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Jacob Sweetman: Zubrowka and the cycle of life

It was the Sportsdesk's summer holiday, but that doesn't mean the sport stops. No, it was the Tour de Poland, a serious bike race which would have been covered even better were it not for the vodka.

Image for Jacob Sweetman: Zubrowka and the cycle of life
Photo by David Hunter (tandemracer; Flickr CC)

They’re tough in the south of Poland. It’s pretty, but pretty unrefined. Mountain country and the Goral people have been living up there for ever – riding horses, climbing mountains, smoking profusely and stealing the free breakfast coffee from hotel buffets.

It is not a place where they play football. There’s the odd piece of Wisła Kraków graffiti, and the main security firm are called Juwentus, but they have heroes like Bode Miller. Hard drinking, flying down mountains at 100mph type guys.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the Sportsdesk has had its holiday, but has still managed to squeeze in some top class action for your delectation. It was the 68th Tour de Poland. In many ways the pack of 10 Embassy Filters to the hand rolled Cuban of the Tour De France, but a serious race, no less.

Having been lured by the mysteries of Zubrowka, and despite all my best plans, the tough climbs of the Zakopane stage was missed. The mountain people would go on without me. So there I was, four hours before the start of the fascinating final stage in Krakow. Peter Sagan had been leading the whole thing until yesterday when the young Irishman Daniel Martin had snuck a three second lead on him.

The tension was palpable – well, it was once the pilgrims had left the main square, off on their way camping for God in their thousands somewhere – but I had my spot. Directly in front of the start line on the first corner. It was perfect, and the sun was shining.

Naturally with three long minutes to go a hundred people flooded directly in front of me, I fought through just in time to see the race. Whoosh whoosh whoosh. And that was it. They were gone. A load of blokes riding bikes, now gone. Professional cycling isn’t exactly a spectator sport, let’s put it that way. As Steve Coogan’s Alan Partridge once said, “They look a lot like cattle. Cattle on bikes.”

In many ways it is too subtle. The nuances of a good race – and this was an excellent race – are in the build ups over time and distance. In the changes between climbs and sprints.

No other sport, except five day cricket, has such a shifting balance over such a long time, and it is not just a case of seeing who is at the front of the peloton.

This is good; because they go past so quickly you often can’t see who is at the front of the peloton. “I think he was in pink, did you see? There was definitely a yellow guy in there,” was the crux of the main conversation.

The whooshing continued, but it was only later on that it became clear what had happened. Sagan had pulled back the gap to a second with a lung busting charge to win a two second bonus. If the snaggle-toothed Martin was to be overhauled, Sagan would need the help of his teammates, in a weird comparison to American football.

Sagan’s win was due to his Liquigas-Cannondale partners carrying him through to second place on the day, and with it the overall win. You need somebody blocking for you. Or in the words of Taj Mahal, you’re gonna need somebody on your bond.

Martin was gutted and Sagan delighted at the end. They had covered over a thousand miles in little over 24 hours. They had gone up hills and sprinted over cobbles. Their huge team buses had dominated towns, and their cars with spare bikes on top of them had fascinated the geeks of Poland for a week (they approach the car, look knowingly at the gears, check the tire pressure between thumb and forefinger and then turn to each other with a look that says “yeah, that is a bike”).

Next time though, I’ll be watching it in the telly.