This is the last installment of a story about my final weeks with Mercury-Viatel, an American professional cycling team attempting to find success in the top ranks of the European peloton in 2001.
The next day dawned sunny and warm. The riders were calm and relaxed following the “Queen Stage” the day before. Stage 2 covered 186km from Brasy-Dune in France, to Komen, Belgium. It was expected to end in a sprint.
About 30 minutes into the day though, an attack by our own Wim Vansevenant was reported via the race radio. Batavus’ Bart Voskamp, a rider known for his time trialing and a penchant for long breakaways, quickly joined him.
Cheeky move, Wim, I remember thinking. And it was. Most of the favorites for the GC had finished nearly half an hour ahead of these two the day before, lessening their teams’ tendencies to chase. Furthermore, Wim and Bart were well-liked by most; perhaps giving them a longer leash than others could expect.
For Voskamp, this was a move seen many times before. For Wim though, it was a new tactic. Always the first rider to sacrifice his own chances for the sake of his teammates, he was often seen more at the back, grabbing bottles or pacing a teammate, than off the front. I was impressed that he picked this race and this moment to suddenly become a protagonist. It was almost as if he had been waiting the entire season, planning to lay it all on the line today.
The gap quickly ballooned to several minutes; the peloton clearly had no intention of chasing. When we got the call to follow the break, I first checked with our the riders in the field, then asked the Mavic neutral support car to keep an eye on them, handing over some bottles and a musette bag or two just in case.
Up front, once I saw Wim I knew immediately that he had good legs. He was riding comfortably in Voskamp’s slipstream, pulling through effortlessly. Johan Capiot, Voskamp’s DS, nodded and winked as I passed him on my way to Wim’s side.
“Hoe ist?” For some reason I decided to speak Flemish.
“Bidon.” He wanted a bottle.
Grabbing the bottle and propping my arm against the side of the window, I gently pressed the accelerator, pulling Wim along. I doubted the commissaries were watching too closely.
“En? Goed?” I wanted to know if he was feeling as good as I thought he was.
“Ja, goed.” Wim, ever the stoic Belgian, was a man of few words.
I retreated to my place behind Capiot. (Even with 2 cars we followed caravan protocol.) I thought about heading back to the peloton to check on the rest of the team, but this was far more important. I wanted Wim to get the win today—for him, for me. Besides, after the feed zone one of the soigneurs could hop into the race to support the rest should they need anything.
Could Wim really pull it off? I thought. A win today and certainly someone would notice my talents. Not everyone could hold such a ragtag group of riders and staff together under such conditions; who’s to say what I wouldn’t accomplish with more support and better structure? It would at least be nice to go out on top.
With about 15km to go our direction changed and the wind picked-up, so Capiot and I began taking turns talking to the riders more. By driving alongside we could block the wind with our cars, creating an echelon within which the riders could draft. Each time we pretended to explain or adjust something, lest the officials start to complain.
Several times we did this, but suddenly I noticed that Capiot wasn’t talking to Voskamp anymore, he was talking to Wim.
“Hey, look at that. Do you think they know each other?” I asked the mechanic.
As Capiot’s car drifted back to its place in front of mine it hit me: Wim would not be winning the race.
Damn, I thought, my face flushing with anger. I really wanted this one. I wonder what they offered him?
The commissaire startled me from my frustration, motioning toward the break where Wim rode with his hand in the air. I took my position alongside the two men, once again blocking the wind, while the mechanic adjusted Wim’s rear brake caliper.
In the end, my suspicions seemed to be correct. Following a few feigned efforts to escape before the line, Wim indeed lost the sprint for the stage. To anyone watching, it appeared as if he had no answer for Voskamp’s final surge; the Dutchman won easily—with two vingers in the nose, as they say.
As the rest of the team came in, they congratulated Wim for his ride; but I could tell he wasn’t enjoying the moment as much as they were. As the staff began loading for the trip to the hotel, Wim quietly took a seat in the minivan.
Hours later, I sat on a curb in the hotel parking lot discussing the day as the mechanics washed and tuned bikes. The weather called for rain the next day, so chains were greased and tires were inspected with an extra-careful eye.
As the last bike was hung in the back of the box van, Wim appeared holding a tray of beers. Dressed in his team issue warm-ups and wearing the same pair of sneakers he had been given back in January, he looked a bit lost.
“Here men,” we each took a beer. “Thank you for today.”
“Did you have to, Wim?” I knew it was inappropriate, but I asked anyway.
“You know I couldn’t win today,” he said. “If I win my wife would kill me. I’m sorry.”
Well, at least he admitted it. And could I blame him? After everything we had seen that season, it just seemed out of place to resent him for putting his family first. At least his excuse was in the best interests of someone other than himself.
Sometimes I wonder if Wim regrets the choice he made that day. But in all honesty, he probably doesn’t even remember it. After all, it was just one more of example of everything that could have gone right that year, but didn’t. As for me, three weeks later I would find myself on a plane bound for home, destined but not eager to begin new phase in my life.