Monday, November 22, 2010

Day 8 (Taipei): Palais de Chine to Train Station Press Conference

5 Stars not getting old. Me... getting old.

The Palais de Chine’s suites had a similar design to other hotels in which we stayed. There was a bathroom "studio", often with a clear glass surround, creating a light and space illusion of being larger than they were. Lighting in general was dim here, though, setting a mood that felt ‘Old World’. The desk faced the sink, a two sided apothecary-style long mirror, mounted ceiling-to-counter acted as a ritzy room divider. The round tub in the corner had a creative pass-thru window to the shower, which was floor to ceiling stone tile (bringing to mind the quarries that must be thriving in nearby mountain ranges). Of course, I needed to test the tub. In a crammed time line, you started to learn that power naps apply to “power tubs” or “power blogging” or “power relaxation time”. If you had 10 minutes to relax, you’d best do it! 

Palais de Chine hotel suite, office and bathroom
Trying out the shower, I reached up to adjust the shower head and WHAM. My upper thoracic back muscles finally gave into the daily diagonal weight of my messenger back and pulling my suitcase down another hallway and into another elevator. Feeling old and crippled, I wondered how I would manage the heavily scheduled day of press conferences, trains, and buses. I just barely resisted a sleep-deprived panic attack, I think. My new comrades, thankfully, were up to the challenge.  They were willing to cart my overstuffed suitcase down the hallway, taking the burden of excess bags off my shoulders. It was true gift - the unwavering care and willingness to kick in and help the elder in the group (me!) and still laugh and make fun of me simultaneously. Again, I realize how lucky I am, and how I couldn't do this alone!

We met in the rather glamorous breakfast buffet area.  It was full of tables surrounded by small thin men, mostly European looking, some Asian.  Soon I was feeling like a groupie, trying to cleverly take a picture of the Rabobank table with Óscar Freire. In fact, his wife had to walk around me to enter for their turn at the breakfast spread of eggs, fruit, breads and unknowns we were getting to know. Now, for those of you that have been fans of the Tour de France, or any professional cycling, you know this was kid-in-the-candy-store material. I became a giggling little girl (with a stupid back problem, and could barely carry the big heavy plate of food with one hand due to my new ailment), but still a little girl with the phenomenon of blood leaving the brain and speaking muscles, to the silly brain dead babbling, can’t form-a-sentence blushing muscles.

Mark Villegas in crowded Palais 
lobby, kindly manning my bags, 
while pro team-people watching.

The frenzy that followed the breakfast was comical. There were hoards of cyclists trying to fit into a limited number of elevators, cramming in not only themselves, but their bike boxes and luggage. During this mass chaos, we somehow found ourselves consistently in the same place as most of the Giant Asia Team, including one smiling Iranian pro rider - Daryo. An adorable, lean, taller than average for a pro - and entertaining (he wanted to hang with us (having some smitten eyes for a certain tall lean athletic girl in our group, likely), and it was a blast to see him throughout the rest of our trip in random situations and hotels). 

We all awaited our guides (or their managers) to lead us to our buses that would take us to attend the same press conference in a train station a short trip away.  The lower lobby was a gridlock of bike boxes and luggage.  It was pouring outside, so the space was filled by riders trying to stay dry.  Imagine all this in the small ground-floor space, and now add a life size sculpture of a horse.  It was hilarious. 

The train station press conference was staged perfectly - well organized in the same fashion of the Cycling Festival’s Opening Ceremony. The pomp and circumstance included lots of high-volume music (some of which we unfortunately recognized from elevators & dentist's offices back home). Humorous love songs to us, but played with international enthusiasm.  The stage had a huge projection screen as a backdrop, with a row of bicycles on stationary trainers in front. 

Our clever and well-spoken MC ran the show again, helping translate and making sure to include us English-speaking media.  He did an excellent job of marketing Taiwan and made clear their mission to promote cycling and tourism. Having the Taiwanese government, the world’s largest bicycle manufacturer (Giant), and Giant's founder’s “Cycling Lifestyle Foundation” all working together, you can see how in another year, this will be much larger, more publicized, and on it’s way to becoming a serious cycling destination. It was nice to be here at its birth, and nice to see the coordinated effort.

I milled about trying to get another chance to speak with King Lui, having a colleague in common (a friend that was for a good long stint, Giant Bicycle’s General Manager here in the States - Jay Townley).  I wanted Mr. Lui to know that I passed along greetings from our mutual friend. The next thing you know... I had him in my sights, with Vicky (current Giant President and his daughter) and translator nearby. I handed him my business card, even though we attempted to speak at the Opening Ceremony before. This was an uninterrupted, less formal moment, and I cherish it. He repeated Jay Townley’s name, and I think we could call our moment a conversation. Success!

This video will give you a taste of the atmosphere at the Press Conference.

The press conference was set up with the teams arriving in groups. Mostly all athletes were seated on the right, with media and spectators on the left. A wedding-like arrangement, even down to the special dignitaries in the front row. On the right, we had almost the same lineup as we’d seen in Taitung. This included the Transportation and Communications Minister, the Mayor of Taichung, head of Taiwan's Tourism Bureau, and King Lui.  On the left were representatives from 4 of the major sponsors: Cathay Life, Shimano, SRAM, and Giant. The funniest moment came when the MC - who clearly didn’t know all the details of pro cycling - was describing the classic pro tour jerseys these guests of honor were wearing.  For example the representative from Cathay Life was introduced as wearing “YELLOW! The Champions Jersey!”, but then the MC introduced the SRAM rep as “wearing the green Jersey! That means something!”  I didn’t hide my laughter. (For those in my reading audience that don’t know, green usually indicates the points leader in a stage race.)

The same message was spoken over and over with enthusiasm - that Taiwan is, can be, and hopes to be a destination for both world class pro cyclists and recreational touring cyclists.  This remained the theme of an interview with Óscar Freire.  Friere also gamely - along with the Taiwan dignitaries - rode one of the  bikes on trainers, in front of a screen featuring Taiwan's scenic highlights.  All while giving the universal - and repeated with joy - Formosa Thumbs Up! Óscar was always ready with a cute smile, followed all instructions, and patiently awaited for his responses to be translated. 

Friere (and his Rabobank team) are sponsored by Giant Bicycles, clearly the headliner for the event.  He was genuine in his appreciation for the country’s hospitality, and complimented its potential in joining the pro circuit. He was a real pro: he knew he was the big name they needed to get eyebrows raised, and clearly wasn’t his first press conference. 
Teams pose with Sponsors and Dignitaries (photo by Mark Blacknell)
For the final photo op, I placed myself right up front with fellow media photographers. We were quite tickled while the MC designated a direction for the teams to look to afford the best opportunity for media to get a great shot.  The MC would pick out a person as a landmark, and instruct the riders to look in that direct. Something like “Everybody now look left towards the gentleman in the bright red shirt, now look center... and now look right, towards the girl with the iPhone 4 (in case you wondered... that was me). It was cheesy, yet well orchestrated, creating the ultimate PR moment.  I truly feel the organized fashion and united front to make this successful, will exponentially grow the event, and soon I won’t be allowed as VIP media.  Rather, somebody like Phil Liggett or Paul Sherwen will be the invited media, and I will have to resort to internet streaming of the event, or watching it on Versus.

The event was on a schedule, so it closed after each team posed with all the platform guests. All the teams were shuffled through the station and boarded the trains.  The cars were newly fashioned with excellent bike capacity - right in the same car you sat - and were scheduled to head down the eastern shore in 2 hours, to the start location of the Taiwan Cup Race. (or so they thought, because Typhoon Megi had other plans). We boarded with the teams, getting a chance to film and interview them.  Since we had our own agenda for the rest of the day, we exited at the first stop, about 10 minutes down the tracks. 

Chatted with the New Zealand chap in front.
He was just selected to go pro, and 
excited to train in Europe, but not 
to be away from his girlfriend. 
Robbie Hunter and I steal a moment during 
the photo frenzy. Lighting was terrible for my 
inferior photography equipment. 

Next entry: my 10 minutes on the train with the pro’s, and how I didn’t waste them; how our group of 5 spent the rainy Taipei day and night. 

Óscar Freire's wife in background, Bev Garrity
and Erik Dekker at press conference before
heading to the trains

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