December 7, 2011: Racing Alberto

Dear Friends,

I started Crossing the Yarden long before cancer, and I intend to write it long after Stella has a complete recovery. So not every post will be about the Matsav. Of course, if you are wondering, Stella had a bit of a rough week from chemo but is now doing fine as we anticipate surgery on January 1.

Now then……

It had all the trappings of a classic cycling competition. Alberto Contador is the three time winner of the Tour de France, two time winner of the Tour of Italy (Giro), and one time winner of the Tour of Spain. I am the winner of a spring training race in Prospect Park, circa 1984 and five time participant in the Alyn Charity Ride (not a race — or so they have to tell me every year.) I am sure that Alberto has been nervously anticipating racing against me ever since Lance Armstrong retired.

Alberto is most likely the best cyclist in the world right now, and one of the best ever. I am extremely proud that he came to Israel with his whole team. Sure, Robert Kraft comes here a lot, but has he ever brought the entire New England Patriots team for a solid ten days of training? Nu?

Alberto rides for the Saxo Bank team, one of the top professional teams in the world. I am not exactly sure how it happened, but Saxo Bank decided to have their first training camp of the season here in Israel. While the other top teams are holding their camps in warm exotic places, Saxo Bank came to Israel and even spent time performing charity work.

When there are those in the world who shun Israel and refuse to travel here, Saxo Bank not only came but held a race through the Old City. Big props to the whole team. I am so impressed with them, that it will be very difficult for me to root against them in this year’s Tour (of course I must, because that’s what sports fans do. But still…..)

Last week I got an e-mail from ALYN saying they are looking for a group of riders to accompany Alberto, Mayor Nir Barkat, and the rest of the Saxo Bank team on a ride through the Old City Tuesday evening. As a cyclist, this was just too huge an opportunity to pass up. I figured I would ride alongside Alberto for a little while, tell him about riding in Israel, then let him eat my dust while staring at the back of my Livestrong helmet.

I drove to Talpiot, parked the car, and rode to the Jaffa Gate. My first sense that I had somehow missed something in the translation was when I saw the massive crowds behind police barricades leading up to the Old City. Then above the Jaffa Gate was a huge sign that said “Start of Bike Race.’ Hmm……

Then just inside, I saw a bunch of real serious looking dudes pinning numbers on and getting suited up. I recognized a few including Doron Amitz, former Israeli National Champion who is nice enough to swing by the Gush Etzion bike championship every year and show us the back of his head.

Now, wait a second. The e-mail said “ride,” right? Did I miss the word “race?” Or “race against some of the best cyclists in the world?” The e-mail (after going through Google Translate) read:

Next Tuesday, December 6, group participation event will take place Saxo Bank-SunGard her rider rider Alberto Contador leads Tour de Parnes in recent years. The event will take place in the plaza of Jaffa Gate at 16:30 and will include riding with Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and Alberto Contador. In coordination with the municipality we can put together a group of 20 riders stuck to his head …

Not sure about the “stuck to his head” part, but didn’t see the word “race” anywhere either.

Then I noticed a large group of not-as-serious looking dudes off to the side, some wearing ALYN shirts. Ah-ha, better get over there.

I soon learned that there would be a ceremonial “ride” and then the “race” open to Saxo Bank and the best riders in Israel. That was fine, except I realized that by the size of the crowd, there was no way I would be able to get near Alberto. Of course, I don’t give up so easy.

I followed the press to a nearby area where a table had been set up for a press conference. That’s when I noticed a tent with portable heaters to keep the Saxo Bank riders warm before the race. And then, Alberto Contador himself walks by with a crush or journalists around him. He ducks into the tent to get away, and that’s when I made my move.

Realizing he was probably getting tired from answering all the questions from the journalists (“Why are you here in Israel?” “Do you like our country? “Did you try the steak?”), I came up on the inside, around to his right. I waited to find an opening when I had a clear path, and then I came up beside him and grabbed him with my left arm (in a friendly way, of course) while my right held the trusted iPhone.

“Hey Alberto!” I yelled and snapped the shot. With a fluid motion, I tucked the camera into my jersey and never looked back until I had put a good fifty meters on him.

Relishing my triumphant move, I went to find my bike, while he kept trying to break away from the journalistic peleton. I don’t know about official times, but I made it through the press conference much faster.

I got on the bike with a few hundred other folks who had NOT gotten a picture with El Pistelero (Alberto’s nickname.) Now I realized that while I was making my moves at the front of the peleton, everyone else had staked out a position waiting for the ride to start. By the time I got my bike to the start line, I was way at the back. (Alberto and the Saxo Bank riders were escorted to the front… because I guess they needed a bit of a head start.)

Then we were off. Riding a bike as fast as you can with a few hundred people through the winding, cobbled streets of the Old City is actually fairly dangerous. The only thing that makes it even less safe is some idiot trying to pass everyone. But hey, it’s what I do.

When we finished a lap and climbed back to the Jaffa Gate, I finally caught up to the Saxo Bank squad. But then…they shut down the course and requested that all of us who were not officially in the race, get out of the way so that the real race could start. The bottom line is that I tied with all of Saxo Bank in the only race we have ridden together. Not too shabby.

Seriously, as an Israeli cyclist, it was amazing to be part of this event. And even more amazing to hear what one of the best riders in the world has to say about Israel:

“I’m extremely happy to be here in the first place. This first week of my stay here, I’ve experienced nothing but great support in a fascinating country. Both in Akko when we were doing the cycling school project and here in Jerusalem, people have been very supportive of us. It makes me proud being the first ever to win a criterium here in Jerusalem.”

All right. Alberto you got me. I have a new respect for you.

I guess I will have to root for you in the Tour de France this year….

…..To come in third….

Just can’t help myself.

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