Philippa York: The Hammer Series and Dutch cheese

I noted with interest the appearance of the latest global cycling expansion that is the Hammer Series, just after the Giro d’Italia, and wondered if the scheduling of this glorified kermesse race was deliberately chosen. Certainly the location had to be more than just a coincidence.

Thirty years ago, I found myself in a very similar predicament wondering what I was doing riding round some unfamiliar scenery near the German, Dutch and Belgian borders in a race that I didn’t need, have an interest in, and brought nothing new.

Maybe it was because I’d had a rare weekend off that uber-General Peter Post felt I might be getting fat sitting at home listening to Eddy Wally, so he signed me and the whole Panasonic squad up for a midweek event in a far-flung corner.

Duly informed, I packed bike frame and self into the car and travelled down in the morning to some godforsaken little town for what was obviously just a kermesse with a difference. One big lap with some hills and then local circuits at the end. Whoopee.

No boredom of whizzing round the town square every 20 minutes with the temptation of packing it in when your motivation was exhausted. Oh no, this meant you had to do almost three hours before you could spot where you had strategically left the car parked for a quick getaway.

Ecstatic with the parcours, I collected my number, after being first directed to the juniors sign on – thanks but I already knew I was small – and then handed over my frame to the mechanics for them to install some race wheels. Their faces made me wonder if I’d put vinegar on their frites. Then I was told in a rather brusque manner that I should have brought my own wheels.

The other riders sniggered at my ignorance for assuming this was a real race and not a bring-your-own wheels, food and plan kermesse. Mistake noted, I re-calibrated my motivation level down another peg.

One good thing: Walter Planckaert was doing the DS duties and, understanding our situation, he wouldn’t be busting our backsides with high expectations.

The race started and it was a large field so there were plenty of hiding places when the hostilities began, which we Panasonic riders managed to avoid completely. A large break went and everything settled down back in the bunch. I was satisfied I could now look forward to a more peaceful return to the car – my dilemma being, not that our team had no one in the escape, but whether to pack straight away on entering the circuits or do a token lap.

Walter had come up in the car repeatedly and asked us to set a tempo to keep the gap reasonable but we ignored his requests and the break soon had ten minutes lead. He did become strangely insistent the closer we got to the finishing circuits, though. He knew something we didn’t. We soon found out what it was.

First time past the line and there was Peter Post on the side of the road, red in the face because his super team of stars and pampered hopefuls weren’t participating in the day’s activities. Five minutes later and PP was alongside us, hanging out the car screaming obscenities about how useless we were and demanding that we ride at the front to bring back the break.

Said break contained 20 riders and had eight minutes with 60 kilometres remaining. Now I wasn’t feeling mentally fresh after three weeks round Italy, but even I quickly calculated any chase would be a lost cause. And so did my team-mates. We moved up to the middle.

Not daring to pack – ever the consummate pros – we finished five minutes after the winner. Post was not pleased with our efforts. One final rant and he got back in his big white Mercedes coupé and screeched off leaving us in no doubt that the team wouldn’t be treating us to an after-race drink. Not to be outdone by the management, the final sulk came from the mechanics when they told me I had dented their wheels.

And there you have a typical post-Grand Tour race. A lasting memory, it was not. And neither was Hammer Time.

Maybe it’s a good idea on paper but for the moment, it’s a glorified kermesse and no one seems to understand what it’s for. After all the hype of how this would be epic, the future, the bee’s knees of technology and presentation, I imagined they would be held in places like Rio, Sydney and California – not in a corner of Holland where even the locals were nonplussed.

The on bike shots were so-so, the view inside the team cars showed even they couldn’t add up who was where after Hammer Sprint Time, and the TTT handicap was confusing. The opening day’s first rider past the line wasn’t sure to be winning and yet on the last day, they were. Or perhaps they weren’t. Who knows?

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Maybe it’s teething trouble, but the format isn’t clear and if the Dutch don’t turn out for a cycling event (there were more barriers than spectators), then how are people new to cycling going to get what the Hammer is?

Unless the locations are more exotic, the filming spectacular and the format simplified, then this is doomed to the far-flung corners of obscurity and desperation.

I can see it now: Hammer Time Milton Keynes. You’ve been warned.

This article was originally published in Rouleur 17.5, under the name Robert Millar


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