On Bastille day, Samantha Lane spent 16 hours embedded with Australia’s Orica-GreenEDGE team for stage 10 of Le Tour de France. This is what she saw.
Tuesday, July 14, 2015
Stage 10: Tarbes – La Pierre-Saint Martin, 167km
6am, Lescar Hôtel. 8km from central Pau
Matt White has had five hours sleep. Standard, for him, over the 21-day Tour de France. The ex-pro cyclist turned head directeur sportif of Australia’s only World Tour team, Orica-GreenEDGE, typically starts his day with a 10-kilometre run. This morning, he’s got an hour-long date with team general manager Shayne Bannan instead. It’s wrong to call it walking. While debriefing on logistics, rider health and racing, Bannan sets a pace many would struggle with in a jog.
In the mass cavalcade that is Le Tour de France, 13 elite teams have their nightly lodgings assigned by race organisers. The rooms in OGE’s latest digs are apparently above average. It’s an understatement to say the exterior isn’t flash, with an outlook onto something resembling a small chemical plant, complete with billowing chimneys and disturbing odour.
The six OGE cyclists who remain in the race will not emerge for some three hours but the wider team – minus riders, this numbers 20 – is on the job.
Danish chef Nicki Strobel left the fine dining scene for this life on the road. He has taken over the hotel kitchen and is baking bread.
Italian Claudio Bignotti, the team’s head soigneur, or rider carer, is working in a mobile kitchen truck, wrapping items for feed zones in the first mountain stage, through the Pyréneées. Salads and snack packs are prepared for everyone else in the team convoy.
White, still in exercise gear, is in the hotel’s spotless but modest breakfast room, studying a map of the day’s route. He has Kiwi mechanic Craig Geater, Belgian soigneur Joachim Schoonacker, and fellow directeur sportif Matt Wilson for company. The trio sip coffee and eat yoghurt, croissants and boiled eggs from the hotel’s buffet. Strobel’s food is only sampled by staff if there’s any left by riders.
It’s convivial but, even five hours from race time, quietly focused.
Wilson, who has relieved Neil Stephens (not unusual on grand tours), moves to a smaller corner table to begin checking weather conditions using a laptop and hard copy map.
Bannan greets team owner Gerry Ryan and his wife Val in the hotel driveway. The top individual sponsor of Australian sport is a relaxed and welcome presence around his biggest sporting investment yet. Ryan is in place for the majority of Le Tour. He and Bannan have a phone conference this morning.
“How long until it’s on?” Ryan asks.
“Thirteen minutes,” Bannan replies.
Precision is the name of this game.
It’s staff feeding time and 13 are fuelling. Among them, former pro rider and New Zealander Julian Dean, in charge of the avant course or scout car, and a constant information source for White through a race. There’s physiotherapist Scott Murphy, osteopath Andrew Gerrans (brother of Simon), Danish team media boss Brian Nygaard and Irish soigneur Sandra Ni Hodnae, the only female staffer in the mix today.
There’s a happy hum amid the growing activity in the driveway. A discernible intensity, but no obvious stress.
Gerrans puts handfuls of ice into cut hosiery. The forecast top is 34 degrees and this is an old fashioned, but effective, cooling system for riders on the road.
In an enormous mobile van housing around 47 bikes and 45 sets of wheels, three mechanics carefully measure the air they pump into tyres.
The small fleet of team cars and purpose-built team bus are washed and wiped painstakingly.
A handwritten note – “resérvé merci’ – has marked territory on a long table in the hotel breakfast room all morning. An array of condiments almost fills it: tahini, nut pastes, turmeric, coconut oil, a tub of walnuts and a jug of green smoothie (avocado, cashews, yoghurt, orange and apple juice, milk, apricots). Deep bowls of Bircher and porridge, three loaves of still warm bread and a sizeable dish of rice are placed on a side table.
“The food is pretty normal … but we make sure it’s always adjusted to the efforts the riders need to do,” says chef attaché Strobel.
Svein Tuft is the first athlete in. Half kitted up, he carves off four hunks of bread. Tour de France debutant Michael Matthews is next, still laboring after the stage-three crash that left him with fractured ribs.
Luke Durbridge, on antibiotics and battling an infection that has him coughing up green phlegm, brings his own thermos of coffee personally prepared with a favourite blend. At this point it’s two before each stage. By week three it’s as much as wakes him up.
“Your metabolism creeps up through a grand tour,” the 24-year-old West Australian, in his second Tour de France, says.
“The last week you’re waking up in the morning and you probably want to eat your own fist.”
The riders’ breakfast window of 40-odd minutes is always timed three hours before race start time and noted in the next day’s schedule circulated to all staff late every afternoon during the Tour. They’re more chilled than chatty.
This morning, all but one orders a three-egg omelet. Matthews, accompanied by his fiancé Katarina Hajzer this morning, likes his with avocado on top. He eats the soft part of his bread but leaves the crust. Adam Yates, who shares a table for two with his twin brother Simon, is the exception. He eats six eggs. Every day.
“Big omelet for a big guy,” the 172cm rider, who weighs roughly 60kg, quips on his way out.
By stage’s end, the Lancashire-born 22-year-old is only more convinced about his choice.
Riders are in the team bus. The support convoy of four cars – two in-race for the sports directors and mechanics, one soigneur’s vehicle and an avant course (before race) car – departs for a stage that begins at 12.30pm in Tarbes. It’s roughly 30 minutes from the hotel and riders are generally delivered to the start 80 minutes before races start.
Left alone for a rare window, they’re free to do as they please during transfer, sitting in their plush, black leather seats. It’s prime social media time for just about everyone except veteran Pieter Weening, who’s not a fan. The espresso machine gets a strong workout. There’s fruit, gels, two televisions and two showers.
Team meeting time. Another highly protected bubble involving riders and White.
“OK, can we turn the music off?” the DS begins.
Matthews has been DJ this morning and had upbeat lounge pumping as he prepared his final espresso.
Tuft is lathering himself in sunscreen. Durbridge is the last to sit down.
This daily meeting can go for five minutes or closer to 30. It triggers the rider phone blackout – a recent introduction by White that extends until the race concludes. It’s tunnel-vision time.
“OK, so there’s two options that can be successful here …” White says before confirming that the team is riding for Adam Yates, who did reconnaissance on the course only weeks ago to prepare for today.
Weening has license to go in a breakaway if he’s feeling good.
White thinks a decent-sized group might attack early. All these messages align with the stage-by-stage plan he emailed riders a week before the start.
Right now is about emphasis rather than new information and the meeting is done in five minutes.
“Some things you don’t need to over-complicate. Today’s pretty simple … and they’re getting good information throughout the day on the radio,” says White after he swishes aside the long blue curtain at the base of the bus’ stairs and steps into the noise.
Riders mount their bikes, which now have coloured stickers on their headstems listing the stage’s key points: kilometre marks for climbs, feed zones and basic detail on inclines.
Dean is firing up two GPS systems in the avant course car. One is a back-up. The gadgets track proceedings: altitude, distance covered, metres climbed. He tapes a course map and profile to the dashboard.
“These are tools, but probably the biggest asset I have is the knowledge I have from having ridden myself, and being able to interpret what the riders might be thinking and what Whitey might be thinking.”
A two-way radio hangs from the rear-view mirror; a hotline to car one. Radio communication to riders is almost exclusively White’s domain and they talk back to him through their small radios. Car two (led by Wilson today) gets involved if there’s a rider in a breakaway.
The stage starts and OGE’s avant course is well up the road. Dean calls a stop and steps onto a paddock to grab a handful of hay that he tosses high in the air. Observations from the wind test are relayed.
Soigneurs Ni Hodnae and Schoonacker arrive at feed zone one to prepare, then present, the goody bags for OGE riders. Inside is a tiny roll. Bread scooped from the shell is replaced by jam. There’s half an apple tart, two gels (one caffeinated), and two bars.
A hot foot to feed zone two is next. Then the finish.
Dean has sent White maybe 35 messages via-What’s App by now, concerning anything from wind conditions to “road furniture” (obstacles).
With avant course at the base of the 15km Pyrénées climb of La Pierre-Saint Martin, White calls Dean.
He’s already told him the race was considerably less aggressive from the outset than he anticipated. Now he’s seeking information about the approach to the climb to maximise Adam Yates’ prospects of being delivered in a good position.
Adam Yates is in a good position. In fact, he’s made an elite selection featuring Chris Froome, Alberto Contador and Nairo Quintana. But this is the most tense moment in White’s day. The television broadcast has carked it in car one. These are crucial moments because White wants to feed his Tour debutant as much information as possible. White calls Bannan, who is in the team hotel watching on television. Between them they manage to relay the bigger picture to riders.
Avant course hits the finish line and, by now, Dean’s message count to White numbers about 50.
The team bus is taken over temporarily by half a dozen support staff who watch the TV intently. Yates finishes seventh among esteemed company and it’s a landmark moment for OGE. Ryan is thrilled: “It’s unbelievable, first Tour to do that, he’s definitely a GC rider for the future.”
The bus is all but vacated and a media scrum of around 10 gathers around the stationary bike Yates will use to cool down. It’s always an intense time for riders, and the Englishman is one who especially needs his space. Media boss Nygaard gives the green light for questions.
“I’m my opinion he’s probably going to win the Tour,” Yates says of Froome, who he’s just seen fly up the mountain.
The scene is a collage of busy information sharing.
White returns and speaks immediately with the Ryans, then to the media.
White and Yates eventually come together, laugh and shake hands. The cyclist then starts his clean up and re-fuel in welcome calm. A slushy drink machine helps rehydration and lowering body temperature. Yates hit an average 198 beats per minute heart rate, which impresses White.
Weening and Durbridge arrive at the bus and are informed of the seventh place. Durbridge’s face lights up: “Yeah? That’s unreal!”
After a brief one-on-one with White, Durbridge disappears into the bus but his voice is still audible outside: “YATESSSSSYYYYYYYYYY!”
All riders are back in the cool bus bubble.
The hotel transfer is 71km. White and another of his directeur sportif off-siders, logistics wizard Laurenzo Lapage, travel and debrief, with riders. It’s not exhaustive. White’s philosophy is to save long dissections for when they need to be had.
Almost 10 hours after they left, crew OGE is back where it started.
Packs of clean, folded washing await on a large clothes horse. The mechanics begin control checking and cleaning bikes, and refueling and cleaning cars.
Riders aren’t far behind. Three head directly to massage for 45 minutes. Team doctor Serge Niamke will eventually touch base with all of them.
White does a quick change and travels with Bannan to dine with the Ryans.
Lapage enjoys an ale in the hotel foyer. Ditto Dean.
Rider dinner is in the hotel bistro which is closed to other guests for the night. Strobel’s menu is mushroom soup, chicken masala and vegetables, salad, quinoa and rice. Chocolate mousse and raspberries for dessert.
The mechanics complete their final tasks and can start thinking about food.
Arrival of support staff’s main meals, ordered from hotel menu. Tonight there’s plentiful iced ginger tea left over by the riders who now have any additional rehab.
Matthews pops his head in and says goodnight to the team that’s helped look after him. He and his rider cohorts aim for eight-10 hours sleep. It’s not everyone’s idea of fun, but ice baths can induce it and some cyclists leave theirs until now.
The schedule for tomorrow is long set. In less than 12 hours, everyone will be en route again.
Samantha Lane is travelling within France with the support of Orica-GreenEDGE.
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.