Tom Southam

The strangeness of finish lines

Tom Southam

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Some finish
lines are just better than others. Some are located in places that seem to be
destined to be the point at which a bike race concludes, but some are just
weird.

I watched
the final minute of J.J. Haedo's stage win in the Vuelta with amazement. Not to
take anything away from the man with one of the coolest names in pro cycling,
but I would suggest that having a large roundabout within a few hundred metres
of the finish of a grand tour stage was a strange decision on the part of the
organisers.

On occasion
I have thought about the finish line of a race: it is such an important place
to bike riders, it is the focal point of their existence. Their job means that
as soon as they leave the start line they are in a desperate rush to get across
that finish line. It becomes the most important place in the universe. Sometimes
it comes up too quickly, and in the rush you don't have the speed or time to
get there first, sometimes it seems so far off in the distance, and you're so
tired that you will have to crawl your way across it, sometimes the best thing
happens and you are the very first pair of wheels to cross it. There is little
worse than not getting across it.

Finish
lines get tarted up in big bike races. They get a finish gantry; they get
stands for the crowd, a podium, large TV screens and V.I.P areas. But when a
finish line is undressed, it is often exposed as just a piece of road with a
decent-sized car park nearby. The soulless stretches of tarmac can look so
strange on the three hundred and sixty something days of the year that they are
not the centre of the cycling universe.

Once
driving through the suburbs of Brussels, Jelle Nijdam (my manager at the time)
had a moment of revelation that made him stop the team car and make us all look
at the stretch of road next to us, before pronouncing: "Yah! Here I won
Paris-Bruxelles." It meant a lot more to him than it did to us, obviously.

They have
since moved the finish of Paris-Brussels, now it has a slightly more fitting finish
outside of the King Baudouin stadium outside the city. I know this because I
pointed out to Kristian House as we queued up to get in to a U2 concert years
later that "that was where I finished sixty something in Paris-Brussels". I
found myself pretty funny.

The most
amazing finish area that I saw with my own eyes was the finish of
Liege-Bastogne-Liege. It is one of the finest one-day races on the calendar,
and has one of the richest histories of all bike races, yet it finishes outside
of a supermarket. The line in the road, where lifetime ambitions have been
achieved and dreams fulfilled or destroyed, is crossed daily by elderly
shoppers in Peugeot 206s, craning to look for a good park near the door of their
local GB. I have to admit I felt a bit odd sitting there in the team bus after
the race - maybe I was too aware of my surroundings, and should have ridden
harder.

Either way,
while I am sometimes amazed by how shabby a finish area for a big race can be,
I understand these finish areas generally tend to serve a purpose - that their
location is a natural conclusion to the previous 200 or so kilometres.

This is
true in the classics because they have a lot of time to think about these
things, but in stage races, due I suppose to the demands of the towns putting
the races on, the sponsors, and the plotting of the route you can get some
finishes that seem odd, to say the least.

Sandy
Casar's stage win in the Tour last year was a classic example. Finishing just
around a bend is something that seems to happen a lot in the Giro, not the
Tour, but on that particular day in France the line was so close to the corner
that Casar seemed to have won before even he knew it.

Dave Millar
would probably have won a Giro stage this year had he got the bend right on
stage three - there too the finish was on the riders before they could even
straighten up from the turn.

There are
plenty of other examples of strange finish-line positions, but very few are as
close to a roundabout as yesterday's Vuelta stage. However odd the finish may
be, on a race as big as the Vuelta, the riders will have known exactly what the
last three kilometres looked like. The final few kilometres are normally clearly explained
in the race book, and any team worth its salt these days gets a staff member
to call the director to let them know what the finish is like 'on the ground',
so to speak.  It does make for an
interesting challenge to the riders, and long straight finishes can be a bore
now that you can predict the win before you even switch on the TV.

Good on
Haedo for making the most of the obstacle (all part of racing) even if the
enormous roundabout made the spectacle of a bunch sprint a little different. A
win is a win, and that man was first across that line. I wonder if he'll ever
take a trip back to Haro one day to find his little piece of winning tarmac? He
could camp on the roundabout even.

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