Photos: Michael Barry & Mike Barry Sr.
We pulled up in the van midmorning, as steel barriers were being put in place to close off the course. Some of us were half asleep, our necks kinked against the windows, while others punched away at Game Boys and paged through cycling magazines. Nervous excitement spun in each of our minds for the day of racing ahead.
Men wearing low-slung jeans and grimy T’s, with rolled cigarettes hanging from their lower lips, unloaded hundreds of galvanized steel barriers from flatbed trucks. The barricades lined the curbs of the town center criterium course, creating a cage to hold back the fervent drunken crowds of spectators as the riders whizzed past. Even before the barriers were in place, the beer stand opened to allow the workmen to quench their thirst under the rising summer sun. Along the course, the food trucks fired up their fryers and grills, and the carousel owner set the ride in motion.
I was 14 years old; my friends were 13, 14, and 16. A good chunk of our summer vacation was spent in Holland, France, and Belgium, chasing races and riding through the countryside. A few parents, my father included, coordinated the trip: it started with the weeklong Jeugtoer in Assen, Netherlands (a mini stage race for youth). As the Tour de France finished up in late July, we went from criterium to criterium where we would race in the morning before the professionals took center stage, racing under the lights and into the late night. For a boy who was fanatical about the bike, this was like playing a football game on Lambeau field on the morning of a Packers Game. The youth races had large pelotons, podium girls, trophies, and bouquets. Meanwhile, the pro races were a parade of stardom, where the Tour de France champions wore the Polka Dot, Yellow, and Green jerseys to the delight of the crowd. This was a side of racing that I didn’t know existed before our trips to Europe, and quickly, the races became the highlight of our summer.
After our race had finished, we snacked on frites with mayonnaise, wolfed down burgers, and waited patiently outside the town hall or community center for the pros to show up. When they pulled into the parking lot, the festival began. The lesser known domestiques arrived in their small two door Fords, while the big names, like Steven Rooks, Laurent Fignon, and Greg LeMond, showed up in fancier, bigger polished cars.
We hovered, waiting for a signed card, a free cap, or an autograph in the notebook. Each opened the car trunk and carefully lifted out a gleaming bike. The riders put the wheels on their bikes, a bag was thrown over their backs, and off they went to the “douches” to pull on their race clothing. Their wives, dressed like they were out for a night on the town, took the spare wheels in one hand and a lawn chair in the other. They would sit on the curb, a dozen or so women in a row, with a clean set of wheels waiting by their side in case their husbands punctured.
The race was pure ritual. The pros had decided their finish order before the sound of the starter’s pistol. Even the spectators seemed to know who would win but it didn’t matter — they were there to watch the riders who had shone in the Tour de France, live and in action on their local streets. The formula the race followed seemed simple, even for a 14 year old: a local pro would stay off the front for a few laps, only to be reeled in as the race neared its end, and then, in a burst of speed, the winner of the Tour, the points jersey winner, and maybe even the Polka Dot jersey, would race away from the peloton and sprint for the victory. The crowd would be elated. Their heroes had “won.”
In most towns, there was a local pro whom the townspeople were especially proud of. In his hometown, Gert Jan Theunisse was the star. His house was on the circuit. A folk song that heralded his triumphs and heritage blasted over the loudspeakers that boomed over the course. T-Shirts with his image were sold on stands. (When I returned to Toronto and wore my shirt, a friend said, “sweet Planet of the Apes shirt. Where did you get that?”)
Before the start, crowds collected outside of Theunisse’s home, craning their necks in the hope of catching a glimpse of him. Eventually, he rolled out: dark skinned, a crash hat on his head, his wispy blonde, long feathered hair, his body hauntingly thin — he looked just like all of the iconic images of when he climbed to victory on Alpe d’Huez in the Tour. That made him an enigma, at least to a bunch of teenage kids.
The races were the central show in the towns’ summer festivals. The riders (the paid talent) came to entertain, and the atmosphere was electric. Rock bands thrashed out songs as the riders whirled round. Teenage couples on a summer date leaned on the barriers, clapping and hollering as the Dutch stars raced by.
For us, a group of kids from Canada, the experience was rich. The youth racing was tougher than any race that we’d ridden in North America, as the level of competition was not only greater, but the riders were also far more tactically adept. We arrived home in Canada, our suitcases filled with pros’ caps, Gert-Jan T-shirts, and Greg LeMond autographs, as more experienced and adept bike racers.