We are back in the Tom Dumoulin park for the start of the Hammer Series grand finale. Crowds are, again, on the sparse side, but nothing major. It may not look packed to the rafters on TV, but the Hammer Series is an unknown quantity. They will surely come.
Velon and its backers Infront have not cut corners, and that is to be applauded. Someone has put a whole lot of cash into this project. Bartlett tells me it is a combination of Infront, Velon, Limburg local authorities and Sportszone Limburg, but “the principal investors are Infront and Velon”.
Track the corporate lineage back from Infront and you will arrive at Wang Jianlin, supposedly China’s richest man. He is not short of a few bob, so this bike race in Holland is a drop in the ocean to a man of such wealth. But he is also no mug. If it does not succeed, the plug will undoubtedly be pulled.
I dip back into GCN to see what the lads are making of it. “My time to make a huge apology because I misunderstood the rules about the opening two stages and aggregate points system,” says Dan Lloyd in his introduction. At least it’s not just me.
The chase is split into two separate races, with the bottom eight teams fighting for what is similar to a minor placings final in track sprinting. Indeed, the similarities to velodrome disciplines are noticeable over the three days: the points race-like repeated sprints and recovery of the climb; the scoring confusion of the sprint day, reminiscent of a Madison in full flow; the potential for disaster at any given moment during a team pursuit that is echoed in the chase.
Indeed, BMC, usually masters of the TTT, blow apart in spectacular fashion due to a series of punctures following a torrential downpour. To see the likes of Quick Step, Trek-Segafredo and BMC scrabbling for the minor placings is somewhat bizarre, but reassuring in another sense.
Nippo-Vini Fantini played a blinder on the first two days to earn their spot with the big boys in the top eight final. The fact that they quickly got their heads around the Hammer system earned them a third-placed start in the chase behind Sky and Sunweb. It was, for me, the best performance of the whole event.
I watch one of the Velon tech guys fitting a rear-facing Go-Pro camera to Elia Viviani’s time-trial bike. It’s an intricate operation and a sizable piece of kit – over 400g – to allow live footage of the chase from inside the string of riders. Riders are, understandably, reluctant to carry unnecessary weight, especially if they feel they are being penalised relative to others. To allay their concerns, Bartlett tells me, one man from each team has a camera fitted, although most are actually dummies and not transmitting.
By the end of the opening lap, we have the wonderful sight of four teams locked together on the road: Lotto NL-Jumbo, Cannondale-Drapac, Movistar and Orica-Scott sweep past in a 20-up time-trial formation, soon to be joined by Nippo-Vini Fantini, then Lotto Soudal. So 30 in all. It is brilliant and hilarious in equal measure. The poor UCI commissaire is waving hysterically from the back of his moto in the narrow lanes of Sittard to no discernible effect. The rulebook has been torn up, thrown out the window and stamped on for good measure.
I love it.
Sky have dropped Jon Dibben, leaving them with the minimum of four men. Sunweb have them in their sights. Any BMC-style mishaps for the leaders now and Dumoulin’s team-mates will be on them. The next six teams pass through the velo park locked together, an interweaved mass of a team time trial peloton cornering brilliantly on bikes designed to go fast in straight lines. It is gripping.
The Sky quartet’s shoulders are rocking and rolling, a sure sign they are on their limit. Geoghegan-Hart looks to be struggling to hold the wheels. The five men of Sunweb are within spitting distance of the leaders. They pass. Sky tuck in behind, then fall back ever so slightly. Are they preparing to rush Sunweb again, or totally screwed?
Sky surge past again before the final corner. What is now the four riders of Sunweb are split. Whoever is the last rider of this eight to cross the line will not win. Geoghegan-Hart is adrift of his team-mates, sprinting for all he’s worth against a trio of Sunwebs. He even gets in a cheeky little shoulder barge on one of them for good measure. He beats them, crosses the line, punches the air, and we can all breathe again.
It is pure drama. Great racing. Dare I say, full gas. I feel another frothy beer coming on.
If Graham Bartlett was grinning like a Cheshire cat after the second day of racing, his demeanour two weeks down the line has not changed much, but he strikes me as that kind of guy.
“The reaction on social media has been fantastic and it has taken me aback. We fully expected at least half the people watching to slag it off. But about the most negative comment I saw was: ‘I have no idea what is going on, but it’s bloody great to watch!’ Which is pretty staggering.
“We know we have a lot of work to do. We are not patting ourselves on the back, but we got exciting races that the riders and the fans and the teams really got behind and enjoyed, and that really ticked the boxes.”
There were hitches and glitches with the various feeds and outputs, especially relating to data, but nothing insurmountable. “We had this whole plan that we would be able to show people exactly the stage of the race at any given time,” Bartlett explains. “It didn’t work until the final day. That is one of the big ones to look at.
“But the nice thing about this long list of improvements is they are all things we know we can do. We are not sitting here scratching our heads.”
Looking at comparable innovations in other sports provides an interesting comparison. Twenty20 cricket has taken off, Rugby 7s was, for me, the most enjoyable viewing at the Rio Olympics, athletics has the Nitro series, and even the fustiest of sports has tried to appeal to a 21st century market with GolfSixes.
“There are a lot of articles being published at the moment on this,” says Bartlett. “GolfSixes is a very traditional sport that had tried to introduce something new. Twenty20 is the poster child for short-form versions of games, because it has been accepted and integrated into the diaspora of sports. All cricket fans, pretty much, accept it as part of their sport, whereas GolfSixes has got quite a way to go. But it has only just started.
Nitro is an interesting one. I’m not sure if athletics has really got behind it yet.
“When we were looking at Hammer and how we wanted it to look and feel, it was very much with digital in mind. We served it up in different chunks that anyone can take. You have got to go to them; create the content in the way people want, not in the way you want. That’s not how it works.”
Figures issued by Velon suggest their “different chunks” have gone down well: a claimed 4 million total views across the various platforms – Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Tout and Dailymotion. I have no idea what those last two are, frankly – the only daily motion in our house takes place in the privacy of my own bathroom – but the statistics are impressive.
For all the technical hitches and initial confusion on how the racing would work, it produced a nailbiting finish that even the best Hollywood writer could not have scripted. But the points system needs simplifying, clearly, to aid the home viewer’s understand of what they are watching.
“I think we will look at that. We will look at everything. There is quite a clever little bit of maths behind it that achieved what it was designed to do – make it exciting at the end.
“We have got our own working group that includes the team DS’s and we will throw it back to them and ask what they thought of the points system. They will figure it out. If we can simplify it, we will, for sure.”
What next for Hammer? The series will return to Limburg once again, with strong support from the local region, immediately preceded by a partnership with the Tour des Fjords in Norway, with the new series butted on to the existing race in the following days – a sensible approach for all concerned. “This is the future of Hammer, working with races that think we can improve what they are offering at the moment, and that is exactly what happened with Tour des Fjords,” Bartlett says.
“So, Stavanger is next. There were some plans to do another one this year but we decided against that. We want to clear up all the things we know we need to improve, get them in shape, and then go for it in Norway.”
Back on the GCN channel, one viewer suggested Barcelona would be an amazing venue – the Hammer climb on Montjuic would be spectacular, for starters. Easier said than done, of course, but Bartlett sees the obvious appeal of major cities like the capital of Catalonia.
“Why not? That would be fantastic. It is tricky in those big cities, but the great thing about Hammer is you are looking at a three-hour slot for road closures, not all day.”
Watch this space. If Wang Jianlin was tuned in to the Limburg Hammer, he was surely impressed. He may have even joined everyone else in uttering those two words of the weekend, with a frothy Dutch beer in hand.
Extract from issue 17.5 of Rouleur, published July 2017