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My view from the backseat

It has taken me four weeks to recover from the UCI Road World Championships. For ten days I become an honorary Lithuanian. Somehow I managed to get the keys to the Lithuanian Team Škoda and a delegate accreditation pass around my neck. I enjoyed meeting and being quizzed by team officials and riders from other counties. My personal favourite was “you speak pretty good English for a Lithuanian.” I tried to explain that I am Australian, of Lithuanian heritage, born in Geelong, living in Canberra, with a media pass, and the keys to a Škoda. Pretty simple really.

There were times that I wish I continued Saturday School and actually learnt how to speak the language. The extent of my Lithuanian is Aš nė moku kalbėt lietuviškai (I do not speak Lithuanian) and Mano lūpos nori tau duot bučkis (my lips want to give you a kiss). The language barrier amused me. We had Italian being translated into Lithuanian being translated into English. All of the riders were Lithuanian, their mechanics were Italian, and they race on teams in Belgium, France and Spain so are very much multilingual. And here I am struggling to master my own language.

It still blows my mind that the World Cycling Championships were in my hometown Geelong. I had intended to write a daily diary but I only managed a few rushed twitter updates from the backseat during races – and one when I accidentally (with police permission) got the team car on the course during the mens road race. Šūdas (shit).

The day before I was due to drive to Geelong for the Championships, a media release arrived advising of a media opportunity with the Australian Cyclones at Stromlo Forest Park, only a stones throw from my house. After much deliberation I decided to delay my trip by a day. This was too good an opportunity to pass up. As a former Canberra Times sports journalist I am used to local media calls where you might be lucky to get one broadcast news journalist and a photographer from the community paper. But this was nothing like I have ever seen in Canberra. Every major television network was represented. I was never good in the media scrum. I wanted to ask Cadel Evans about being the pin-up boy for the Worlds advertising campaign and magpies but was too scared he’d yell at me for standing on his dog. So I just stood there and looked important. My photos got published on Cycling Tribe so it wasn’t a complete waste of time. Plus I got to interview Aussie under-23 rider Joe Lewis so asked him about magpies instead.

When I lived in Geelong I was a runner so had never ridden on the roads much – except from my home to school. I decided the best way to get into the spirit of the World Champs would be to cut a lap of the course. After racing the Tour of Geelong a month earlier, I should have been prepared for all weather conditions on a ride. I got very wet on the bottom section of the course next to the Barwon River and slipped a couple of times when I got out of the saddle to climb what I thought was ‘that hill’. Later my dad pointed out that I had in fact followed the time trial course up Mount Pleasant and Scenic Roads, conveniently skipping the hill up Challambra Crescent and of course The Ridge which is 22% at the top. I made amends the following day. It hurt. Lots.

I first met the Lithuanian team on Sunday 26 September. My dad (who is half Polish-half Russian) is the president of the Geelong Lithuanian Sports Club and had been tasked with finding the team accommodation, which proved difficult with only a few months notice. Many other countries were forced to stay in Melbourne, Werribee and Torquay because there was no room at the inn in Geelong. He had also been recruited to assist with anything the team required. He in turn recruited me to assist with anything the team required. So my first duty was to collect two of our female elite riders Rasa Leleivyte and Katazina Sosna, and Paolo the masažistas (masseur) and drive them to Buninyong for the World Cycling Classic, with the team car following. While I would have liked to be lining up next to the women, I was pretty chuffed at being the team chauffeur.

Then somehow I got my hands on the keys to the team Škoda. My dad managed to convince the mens under-23 coach Kestas that I was a good driver and would join the convoy for the mens elite race. The first battle was trying to work out the European dash. The second was trying to identify why all our windows would go down simultaneously with no prompting. This car needed instructions. I can now report I am pretty pro at driving a support car. No riders who motor-paced off me were killed, and our car was sill in one piece unlike some other country who lost their side-mirror in a minor collision. It was a very slow trip back on the Midland Highway getting stuck behind large bunches of cyclists, with most countries choosing to get in a bit of extra training and ride the 85km home.

After two days I realised I would be using the team delegate pass more than the media one. We made multiple trips to the UCI headquarters to first confirm our entries, then have the uniform scrutinised, and back again to collect race numbers. Then there was the course familiarisation on Tuesday. It was day one of road closures and we naïvely took the detour with every other man and his dog. If I was from Geelong and not interested in cycling I would have been seriously pissed off. The trip into the city took an hour and we got there well after our riders who were able to ride straight from their accommodation to the course. I was supposed to be towing our pro Ignas Konovalovas up the hills so he wouldn’t sap his legs before the race. We caught up with them on their second lap and Ignas was riding with a friend (and one of his competitors) so opted against the tow. I wondered if that was the equivalent of a poker face in cycling.

Being an attaché is hard work. We had figured out the road closure situation by the first day of competition and used the police roadblock on Moorabool Street to gain access to the team compound. I cringe to use the cliché but I really was like a kid in a candy shop. There were so many hot bikes…and riders. Our neighbours were Denmark and Norway. It was great to see how the elites prepared for races. First up was Ramūnas Navardauskas in the mens under-23 individual time trial. We had to take a Shimano spare car, as there was a small chance we wouldn’t make it back in time for our second rider Evaldas Šiškevičius who was in the next wave. So we had a driver and the treneris (coach) in the front, and a Shimano mechanic and me in the back. I was just there for good luck.

Within the first 300m Ramūnas looked back at his back tyre. It was flat. Šūdas. So much for good luck. It was lucky however that we had the Shimano mechanic as he was able to quickly get the disc off and throw the spare on. In the process he had knocked off one of the brake pads, meaning Ramūnas could now only rely on the front brake. Not so great when you want to slow down from 80km/hr before the bridge at Queens Park. The treneris asked how long it took to change the wheel. I didn’t realise that was my job too. Of course it feels like forever. We estimated 30 seconds. Plus he was now without a disc wheel, which would have slashed at least another minute from his time. That is the sport.

The road was drying out for the second wave. The night before the boys had swapped their 45 chainring for a 39 after course reconnaissance. They were still stomping away on Mount Pleasant Road. Am pretty sure it wasn’t too pleasant – especially with the treneris yelling out commands like “greičiau” (faster). It was a mad dash to get to our team car for Evaldas. I had to deliver the spare road bike and wheels to the team compound and help get the megaphone off the Shimano car and onto our team car. Then I jumped back in the backseat. Maybe this time I would bring good luck. Sadly no. Partway into his second lap the treneris noticed something was wrong. Evaldas was not on the aero-bars. This makes time-trialing a little more challenging and a lot slower. Evaldas motioned to his bars. Somehow the entire front-end had come loose. His fork had been damaged in transit to Australia and his team sent a replacement that the treneris fitted. Of course he blamed himself for the dodgy bike building and was once again estimating the time lost because of the mechanical.

Next was Katazina in the womens elite time trial – a one-lap 22.8km course. By this stage I was getting the hang of being in the backseat of a team car. A friend was watching the television coverage with his son and enquired about what happened in the team car. So this is for Angus.

For this particular race we had the mens u23 coach as driver, the womens coach shouting instructions to the athlete on a megaphone, and a mechanic in the backseat ready to jump out and provide assistance if required. We were a bit late following Katazina when she left the starting ramp so our driver had to floor it down Moorabool Street to catch her. There is a time trial plate with the athletes name and country on it that is stuck to the bonnet of the car with large magnets. As we sped along the first hill the name plate flew off the car and in the process knocked our spare bike off the roof racks of the team Škoda. Šūdas. Some quick thinking from the driver saw him throw his arm out the window and catch the bike as it precariously hung off the side of the car. Where was all our good luck?

There is a race radio in the team car that gives time checks for each athlete. These are first read in English and then repeated in French. At the first time check Britain’s Emma Pooley had posted a time of 11min02sec. Katazina went through in 12:04. Despite the coach yelling out “labai gerai” (very good) things were not too good when Italian world road champion Tatiana Guderzo came flying past as we weaved through the Botanical Gardens. There is a lot of nervous energy in the car and not much you can do when your athlete is having a bad day at the office. There were some heated words. I wish I knew what they were saying.

That night a few kids from the Lithuanian community decided to get fully immersed in the spirit of the Championship and went off to buy chalk. Hooliganai (hooligans). We called some cycling friends of mine and added some artwork to the Queens Park hill. After spending $35 on chalk and hairspray because we read that helps the chalk stick, we were told by the security guards that we could have used paint as long as there were no obscenities.

At the team managers meeting on Thursday 30 September it felt a bit like I was back at school. The roll call is read to confirm each country is represented and then a panel of UCI officials including Martijn Swinkels explained the rules. They reminded everyone to “respect local traffic code” because some of the locals were become disgruntled with the European cyclists who ignore road rules. My favourite lines were “we already block the town of Geelong for all day” and “to give a good image of cycling.” We also learnt that lapped riders would be eliminated in the mens elite road race from Melbourne to Geelong, which was kind of amusing as history had it, the peloton let five riders get 23min up the road which was the approximate time for one lap of the 15.9km circuit in Geelong.

During the five days of competition I spent a lot of time in the backseat. It is a pretty good view. At times I did not appear to have a role and was surplus to requirements. At other times I was the official scribe, jotting down time checks and updating the coach. The Škoda is pretty comfortable. It has all the mod cons. But it does not have a spew bag. I think these should be standard in team cars. I came very close to needing one in the mens time trial. It was that or ask to pull over. Not likely when you’re tailing a pro in the World Championships. I was already quite nervous being right there to witness our rider Ignatas Konovalovas race. The Cervelo Test Team rider had placed fourth in stage 19 at the Tour de France this year in the 52km ITT so he was as close as we were going to get to medal. By the fifth time-check Ignas was the second fastest rider on the Worlds course. This was just about the time I started feeling sick again. It was kind of lucky that we caught rider number 14, as it forced our driver Valerijus to drive more carefully. He would speed up and then slam on the brakes, speed up and then slam on the brakes. I am pretty sure he was determined to kill his son. Or it was a tactic to make him ride faster. He finished 12th.

In the road race there was not much of a view. I resumed my position in the backseat for the first two laps of the womens race before asking to jump out at one of the feed zones so I could run home, grab my bike, and join the punters on the side of the course. There was a bit of action on the first climb up Challambra when a cyclist hit a barrier and took a group down with her. One of our six riders Katazina was in that group. Šūdas. She busted her saddle and with so many affected the Shimano car was not an option. Our spare bike was too small, so she burst out a few sobs and toughened up. With a push from her coach she continued the long climb out of her saddle – because it would have been difficult to sit down. The race commissaries told us to “please be careful in the descent.”

So after all my time mixing bottles in the feed zone, attending delegates meetings, and in the front and backseat of the team car, I have worked out that I am not made to be a team manager. Or mechanic. Or attaché. After we got all our riders and their support staff packed up and waved them off it was time for a l-o-n-g drive back to Canberra. It marked the official end of the 2010 UCI World Cycling Championships. The holiday is over. Damn.

Rebecca Wiasak