Riding with Belgium’s Boonen and Gilbert on Box Hill

Riding with Belgium’s Boonen and Gilbert on Box Hill
Richard’s Blog


Riding with Boonen and Gilbert on Box Hill


But not pedalling with them


Posted 25 July 2012


From time to time, the kind of opportunity comes along that no cyclist would turn down. Last time was in 2007, when the Tour de France organisers were looking for an experienced motorcycle pilote to take a photographer around the London to Canterbury route of that year’s stage one. It was exceptional fun, not least because I got to ride the route and keep the photographer’s pocketed vest but didn’t have to take him pillion once the Tour staff found a spare motard on the event’s roster to do the job.


This year’s chance came when Belgian photographer Eric got in touch with my fellow journo and regular pilote for Graham Watson, Luke Evans, asking if he knew anyone who could drive him to take pics of the Belgian mens’ squad preparing on Box Hill’s Zig Zag Road for the Olympic road race.

Plenty of pockets

Box Hill is not too far away and the weather looked set to stay hot, sunny and generally great for riding a motorcycle, so I turned up at Dorking with spare lid and picked up Eric, a generalist sports photographer accredited for the entire Olympics and with a brief to get some shots of Belgian cycling’s big hitters Tom Boonen and Philippe Gilbert.

They and fellow riders Stijn Vandenbergh, Jurgen Roelandts and Greg Van Avermaet were initially expected to get to the Zig Zag by 10:20 hrs, so we bimbled along to the foot of the climb and, having met a couple of Eric’s mates, set about waiting for them to turn up.

Turns out that the level of communication between the national team and its country’s journos fell some way short of that achieved by Team Sky’s management and Chris Froome on the climb to Peyragudes. After much texting and calling, Eric managed to ascertain that the Belgians had left the Olympic village in Stratford at 10:30 and, given it was now around 11:40 and they were in a car, might arrive at the Zig Zag at any moment.

Some of many

One problem: we were waiting by the Burford Bridge Hotel, which the race route passes once on its way to the foot of the climb from Dorking. On the remaining laps, it approaches from the opposite direction via Mickleham. If Tom and pals went the other way, we would not see them. Nor could we wait at the foot of the climb, where serious-looking security operatives looked unlikely to be impressed by demi-gods such as Boonen and Gilbert, let alone me and my pillion.

His accreditation, on the other hand, was impressive enough to get us on to the climb on condition we didn’t exceed 12mph. This was slow enough to allow one of the security chaps to overtake in a buggy loaded with water containers.

The day’s main event

Parked up just below the first bend, we had plenty of time to observe, photograph and generally urge on what looked like every cyclist in Surrey not gainfully employed – and a few I know who most definitely are. All cycling life was there, much to the amusement of the guard looking after the nearby water tents.

Next came a rumour that the Zig Zag was to be closed to all but team riders between 13:00 and 16:00, which was not too bad since we were already on it. And then, suddenly, a blue-clad group with the black, yellow and red bands of Belgium across their chests came into view at a fair lick.

Pics taken, Eric and I gave chase – at a bit more than 12mph – and got alongside the group on the long straight after the first right-hander. Eric was by now getting a bit excited and demanded we get in front, drop back, get closer, further away… even as he experimented with standing on the pegs while turning to look back.

The riders were cruising fast and, before long, we got back to the foot of the climb to find it closed, not only to us, but to the team riders and their support van. Some sort of “lock-down” was underway; it sounded serious, if a little overwrought in the middle of the Surrey Hills, so off went the lads on a ride towards Guildford that took them and us to the climb from East Clandon that should initiate action proper on race day.

Close enough?

Or not, given the ease with which the pros flew up what is, for most of us, a torrid grovel. For the next few miles I was able to draw on local knowledge to drop Eric at suitably picturesque spots such as Abinger Hammer, each time having to leapfrog a long and remarkably patient tailback of motor vehicles in order to regain the bunch.

On arrival at Deepdene roundabout, the pros headed straight on while we rode back to Dorking station where Eric and I parted, he with a memory card well-stocked with pics, me with another day spent riding a moto alongside the world’s best bike riders to look back on. Bring on the next one.


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