“No, I’m too nervous. It’s weird!” were the words I was saying as my friend ushered me into the starting area towards the likes of Thomas De Gendt, Jelle Vanendert, and Johan Van Summeren. A few hours prior I had no idea what a Post Tour Criterium was, so I was caught off guard when I realized you could just walk up and meet the riders, take pictures, and even ask for autographs. Suddenly, I was a giddy 16 year old waiting to meet a boy band after my first concert, except this time I was swooning over quad muscles and Dura Ace Di2. I was a little reluctant at first, but it only took one word of encouragement and I was in the midst of all the pros.
From the finish of the Tour de France until the end of August, the Post Tour Criterium series takes a handful of different professional riders to various small towns to participate in small criterium races (short circuit races). Prior to the pro race, the town will put on a series of races for juniors and local teams. However, the event isn’t just about cycling, it’s more of a small town festival. Restaurants move tables on to the sidewalk so you can enjoy a beer race-side; there are pop-up shopping and food stalls, bands playing, and, of course, a few thousand happy spectators to set the scene.
As I waited for my turn to ask for photos and tried not to stare at the sheer length of Van Summeren’s legs, I was quite shocked with how approachable and relaxed the riders were to oblige requests for autographs and photos. Although that is one reason they are paid to be there, the riders seemed to appreciate the passion and support from the spectators and the organizers. It was then I realized what a great event the Post Tour Criterium’s are. The event series brings the big professional riders back to the grassroots level, especially after the Tour. Having the idols of such a beloved sport in such an accessible format serves to reconnect the highest levels of the sport with its foundation of spectators and participants. No wonder cycling can maintain its cultural stronghold here.
I also couldn’t help but think, from a rider’s perspective, who wouldn’t want to travel around with friends, ride without the pressure of winning, and soak up the love from adoring fans? From a spectator’s perspective, I really appreciated the authentic and accessible nature of the event. So, as the races went on well into the night, my friends and I just sat back, enjoyed some food, some Belgian beer (when in Rome, right?) and soaked up the lively atmosphere.
For a full list of past and up-coming events in the Post Tour Criterium series click here.