One time, after nobody had said anything for awhile, Michele Pollentier flicked four fingers outward over the top of the steering wheel and asked me why Americans don’t know how to ride their bikes through a race caravan.
I strung together some sort of response that felt diplomatic enough, maybe even accurate. About how a lot of the races over here are criteriums, so we have plenty of pits and free laps but not many caravans. How, especially back then, somewhere in the early-mid-2000s, only big professional races here had caravans at all. Those that weren’t criteriums, anyway. Pro-am races like the one we were following? Barely ever. Pretty simply, I supposed, it came down to lack of practice.
He nodded, glanced at the sideview, and adjusted the car a bit to shelter a Cat. 1 straining to return to the peloton up the left side. We were doing about 35 down some chipseal Pennsylvania road, headed to the foot of the next climb. The rider faltered somewhere around the B-pillar and sank backwards. I’m not sure if he came back or not; there was a lot of that sort of traffic.
Only after that – and after being put on the spot to explain my homeland’s shortcomings by a man who had won the Giro d’Italia and the Tour of Flanders, and yes, who was caught trying to cheat his dope test after winning on l’Alpe d’Huez – did I ask what gave him the impression that we, as a nation, didn’t know what we were doing in a race caravan.
“Look at the back,” he said, extending a stubby forefinger towards the bumper of the car in front of us. “Spotless!”
“OK…,” I allowed myself, thinking (too simply) that this race, the Univest Grand Prix, is a big one for a lot of these teams. Probably their biggest of the year. Regional U.S. amateur teams don’t get a TV helicopter and a crack at guys in the Rabobank program very often. Of course they washed their car. Probably twice.
“In Belgium – tock, tock, tock.” With each guttural tock, Pollentier was sighting down the edge of his right hand, which was cutting a series of vertical slashes across the width of the telltale bumper. “There would be black marks across. Rubber, from the bike tires.”
“These guys? They sit a meter off the back of the car. Too far. Then they try to come around as soon as they can. They don’t use the cars enough.”
Somehow, it came off as an observation, a friendly pointer that maybe I could pass on if I had an opportunity, not as a condemnation or even much of a criticism, really. There was no hint of the ex-pro, when-I-was-racing chest thumping or old-world cycling’s well-where-I’m-from contempt. Maybe it’s that manner, or his forthrightness about his past drug use and its effects, that explains why Pollentier is owner of a Firestone tire store in Nieuwpoort and the guiding hand of a development team rather than a yelling, car-door-slapping pro DS or a quotable curmudgeon like many of his racing contemporaries. There’s plenty to condemn in Pollentier’s past, for those who like to condemn. But sitting in the car then (and sitting here now) I wished there were more ex-pros like him.