Taking place just three hours ahead of the famous Vattenfall pro race, this German sportive gives Cyclist a taste of life in the fast lane
We are racing through one of the most famous red-light districts in Europe when I recognise the bar where, barely 36 hours earlier, I’d watched a muscular dwarf wearing just a cape and a pair of Speedos gyrating on a podium in front of a sign which said in German ‘Will dance for money’.
I don’t have time to dwell on this flashback. The bunch is at least 100-strong and we are nudging 45kmh. We are only 3km from the finish of the Vattenfall Cyclassics sportive and our proximity to the fleshpots of Hamburg’s Reeperbahn (also known as die sündigste Meile, ‘the most sinful mile’) has led to a collective raising of testosterone levels. A blood-curdling sprint finish surely beckons.
André Greipel, John Degenkolb and the cream of the professional peloton are a few hours behind us. Admittedly there’s not much happening on the Reeperbahn on a Sunday lunchtime, but I wonder if the pros will be equally distracted by our ‘colourful’ surroundings. Have Team Sky factored this
into their training programme? Were scantily-clad models employed to pose provocatively on the slopes of Mount Tiede in Tenerife as Ian Stannard and co churned out the watts? Throughout the sportive we’ve managed to survive the strict cut-off times to complete the same route the pros are doing in what is Germany’s only elite UCI World Tour race. Now all we have to do is cross the finish line…
Back to the start
Six hours earlier and I’m trying to keep warm. A bitter wind is blowing down the Mönckebergstrasse and the sun is still hidden behind the bulk of Hamburg’s Hauptbahnhof railway station as nearly 19,000 cyclists look for their starting pens. Mine happens to be near the front, along with the other 2,000 riders registered for the 155km distance. Another 12,000 doing the 100km route are behind us, while a further 7,000 doing the 55km distance are starting on the other side of the city centre.
This is my first time at the event, which has been running as a precursor to the professional race since 1996. It’s a mostly German affair and as such quickly lives up to the vorsprung durch technik stereotype of well-ordered efficiency. Pre-race feed stations, changing facilities and bag storage are all in abundance. Cavernous marquees with showers will be awaiting us along with our medals at the finish. And ‘Yes, of course’ is the answer every German gives to the question, ‘Do you speak English?’ I get talking to Eric Salzinger, an ex-amateur American Football player who the previous year finished 22nd overall in the 100km race. This will be his seventh year, yet he’s clearly as excited as a first-timer.
‘With an almighty whoosh, a 100-strong pack of riders churns by in a blur of Lycra’
‘We don’t have any mountains or even big hills in northern Germany [the total elevation for the 155km route is only 650m] so riding over the Köhlbrandbrücke [harbour bridge] is very special,’ he says. ‘It’s considered one of the longer and more challenging climbs. It sounds odd, but riding over it at 35kmh does hurt.’
He also teaches me some German words that will be useful in the peloton – vorne, a warning for a hazard ahead; and hinten, to let other riders know you are behind them. However, as an Englishman weaned on The Great Escape, I’m naturally wary of using the word achtung…
We are waved off exactly on time at 7.35am, with the other pens starting off at 15-minute intervals behind us. I’m naively expecting a ‘neutralized’ section, maybe a gentle amble through the deserted city centre streets to allow our kaffee and franzbrötchen to digest. Instead it’s a full-on scramble to get to the head of the race before the route enters the city’s dockside wasteland of swing bridges, disused tramlines, chimneys and cobbles. Most hazards are indicated well in advance, and many of the tramlines have been filled in with fresh tar, but there’s nothing to be done about the stiff wind blowing in off the River Elbe other than grimace and bear it.
After seven kilometres I can see the twin pylons of the Köhlbrandbrücke looming ahead. The dual carriageway leading to it – normally off limits to cyclists – is relentlessly long and straight, and though the incline isn’t particularly steep, the side winds make it a hard slog. Our attempts at forming echelons are, frankly, an embarrassment.
The cable-stayed bridge is a feat of impressive engineering, apparently, but all I’m concerned about is keeping in touch with the wheel in front of me. The Cyclassics is that kind of event – less about the views and more about the sensation of actually being part of a fully-functioning, racing peloton. As we leave the stripped, industrial landscape behind us and cross the river towards a more rural, leafy terrain, it becomes clear that total concentration on my bike and my co-riders will be a prerequisite for the next few hours. Riding at speed in such close proximity to so many complete strangers – none of whose bike-handling skills I can take for granted – is as terrifying as it is exhilarating. (My caution is justified. I will later learn that 66 riders needed hospital treatment, including one for a serious head injury, as a result of crashes in the event.)
The first of two ‘mountain classifications’ is a gentle 1.5km incline. Spinning up it in a line of about 20 riders is easy. We reach a wooded part of the climb when suddenly it all goes quiet. It’s like the ominous silence in a Tarzan film that precedes the invasion of killer ants. And then, in an instant, I feel the faintest shift in the air behind me, and a distant whisper turns into an almighty whoosh as a 100-strong pack of riders from pens C and D finally catch up with us and go churning by in a massive blur of garish Lycra and spinning limbs.
A few of us jump out the saddle and try to grab the tail end of the group, but these boys mean business, largely because they are only covering the 100km distance. I sit back down again and try to regain my previous rhythm, the sympathetic applause of the spectators ringing in my ears.
This is the other memorable feature of the sportive: the number of people who have come out onto the streets early on a Sunday morning to cheer and encourage thousands of amateurs. It’s still several hours before the pros will be steaming around the course offering the promise of a famous face or a discarded team-branded water bottle, and yet already hundreds of fans have set up their deckchairs and folding tables and are getting excited – excited! – at the sight of me puffing and panting past them. The watching children are just as keen, lining the kerbs and offering out their hands for high fives from us. After doing this several times at well over 30kmh, I realise that if it’s leaving my palms red and stinging, what is it doing to the tiny digits of the poor six and seven-year-olds in my wake?
Don’t stop now
The sun is high in the sky by now, but even the simple operation of rolling down my arm warmers or taking a swig from my bottle is fraught with complications. There are so many strangers’ wheels in such close proximity I’m frightened the slightest deviation from my line will bring the whole pack tumbling down.
By the time we head back through Hamburg’s city centre, the bunch I’m with has thinned down to a single thread of riders. The majority have peeled off left toward the finish line of the 100km course. Suddenly I’m feeling alone and exposed. I’m also out of food and water. There’s a feed station in six kilometres. Do I give up the wheel I’m on to refuel or keep up this momentum and risk hunger knock?
‘If high-fiving at 30kmh is leaving my palms red and stinging, what’s it doing to the tiny digits of the six-year-olds?’
As soon as I veer into the feed zone I realise my mistake. I’m the only rider there amongst the tables heaving with energy bars, chopped bananas and segments of orange. I quickly fill my bottle, stuff some bananas in my jersey pockets and clip back in. A pack of about 20 riders goes racing past. Can I catch them? I check behind me. There’s no sign of any other groups so I’m going to have to give chase. I grind my way through the gears. The road is wide and straight and the group ahead seems within touching distance. Soon I’m churning the pedals around at 45kmh but they aren’t getting any closer. The riders at the back of the group are freewheeling, not even pedalling, and yet I still can’t catch up. The rules of aerodynamics mean they are getting a free ride while I’m almost coughing my lungs up.
Eventually I have to ease off and hope there’s another group not far behind me, otherwise I’m going to blow up. As I pass knots of spectators I get a rapturous reception. They don’t know if I’ve lost contact with the bunch ahead of me or am a brave solo breakaway from the group behind. Both scenarios seemingly merit the approval of the crowd. Even in no-man’s land, I’m a hero.
Eventually I’m hoovered up by a strong line of about two dozen riders. I slot in near the back and say a silent prayer. Each rider is taking a good pull at the front – at least five minutes – and I’m nervously watching the number ahead of me diminish gradually. Soon it’ll be my turn. There’s very little talking between us, though occasionally a rider will peel off to the side and express his frustration at something with hand gestures and scary-sounding German vowels.
When there’s only one rider left ahead, there’s a sudden surge in speed and a gap opens up in front of me. He’s a broad-shouldered giant with calves like tree stumps, but surely he’s not supposed to ramp up the pace like this? I’m now being half-wheeled by the guy behind me. I have to bridge the gap before I’m overtaken by the rest of the group and spat out the back.
I manage to hang on, bracing myself for my turn. I glance down to my side and can see from the shadows that our train is still intact. Now it’s all down to me. The big guy peels off and I put my head down as the wind slaps me in the face. I’m glancing between my Garmin and the road. I’ve lost a few kmhs but manage to keep the pace in the early 40s. We arrive at a 90° right turn thronged with excited spectators waving rattles and honking horns. I take a deliberately wide line allowing the next rider to come through whether he likes it or not, hoping the colour and confusion of the crowd will conceal my cowardice. No one seems to notice and I enjoy a much-needed breather at the back of the line.
With under 20km to go we reach the second ‘classified’ climb, the Kösterberg, which rises from the banks of the Elbe to the heady height of 90 metres over a distance of three kilometres (the pros, however, will be tackling the Waseberg, the next street along with its 15% incline that is inexplicably out of bounds to us amateurs). We’ve caught up with another group and our combined mass sweeps up the hill imperiously.
Now that we’re on the home straight, the tension rises with the pace. As we turn on to the Reeperbahn, there’s no time for complacency. But my fears of a violent sprint finish are fortunately unfounded – a series of 90° turns in the last kilometre and a ramp up to the finish line seem to drain any remaining vestiges of competiveness from our legs.
I cross the line and am funnelled down a succession of back streets to the banks of the Alster lake, where I swap my transponder for my medal. Then it’s time for a shower, beer and schnitzel, which I’m happy to take at a more leisurely pace than the preceding six hours.
What Vattenfall Cyclassics
Where Hamburg, Germany
Next one Sunday 24th August 2014
Price Dependant on distance
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