Tour de Romandie: Stage 1 – Aigle to Champery
“It’s ball-breaking work, but somebody has to do it.”
So might read the motto hanging above the First Aid cabinet in the moto-riding flagman* canteen.
“Flag man,” is not exactly at the glamorous end of bike racing – it has none of the prestige that “man who gets to stand with his head out of the sunroof of a Skoda” has, or “driver of the Skoda in which the man stands with his head out of the sunroof,” but nonetheless it is essential work, buffering the riders from the dangers of road furniture and the risks that come with them. But nobody considers the risk to the flagman himself.
The opening stage of the Tour of Romandy seemed to take place in November, with driving sleet and rain, along with a headwind and standing water. It was not going to be pleasant for anybody – least of all the men with the flags.
Wearing romper suits, the flag men had their work cut out, not only to keep warm but in getting from each danger spot to the next, in time to wave their little flag in an orderly tempo above their head, and blow a whistle as loudly as possible.
Which one flagman did in good time, arriving in the next town on the list before the four-man break reached the bollard he had been sent to warn against. They might even have appreciated the flagman’s effort had they not been dealing with their own issues, like driving rain, the cold, and some awful racket coming from someone blowing a whistle.
It’s not clear whether Eritrean rider Mekseb Debesay knew where the noise was coming from, or whether he knew that by aiming a water bottle at a particular part of the flagman’s body might shut it up. But suddenly the flagman was using the flag to protect himself rather than anybody else.
The bottle came from out of nowhere. Visibility might have been poor but millions of year of evolution ensured the survival instinct kicked in like an early warning system. An object was coming at him at speed – he reacted without thinking.
It was a move familiar to any man – the knee rising off the ground and moving across the body, while a hand came down to double up the defenses of this most vital of organs. The bottle struck around the midriff before bouncing off the flagman and rolling harmlessly away. He’d tried to catch it, but self-preservation has its priories, and for a single second, he didn’t give a damn what the riders might crash into.
Then it was back on the bike and on to the next one. Had he caught the bottle, you wonder if he might have thrown it back.
*I’m assuming that’s what these guys are called.