September 2013 saw the running of the 10th edition of the Tour of Britain in its current guise. As a multi talented support team member, James was one of 3 soigneurs working for Team UK Youth at the event. Team UK Youth is a professional cycling team representing the work and values of the charity which supports over 750,000 young people, helping them to raise their aspirations, realise their potential and have their achievements recognised via non-formal, accredited education programmes and activities. Ex Formula 1 World Champion and Indy Car Champion, Nigel Mansell is President of the charity UK Youth.
So if you’re interested to hear what goes on behind the scenes at a multi day professional cycle race, read on:
I’m drinking my morning cup of tea whilst still in bed when my 2013 Tour of Britain experience starts with a text from team captain Yanto Barker. “Would you be available to swanny [term used for soigneur, literally translated means 'helper'] for us on the TOB? Need to know asap” I call him back straight away, not realising that its actually 7.30 in the morning (not an ideal time to be calling a pro bike rider), luckily for me Yanto does’t mind as he’s already up and about getting ready to go training. “Of course, I’d love to be part of the team.” My details are given to Ben ‘Big Time’ Jenkins the Head Soigneur and I’m in. Sweet. I’ve done lots of this kind of work before but never on a week long stage race and at this level, can’t wait!
Friday the 13th arrives and so does my TOB 2013 journey. I have a virtually empty bag with me, team clothing is supplied upon arrival, it’s a one size fits all ‘large’ so I spend the week looking pretty gangsta ya’ll (well I think so anyway) as I head to Heathrow for the flight to Edinburgh. As someone who travels quite a bit having a carry on bag with hardly anything in it is freaking me out a bit, normally I have to wear half of what I’m taking!
The logistics of getting 6 riders, 7 staff and 4 vehicles from all over the country, is quite something and Big Time has done a great job, we’re only waiting 20mins before a team car arrives to pick us up before continuing to the hotel in the start town of Peebles, Scotland. The whole team eat dinner together this evening. This may not sound much but believe me, for staff and riders to be as tight a unit as this is quite something, in my experience there’s usually a them and us situation, 2 different tables. Not here, there’s plenty of banter going on, it doesn’t take long to fit in. After dinner it’s down to business, again the whole team is involved as the plans for the week are discussed, even the newbies on the staff such as myself are involved, everyones opinion is heard and discussed. The team has been very successful in 2013, winning the Tour Series overall as well as numerous big UK races and I believe it’s because of efforts like this.
Saturday 14th is spent getting ready. The mechanics are busy prepping 6 races bikes, 6 spare bikes and 6 tt bikes and a lot of spare wheels. As a swanny prepping food is a big part of the job, so shopping on a daily basis is something you get used to. For a team of this size you are usually looking at 2 big trolley loads per day; 1 full with mineral water bottles the other rammed with food stuffs, the boys eat a lot. We get to the supermarket fairly early as we’re not confident that Morrisons in Peebles is ready for what’s about to hit it! The weather is Scottish beautiful, sun shining with a hint of cloud, the moors glint with autumnal colours as I look at them through the window whilst getting some massages done. It’s been a steady day, the last time that’ll happen for a while. Riders and staff all go to bed quite early, the weather forecast for the next few days is terrible and everyone wants to be ready.
Sunday 15th. We wake to the sound of rain being driven into the windows as can only happen when you’re North of the border, it’s going to be a long, tough day for everyone. The breakfast room is busy as no one seems to want to go outside. Eventually it has to be done, the mechanics head out to wash the cars (not to sure why to be honest!), we need to get about 80 water bottles prepped and everyones food wrapped up and put in to mussettes. An important job of a soigneur is to sort everyones bags out on a daily basis, this means going round to all rooms gathering their bags and getting them into the vehicle ready for the next stop, don’t forget any! The riders leave the comfort of the hotel and make it down to the motorhome, we’re lucky today that the race start is literally right outside our hotel so no messing around with transfers, warm up lotion is rubbed onto legs and they put all their kit on to keep warm- I think we’re going to run out of coffee too!
10.30 and they’re off, good luck boys, fingers crossed you all make it through today.
It’s now time for the race within the race to begin. As soon as the riders have left with the 2 following team cars the motorhome and van are packed up, everything ready to leave just behind the race if you’ve got it right, then you can still get out whilst the roads are closed. Big Time is driving Team Car 2 with coach Steve Benton in the passenger seat and mechanic 2 Joe in the back seat, they’re off to the feed then will follow the race to the finish. The other swanny Dave and I are to drive the big team vehicles; Dave has the mechanics van loaded with all the bags, it’s his job to get to the next hotel asap and set up for the arrival of everyone later. The list is long and seems easy until you have to do it! Get electricity and water hose to the van ready for bike cleaning and washing machine duties, sort out 14 peoples bags into respective rooms, set up massage couches (this usually requires some furniture moving to fit them in and there is a fight to get as many towels and blankets as you can from the hotel), go food shopping. It’s a race to get to the hotel before the others to ensure you get the best pitch for the vehicles and more importantly to get the baggage trolley!
Today I am driving the motorhome to the finish, I’ve got to make it before the race gets there (obviously). It’s a fair old size, weighs quite a bit and the weather is terrible, blowing the big vehicles around as they’re driven across the Scottish moors to Drumlanrig Castle, it’s quite exciting (hhmm sort of) and I really feel for the riders out there in this, I turn the heater up another notch. Again the race within the race is on, you want to get to the finish asap so you can get a good spot near the finish line and on a flat bit of ground. Plug in the generator, get the water heater on, turbos out and lined up ready for cool down, mix up recovery drinks, check out the finish, let the DS in the lead car know which direction the wind is blowing, find out where doping control is and find out what the random control numbers are (normally the winner is tested and 2 or 3 randoms). Get a cup of tea and wait. The race is behind schedule today, even the slow schedule, it’s been that bad for the peleton in this weather they’ve averaged 22mph- ouch. I make sure the water is hot and that the motor home is ready for 6 sodden, cold, tired riders. 10km to go and there’s a crash, Chris the teams sprinter goes down, that’s todays plan out the window then. The finish circuit is tight, twisty and narrow, it looks nasty and later on the boys will confirm that it was indeed horrible. Another crash 150m from the line but luckily none of our boys are in it, just a couple are held up, all good.
I’m in the bundle of team staff you see on the telly at the finish. It’s our job to see the riders through, pass them a fresh drink, tell them where the motorhome is and if one of them has doping control grab them quickly, clean them up and get them to control. After a day like today they are all pretty broken so instructions must be clear and simple, tell them don’t ask them! I’ve counted 5 riders, we’re missing 1. Finally Chris rolls through looking dejected, he’s got some bruises and a dented pride, he really wanted to get involved in the sprint today.
Back to the motor home and the riders are on the turbos warming down, a couple are already showered. Myself and mechanic Joe are to drive the riders in the team cars to the hotel pronto, Big Time will drive the motorhome after. I leave with 3 riders in one of the teams BMWs, get to the hotel and am massaging tired legs within 10mins of arrival, Joe follows shortly afterwards with the other 3 riders. Within 10mins of arrival he’s started washing bikes (that’s why the van is all set up you see!). It’s already gone 7pm and we have to work quickly so the riders won’t be eating too late. Dave and I finish legs and shovel dinner down in about 5mins flat, something that we’ll get used to. Then it’s time to wash all those bottles, get food ready for tomorrow, laundry, clean the motorhome and inside the team cars. At about 11pm we get to have to have a team talk about tomorrows plan. Set the alarm for 5.45. It’s going to be a long week.
And so the week continues. Each day is either spent driving the van to the next hotel or driving the motorhome to the finish of the days stage. It all becomes slightly surreal, same tasks different day. The hotels differ as does the landscape, it gets busier the further South we travel and it must be pointed out (by this Southerner) that the weather improves greatly the further South we go!
One stage of particular note was the Stage 6, starting on the seafront of the beautiful seaside town of Sidmouth and finishing on top of Haytor, Dartmoor. The crowds were pretty big on the final climb, the last 1km being fenced off Tour de France style, and the best part of the day? Sunshine, glorious sunshine. The one thing to put a slight dampener on the day somewhat was a long drive from the stage finish to the hotel which was near Heathrow airport for the following two nights. Two nights in the same hotel is luxury!
Stage 7 to Guildford provided an incredible experience for the whole race. As there was no hotel transfer to be done it meant that the all staff were at the start and finish, for today I got to change roles for a few hours, as a mechanic it’s no problem for me to step into the back seat of the team car to cover this role (read the Ride London blog). Luckily it was a quiet day for mechanicals so we got to soak up the incredible atmosphere, and it was incredible. The crowds through Surrey were huge, so much so that when the peleton climbed Barhatch Lane there was only a small amount of space for them all to pass, some came to stop and had to unclip. This of course upset a few riders as it causes them to loose valuable time and distance to those at the front, chase on lads!
Cav won his second stage on an uphill, cobble surfaced sprint. That guy and climb, believe me.
Stage 8 and we’re in Westminster, central London for a 88km criterium. The teams are parked up on Westminster bridge which is pretty cool. I keep on looking at my phone for time checks, a silly thing to do as there is probably the Worlds most famous clock right there! The crowds are again crazily huge. As the riders warm up we have to position staff like bouncers to keep people at a distance, it’s just not safe to have people too close and the riders are getting switched on for the race ahead- today there is a plan that will take full commitment from the boys.
The race is fast from the gun, it’s the last chance to get off the front and some tv coverage. Our boys sit in the peleton, up near the front out of trouble for the first half of the race. At the midway point 2 UK Youth jerseys appear at the front, Rob and Jon sit there, churning it out, slowly reeling in the break away. They time it to perfection, catching the small group with about 2 laps to go. At this point you would expect the big guns from Omega and Cannondale to push through but today that is not on the cards, our boys take it too them. The whole team is on the front, lined out, keeping Opie out of trouble and in the perfect place. They’re setting such a pace no other team is making it through, it really is impressive. This is a UK based team taking it to Omega, Cannondale, Sky etal and it’s working- as staff this is what it’s all about, you do everything you can for these moments, get the riders to be their best. It’s a fantastic feeling to know you have been part of that, the achievement for the whole team.
‘Speedy Opie’ finishes in 5th place in a hectic finish, won by the man himself Cavendish. It’s a brilliant finish to what has been a great week with the team. As everything is packed up for a last time theres little time for reflection, that’ll happen on the train home- the question is how do I get there with all my bags and massage couch? Can a borrow a team car? I haven’t done enough driving this week.