The Tour de France is the pinnacle of our season. It’s the Super Bowl. All the other races, they’re big and they have a lot of prestige and a lot of respect, but the Tour, where I finished fifth overall in both 2012 and 2014, reaches a far broader audience. Even if you’re not a cycling fan, you know what it means to win the Tour de France. It’s what makes cycling a legitimate professional sport.
To do well in the Tour de France, you don’t have to be the best in any one area, but you have to be solid in all areas. You have to be able to climb mountains, do well in time trials, be able to handle your bike and not lose time in crosswinds or on cobblestones. There’s a lot of nervous fighting on narrow roads, so you have to be able to push your way to the front and not get caught in stupid mishaps.
Cycling is an interesting sport because it’s very much about the team, but fans only see the individual getting the glory — the guy winning the race. No race is possible without teammates. Everyone works for the leader. He doesn’t want to waste a single pedal stroke when it comes to the summit finish or the time trials, or when the race is really going to be decided. Maybe when you watch on TV, you only see the individual climbing the mountain and just leaving everyone behind. It doesn’t seem like he’s using a team, but the team was there with him from kilometer zero.
Here’s more about the team, the race and the sport that you might miss if you’re a casual fan.
Usually races feature eight-man teams, but in grand tours like the Tour de France, which are two weeks longer, we’ll have nine to help with the workload.
For my team, BMC Racing, I’m a general classification rider, an all-around guy. I’m a good climber and time trialer; I’m also solid from day to day. I don’t lose fitness throughout the three weeks of the race. That consistency makes for a good classification rider. The way the Tour de France is set up, if I’m the strongest in any given area, I’ll be the team leader.
Climbers are typically very light, because any extra weight they have, they’re carrying it up the hill and that slows them down. Time trial riders don’t have a particular mold that they fit. You can have some big burly guys who are good at time trials, or you get teeny tiny guys like Richie Porte. He’s 60 kilos but he’s very aerodynamic, and he’s an amazing time trialer. It’s more about how you can shape your body and cheat the wind, and also how you pace yourself to sustain power for a certain amount of time.
Sprinters typically go for the flat stages. The peloton — the pack of riders — usually breaks up when we go over a bunch of mountains because then the climbers go ahead and some of the flatlander guys get left behind and just try to survive the stage. The sprinters are really fast when it comes to a 200-meter dash to the line, so they’re going for the big bunch sprints with 200 guys all barreling to the finish line. Being a classification guy, I’m not gaining any seconds from a bunch sprint, and there’s no way I’m fast enough in a 200-meter kick to beat guys like Mark Cavendish, who are the best in the world. Really, as a respect thing, I would stay out of their way during that stage and just let them take the risk — let them go for the stage.
We also have guys who specialize in the cobblestone stages, like Mickey Schär, Daniel Oss and Manuel Quinziato. In these stages, it definitely comes down to who is best at fighting for position because you need to hit the cobblestones in the front of the peloton or you can get caught behind pile-ups if there is a crash. We’re basically going over the same course as we did in the Paris-Roubaix race — narrow roads of just bumpy, crappy stones. The specialists for these stages are typically bigger guys. You get pretty jarred on the cobbles and if you’re 60 kilos, you’re going to get thrown around quite a bit.
Then we have the domestiques. Anyone who’s not the leader is a domestique, there to protect the leader and get supplies. Our team has a caravan of cars that follow the peloton, and we have a radio to call them to the front of the car pack. The rider goes back and puts his hands up, and the support team loads the rider up with bottles, food, raincoats, etc. They stuff all of it in their jerseys, wherever they can fit, and they come into the bunch looking like the Michelin Man, with extra gear on their backs and stomachs.
It’s actually a lot harder of a job than it sounds, because you have to drop your position all the way to the back, load up and carry an extra 10 to 15 pounds of goods (enough for nine riders), make your way back through the other team cars and then through the bunch (200 guys thick) on narrow roads, and then hand everything out. Guys might do that five or six times a day; sometimes more on a hot day.
Cycling is very much a contact sport. If you take your hands off the bars and push someone, or if they catch you going to blows, you’re going to get thrown out of the race. But there’s definitely a lot of fighting inside. Some of those roads in Europe are tiny, like little goat paths, and we have 200 riders. If it’s into a critical section, you have to fight your way to the front. If you’re caught behind, then your race is over before the critical moment even starts. There’s definitely a lot of bumping elbows and pushing people out of the way.
If you cut someone off or you give them an elbow or push them out of the way, we call it flicking. It’s not necessarily illegal. It’s part of the game. You have to be able to get yourself where you need to be. But you don’t want to pull moves that are going to really piss people off, because then you’ll be labeled as a certain kind of rider. On the other hand, you can also do favors for other riders, even if you’re on opposing teams — like “I’ll let you in.” If you’re a constant flicker, you’re not going to get many favors. There’s supposed to be a gentlemanly aspect to the sport, but it doesn’t always work out that way. But I wouldn’t say that anything illegal has happened to me. I mean, it’s not like Breaking Away, where somebody’s going to put a bike pump in your spokes. We’re pretty tame in the bunch.
We never try to deliberately crash people. Crashes are horrible and nobody wants to see a competitor go down. If a competitor does go down, there’s a good chance that he could bring a couple of your teammates down with him. Our goal is to never have crashes, but obviously that’s not a real possibility when you’re fighting so much on such a small road. There’s only room for so many of us.
Sometimes it really is just luck, like being in the right place at the right time. You can get caught behind riders that just touched wheels and they go down in front of you and you have nowhere to go. But 90 percent of the time you hit the ground, there’s something you could have done to avoid it. You try to learn as best you can. Crashes tend to happen more towards the back, because every movement that happens in the peloton has a ricochet effect. If someone swerves his wheels or touches his brakes at the front of the bunch, people are going to be slamming their breaks at the rear. We try to stay up at the front, but everyone has that in mind, so it’s easier said than done.
We’ll take about 10 days and travel around France to recon the critical stages. We’ll take a look at the cobblestone stage, at all the mountain stages, with one or two rest days in between. It’s hard training, but it’s also mental homework as far as making sure you’re familiar with the course and that you know where the dangerous moments are; where to save energy, where to spend energy.
The first week of the race is really hectic. The cobblestone days, any of the sprinter stages, you have to just watch your position and try to avoid the crashes. It’s good to know the mountain stages and the descents, because we climb up these mountains and then go screaming down the other side — sometimes at speeds up to 100 kph. It is important to learn where the dangerous corners and rough roads are and you hope to keep those spots in mind while you’re on the course in the race. You can think, “Oh yeah, I remember there are some rough roads coming up. I better stay to the right or the left.”
The first week is always the most nerve-wracking, and the first week of this year’s Tour is going to be insane. We start in Holland with a 14-kilometer individual time trial, so already there could be critical time gains or losses if you’re not a time-trial specialist. Then the next day, it’s still in Holland, where there’s lots of wind, so you have to be really careful to not get caught up in it by the positioning of your team or opponents. Then on Stage 4 we have cobblestones. There’s a couple of short, punchy uphill finishes. Lots of crashes and everyone’s nervous. Then we go to the Pyrenees, big mountains, and after that we visit the Alps, so more big mountains. If you’re lucky enough to make it past the first week unscathed, then you have to climb up all these mountains and that’s where the real race is decided, winning the hard stages.
Diet and Health
We’re burning 4-5,000 calories a day, so you put that on top of a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet, and that’s 7,000 total, so you just gotta eat. During races we have a team chef with us, but that’s more for safety reasons, making sure there’s no contamination and that everything we’re eating is safe. We’ll usually eat porridge or oatmeal in the morning, with maybe an omelet for some protein. Dinner is pretty typical, like a salad or some sort of pasta or carbohydrate, and then a protein. Post-race, we’ll have a recovery shake, some protein powder mixed into a smoothie with some fruit, something easy on the stomach because you don’t want to give yourself a gut bomb after you finish a hard workout.
The thing we try to avoid most is feeling sick. That’s why we have doctors and nutritionists and our team chef. We try everything in training. You need to eat a lot, but how much can you take before you’re going to end up with cramps or stomach problems or gastro issues? We try to finish breakfast three hours before the start of the race, so that everything has time to settle and digest and clear your stomach. Then you take easily digestible bars or gels and sports drinks during the ride.
You take every precaution, but if you get knocked down with a stomach bug or cold, it can really ruin your race. For the Pyrenees last year, I was super-fit, ready to fly, and the day before the race started, I got knocked down with a fever and stomach bug. I made it to 50k into stage 1 and then pulled the plug because I just couldn’t ride. I couldn’t eat for the days before the race, so I had no energy and was getting chills. As soon as the race started getting hard, I just didn’t have the legs to follow. There are definitely times when I’ve seen guys pull over to the side of the road and have some sort of episode, like throwing up or some gastro stuff, but all you can really do is take every precaution to avoid that and hope you get lucky.
The fans can give you a lot of motivation and they’re definitely great to see. We’re out there for them. But when they start getting in our way, it can be really stressful and frustrating. They have public service announcements all over France with famous riders saying, “Respect our efforts,” and, “Please, keep your children safe and your dogs on a leash,” because there have been issues with kids and dogs running onto the course. I’ve never gotten dragged down by a spectator but last year in London, there were tons of people trying to take selfies in the middle of the road, trying to get a good shot with the riders. It just really affects how the bunch moves. That’s why more crashes happen in the back.
The sport has had its problems in the past. It’s unfortunate that we’re living through it now, but there’s been huge changes thanks to the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale). They don’t get a lot of good press, but they introduced the biological passport, which tracks the chemicals, hormones, etc. in our bodies and lets them know where we are at all times so they can test us. With the World Anti-Doping Agency, we have out-of-competition tests. The testing has gotten more sophisticated. It used to be that the testers were one step behind the cheats, but now it seems like they’re getting way ahead of the cheats. They keep things secret, then they come out and say, “We know now that you did this three years ago and now you’re banned.” It scared people out of even trying to cheat. For people like me, the younger generation that doesn’t want any part of doping, we don’t really have to worry anymore. It really has cleaned up. It’s a level playing field again.
Photos by AP Images