The Day I Sat in a Car in the Rain

Posted on September 16, 2013. Filed under: bike, brad wiggins, cycle, rapha condor jlt, tour of britain |

I have been lucky enough to do a lot of fun stuff.  I have been entertained in some of the great rugby and football stadia of the world.  I went to a rugby international in the old Parc des Princes, I was at the opening of the Stade de France.  I have been to Twickenham, Lansdowne Road, Stadio Flaminio, the Arms Park, Hampden, Old Trafford, Ibrox, St James Park, Celtic Park, the mighty Pittodrie and Murrayfield more times than I care to remember including a famous Scottish victory over England to secure the 6 Nations.  I flew in a Learjet to the Rugby World Cup at the Millenium Stadium and I have been helicoptered into Silverstone.  So, what was it about sitting in a car in the pissing rain that made it the best sporting experience I have ever had?

First of all, let me explain – it wasn’t any old car; and it wasn’t any old rainy day.

20130915_091433Last week by simply retweeting a message from Skoda UK Cycling I entered a competition.  The next day I received a message that I had won the prize.  I maintained a healthy scepticism until I had won beyond all reasonable doubt – the probability of a wind-up was unreasonably high.  As a cycling fan, the prize was priceless – ride in the lead team car of the Rapha Condor JLT cycling team for my local stage of the 10th Tour of Britain.  Wow.  And breathe.

Now, I had planned a 4 hour ride for myself and a reluctant swim for Sunday morning as part of Project Ironman 2 but with a tickly throat and impending barking cough I was already considering discretion to be the better part of valour.  But to have an excuse was all kinds of perfection coming together.  The end of a rainbow!

I was literally up at the crack of dawn to head down to Peebles.  I had contingency plans on top of contingency plans to ensure that I made it on time.  No worries, I thought, if I get there early I can enjoy some bikeporn and look at big buses.  Of course that was foolish because everyone was clearly still in bed.

First Bikeporn of the Day

First Bikeporn of the Day

As I wandered the quiet streets of Peebles the Madison Genesis team were just getting set up so I amused myself watching them for a while.  Eventually the need for coffee became too great so I wandered up to the “Breakfast Club” hospitality area and grabbed a Costa.  I met Jonathan from Skoda UK and then, as we watched the preparations continue outside, a biblical storm erupted.

The scale of the event was overwhelming – 30 police outriders and over 30 members of the motorcycle escort group who I know fondly from their support of triathlon, 19 teams and a system of rolling road closures that would see the whole caravan safely through 210km of rural Scottish Borders.

With 20 minutes to go I was taken to the car, met some of the team and John Herety, the Directeur Sportif who would be my host for the duration of the race.  As I was to find out John is one of the legends of British cycling – an ex pro rider and national champion who has done just about everything there is that is worth doing in management.  And he knows everyone!

My ride for the day

My ride for the day

I was fascinated by the spare bikes in the roof – all set with the gear in the big ring and mid way through the cassette.  As a rider who starts in the small ring from my completely flat driveway I had an instant respect for the pros.

The riders were signing in really late as a result of the rain – it was going to be a long day on the road so why get wet any earlier than necessary?  The Team Sky, OPQS and Movistar “camper vans” were mobbed as fans crowded in for a glimpse of Brad or Cav or Quintana.  Soaked to the skin, the crowd got a momentary glimpse through brollies and anorak hoods as the riders rode to the start.

Each wheel could be exchanged for a house in Galashiels

Each wheel could be exchanged for a house in Galashiels

Kristian House, one of the senior riders jumped into the car for a chat – I saw Kristian win the Edinburgh Nocturne the last time it ran – a race that should definitely be brought back!  I wished Kristian good luck as he jumped out to be replaced with Jim, our mechanic.  Jim was carrying enough expensive wheels that if we had ebayed them would probably be able to feed a small Borders village for a year.

Race radio crackled in the car “10 minutes to go”, “5 minutes to go”, we fired up the engine and the riders disappeared at two minutes to go.  Then simply, “The Tenth Anniversary 2013 Tour of Britain is now rolling”.

If ever there was a time to clench my cheeks it was now.  We weren’t moving at the speed that caused Burt Reynolds to say “put your head between your legs and kiss your ass goodbye” but there was certainly the chaos.  As we sped down Peebles High Street John looked across and said “It may seem mad, but it is organised chaos”.

Let me try to explain.  All team cars go into a draw for a number which gets stuck on the back of the car.  If a car gets called forward to the peloton the it is the lower numbered cars own responsibility to regain their position.  Communication is done by the horn and basically the DS needs eyes in the back of his head as well as the three mirrors!  So as we sped out of Peebles, with the race still neutralised there were dashes through the convoy with horns blaring until all the cars found their rightful space.  As car 5 we had a pretty clear view of the Chief Commissaire’s car and the back of the peloton.

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Hugh Carthy of Rapha Condor enjoying a brief break in the weather

One of the highlights of the day was listening to race radio – a bit like the referee feed in rugby – I think it would be a brilliant addition to add that to TV commentary.  As the team cars can’t see the peloton and there are no radio links to the riders in the ToB the race radio is a lifeline.  They effectively describe the race for the team cars – if a break has gone they name the riders and announce the times, they describe how the breakaway and the peloton are riding and most importantly they call the team cars forward when the riders need something.  “Rapha Condor to peloton – clothing” was our most common call but the most repetitive call of the day was “Sojasun to peloton”.  A very, very busy team car!

So, what was it that I enjoyed so much? I guess, if you are not a cycling fan it is quite difficult to understand.  The race, the peloton and the whole caravan are kind of an organic beast.  Seemingly without too much conversation, everyone understands what to do, where to go and how the race is likely to develop.  It was a privilege to sit in a team car, in the middle of the race and talk to one of the most experienced and knowledgeable DS that this country has.

How did the stage develop?  Well, Kristian went with the break straight from the start and was second in the first King of the Mountain.  Shortly after he won the second King of the Mountain to lead the competition for the first KoM jersey with one climb still to go.  The breakaway got out to 6 minutes – the second team car went up (involving a window to window kit transfer for Kristian) when the gap stretched beyond two minutes.  The response of the peloton was fascinating – they didn’t respond.  Sky and OPQS took to the front and effectively marshalled the peloton to maintain the breakaway’s lead.  The weather was truly foul with a constant headwind and the guys out front must have really been suffering, even as they slowed the peloton responded by……..peeing.  Every time the gap closed the peloton drew a truce and the blustery hedgerows or howling moors echoed to the cascade of a golden river.  I think three or four times there was a mass stop, readjustment of the lycra and re-group.

Lord Wiggles and Matt Hayman returning from yet another pitstop

Lord Wiggles and Matt Hayman returning from yet another pitstop

The crowds were impressive, Scotland really came out to support their stage.  Most were in heavy duty waterproofs, some looked like drowned rats and one kid on a particularly exposed stretch had even gone topless!  I suspect his mum probably had to take him to hospital to be defrosted.

Just sitting in the car was the most fantastic experience.  Rarely will you ever have the opportunity to accelerate hard down the wrong side of Dumfries High Street with hundreds of people and cops lining the road and not be arrested.  With John being so well connected we had window conversations with the Commissaires, David Brailsford, Nigel Mansell and for a while we towed and took some abuse from Cav.  Sitting a few feet off of Quintana’s back wheel you can appreciate how small he actually is (he weighs about half what I do, basically he is about the size of my thumb) and marvel that with all the technical clothing he still tapes up his overshoes with gaffer tape!

After 100 miles the break was eventually caught but Kristian hung on for second place on the final KoM taking the jersey for the first stage.

The final 12km were in the grounds of Drumlanrig Castle – really narrow, technical and tree lined.  Inevitably, at a narrow, sharp left turn there was a pile up.  Race radio called the crash, and named the teams that they could see.  It was out of our line of sight about 6 cars back.  Jim grabbed wheels as mechanics ran past us.  The blockage cleared and thankfully no-one was hurt and there were no Rapha Condor riders.  There followed a rapid chase to get back up to the peloton.  My cheeks still clench a little when I think about it.

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Cav snarling his way back to his camper van

Three kilometres from the end the team cars were diverted from behind the peloton and off we went to find the van.  Cav was favourite to take the stage but as he rolled past me on the way to the OPQS bus there were a few tell-tale signs that things hadn’t gone well.

As I walked up to the podium presentation with Jonathan and Emily from Skoda I could tell from the big screen that Cav hadn’t even made the top 10 after getting boxed in.  Elia Viviani took a convincing first and obviously we could cheer Kristian on taking the first polka dot jersey.

So, the most fantastic day following the pro peloton sitting in a car on a rainy day.  I knew the DS had a challenging job – but no idea how many tasks they are juggling.  I knew pro riders were tough but, as a cyclist in Scotland with considerably more padding than these guys, I now have even more respect for what they do day in day out in all weather.  The conditions were truly foul and the route took over an hour longer than expected – the riders must have been absolutely frozen to the core but I never actually heard one complaint.

I have now decided that riding in a car behind the peloton is the only way to travel.  But sadly, that was then and this is now.  It is time to get Project Ironman 2 rolling again after a weekend off.

Thank you Skoda, thank you Rapha Condor, thank you John.

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One Response to “The Day I Sat in a Car in the Rain”

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Sounds like an amazing day out! Did they sort you out with some Rapha freebies too?

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