Our first question when we were offered a place in the Rapha Condor JLT team car was something like “Can you stop and go for a comfort break?”. A bit of an odd question but we were excited and this side of bike racing is new to us. Seeing the Tour of Britain from the perspective of a team is quite a different experience. Each year the Tour of Britain has been getting bigger with more UCI World Tour teams taking part so there’s no better time to see the race from a different viewpoint. I headed down to Devon for Stage 6: Sidmouth to Haytor. A stage with lots of climbing and a hill top finish. A perfect stage for a rider to make an early break and escape the Peloton.
I arrived early in Sidmouth and wandered down to the start point. Not many teams had arrived yet but Team Sky were already drawing a crowd. A crowd that grew for the next hour with everyone hoping to see Bradley Wiggins, the eventual winner of this years Tour of Britain. A young girl sitting on her dad’s shoulders periodically called out “Wiggo, come on Bradley!” making everyone waiting for his appearance laugh. The atmosphere was fun and exciting. There are not many sports where you can get this close and see the team preparing for the days racing.
Grabbing a coffee I waited for the teams to roll in. Lots of Police stood next to their Lotus Evora; the forces pride and joy baddie chaser, while Tour motorbike officials rode down to the start drowning out the podium announcers voice with their engines. Children ran around chasing autographs and asking for water bottles. “You realise I’m not him don’t you?” said a member of the Madison Genesis team to a child holding a Team Sky book. “Yeah, but can you sign it?” he said back thrusting out his pen. The crowds grew and teams arrived so I headed off to find Rapha Condor JLT.
I found John Herety, Directeur Sportif of the team and said a quick hello before he went off to talk to the team while they prepared. John was a National Road Race Champion and Olympian at the 1980 Moscow Games before he started managing teams in the 1980s. He managed the Great Britain national team where they competed in the Sydney and Athens Olympics, three Commonwealth Games and track and road World Championships until 2005. John has been behind a lot of success in British Cycling and continues this with Rapha Condor JLT. I then met Tom Southam, press officer for the team and former Rapha Condor Sharp rider. He introduced me to Spike who’d be driving and Al our mechanic.
Spike explains the rules of the car: “Don’t get out if we crash and don’t lean out of the windows”. I immediately wonder why there might be a crash. “If there’s a break you’ll go up and follow” says Tom. Sounds great. It’s not long until the start so I look around and see what the team is getting up to. It’s a relaxed atmosphere with John joking with the boys as they finish getting their kit on. The 2012 King of the Mountains Jersey winner Kristian House looks more serious than the younger members of the team, he’s focused and ready for the day ahead. Legs have been massaged and shoes are tightened, bikes are jumped on and then we are boarding the vehicles.
With the windows down as we drive through the start there’s an enormous amount of noise from the crowd. Even more surprising is just how enormous the crowd is as we head out of town. There are people all along both sides of the road until we head out into the country lanes. We’re out of the neutralised zone and the race is on, heading towards Honiton. Warnings, instructions and information are continually barked out of the radio speaker. Almost immediately a rider goes off the front, there’s a 12 second gap and we’re hitting the first climb. Riders are dropping off the back of the peloton. Spike tells them to go home, “you’re finished if you fall out the back on the first climb”. More rider numbers are called out over the radio, it’s hard to to keep up as Al checks the list to see who it is. There’s a small break and House is in it. It doesn’t last long and is clawed back. This is a frantic start. Meanwhile i’m getting used to being driven around twelve inches from the car in front. We’re going fast to keep up and close gaps in the convoy which is constantly concertinaing. It’s like being in a touring car.
There’s another attack, rider numbers are radioed through. House is in a group of five and this time it sticks. Al hands out some chocolate from the musette. After the first Cat 2 climb of the day the leaders have 3’20″ on the peloton. We are heading through Exeter when Spike announces it’s time for a stop, he needs a comfort break and can’t wait any longer. We pull over to the right hand side of the road and have about a minute to conduct the business. Team cars and police bikes are beeping, spectators are encouraging us to hurry up else we’ll miss the race. The others are are finished and back in the car and i’m still standing there realising I drank way too much before we set off. Spike’s shouting that we’ll be out the back so I get in quick.
Spike floors it and overtakes everything while beeping a warning that were coming through. I’m thrown sideways as we dive around bends. This is fun and I can see why I was warned about crashes. We’re inches from the other team cars at times. Finally we catch up and get back in place. Driving through more country lanes we start to see the riders who are dropping off the peloton. They slipstream the cars to help catch up and make it to the back. It’s time for food, chicken tikka wraps and more chocolate. John pulls over and tells us to go up ahead to the break. The pedal is on the floor as we squeeze past the leading team cars and check it’s ok to go ahead with the commissaire. We get the nod and drive up alongside the peloton. Then we’re passed and sitting behind the leading group. It’s not long before John is on the radio with instructions for House. We go forward and get his attention. “John says to make sure the others take their turn doing the work” Spike calls out. House looks over at us, doesn’t say anything and then joins in the group again. Completely focused on going about his job.
CAUGHT BY THE PELOTON
We drop back and the race continues through sprints and KOMs. The crowds are big at every town we come to and it looks like every school on the route has spent the morning making banners and has come to see the race go by. Inspiration for another generation. It’s astonishing just how big the Tour is. With about 50km to go the peloton is starting to get it together. Bardiani are on the front driving it forward with Sky tucked in behind. The gap is closing but the leading group are still battling on. It’s not long though until the motorbikes are catching us up and we have to pull over as the peloton rushes by.
We’re siting back in the convoy, there’s a lot going on at the front of the race but it’s hard to make out what on the radio. I keep hearing “Gold jersey prominent at the front of the peloton” so I know Wiggo is there. We race along more roads and pass House who waves us by, he’s finished after a big day out in the front. He repeats the feat again the next day, he’s showing the young team members how it’s done. We’re passing big groups of riders now as we make our way up the final Cat 1 climb to Haytor and the crowds are humongous as we approach the finish. Simon Yates has out climbed the big names to win the stage. Richard Handley comes in 13th place for Rapha Condor JLT, it’s a successful day for the team. They make their way back to the vehicles, get changed and re-fuel while discussing the days events. Then everything is packed up and we’re heading home through lanes jammed with spectators cycling home after another great stage of the Tour of Britain.