Gibraltar is a peculiar place. As the plane hits the runway of North Front Airport, window-seated passengers peer out to see the solitary road from Spain to the British overseas territory, Winston Churchill Avenue, has been temporarily closed to permit landing, police officers in familiar bobbies’ uniforms operating the barriers. Fifteen minutes later and we are striding across that same runway to reach the heart of town. You can’t help but keep an uneasy eye out for low-flying EasyJets.
The bars are awash with Rangers football supporters: blue-shirted, pale-skinned boozers tanking up in the sunshine ahead of that night’s Europa League qualifier. Union flags abound. Very patriotic to the United Kingdom, these Gers fans. I ask one who they are playing this evening.
“No idea, pal. Some team from round here.” It is July, he’s just flown hundreds of miles to back his boys, and he hasn’t a clue who their opponents are. Admirable dedication to the cause, if a somewhat perplexing lack of attention to detail.
We are not here for football, of course, but the Island Games, a bi-annual mini-Olympics founded in 1985 and hosted for the second time by Gibraltar. Proudly displayed flags from far-flung nations will be something of a theme over the next three days on The Rock.
On a cross Channel ferry a few years back with the Rouleur editor, the final round of the quiz was announced: flags of the world. As I slumped in my chair, Andy ripped the pen and paper from my grasp.
“Every night, before bed,” he explained, “my father would test me on flags.” We won, thanks to Andy’s dad and his strong, if unusual, sense of parental duties. First prize was a Brittany Ferries pack of cards and a notebook. It may be the taking part that counts, but we felt somewhat underwhelmed by our haul.
Even Andy would be struggling here in Gibraltar, despite his impeccable upbringing. Gotland (superb at ten-pin bowling), Menorca (equally adept at shooting, judo and badminton) and the Cayman Islands (clean sweep in the squash – who knew?) are rarely-seen flags outside their homelands. Gibraltar’s features a castle and a key, which is telling.
Some of these islands represented at the games are very familiar – Guernsey, Faroe Islands, Isle of Man, Menorca and medal table-toppers Jersey – while others require a search to locate on the map, especially if, like me, you bunked off geography classes at school.
Saaremaa, for example, is the largest of a group of islands in the Baltic Sea, part of Estonia. Its most famous cycling son is Mihkel Räim, the Israel Cycling Academy rider, who tells us his birthplace’s history mirrors that of the mainland: ruled for centuries by Sweden, Denmark, Germany and, finally, the Soviet Union.
“The island has quite a similar history, but a bit different. It was a closed area for some years – controlled by the Russians, and you had to have permission to go there. It is very flat, a lot of forest, windy, not so many people. The capital city [Kuressaare] has 16,000. There is a lot of nature. If I stay five days I can cover the whole island.”
Åland, meanwhile, is a wholly different proposition, a vast archipelago comprised of 6,500 islands of varying sizes off the southern tip of Finland. The least populated of them, Sottunga, is home to just 90 people. Cycling opportunities are limited, as are dating options. Actually, best not to think about it…
The fact that Gibraltar is not actually an island at all, but is very much joined to the Spanish mainland, does not seem to have hindered their entry to the International Island Games Association – although this densely-populated rock was cut off for decades as General Franco closed the border in 1969 when the population voted overwhelmingly to remain part of the UK. Only in the early 1980s, prior to Spain’s entry to the European Union, were residents once again able to leave their tiny isolated home for the mainland.
Looking out across the Strait and seeing Morocco just over the water brings home why this southern tip of the Iberian Peninsula, two-and-a-half square miles of nothing much, has been so fought over for centuries, hence the key and castellations depicted on the flag. Half of the world’s shipping trade passes through this narrow divide between Europe and Africa. Countless tankers and container ships chug imperceptibly by, en route to the Atlantic to the west or the Mediterranean to the east.
Back on dry land, 24 teams from islands near and far are participating in 14 sports all over Gibraltar. New facilities have been recently finished, including a swanky sports complex at Europa Point and an athletics stadium nearby. The only thing that has us stumped is where the bike racing will be held on such a tiny spit of land with so few roads.
The answer, for the time-trial, is ingenious. As the Rock – 400 metres-plus high of Jurassic stone dominating the outcrop and home to centuries-old fortifications, plus Barbary apes – has a narrow tarmac track leading to its summit, why not take the race up there? What results is a brutal little test, with 16km of windy flat along the east coast road, followed by 4km of extremely nasty incline. It’s like a mini Angliru, and every bit as horrible.
A plaque at its peak commemorates one of many battles on the Rock, this time from the 18th century, when 500 Spanish troops scaled the almost-sheer northern slopes via a goat track, hoping to surprise the incumbent garrison. Having peered over the edge, it came as no surprise to me that they took an absolute kicking and were sent scuttling back down the cliff.
The time-trial is underway. Nonchalant apes watch on as a steady stream of competitors grind past. An unimpressed male stares blankly into the middle distance, “spanking the monkey”. Never has a euphemism been so apt. Paolo, our photographer, averts his lens.
Several of the women are over-geared and run past breathlessly before remounting on a false flat and reaching the finish line. Helpers catch the gasping competitors and lay them out on mats to recover. There’s a marked difference in abilities here.
Becky Storrie from the Isle of Man, however, is clearly talented, and wins the time-trial by more than a minute. Formerly a triathlete, the 20-year-old suffered chronic fatigue syndrome last year and was advised to ditch the swimming and running, at least. It could be the best decision she’s ever made.
“My doctors advised me to either do nothing at all, or just focus on one,” she tells me. “Rather than take a year off, cycling’s the one I enjoy most, so that’s the one I went with. I did my first proper bike race in February, but I did elite triathlon racing so I’m used to riding in a bunch.”
We get to hear the Manx anthem soon after – which segues hilariously into a snippet of the Monty Python theme – all three young women draped in their islands’ flags, the sun setting gloriously over the mainland from our lofty vantage point at the top of the Rock. The aforementioned Mihkel Räim, representing Saaremaa, is next up on the podium, having won the men’s race. This time, it’s the Dambusters theme that follows on from the Estonian song. You don’t get this at the Tour de France. While the rest of the cycling press pack were jostling to get a quote from stage winner Elia Viviani in the searing heat of Nancy, I was humming along to some random film music at sunset – infinitely preferable.
Third in the men’s TT is a junior from the Isle of Man, Adam Scarffe. He was “over the moon with that”, according to team manager Andrew Roche, who rode his first Games at the age of 16 – making eight appearances in all during a lengthy career in the saddle.
“I think I have got the most medals out of anyone who has done the Games. I’ve always won the time-trial, road race a few times, crit a few times – 23 medals in total.”
Roche’s racing career included a year in the States and four in Belgium, riding alongside the likes of Tim Harris and Ben Luckwell at FS Maestro. His palmarès includes first at the 1997 Rás Tailteann in Ireland and a win on home soil in the famous Isle of Man Mountain TT in 2004.
Roche also won time-trial gold at the 2003 Games in Guernsey, where the criterium produced a memorable ending. Sam Firby from Jersey sat up to prepare for his victory salute. Some fast-finishing 19-year-old kid shot under his arms and snatched the win away. Some 19-year-old kid called Mark Cavendish…
Admittedly, gold at the Island Games is not quite on a par with the prodigiously talented Remco Evenepoel taking the Clasica San Sebastian at the same age, but the relatively late-developing Cavendish was on nobody’s radar back then. He would be soon enough.
“We always try to get younger riders over for this, just to give them a bit more education as to how it all works,” says Roche. “There are pro riders here, so it throws them into that – Mihkel Räim, for example. I think it attracts other riders to come here and take them on. It definitely adds flavour.”
The Island Games gives the up-and-coming Manx talent a chance to experience competition on an international stage. Roche reaps the benefit of the work done by Dot Tilbury, who went down to the National Sports Centre in Douglas in the 1990s to help out and never left. Before long, hundreds of youth riders were attending her weekly sessions and a stream of talent from the island began filtering through the ranks. Any budding Peter Kennaughs or Mark Cavendishs in the pipeline, aside from Becky Storrie?
“Three hundred kids show up every Tuesday evening for Dot Tilbury’s league. When you have got numbers like that involved, you always get a handful that come through as juniors. If she hadn’t done that, we wouldn’t have what we have got from the Isle of Man. That’s where they all started.”
If the Isle of Man are the strongest cycling team on paper here in Gibraltar, then Saaremaa are not far behind, helped in no small part by their Israel Cycling Academy pro and time-trial winner Mihkel Räim.
His homeland is one of the further-flung islands represented here in Gibraltar, making for a logistical challenge. Mum and dad to the rescue: Räim’s parents drove the team van loaded with bikes from Estonia.
“Three days, but they were not in a rush – about 1,300km per day,” Mihkel tells me, as we settle down in the team hotel to watch Peter Sagan win stage 5 of the Tour in Colmar.
You have to wonder if a man of Räim’s talents might experience a twinge of jealousy watching the three-time world champion tearing it up on the world stage while he is in Gibraltar, but he says not. “I like to come here, to chill out with my friends and family – like the good old days.”
Räim describes his cycling life as a child on Saaremaa, accompanying his father to races on the mainland, soaking up the knowledge from the comfort of the car’s passenger seat: “I stored all the information – what went wrong, what was correct – I saved this to my hard drive. It helped me a lot.
“My dad organised the races on the island, but short, just between ourselves. All the national races were on the mainland. We had to wake up at 5am, take the ferry, do the race and get home around midnight. But it helped us as a team. We were more like family.”
How do the amateurs and youngsters feel coming up against a rider from the professional ranks? “I think it should be motivation. I know when I was here the first time, it was the British guy from Guernsey, Tobyn Horton. I knew he was fastest, the strongest, and also Andrew Roche. I heard about them from former games and knew they were stars, so I tried to beat them. I think if the level is higher, you appreciate the victory more.”
Winner of the Tour of Estonia back in May, it was the 2018 season that provided the highlights of Räim’s palmarès thus far. Stage wins at the Tours of Castilla y Leon, Japan and Korea, a second national champion’s jersey and, to top it off, a win at the Great War Remembrance Race against some excellent WorldTour opposition.
“For sure, the highlight of my career. I don’t know how I won. All day I was struggling on the flat. I was almost wishing for a puncture so I could ease up. But something inside told me not to give up.
“I kept pushing: first breakaway, second breakaway, third time breakaway, and then it was five kilometres to go and I am thinking I am probably the fastest guy here, and I won. It was a hard five hours.”
Road race day. It is not the most exciting course in the world, using the same stretch of coastal road as the time-trial two days earlier, but it does the trick. Saaremaa fire men up the road repeatedly while Räim patrols the bunch. Sure enough, the pro takes the sprint for gold from a depleted peloton.
For those who set store by medal tables, the youngsters from the Isle of Man topped the cycling, followed by Saaremaa. Overall, Jersey were top dogs, followed by the Isle of Man. Also worth a mention: the tiny bailiwick of Sark (population 600), just east of Guernsey, landed a solitary medal in the shooting. Cars are banned on the island – a jolly good thing – but probably best to keep your head down if visiting by bike…
Mr and Mrs Räim began their 4,500km long haul drive across Europe to Estonia. More than 2,000 athletes went their separate ways until next time – Guernsey 2021.
We flew home as Thomas De Gendt took a beautiful win in stage 8 of the Tour de France in Saint Etienne. One of the finest Tours in modern history and we were not there to witness it. You know what? We didn’t miss it at all. Not a single bit.
Originally published in Rouleur issue 19.7