely human being!
After the presentation, it was back to the Hitec hotel for massage, supper at the nearby restaurant, with the staff at one end of the table and the team at the other. it was a meal full of laughter, with lots of team bonding - stories about races they've been to and are going to next, sharing what to expect with the riders who haven't been there, teasing each other about their language skills (Chloe's one Spanish phrase, "Tu perro es muy guapa", sticks in my mind!) while they loaded up on carbs and protein - and then a team meeting, before an early night.... ready for race day!
I had never realised that Flèche Wallonne finishes in such a residential area. Sure, the Mur de Huy has the cable car depot, with two bars and a playground for children - but the streets around it are a quiet, residential neighbourhood. watching it being transformed into a race village, with the women's teams setting up in people's driveways, next to bus stops and verges is fascinating. It starts with the mechanics, who stake their claims early, taping off their enclaves and setting up the bikes, ready for the riders to arrive around an hour before the race start. It's a slow build-up, but very methodical - plenty of time to catch up and joke with rivals from other teams, and to share tools and tips, as the crowds begin to arrive. Plenty of time for fans to scope out the area and work out which teams are where, and to find the perfect spot at the barriers - or to stand on the Mur de Huy, re-living the race moments, reading the ghosts of rider names written on the road over the years. I had shivers, looking down the road - I'd never appreciated quite how steep it was before, not believing my luck that I was actually there, on the Mur.
Back at the race HQ, the riders started to arrive, and I was struck once again how they have to lose their inhibitions, as pretty much everything they do is public. Sure, Hitec had a camper, but six riders take up a lot of space, so once they'd changed into basic race clothes, everything else is done on the street, with people watching and taking photos, or asking questions. The team were very good at creating a happy atmosphere - music playing, and jokes and teasing each other - along with the ever-present smell of liniment - but with some serious intent in the background that came more and more to the surface as the race start approached. Nothing was rushed, but you could feel the atmosphere become more and more purposeful. The riders triple- and quadruple-checking their bikes with Juan Verpealst, the mechanic, making sure the measurements are perfect, and everything is smooth, or having a last-minute consultation with the soigneurs, as they prepared the race food and drinks. Lots of helping each other out, before it was off to the sign-on, back for some final, final prep, before they rode off to the line.
While all this was happening, the street was becoming more and more packed with people - cars and buses of riders patiently trying to move through the throngs without knocking over the set-up bikes. It's such a friendly environment, riders calling out to each other as they pass, or take their bikes for a little check-up ride, lots of hugging and chatting, and catching up. Once they start the race, they're determined to beat each other, but before then they seemed really happy to be there, everyone excited to be racing such a truly iconic race. If riders needed anything their team couldn't supply, they could borrow it from other riders - everyone helping each other to do her job. This extended to the journalists and photographers methodically getting their interviews and photos - the riders stopping what they were doing for what was needed - especially for the journalists they knew well.
I'm sure the fact it was a sunny day must make a huge difference. It was the first warm racing day in what has been a particularly cold and nasty season start, and I can't imagine what it would be like trying to prepare like this in the rain and the cold. There were maybe two teams with the buses that the men take for granted - ORICA-AIS, parked in a secret spot a little up the race route, and RaboBank-Liv/Giant, whose bus was continually surrounded by people admiring Marianne Vos' gold and black bike, and hoping to catch sight of her. Everything takes four times as long for Vos, because she can't step out of the bus without being surrounded, or ride down the road without people talking to her - but again, she was nothing but friendly, always with a smile, looking calm, confident and knowing exactly what she was doing.
The road to the sign-on was full of riders on bikes calling to ask the crowds to let them pass - it's so intriguing for a fan, you have so much access, as much as you dare ask for. I have to recommend going to a women's race to everyone - and once you're there, to take the courage to say hi to your favourite riders. It's a strange atmosphere, but watching everyone work and prepare is fascinating. And then, the tension increased. Time to line up, check everything is in the car, the DS and mechanics to jump in the car, triple-checking their radios and slowly moving into formation. This is the time the nerves really start! Sitting in the team car, listening to the race radio calling out cinq minutes, quatre, trois, deux.... and the race was off!
Part 2 has a gallery of images and story about seeing the race from the Hitec team car - and here are interviews with Elisa Longo Borghini and Asheligh Moolman after the race - and soon there will be more interviews with riders. If you have any questions, ask away in the comments!
A thousand thanks to Karl Lima for organising my time with the team, and to the riders - Elisa, Rachel, Chloe, Rossella, Emilia and Cecilie - and the staff - Davy, Juan, Stefan and Luc - and everyone else I met at the race, for being so incredibly friendly and welcoming! Follow the team on their website, facebook and twitter for all their news and updates.
To hear me ramble about my experiences, you can listen to omne and me podcasting about the race (warning - swearing!) and there are more of my race photos on flickr. Photos by Sarah Connolly, and all rights reserved.