Monday, August 27, 2007

Compiegne 140-km Teams Trophy

COMPIEGNE 140 km Teams Trophy

Thursday-Friday August 23-24 2007

This time my view of this important European ride, the 140-km Compiegne Teams Trophy, would be from the inside – behind the scenes, working as a crew for Leo and his horse Orfeo. I'd be one of the myriad people scurrying around at the vet gates and the crew stops, madly tossing and sloshing water, running with buckets bottles and grain and hay and blankets and crew gear.

It was a great location for my first European crew experience: Compiegne, site of the World Endurance Championships in 2000, and the European Championships in 2005. If France is the European axis of endurance racing, then Compiegne might be considered the centerpiece of it all. Many people speak of great French rides: Florac, Ribiers, Compiegne; but invariably when they say “Compiegne” their eyes light up with a special fondness. Organizer and manager Nicolas Wahlen speaks of Compiegne the same way – he's very proud of his masterpiece, and rightly so. It's a technically challenging course, with tracks and riding lanes through state forest land - hilly terrain, sandy ground - and it brings top horses and riders from around the world to compete. In fact, said one rider, it might be more important than the European Championships for the sheer number of top French riders: at the European Championships there will be only 6 French riders; here there would be over 60 entered in the 140 km Teams Trophy. There would be a total of 84 entries, with riders from France, Spain, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Australia, Bahrain, Great Britain, Luxembourg, and Brazil.

One of the requirements for these European endurance races seems to be that you get little sleep, and so, our journey actually began the night before we left for Compiegne, when we were out way late partying with Cavalia horses. (The Australians and Kiwis take care of all that; they don't even let you delude yourself about sleep. Their rides start often at 2 AM.)

Leo and his son Julien, and Leo's horse Orfeo, had left early Thursday morning for Compiegne, and Caroll and I followed in the afternoon. We had a nice short drive of only 2 hours from Brussels to Compiegne... all under gray skies, and some rain. We tried to pawn the rain off in Belgium, but no, it was raining in France, too. Caroll was clever enough to stop at a sporting goods store and insist we buy rubber boots – which came in very handy on my first footstep outside the car on the venue grounds. It was a sea of mud! Looked like it had been raining here for a while – like maybe 3 months! But I happily sloshed through every mud pond (purposely) in my new boots. Caroll's car almost got stuck in thick gooey mud in the stable area, with wheels spinning. After the weekend was over, it looked like we'd been 4-wheeling instead of endurance racing!

We spent the afternoon setting up our gear – trunks and buckets and horse blankets and grain and hay and water – in the grooming area and the rest area under our tent where Orfeo would spend his holds eating and resting. In the late afternoon, near the vet gates, in front of the grandstand of the equestrian stadium, the rider meeting was held in French and English. We imbibed at the refreshment tent, and greeted acquaintances. I'm getting to know some of the faces in this part of the world, cheek-kiss-greeting them like I know what I'm doing. But I've never been able to keep straight how many kisses you give: I think with the French it's two, the Belgians one, the Dutch zero unless they really like you and then it's three... I'm not sure what a French and a Dutch person who really like each other do when they greet.

A large catered feast was held in another big tent – it was one big eating party with an astounding variety of food. The cooks had no problem keeping up with cooking and dishing out the hot main courses to the large numbers of people.

We got to bed late, as usual – had to visit with a lot of people in the food tent and help empty some wine bottles! The morning start was at quite a reasonable hour, 6:30 AM, and so we were up at 5, and in the car by 5:15, headed to the venue about 7 km away from the hotel. We downed a quick breakfast provided for the riders and crews, then slopped through the mud to the stables to get Orfeo ready. We greeted the other members of Leo's team, stabled nearby; and once Orfeo was saddled, we crew followed him and Leo to the starting line. It wasn't raining, but was heavily overcast, and very muggy. 84 riders left the starting line right at 6:30 for their first 32-km loop.

As the crew, we didn't go out driving on this loop. It would be too rushed, said Caroll; better to stay here and make sure we're organized, and be ready for Leo to come in off this first loop, which would likely be pandemonium. Besides, Orfeo wouldn't be drinking on the first loop anyway.

We expected them to come in to the first vet gate at about 8:30, and we spent most of that time making sure everything was ready. There were just a few people around – for the first hour – and the atmosphere was quite relaxed – no indication of the tumult to come. Cool jazz – Louis Armstrong - was playing on the venue speakers.

Around 8 AM crew cars started arriving from the first loop, and humans began trickling into the grooming area, people greeting people, waiting, visiting, all of them (us) draped in crew jewelry: horse blankets, halters, lead ropes, heart monitors as necklaces, stethoscopes, saddle racks. We carried water bottles, water buckets, grain buckets... and we waited. There was lots of cigarette smoking going on... nervous crews?

The first 5 riders came in at 8:23, (3 of which were eventually eliminated), then 3 more riders a few minutes later, then a cascade. A throng of purposeful riders and horses and crews, all going different directions, and I was right in the middle of it! Here came Leo and Orfeo... I successfully got his saddle off without forgetting to undo the cinch or something (it was easy, he had no breast collar), or dropping the saddle in the mud! Orfeo didn't want water, or hay, or cooling off... he wanted grain, we found out later! However, it was time to cool him down, get his pulse down to 64, and time the long walk to the vet gate just right. There was a crowd at the vet gate, but Orfeo entered and stopped the clock, with plenty of room inside to wait for the team of vets. When they emerged, Leo said Orfeo's pulse was 48 – not bad for an old horse.

Back at the rest area, under our tent, Orfeo scarfed his grain. When it was gone, he went straight for the closed bucket where he knew more grain was, about yanking Julien off his feet. Caroll mixed Orfeo some more grain. I made a sandwich for Leo. They had 40 minutes to rest and eat. Caroll cleaned Orfeo's legs off while he ate, Julien held him and the grain bucket, and I cleaned the sand and mud from the girth and slobber from the bit. “It's a war,” said Leo of the race, shaking his head. “Always passing, passing, this side, that side. It's very, very, very competitive. You can't relax riding in a big group.”

Then it was time to resaddle Orfeo, and they were off, headed for the out gate, and we the crew were off in the car to meet them on this second loop of 33 km. Caroll's car was crammed with water containers and extra horse gear, and her back seat was really not quite designed for a third person!
Going by the road book (Julien reading, not me!), we found our way to the first appointed crew stop, which was very busy already with lots of people setting up, cars parking on the sides of the roads and on any available grassy spots. We pulled out our prepared water bottles and bucket we'd need; and Julien and Caroll went up the trail a bit with the bottles, and I stayed back with the drinking water for Orfeo. Soon, here came the leaders, and not too many minutes behind them, Leo. Orfeo wouldn't drink, and in fact stuck his nose in the bucket and lifted it up in the air, spilling most of the water on his face and chest, expressing his disdainful opinion about drinking at a time like this.

At the crew stops, all the crews stake out their little territories, strategically placing themselves at a specific spot where they think will most benefit their riders, and set up. Then they wait: hanging out, visiting, yakking, loitering, and seemingly enjoying the atmosphere (though the mood here at Compiegne isn't quite relaxed) – but the instant the first rider is spotted, the call goes up and everything changes. Murmurs shoot through the crowd and it suddenly turns into a beehive that's been whacked, with all the frantic activity – people swarming, running with buckets, waving at riders, yelling at riders, people sprinting alongside and after horses; horses stopping to drink, horses darting through the crowd, empty water bottles flying, horses shooting through and out of the beehive, dodging people and cars and each other.

We jumped in our car raced on to the next crew point, and there I stood with Sabrina Arnold's parents this time, back out of the way, giving the leading horses and crews plenty of room. Sabrina and Leo arrived together, and again Orfeo wasn't interested in drinking, only had a swallow or two. It was cause of slight consternation from Orfeo's rider and crew. After they cantered off, we crew raced back to the venue and waited for them to arrive off this second loop.

Close to 3 dozen riders came in within 2 minutes of each other. Leo and Orfeo were just 8 minutes behind the leaders. Per instructions, I waited to pull saddle to give Orfeo an undistracted chance to drink – but he wouldn't drink – so Leo finally loosened the saddle and I pulled it off. We doused Orfeo in water – head, neck, shoulders, and while his heart rate was still in the 70's, we started the long walk to the vet ring with him. I watched from the sidelines as he was trotted out... wait, was there a bobble there? Oh no - he was asked for a second trot out! Orfeo was a bit lame! Though it was inconsistent, there was something there, and he was pulled! My crewing career was over after only two loops! (As were 9 others on this loop, and 4 on the first loop.) But, that's endurance. “Too bad, it's a shame,” said Leo. “He's so fit and strong, and he wants to go, but his legs just aren't what they used to be. His legs can't keep up with his will.”

Loop 3, while the other horses went out on the 20-km trail and their crews out on the road, we packed up our things and loaded them into two cars, drove everything back to the trailer and unloaded there. Alain Porras on our team was eliminated by lameness on this loop, leaving us with 2 girls representing Team Omega. By the time the leading horses were headed out on loop 4, we were done with our work and now found ourselves as casual observers. Caroll helped crew for some other Belgians, and Leo and Julien and I went out on the loop to take pictures. Cantering past us in first was Spain's Maria Alvarez Ponton, on her gelding Julius De La Drome, who'd finished 3rd in the 160 km at Compiegne last year, followed by Nicolas Vazquez on the mare Orsane D'Angelique, and Alex Luque, on his horse Atiklan, who finished the 160 km ride at San Galmier a month ago.

At the end of the 32-km loop 4, the 3rd member of our team, Geraldine Brault vetted out for lameness, leaving only Sabrina Arnold of Germany left. Sabrina had been moving up steadily all day, from 23rd place, to 22nd, to 15th, and was now in 8th place. Our dispossessed crew now had time to sit and watch the race, visit people, have a beer or two, take a picture here and there, and catch the riders going out on the final 21-km loop. Fifteen riders went out within 3 minutes of each other, galloping out the gate in hot pursuit of the one ahead, with Nicolas Vazquez leading the charge. It looked like it could be a very close finish... what kind of strategy do you use on a last loop when you're all so close? It would likely all come down to what their horses had left, instead of what the riders had planned.

Just over 45 minutes later, a wave of excitement brought people to their feet and running to the rail of the finish for the first rider coming in: French rider Julien Lafaure on Jasmina Cabirat, who moved from 15th to first place. But the effort was too much for his horse, who did not recover and vetted out on metabolics – a tough break.

One minute later, Spain's Maria Alvarez Ponton trotted across the finish line; due to Lafaure's elimination, she became the winner of Compiegne, followed four minutes later by Nicolas Vazquez. Six minutes later, Sabrina Arnold approached the finish line with a few lengths' comfortable lead over Sophie Arnaud; but Sabrina misjudged the finish line, slowing her horse some 30 meters short of the electronic timer. Sophie was the first to realize Sabrina's mistake, and urged her horse to a gallop, and just passed Sabrina right before the finish line. Tough luck for one horse and rider, great luck for another. There were a few mildly contested sprints for the finish, but anti-climactic after the rousing race out of the last vet gate. Several horses looked quite spent as they crossed the finish line. Two more finishers vetted out at the finish line for lameness.

46 of 84 finished, with the winner Maria Alvarez Ponton averaging 18.09 km/hr. The team she was on, Germ Tonic, finished 3rd, with 3 riders across the finish line. The French Tomas Team finished first, and the Royal Team of Bahrain took second.

Dinner, certainly one of the highlights of Compiegne, was another big, boisterous, monstrously catered affair. Orfeo got his own good dinner of grain, hay and silage, and some carrots I borrowed from his next door Belgian horse neighbor.

The next morning, our ride experience at Compiegne complete, we finalized our packing, while dozens of trailers full of new horses and riders were arriving for Sunday's 119-km Young Horses Championship, for 7 and 8-year-old horses. There would be 107 entries with high stakes; many riders could expect good offers on their horses that finished near the top. 56 of 108 would end up finishing, with the winner averaging 18.8 km/h, and 7 of the horses eliminated at the finish.

We would not be staying for the Sunday ride, because our Compiegne adventure was over, and we were headed home. My first experience at crewing, European style, even if it was just a taste, for the first 2 loops, wasn't bad, especially since it was at Compiegne. I can see how it grows on you, both the crewing, and the fabled venue and occurrence that is Compiegne!

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