Another call from Specialized. Another solo road trip with co-ordinates and cameras. This time Belgium the next day for the building of Marcel Kittel’s new missile ready for the start of the Belgian classics a few days later.
The wheels I hoped would both improve the ride and control of my ridiculous vehicle and finish it’s aesthetic were imminent but not in time to escort me across the channel. But before it could be given bigger boots it was off to the tunnel under the sea it went.
Belgium is so close if you’re leaving the UK from Folkstone. It is a brief turn left in France then a straight road to a very different culture over that next border.
I pulled into the village nearest Quick Step’s secret operating base and immediately bought chips. It’s not that straightforward to find dinner out in rural France on a Wednesday evening, but in Belgium it’s almost a rite of passage to arrive and order frites and so vendors line up to initiate the outsider. Parking my ridiculous car for such a journey in a quiet rural town I had a choice of three frite gites within eyesight.
And it pains me to admit it, they were bad chips. Generally I have one rule with chips – enough chips. But these were not good and therefore enough was a moot point. Having gone to the top of the Atomium building for a chips lunch from southern England once, to find the restaurant closed, this was becoming an unwanted and otherwise unheard of theme for me. But to find yourself in Belgium with either bad or no chips seemed not how the script should go.
And then it was off to my farm b&b for an early start to see a pro cyclist’s prototype unwrapped then unboxed and built up like a kid’s birthday present Lego race bike.
Arriving at a race team HQ deep in Belgian cycling country, I imagined all the intricate detail I’d see and my cameras would record of victories past and projects of the future. And it was almost immediately clear I wouldn’t be photographing anything that or any other game away. I was there to see one bike and ignore lots of others. Happiest behind the scenes rather than at the front line, I could have made endless snapshots of the life of a pro-cycling team that morning. Interesting detail and history was all around but stayed in my mind and not my memory cards. Except a box with a famous name scrawled on it.
My contact here at this forward operating base was Specialized Pro Team fixer, Scott. A charming and calm professional I was to meet on this type of mission again over the years. And a very good mechanic.
As he set to unpacking the German sprinter’s new present I thought this could be an ultimate edition of that strange modern phoenonemum – the unboxing video, but very much being a stills person and having a job to do, I just got on with observing someone else’s new bike day instead.
As Quick Step team staff bustled in and out looting their own HQ’s stockpiles for provisions that would be keeping gladiators going in a few days on the no doubt cold and wet cobbles somewhere nearby, it seemed surreal to a layman like me to think the project I was recording in our little corner of a warehouse stood a good chance of becoming a face with it’s German pilot across the finish lines of Europe over the coming months. This very bike. A world away from the burgundy S-Works mountain bike I’d lusted after in 1993, but if only in name I understood the excitement of this new bike day.
Bike built up and bike builder hungry it was outside to the car park to make it’s pre-race portrait before mud and rain and cobbles took the sheen off.
Discs were becoming a thing on road bikes. It’s funny how mountain bikes borrowed much from road bikes initially and now the sharing goes both ways.
And then the wind took the sheen off anyway. As Scott and I propped it up for it’s mugshot, in a corner shielded from wind and hidden from car parking, nature had other ideas. Out of nowhere came a gust of wind like something from a film scene and over it went half a second after the decisive moment. It was as if a fighter jet had flown over full gas at a couple of hundred metres and disappeared leaving just the scars of fallen objects. My memory of it was the 1/250th of a second before it lay flat on it’s side in front of the person that had carefully enlivened it minutes before, but I’ll never forget that slow motion realisation of horror from too far away at the other end of a long lens.
My immediate fear was of damage that would undo a champions potential achievements days later and fingers pointing my direction. But inspection showed barley a mark to bar tape. This thing had a hard life ahead of it and perhaps this was it’s baptism of fire not unlike my experience of chips the night before.
I headed home and stopping for fuel caught some of my own photographs in Belgian cycling magazine on the shelf next to the counter. Having a bit of time I decided to head back through Dunkirk and pay my respects to history.
A cold and sombre feeling day I felt much standing on those beaches that so many others had written history on. I took a handful of snaps and turned to see an open bar serving warm chips. Not the legendary Belgian ones I’d envisaged but warm salted chips and crucially enough of them. After half an hour in a tunnel under the sea the phone call came to say my wheels were ready and just as road racing was finding new clean lines with discs, I was headed home to a new aesthetic in anthracite grey.