With the road races done and dusted, and with Lizzie Armistead’s Silver medal already in the bag, our attention turned to the Individual Time Trials. These were to be held in front of yet another stunning historic backdrop; the 500 year old former home, amongst other Monarchs, of King Henry VIII; Hampton Court Palace. The start house was set on the main drive with the riders facing a 100 metre stretch in the shadows of nobility before sweeping left over Hampton Court Bridge and onto the flat circuit proper, women and men facing a 29 and 44km lap respectively.
My role in these events was to be somewhat different than in the road races. For a start I wasn’t driving a swanky vehicle with posh guests. It was a bit more exciting than that. I was to be the official…. well, I’m not actually sure that there was an official name for what I was doing so I’ll just call it the ‘Holder Upperer’. Put simply I was to stand in the small elevated start house with the ramp projecting onto the course and hold the riders upright (by gripping the underside of the saddle) whilst they were ‘clipped in’ as the electronic timing device beeped out the final few seconds until their departure. Easy. Ish.
To be honest it wasn’t really that hard, I’d done it a few times before and managed a ‘dress rehearsal’ the previous day with some local bike folk who really got into the spirit of it. They didn’t just simply roll off the ramp, but sprinted as if their lives depended on it all the way to the Grand Gates the end of the drive, their coveted ‘behind the scenes’ accreditation passes flapping as they went.
On Race Day we arrived a good four hours before the start which gave us a chance to take a look at the Start/Finsh area and grab a coffee in East Molesey where the crowds were already gathering, people taking up early residence at the prized position on the barriers. Later on, folk would be 6 or 7 deep here.
At the team holding area I chatted to a very relaxed GB coach Rod Ellingworth and my old DS Sean Yates. We somehow got into a discussion about being late and/or missing race starts, whereupon Yatesy took great delight in reminding me when I nearly missed the start of a stage of Tirreno Adriactico because I was sat on the toilet. I was relieved to hear that our athletes had a strict schedule to adhere to, so wouldn’t be letting the Nation down in similarly embarrassing fashion. The aura pervading the Team Great Britain pen was one of an efficient yet relaxed confidence, it was interesting to note that Brad, Froome, Emma and Lizzie were tucked away behind a tarpaulin curtain whilst every other team had riders on full show as they warmed up on rollers whilst mechanics tinkered with TT machines and coaches tapped away at laptops with furrowed brows. By contrast the GB riders were hidden from view until just before their start time, adding to the perception of mystique or just another marginal gain?
With ten minutes to go before the first of the 24 women departed towards their Olympic destiny I climbed the three steps up onto the purple and yellow start house and waited. I tried to look as relaxed and as in control a possible, the recent nervy ‘pre race’ visits to the gents the true indicator of how I felt. Soon enough the riders came; setting off at 90 second intervals rather then the traditional one or two minutes. Things were running pretty smoothly and I’d gotten into my own rhythm when sixth starter Tatiana Antoshina of Russia climbed up to the start point. I held her bike as she climbed on board, steadied her by holding her saddle as she clipped in both feet, then I just stood, my feet shoulder width apart, newly cut fringe slightly swaying in the gentle breeze, waiting, as the clock counted down. The relative calm was then shattered when suddenly the Moscow born speedster sat up from her position low on the handlebars and I was faced with the sharp point of her aero helmet travelling towards my eyes. Instantly, without a conscious thought to guide me, I instinctively swept my head to the left just as the plastic piece of sharpened headwear scythed rearward through the air. (Think Jacky Chan dodging a punch with added ‘whooshing’ sound effects and you’ve got it).That was close. I nearly lost an eye and would have done had it not been for my trusty motor cortex. To cap a troubled few seconds she had shuffled back on the saddle to the point my palms were cupping her very sweaty buttocks. There I was, slightly off balance, trying to cope with nearly losing my sight whilst holding the damp bum of a foreign girl I’d only just met. 5,4,3,2,1.. and she was off. Thank goodness.
Soon it was the turn of Great Britain’s Lizzie Armistead, already a silver medallist in the road race. The cheers from the crowd as she mounted the steps were deafening and for the first time that day I felt goosebumps and a rush of adrenaline. As she sat waiting for her countdown I noted the initials ‘L.A.’ picked out in tiny individual sticky diamonds to the rear of her aero helmet. It reminded me of the headline in ‘The Times’ a couple of days before which read ‘Queen Elizabeth The Second’.. And then she was off..
A short time later the diminutive figure of Emma Pooley took up position on the ramp. Now this lady is ‘tiny’, her size totally belying the power the puts out. Her Cervelo P3 TT bike shod with 26” wheels. Needless to day she was a breeze to hold up, as well as being one of the most relaxed; not clipping into the pedals until 30 seconds to go when most clipped in with a full minute still to spare. Once I’d seen Olympic Champion elect Kristin Armstrong on her way I felt a sense of relief; both mentally and in my aching thumbs and forearms. I wandered off to grab a coffee with a voice in my head, ‘Don’t drop anyone, Don’t drop anyone…’
With the women all safely home and the medal ceremony complete I took my place once more. This time with a line up of 37 of the world’s best male cyclists to steady and release. A sip of water, some reverse circular rotations of my hands and wrists to ease the aches and I was ready… The first few chaps went off without incident or requirement on my part to avoid sharp objects, the majority of riders choosing helmets with a far less severe profiles. The fifth rider to join me in the start house was Brazil’s Magno Prado Nazaret, a likeable fellow based on the minute and a half I was with him. As he threw his leg over the frame to climb aboard I noticed something crucial about his bike. Putting the clear language barrier aside, in true British fashion, I pointed at his chainset and said, ”Better put it on the big ring mate.” A grateful look of surprise lit up his face and together we did the necessary so he didn’t look a twerp in front of a global audience of millions. ‘Just doing my job Magno, happy to help,’ went my inner monologue.
Up came name after name; New Zealand’s ‘Agent Jack Bauer’ who gave me a hearty handshake and a ‘Hi Matt’; Philip Gilbert; far smaller than photographs suggest and with a hole in his skinsuit that showed his bum; New Olympic Road Champ Alexandre Vinokurov, wearing the shiniest skinsuit I’d ever seen making him look like an enormous silverfish. The loudest cheer from the crowd so far was reserved for Norway’s ‘sort of adopted Brit’ Edvald Boassen Hagen, up to that point the only chap to actually wave back at the masses. Following France’s surprisingly affable Sylvain Chavanel, who greeted me with an upbeat ‘Bonjour,’ was none other than an insouciant Chris Froome. The roar from the throng as he stepped up into the start house made my ears hurt. Before I carefully wheeled his Pinarello Graal TT machine to the taped demarking area on the edge of the ramp I shook his hand and wished him well, to which he smiled warmly. A gent, if I may say so and a bloody fast one at that.
After sending a rather relaxed and amiable Marco Pinotti ‘en route’ it was the turn of Rabobank’s and Spain’s Luiz Leon Sanchez to take to the ramp. On he popped, all was well, not a wobble to be seen, I was in control. 5,4,3,2,1 beeep! As the huge force of his first pedal stroke transmitted through the crank arm I heard a loud metallic ‘CRACK!’ For a split second I thought I had done something wrong, but as he rolled powerlessly down the ramp, his chain fell lifelessly to the floor and I realised that I was in the clear but perhaps his mechanic wasn’t… Poor old Sanchez trundled to a sadly pathetic halt before yelling in the direction of his team car that had not yet pulled away. A panic stricken Spanish team official rapidly emerged to give Sanchez his spare TT bike so he could belatedly take to the course.
Thankfully the departures of Taylor Phinney and Tony Martin passed without incident so by the time Bradley Wiggins emerged from the holding area, my heart rate had settled somewhat. It was the rambunctious roar from the crowd that signalled the arrival of Britain’s first ever Tour de France winner. I immediately turned around expecting to see Brad coming up the steps to take his place. Instead, as cool as you like, he sat in the shade of the warm up enclosure whilst a GB team official patiently waited, holding the speed weaponry that, in tandem with it’s prodigious master, a nation hoped would bring the Gold home, as well as the title of ‘Greatest Ever Olympian.’
With only 50 or so seconds to go Bradley calmly walked up to the start house, his ‘red arrowesque’ helmet and visor obscuring his eyes and nose like a real life Judge Dredd. As he scaled the steps I took hold of his matt black carbon, stealth like machine. It looked more like a piece of high tech military hardware. If it could talk it would have probably said, as I gazed at its sleek dark lines, ‘Yes. I’m fast. Deal with it.’ In contrast to the amiable Chris Froome, Bradly Wiggins was the personification of utter focus. That’s not to say Froomie wasn’t focussed. It’s just that Brad exuded a focus so sharp that was actually palpable. The fact I couldn’t see his eyes only amplified this, he was almost machine like. The only giveaway to Brad’s ‘human’ side was the subtle, gentle smile he gave me as he shook the hand I offered him as I wished him good luck. Moments later he was in position. Poised. Ready. As I held the rear of his saddle the words, ’Don’t drop Brad,’ were playing on repeat in my head. Brad’s left arm then appeared; signalling for me to shift him degree or so to that side. I did it. Then his right arm appeared. ‘Shit!’ I thought, ‘I can’t get him straight! He’ll think I’m a tit!’ 20 seconds to go. I shifted him a miniscule amount back to the right. His arm receded in response. He was still again. ‘Thank Christ.’ I thought. ‘5,4,3,2,1 beeep!’ As I let go I thought, ‘Smash it Brad!,’ although I really wanted to shout it. As the crowd roared him on his way out of Hampton Court I felt the hairs prick
The final rider to join me was defending Olympic Champion Fabian Cancellara. His Trek TT bike easily had the most bling paint job, looking like a prop from Raiders of the Lost Ark with the amount of gold inlay. I don’t think anyone else could have got away with a bike like that. Bit like Phil Gil turning up at the Braveheart dinner with diamond earrings a couple of years back. In both ears.
Anyway, once I had released ‘Fab’ I felt a strange sense of relief. I’d played only a very modest part in the proceedings but still, to be a part of something so momentous, the Olympics on home soil, to send Brad on his way to (fingers crossed) victory, yes, I did feel quite a sense of National Pride. I then found a quiet spot on the Royal lawn to sit and contemplate.
Under an hour later Bradley Wiggins crossed the finish line to a rapturous welcome to take the Gold for Great Britain. He had ridden the 44km course at a phenomenal average speed of over 52 kph and in doing so also took the title of ‘Britain’s Greatest Ever Olympian’ with it. The scenes at Hampton Court were quite incredible and totally unforgettable. I let out an unbridled ‘YES!!’ as the victory was confirmed, along it seems with most of Surrey as the place exploded with joyous applause. The moment was so overwhelming that seemingly ever other person was in tears, myself included in that number. It was truly something.
Once I had seen Brad receive his Gold medal and Chris Froome his Bronze (who was somewhat unsung I feel) I walked back along the footpath that follows the Thames to Kingston. As I ambled along I caught up with two lads of about 8 or 9 years old. Walking just a few paces behind I listened to them chat excitedly about what they had just witnessed.. “Wiggo, Fab, Froomie.. so fast….it was amazing..” Their enthusiasm was wonderfully infectious and made me smile. It also made me realise that the events of the last few weeks had really brought our sport into the mainstream. As I picked up my pace and skirted past the young lads I thought to myself, ‘I wonder how we’ll fare in the velodrome….’
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