BELGIUM – He rode out of nowhere.
Two seconds after we pulled out of the hotel parking lot he zipped past our follow car and tucked into the slipstream of the eight riders in front of us.
He looked like a local, 18 maybe, his dark-blue kit contrasting with the pros’ pink jerseys, an intruder jumping in with a Tour de France team on its private training ride. He must’ve been lurking around the hotel, a kind of two-wheeling paparazzo looking for a free ride.
It was the day before the start of the three-week race, on the outskirts of Brussels, and watching our mysterious pedaler I soon realized we had something in common. Yet instead of crashing a training ride, I sat in the back seat of the team car, a fly on the wall reporting on the inner workings of a top US Tour team, EF Education First.
We both wanted the same thing really, to be in the Tour. And there we were, in it, or nearly, not as competitors but as participant observers, at least for a spell.
The plan called for an easy coffee ride, to keep the riders’ legs open and make any last adjustments to the bikes. And, quietly, to shake out any nerves on the eve of the greatest race.
I wondered what Paul and Raj, the driver and the mechanic, were thinking of the interloper. It is verboten to get so close to the riders on these rides, lest an overzealous amateur take one of them down by braking a second too late or having the dreaded “touch of wheels.”
I’d seen many a director roll up and politely but firmly tell enthusiasts to drop back. This was one of the few times I’d seen someone allowed to ride, in my half-dozen Tours anyway. And it’s part of what makes cycling unique. It’s not every day you can just jump into an NBA shootaround or warm up on the pitch with Messi and Co.
Paul was all right with the kid, who sat spinning his pedals behind the last two riders. Paul observed that he looked like a racer, which I took as code for “safe enough.” That was confirmed when I saw the team leader, the Colombian climber Rigoberto Urán, the runner-up in the 2017 Tour, chatting with the kid as they rolled along.
It’s kind of refreshing, since so much of this race, the world’s largest annual sporting event, is so tightly controlled you can’t walk 50 feet without having the barcode on your credential scanned. There are multiple levels of access. Security checks you when you enter places and again when you leave them.
The team plus one wended their way down side roads and bike paths, through suburbs and villages, taking in the sunshine and the breeze, and we followed, keeping an eye on the GPS to ensure we didn’t miss a turn, and to see to it that the kid didn’t push his luck.
The riders never went hard, and the kid seemed to be savoring each pedal stroke, judging by the look on his face, which I caught glimpses of when we rounded a corner or stopped at a light.
This lasted for the better part of an hour, till we reached the coffee shop, where the riders commanded a table and the kid hung back on the sidewalk.
His name was Kiano Brusseleers, which he told me almost as if he’d been caught cheating. He was from the nearby area of Zaventem.
He was, in fact, 18, and had been racing bikes for years. He’d recently started competing in the under-23 ranks, and he’d gotten word the team was staying at the Holiday Inn by the airport.
It was the first time he’d ridden with a Tour team, and, perhaps too shy to approach the riders, he asked whether I would thank them for letting him join their ride.
“Do you want to go pro?” I asked.
“Yes, but the chance to be pro will be very small,” he said. “But I’ve got to try. If you don’t try, you will not be a pro rider.” He told me he’d already won a race.
I was tempted to ask him what Urán had said to him.
“So would you say this is the best day of your life?” I said half-jokingly.
“Yes,” he said matter-of-factly, glancing a last time at the riders as he threw a leg over his bike. “A very nice day.”
He gave me his email, asking if I could send him a photo of him riding with the team.
He smiled, clipped into his pedals, and rode away.