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…
‘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.
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.’
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.
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 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
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
Jaco Venter (left) and Bernie Eisel ‘enjoy’ breakfast in a cornered-off room of the Hotel Kyriad
Below: Among the water and carbs rests Edvald Boasson Hagen’s fish water
Left: Physio Alice Rawlinson and colleague wrestle with the ice box
Above: Britain’s Scott Thwaites makes his Tour de France debut