STAGE HUNTERS

It’s mid­way through the 2017 Tour de France. Team Di­men­sion Data have lost Cavendish and Ren­shaw to in­jury. Stage vic­to­ries are prov­ing elu­sive, but their spirit re­mains strong. Cy­clist joins them on Stage 11 to find out what they plan to do next…

Cyclist - - Dimension Data | Pro Racing - Words JAMES WITTS Pho­tog­ra­phy JUAN TRU­JILLO AN­DRADES

‘He’s pre­tend­ing not to lis­ten, but he can hear al­right,’ says Roger Ham­mond, di­recteur spor­tif of Team Di­men­sion Data. I’ve just brought up the topic of Peter Sa­gan, and Di­men­sion Data’s head of per­for­mance, Rolf Aldag, has buried his head in in­vis­i­ble pa­per­work.

‘Er, I’m just plan­ning the, er, bus sched­ule for the day,’ Aldag laughs.

‘When he hears “Sa­gan”, he tends to turn away,’ smiles Ham­mond. ‘We’ve moved on, but it’s still the first thought when we wake up.’

It’s 8.30am on Wed­nes­day 12th July in the Ho­tel Kyr­iad in Berg­erac, which is sit­u­ated – as so many Tour abodes are – in a grey in­dus­trial hin­ter­land. More than a week has passed since the African team’s tal­is­manic sprinter, Mark Cavendish, saw his dreams of break­ing Eddy Mer­ckx’s record of 34 Tour stage wins stall thanks to a flail­ing Slo­vakian el­bow and an im­mov­able bar­rier. It was an in­ci­dent that hi­jacked the am­bi­tions of both the rider and his team. In 2016, Di­men­sion Data racked up the fifth-high­est num­ber of race and stage vic­to­ries – 31 – but still fin­ished bot­tom of the World­tour rank­ings. This year, with Cav hav­ing barely raced af­ter be­ing side­lined by the Ep­steinBarr virus, they re­main rooted at the bot­tom.

As Cy­clist gate­crashes the sup­port staff’s break­fast, the at­mos­phere is pos­i­tive, but Cav’s 5ft 9in shadow in­evitably looms large on a stage where the route pro­file is so hor­i­zon­tal it’s near flatlin­ing. Yes, Nor­way’s Ed­vald Boas­son Ha­gen is show­ing signs of the sprint­ing form that saw him win Gent-wevel­gem back in 2009. But with no Cav or lead­out spe­cial­ist Mark Ren­shaw, who has aban­doned through ill­ness, it’s hard not to re­flect on what might have been.

‘I com­mented af­ter the in­ci­dent and I ad­mit I’m bi­ased – it’s im­pos­si­ble not to be,’ says Ham­mond. ‘The rid­ers are your chil­dren. Peo­ple don’t ap­pre­ci­ate that this in­ci­dent, for us, rewinds back to Novem­ber last year when we planned the rid­ers’ sched­ules. All the in­juries, ill­nesses, set­backs and come­backs, it’s a life­time that evap­o­rates in half a sec­ond of chaos.’

Cav flew to the Isle of Man to ac­cel­er­ate his re­cov­ery in a hy­per­baric cham­ber while mak­ing his de­but on Zwift, the on­line plat­form de­signed to make turbo ses­sions less te­dious.

‘Hope­fully it will be easier than with the virus,’ says Ham­mond. ‘The first thing rid­ers do when they break some­thing is to think about the next chal­lenge. That’s how you sur­vive. That’s how you go out train­ing every day. But how much does Cav men­tally have in re­serve from the virus? The hard­est thing for me when I re­tired from rac­ing was the day af­ter, wak­ing up and not know­ing what I wanted to achieve that day.

‘Roll that back to Cav and his ill­ness. With glan­du­lar fever, one guy might be out for two weeks, an­other it fin­ishes their ca­reer. For a man who lives by dead­lines, like Mark, the un­known is the hard­est thing in the world to deal with. That said, this is “only” a break, and this is Cav…’

Long day in the sad­dle

Stage 11 sets off from Eymet, a small town in the Dor­dogne. Pau hosts the fin­ish – for a 59th time in 104 Tours. The ‘gate­way to the Pyre­nees’ comes at the end of a route that fea­tures one in­ter­me­di­ate sprint and a fourth-cat­e­gory climb – 1.2km long at 4.2% – to in­ter­rupt the rid­ers’ so­journ through the plains of the Nou­velle-Aquitaine and Oc­c­i­tane re­gions.

Will this be a day for the break­away to come good? Will cross­winds split the pelo­ton? ‘There’s a head­wind but it’ll be one for the sprint­ers,’ says Aldag. In other words, four-and-a-half hours of sta­sis fol­lowed by 30 sec­onds of ac­tion.

It’s still early and the rid­ers have yet to leave their bed­rooms, so Cy­clist heads to the car park where me­chan­ics are work­ing on the team bikes, while Di­men­sion Data’s chef – a Bel­gian who re­sem­bles a kindly lab­o­ra­tory as­sis­tant – is pre­par­ing the day’s food.

I in­tro­duce my­self and ask him his name. ‘I’m Tom,’ the chef replies. I ask for his full name, for the sake of the ar­ti­cle. ‘It’s Tom,’ he says again.

‘Your sur­name too, please?’ I ask. ‘It’s Tom,’ he says. ‘Tom Tom?’ I say. ‘I’m Tom,’ he states again proudly. It tran­spires his name is Tom Van de Gracht, and while he may be a closed book un­der the fire of a Cy­clist cross-ex­am­i­na­tion, he’s clearly a smor­gas­bord of knowl­edge when it comes to fu­elling rid­ers over 21 stages and 3,500km of cy­cling.

‘I’m a free­lance chef who’s been in cy­cling for years,’ says Tom Tom. ‘I’ve worked for FDJ, Quick-step and Lotto Soudal but this is my first year with Di­men­sion Data. I’m down for 140 days this sea­son.’

With work­ing days that be­gin at 7am and of­ten fin­ish past 9pm, ef­fi­ciency is a chef’s buzz­word. It’s not yet 9.15am and Tom is pack­ing up his food trailer in prepa­ra­tion for the four-hour drive to Pau. There he’ll spend

The long-term am­bi­tion of de­liv­er­ing an African Grand Tour win­ner re­mains but there will be no ‘long-term’ if short-term is­sues are ig­nored

an hour set­ting up the trailer and pre­par­ing the evening’s pasta bolog­naise.

‘There’s loads of veg­eta­bles,’ says Tom. ‘We’ll have zuc­chini, egg plant, mush­rooms…’ ‘Gar­lic?’ in­ter­rupts Cy­clist. We love gar­lic. ‘No gar­lic. I won’t use gar­lic for the en­tire Tour. It’s bad for di­ges­tion. You have to take care of their stom­achs.’

I men­tion I once talked to Di­men­sion Data’s former per­for­mance bio­chemist, Rob Childs, who ex­tolled the anti-in­flam­ma­tory virtues of gar­lic, even go­ing so far as to sug­gest it played a role in all nine rid­ers com­plet­ing the Vuelta.

Tom Tom gives me a look that sug­gests I shouldn’t push the sub­ject any fur­ther. I back down and leave him to pack up for the drive to Pau, while his as­sis­tant re­mains be­hind to serve up Tour sta­ples of omelettes and rice.

African am­bi­tions

One of the first rid­ers to emerge from the ho­tel is Steve Cum­mings. Con­sid­er­ing he has 2,000km of Tour rid­ing in his legs and is still re­cov­er­ing from frac­tur­ing his col­lar­bone, scapula and ster­num in April’s Tour of the Basque Coun­try, it’s a sur­prise to see him in such a ge­nial mood.

‘I feel like I did in 2015,’ the Mersey­side rider says. ‘I didn’t ride great at the start but grew

into it. Last year, I had a fly­ing start but then faded. Maybe I’ll re­peat 2015 this year…’

In 2015, he won a stage af­ter break­ing French hearts when he rode past Thibaut Pinot and Ro­main Bardet on the descent of Cote de la Croix Neuve. In 2016, Cum­mings won an­other stage af­ter an­other solo break­away that has be­come his sig­na­ture move. Team prin­ci­pal Doug Ry­der puts it thus: ‘Steve has an in­di­vid­ual style, but we give him the free­dom. He asks us to trust him. We do. Last year he had his best sea­son ever at 35 be­cause he had lib­erty and fo­cus.’

Cum­mings is fol­lowed out from break­fast by fel­low Brit Scott Th­waites and the ex­pe­ri­enced Aus­trian Bernie Eisel. As the team gath­ers to take the bus to the start line, I climb into the press car along­side head of me­dia Damian Mur­phy. Ry­der jumps in with us, although he isn’t plan­ning to fol­low the whole race to­day, as he has to fly to Spain for a cor­po­rate event be­fore re­turn­ing to the Tour cir­cus the fol­low­ing evening.

Dur­ing the short drive to the start vil­lage, I ask Ry­der how he is find­ing life in the World­tour since se­cur­ing pro­mo­tion from Pro­con­ti­nen­tal level in 2015.

‘The World­tour is a dif­fer­ent beast,’ he says. ‘For a start, we went from rac­ing 75 days a year to more than 150. It’s longer and tougher.’

The South African seems pos­i­tive but also chas­tened, as his team has strug­gled to win rank­ing points. Last year was bru­tal as they’d been is­sued with the stan­dard UCI one-year li­cence that pro­vided zero sta­bil­ity. Since then they’ve se­cured a three-year World­tour li­cence, which at least of­fers a foun­da­tion of sorts.

The team has also re­ceived crit­i­cism on so­cial me­dia over the lack of Africans at this year’s Tour. Di­men­sion Data, an African team, has just two Africans, in the shape of Reinardt Janse van Rens­burg and Jaco Ven­ter. Both are from South Africa. Both are white.

‘We got flak es­pe­cially from the Eritre­ans, but it comes down to ed­u­ca­tion. Daniel [Tek­le­haimanot, who be­came the first African to wear the polka dot jersey in 2015] and Nat­nael [Ber­hane] both wanted to ride the Giro d’italia. We thought, OK, this year’s Tour fea­tures nine flat stages, five mid-moun­tain stages, five high­moun­tain stages and two time-tri­als. You then look at your rider pro­files and see that those guys rac­ing the Giro works well for both sides. Many of the crit­ics just don’t un­der­stand that it’s hard to race the Giro and the Tour.’

What­ever the ra­tio­nale, two Africans is the low­est in the team’s short Tour his­tory… but you can’t ignore the facts. In 2016, the team’s 13 African rid­ers con­trib­uted just four points. The long-term am­bi­tion of de­liv­er­ing an African Grand Tour win­ner re­mains but there will be no ‘long-term’ if short-term is­sues are ig­nored.

‘Have rid­ers like Mark added to our cul­ture? Yes, they have,’ says Ry­der. ‘Are we still on track

‘The World­tour is a dif­fer­ent beast. We went from rac­ing 75 days a year to more than 150. It’s longer and tougher’

to de­velop that hero for the African con­ti­nent? Yes we are. En­durance run­ning took 30 years to take off in Africa – we’ve not even been go­ing 10.

‘We need to cre­ate world-class rid­ers,’ he adds. ‘We can’t mask the fact that sev­eral African rid­ers will be leav­ing us this sea­son but we have strong rid­ers com­ing through. Take 21-year-old Ni­cholas Dlamini. He’s step­ping up to sta­giaire for the re­main­der of 2017 with an eye on be­ing a neo-pro in 2018. He’s so strong and is tipped to be­come the first black South African to race the Tour de France. His story is un­be­liev­able.’

Dlamini grew up in the Capri­corn town­ship, about 15km from the cen­tre of Cape Town. Home is a hut con­structed from cor­ru­gated iron, wood and any­thing else that comes to hand. Thou­sands live in a com­mu­nity af­flicted by drugs, crime, HIV and al­co­holism. ‘He lives and trains there when he’s not based in Lucca [the team’s base in Italy],’ says Ry­der. ‘We’re look­ing to build him to­wards the 2019 Tour.’

Spe­cial de­liv­ery

Af­ter Ry­der leaves us at the start vil­lage, Mur­phy and I set off ahead of the rid­ers. Every sup­port car has its du­ties, and ours to­day is to hand out bot­tles at around the 70km mark. Mur­phy has ear­marked the vil­lage of Labastide d’ar­magnac as the per­fect spot, but when we get there the crowds lin­ing the streets are al­ready five deep, which is un­suit­able for op­ti­mal bidon de­liv­ery.

‘Hmmm,’ Mur­phy mut­ters. ‘We can only go so far fur­ther on or we’ll be too close to the next feed zone.’ It’s one of the daily ob­sta­cles teams have to over­come dur­ing the Tour, the kind of small-but-vi­tal predica­ment that goes un­no­ticed by the mass of fans fo­cused on the rid­ers.

‘The ideal spot is an as­cent, as the rid­ers are ob­vi­ously mov­ing slower,’ says Mur­phy. ‘Scrub­bing off speed is key or it can re­sult in chaos.’ He even­tu­ally set­tles on a lo­ca­tion that’s more hillock than hill, but im­por­tantly there are no crowds aside from a cou­ple re­clin­ing on deckchairs. And then we wait. And wait…

Mur­phy pro­vides lunch – chicken and rice with seeds, cooked by Tom Tom – and then we wait some more against a back­drop of oak trees, fields of ferns and a road so long and straight it could have been bor­rowed from Route 66.

For the long­est time there is noth­ing but a grow­ing an­tic­i­pa­tion. And then the ap­proach­ing and un­mis­tak­able sound of a he­li­copter…

Mur­phy glides to the boot of the car and delves into the cool box. Within are stacks of bidons con­tain­ing ei­ther wa­ter, elec­trolytes, car­bo­hy­drates or fish wa­ter.

‘That’s Ed­vald’s,’ Mur­phy says. ‘It’s a Scan­di­na­vian thing.’ Af­ter a pe­riod of in­ac­tiv­ity, he needs to fo­cus – this is his mo­ment. He’ll look to off­load seven bidons, one by one, each to the cor­rect rider, who’ll come by trav­el­ling at 40kmh. It will re­quire speed, skill and years of ex­pe­ri­ence to en­sure this mo­ment in the team’s Tour strat­egy goes with­out a hitch.

The three break­away rid­ers – Fred­erik Back­aert, Ma­ciej Bod­nar and Marco Mar­cato – fly past. The pelo­ton is around two min­utes

‘We couldn’t have done much more. I know Kit­tel pretty well. He’s just a ma­chine when he gets go­ing’

30 sec­onds be­hind. Mur­phy steps for­ward. The sound of he­li­copters grows louder. Mur­phy looks strong and sta­ble, poised to de­liver en­ergy to his fa­tigu­ing troops. The rum­ble of deep-rim wheels echoes around the Dor­dogne. It’s an au­ral puff of smoke and when Mur­phy reap­pears… he’s still cling­ing onto seven bidons.

‘They ob­vi­ously weren’t thirsty,’ he laments. Mur­phy’s vis­age shows no dis­ap­point­ment at hav­ing been stood up for his big date, but I sense an added edge of ten­sion as we drive at speed to­wards the fin­ish line.

By the time we ar­rive, the pelo­ton has crushed Bod­nar’s dream of a break­away win with just 200m to go. Mar­cel Kit­tel has sprinted to his fifth win of the Tour. Boas­son Ha­gen has come in third.

‘We couldn’t have done much more,’ Janse van Rens­burg tells me as he warms down on the turbo. ‘I know Kit­tel pretty well – I was a team­mate of his for two years. He’s just a ma­chine when he gets go­ing. But to­mor­row is an­other day.’

Di­men­sion Data re­tain a unique charm in the bru­tal world of pro­fes­sional cy­cling. The Qhubeka char­ity at the heart of the team, which do­nates bikes to give young Africans mo­bil­ity and free­dom, keeps rac­ing in con­text. De­spite the flight or fight of chas­ing UCI points, as Ry­der calls it, the crowning of the first African win­ner of the Tour is surely only a mat­ter of time.

Be­low: Among the wa­ter and carbs rests Ed­vald Boas­son Ha­gen’s fish wa­ter

Left: Physio Alice Rawl­in­son and col­league wres­tle with the ice box

Jaco Ven­ter (left) and Bernie Eisel ‘en­joy’ break­fast in a cor­nered-off room of the Ho­tel Kyr­iad

Top: Team prin­ci­pal Doug Ry­der (right) catches up with 1987 Triple Crown win­ner Stephen Roche

Steve Cum­mings’ Cervélo S5 fea­tures Bri­tish de­cals to cel­e­brate his dou­ble win at the Na­tional Cham­pi­onships

Above right: This is the third year in which Di­men­sion Data have rid­den Cervélo bikes

Above left: Di­recteur

spor­tif Roger Ham­mond is in jovial mood, de­spite fret­ting over Mark Cavendish’s re­cov­ery from in­jury

Right: Reinardt Janse van Rens­burg flushes through the lac­tic acid af­ter play­ing a piv­otal role in the lead­out

Be­low: The Nor­we­gians are out in force for Boas­son Ha­gen

Bot­tom: Steve Cum­mings has a quiet day at the of­fice

Above: Bri­tain’s Scott Th­waites makes his Tour de France de­but

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