What do we count as the biggest sporting day in Australia? Is it the AFL grand final? Maybe the NRL grand final? What about Melbourne Cup?
Covering a small stage race in northern Norway has its perks – such as shacking up with a top team’s sporting director during the decisive day’s action.
Narvik may be some 400-odd kilometres above the Arctic Circle but the sun is shining bright in a cloudless blue sky reflecting off the ripples in Herjangsfjorden.
It’s the fourth and final 165-kilometre stage of the Arctic Race of Norway and I am riding in the team car of IAM Cycling’s Mathias Frank. Less than a month after finishing eighth in the Tour de France, the Swiss all-rounder is poised in fifth place – 25 seconds down on overnight leader Ben Hermans of BMC.
With Swiss veteran Martin Elmiger also within 52 seconds of the leader’s blue jersey, IAM Cycling have two cards to play as the race heads out of Narvik and along the coast for a picturesque loop around Nordland ahead of three 10.5-kilometre loops of a punishing city centre circuit.
I ask sporting director Kjell Carlstrom – a former Finnish national champion and Team Sky rider – what the tactics are today.
“We want to get Martin into a large break so that BMC have to chase before the circuits in Narvik,” he tells me. Then the plan is to set a high tempo on the first climb in the finish town in order to isolate Hermans.
With 10 bonus seconds available for the winner, Frank would need to win the stage and make sure he finishes 15 seconds clear of the Belgian stage three winner – provided Hermans finishes outside the top three.
After a fast and frantic start to the stage a break finally manages to open up a gap of 20 seconds over the pack. When race radio lists the bib numbers of the seven escapees it’s a case of so-far-so-good when Elmiger’s number 23 is included in an otherwise wet-behind-the-ears selection of riders.
For well over 10 kilometres the strung-out BMC-led peloton does not allow the gap to grow any bigger than 20 seconds.
Frank drops back to pick up a water bottle and get the latest news from his DS (the Arctic Race is a 2.HC category race in which team radios are banned). If there’s any tension in the air, Carlstrom dissipates it with his natural laid-back demeanour.
Martin Elmiger in the breakaway (Photo: Felix Lowe)
When Frank starts the slog back to the peloton he finds himself alongside fellow Swiss Silvan Dillier, fresh from his own summit meeting with his rival BMC sporting director Yvon Ledanois.
Wearing the white jersey as best young rider, Dillier was one of three BMC riders to finish in the top five in yesterday’s summit finish at the Alpine Village of Malselv. Dillier is just 24 seconds down on his teammate Hermans on GC, but after missing out on the overall win in the Tour of Poland by just three seconds, Hermans is very much the priority for BMC.
A mini pile-up in the peloton provides a flashpoint and increases the tension. We draw up alongside the aftermath and Mathieu, the mechanic sitting behind me, jumps out with some spare wheels just in case anyone from IAM is involved. They’re in luck and we’re soon back on our way without any further ado.
With the gap now increasing to over a minute it looks like the BMC have finally given up on the chase. Pirmin Lang is the next rider to drop back. He’s on the right-hand side of the road as Carlstrom winds down my window to allow Lang a moment to vent his frustration.
In German he launches a tirade which is both serious and light-hearted at the same time. I can hear the words “BMC”, “losers” and “Sparebanken”.
The latter is the Norwegian development squad that has as its mentor one Thor Hushovd. The now-retired winner of the inaugural Arctic Race in 2013 told us journalists before the race that he thought Hermans would take the overall crown. (Hushovd, of course, rode for BMC for many years. Sparebanken’s combined chase with BMC now all makes sense.)
Despite this Hushovd-encouraged alliance, the break has managed to open up a gap of three minutes by the time we hit the 60-kilometre mark. This is in part to a collective call of nature which sees the vast majority of the peloton stop on the side of the road to empty their bladders.
Watching these riders go about their business while displaying a remarkably varied range of peeing techniques is quite an eye-opener. When I see one Giant-Alpecin rider unclipping and side-saddling his top tube as he unleashes a cascade of urine onto the verge, I instantly regret not making a video of this whole choreographed charade with my iPhone. It’s the kind of thing that would go viral.
Given the heat (there are male fans on the side of the road with their tops off and some children were even paddling in the fjord before we edged inland) Carlstrom is keen to pass the peloton and give Elmiger a fresh bidon and a pep talk.
We advance to the front of the team car convoy (IAM are number four of 22 team cars; BMC are number one) and get permission from the race director. Through the window Carlstrom instructs the organisers to tell the Mavic support car to look out for his riders in the peloton while he’s away.
It’s one thing being given the green light to advance but another putting it into practice. The riders are now onto the first climb of the day and the road is extremely narrow.
Despite incessant tooting of the horn as he edges up the right-hand side of the road, Carlstrom finds his path blocked by… an aurally-challenged Sparebanken rider. (When we later see the Sparebanken team car pull to the side of the road with a puncture there’s a large grin across Carlstrom’s face.)
Before the summit we managed to get clear of the pack. Carlstrom descends at breakneck speed – but always in control – until we catch up with the seven-man break. Elmiger drops back and picks up a bottle and asks his DS whether or not any of his fellow escapees are well-placed on GC. He’s the only one.
We then pull in at a lay-by to wait for the peloton. A Mavic car draws level and takes some bidons from Mathieu in case Elmiger needs a refill. I take out my camera and photograph the peloton as it passes by, just under three minutes in arrears. BMC set the tempo with Astana just behind, then the five remaining IAM riders.
The next flashpoint occurs when young Swiss rider Marcel Wyss drops back to complain of resistance on his back wheel. Something is catching on the break pad and he requests a wheel change.
Wyss getting a wheel change (Photo: Felix Lowe)
Mathieu bounds out of the car and makes the swap, but Wyss, too curious for Carlstrom’s liking, inspects his old wheel as if bent on discovering the root of the problem.
“Just go!” shouts Carlstrom before Wyss is pushed off by Mathieu, who when jumping back into the car cuts his knee on a tool. (He later tells me that that was the first wheel he had changed in his career; this was just his third day as mechanic in a team car.)
Drafting may be technically forbidden but it’s common currency in the peloton following a mechanical and crash. Wyss is tacitly allowed to draft behind numerous cars but when he reaches that of BMC, rival DS Ledanois pointedly slams on the breaks, veers across the road and drops back. He’s giving IAM no favours.
This further irks Carlstrom, who was disappointed by BMC’s tactics the day before when they contributed nothing in the chase before seeing three men finish highly on the final climb. “What goes around comes around,” he says. “I won’t forget this in a hurry.”
The gap is still 1:30 ahead of the first of three city circuits in Narvik. It’s here that things get a little hazy. The loop zigzags through residential streets and features numerous tight turns and some steep ramps. Almost instantly the peloton is blown apart.
News fizzes through on the race radio that Hermans has a mechanical; given the circumstances, this is not exactly greeted with anguish by my companions.
Four of the escapees are quickly reeled in but Elmiger manages to stay ahead with two others until the second lap. By now Rein Taaramae of Astana has forced a gap with Dillier and Ilnur Zacharin of Katusha. Just seven seconds down on Hermans in GC, Taaramae suddenly looks the favourite.
It’s a truly exhilarating experience on the city circuit, all these team cars jostling past riders and cheering fans clad in Norwegian flags and fancy dress. A crash in the middle of the road on one of the uphill segments causes chaos as the cars come to a standstill in a bottle neck. We have no idea what’s happening on the front of the race.
And by the time I jump out of the team car with just over one lap to go, it doesn’t look good for either BMC or IAM in their pursuit of the blue jersey. Frank apparently tried bridging the gap but a long downhill stretch to the sea did for his chances.
I watch the final lap on the big screen by the finish line. It becomes clear that no one will catch the three leaders – and the pressure is off Taaramae in the sprint finish (the Estonian only needs to finish within 10 seconds of Diller to secure his second overall win in a fortnight – after the Tour of Burgos).
Diller outsprints Zacharin without too much ado before Taaramae coasts home two seconds down with his fingers pointing upwards – having checked behind him for no sign of a resurgent Hermans.
Frank finishes ninth 42 seconds down to conserve his fifth place on GC. Taaramae is the champion by seven seconds over Dillier; he later tells us journalists that he’s “100 per cent going to leave Astana” at the end of the season.
At dinner in the hotel I join Carlstrom, thank him for the experience and offer my commiserations.
“Ah, it’s OK. We gave it a go and so have no regrets. But BMC may not be too happy. They got the stage win for Dillier but perhaps at the expense of the overall for Hermans.”
Hermans clearly wasn’t happy with the outcome: the young Belgian was conspicuous in his absence on the podium when BMC picked up the team prize and when the BMC riders and staff meet for beers outside the hotel before dinner they’re minus the man who has now lost two stage races on the final day in as many weeks.