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Getting ready for the world: A caravan can be a beautiful thing … or not

A well-managed, properly officiated and expertly driven road-race caravan can be a beautiful thing. It is a choreographed vehicular ballet, balancing cars, drivers, riders, roads and the climatic elements in a colorful montage moving along at 40kph to sometimes 80kph. On the other hand, a poorly organized and badly handled one can be a dangerous cluster … er… flick. At the Hamilton World Road Championships we’re hoping for the former. If we get the latter, I will have really screwed up. But I won’t be alone, and indeed I will be in very esteemed company, as the other guy – the guy with the

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By Ed Arzouian, Competition Coordinator, Hamilton 2003

A well-managed, properly officiated and expertly driven road-race caravan can be a beautiful thing. It is a choreographed vehicular ballet, balancing cars, drivers, riders, roads and the climatic elements in a colorful montage moving along at 40kph to sometimes 80kph.

On the other hand, a poorly organized and badly handled one can be a dangerous cluster … er… flick.

At the Hamilton World Road Championships we’re hoping for the former. If we get the latter, I will have really screwed up. But I won’t be alone, and indeed I will be in very esteemed company, as the other guy – the guy with the real responsibility for overseeing things on the road – is former French racing star Charly Mottet. Trivia fans will remember that the last time the world’s were in North America, at Colorado Springs on the U.S. Air Force Academy, Mottet finished second, behind Moreno Argentin. More on Mottet later.

As I mentioned a couple of articles back, the Radio Tour broadcast on mobile radios and walkie-talkies describes the race to the participants on the course in the vehicles: the commissaires, organizing committee, media, VIPs, riders, directors and team managers.

At the world’s, the UCI requires a minimum of four radio channels to beavailable:UCICommissaire (Comm)Information (Info, for time checks and rider numbers)Radio Tour (with broadcast capabilities and listen-only capabilities)That’s all you need for the race, but the “event” requires many more.

The provisional list of vehicles for the elite men’s’ road race is composed of 69 cars and 15 motorcycles. That’s 84 vehicles on the circuit with 200 riders. And it’s not a very big circuit – only 12.4km, which probably will take the elite riders only 16.5 minutes to complete. Thus it will be very busy out on the road, which is good for spectators, but tough on officials and very, very tricky for drivers.

Unlike a regular race or even a typical UCI race with foreign teams, for the world’s Hamilton 2003 must provide all vehicles and motorcycles (we have 12 Triumph Sprint ST’s and I will be forced to drive one all summer… Ahhh, the things I have to do). As if that isn’t enough we have to get certain people cars with sunroofs, and some will have to have convertibles.

With regard to the drivers, the national federations supply all their own. For the vehicles Hamilton 2003 will handle, we’re only picking the best, the most experienced, and they are coming in from all over the world, including, of course, the U.S. and Canada.

To give you an idea who you can run into (figuratively speaking, one hopes) in the race caravan, here’s a quick story for my own limited world’s-driving experience in Spain in 1992. While Pierre Hutsebaut did most of the driving for our Team Canada Fiat Crono, he did have the thoughtfulness to pull over beside the team tent and ask if I wanted to do a couple laps to see the course. I jumped at the opportunity, of course. So I get in the car with the mechanic and take off. Next thing we know Colin Davidson had a mechanical and we had to change a wheel.

As I drove up back to the peloton through the incredibly large crowd on the climb (reportedly 1.2 million people around the entire 21km circuit, but that was August on the Mediterranean beach), I literally could not see the pavement ahead until the crowd parted just before my car hood. As I struggled to negotiate this insanity, I heard the incessant honking of a Euro horn behind me. Looking back, I could see another team car trying to pass me where it seemed completely impossible to do so.

So, wizened and worldly character that I was by then, I commented to my passengers, “Who the hell is this idiot and where the f**k does he think he’s going?”

Still, the car managed to pull even, despite my fears that dozens would be crushed under our wheels. I looked over to glance at the “idiot,” only to see the Belgian team car driven by Eddy Merckx himself.

It took a while to pull my foot out of my mouth, by the way.

That’s the pros, and that’s Europe. Yes, you can get there from here, but the road is long and the opportunities to learn how in North America seem to be getting fewer and fewer. There are simply are not enough road races here, and when there are, far too often they don’t allow race caravans or severely limit them. Public officials and some race organizers seem to think this makes things safer out on the road. Most people who understand the sport seem to think otherwise.

The best way to make the road safe and protect both riders and civilian traffic is to increase the race presence on the roadway, not limit it. Besides, it also makes for a hell of a lot better show, lets good sports directors do their jobs properly, and gives riders the support and info they need.

This point was hammered home to me in a very graphic way at Tour de Moore in North Carolina in ’91. That race, some might remember, was a great road race, but it allowed no following vehicles. In ’91 this minimalist approach to road racing led to the largest bike-race accident I have ever seen. There were 18 riders taken away in emergency vehicles – five, I believe, in air evac’s.

I wrote of the circumstance that caused the accident and proposed solutions in the pages of VeloNews (May 20, 1991). One of the suggestions was a driver’s manual for race caravans, something that would let people know – in writing – what is expected of them when they get behind the wheel of a race vehicle.

I brought this up with Canadian UCI commissaire Mike Shea of British Columbia. Mr. Shea was a commissaire recently at the Tour of Georgia. I caught up with him on the phone in mid-May just after he returned for the Peace Race in Eastern Europe. With regard to a guidebook for drivers and riders Mr. Shea offered up a typical manager’s response: “That’s a hell of a of a good idea! Want to start one?” I have been giving thought to doing just that. Who knows? Maybe somebody like VeloNews would want to publish it.

Mr. Shea did bring to my attention a 42-page UCI publication titled, “Practical Guide for Commissaires in Road Events.”

I had never heard of it before. The Canadian Cycling Association is sending me a hard copy, and I have not read through the whole on-line document yet, but it seems very complete, with many colored diagrams of tricky race situations and explanations on how to handle them. It looks like a football playbook. It explains the rules very well. I found it interesting that it is offered directly to commissaires but not riders and team managers. What are they trying to hide? I think the UCI should make it generally available to the racing public in hard copy for sale.

At this point, I’m torn between going on to explain some basic principles of driving and riding in a caravan or turning instead to a few interesting anecdotes about Charly Mottet and relating a few comments by my boss Pierre Hutsebaut.

Since I generally fly off the handle and I’m trying to learn better social skills and patience, I am going to show incredible restraint and leave you hanging until next week to see where we go…. Don’t you hate that?