How do these waggly lines separating one country from another in mainland Europe come about?
Who, and what point in history, was tasked with poring over a map, draughting pen in hand, and deciding the northerly bulge of Bohemia should belong to the Czech republic, rather than the more logical Germany? Or that the adjoining low-hanging belly of what was, until unification in 1989, the German Democratic Republic, should – and may well have once been – in Czech hands. Or part of Poland, for that matter, just a few miles to the east.
We rally in Varnsdorf, a German-sounding town on the Czech side of the border, the entire race convoy bound for Bogatynia in Poland for stage three of the Tour de Feminin Krásná Lípa. Within minutes the faded but undeniably beautiful grandeur of northern Bohemia has disappeared. With no obvious demarcation, the tarmac is suddenly smoother, the road straighter, factories are gleaming and newly built. No sooner have our eyes adjusted to the transformation in surroundings than Germany is left behind, the Lužická Nisa river’s meandering route northwards to join the Oder explaining the absence of straight lines for this particular boundary.
All change again. No shiny buildings, no purring Mercedes on silky-smooth blacktop, and no discernible signs of wealth whatsoever. The race convoy rattles along a high street flanked by corrugated iron shacks, wares displayed on plastic sheet spread before glassless shop fronts. This Polish border town was, I am guessing, not so different from its German neighbour pre-unification, but now the contrast could not be starker. One of the European Union’s wealthiest nations butts up against one of its poorest. Accidents of birth are still cruel, despite freedom of movement. The width of a river makes all the difference here.
It is pretty clear when we first reach Varnsdorf and our accommodation for this five day race that our team is the poor relation; Poland to others’ Germany – including the German team, naturally. No liveried van and team car for us. No matching bikes. It’s jersey and shorts provided, bring the rest with you and away you go.
Notice I use the word ‘us’ when referencing the team. This is not a confession of all journalistic impartiality having been abandoned. On a purely practical level, having a writer hanging around for five days is about as much use to a tight-knit outfit like this as a chocolate crankset, so I earn my keep by helping out. The massage table is dusted down, effleurage, petrissage and a smattering of anatomy and physiology relearnt via a refresher skim-read through a manual, and I am second soigneur to the women of For Viored-Brookvex for the duration.
The team is run by an extremely tall redheaded Dutchman by the name of Rene Groot. He is a big character in every sense. Loud, chirpy, loping, with devastatingly effective ability at table football. If Johan Cruyff played the bar version of the game, you get the feeling he would struggle against this man. A back injury put paid to Rene’s bike racing days, but get him down to the level of the table, give him four rows of plastic men to play with, and he is a champion – you are five goals down before you can say Ruud van Nistelrooy. Total football indeed.
A chance conversation with a rider in the UK, whose team had been invited to Krásná Lípa but who declined, led Rene to follow up and take his own squad to the Czech Republic in 2010. “Two of the girls finished in the top 25 and we were seventh in the team rankings,” he says. “And that is from a group of girls that had never raced outside of the UK and didn’t even know there were Italian professional teams or women’s pro teams in Europe. I took another team to Ardèche [Tour Cycliste Féminin International De L’ Ardèche] and we had two riders in the top 20 and finished fifth in the team rankings, with three UCI-ranked teams in front of us. We beat all the national teams.”
Not a bad start but with his sponsors withdrawing at the end of that year, it was back to the drawing board. How difficult is it to find backing for a women’s team? “Ridiculously difficult,” Rene says. “It is nigh-on impossible. It really has to come from people you know that have an interest in cycling. If we were a men’s team we would probably have a budget that is five or six times what we have. We are ranked as one of the 15 best amateur teams in the world, yet still we struggle to find sponsors.”
A big chunk of that limited budget – £3,000 – goes on competing at Krásná Lípa. After a promising debut, For Viored-Brookvex is entering the 2011 race with a full complement of eight riders and hopes for a stronger showing. UCI registered teams in women’s cycling have permission to loan their charges out, allowing those without a ride at the concurrent Giro Donne to compete in the Czech Republic.
Rene has gained Cath Williamson, preparing for the World Championships in Denmark, and Emma Trott, one of five Olympic Academy riders injured when a motorist scythed through their training ride in Belgium in 2010. She sustained a broken collarbone; others fared worse. The irrepressibly upbeat Trott has been struggling with an undiagnosed injury of late, thought to be a blocked artery, leading to loss of power in her right leg. The next five stages spread over four days of racing could go either way. She is hoping for the best.
We are billeted in a rough and ready girls boarding school, rearranging furniture in a fluff-strewn bedroom to make way for the treatment tables, then getting the pre-race massages underway. Team soigneur Jody Leach is, thankfully, fully kitted out and knows his stuff, so I keep one eye on his moves while stealing his oil and cribbing as best I can while long dormant techniques are rekindled.
Dinner has something of a recurring theme during our stay: chicken with rice or potatoes. Aware that rice and its reheating is a common cause of food poisoning, I swerve the grain and advise anyone else prepared to listen to do likewise. The serene and self-contained Emma Grant goes one step further, bringing her own food and cooker, which is set up in one of the girl’s dorms, much to the others’ annoyance. It turns out to be a masterstroke…
Extract from issue 30 of Rouleur
Wonderful socks, from The Wonderful Socks