In praise of… the broom wagon

It’s the bus no one wants to catch, prowl­ing the back of the race, sweep­ing up the weak and in­jured. Cy­clist talks to the man be­hind the wheel

Cyclist - - Lead Out | First Person - Words TREVOR WARD Pho­tog­ra­phy DANNY BIRD

ay Brew­ster is the last per­son a pro­fes­sional cy­clist ever wants to see. Over the years, riders have ig­nored him, screamed at him and yelled abuse at him. ‘I never knew for­eign riders knew so many English swear words,’ he says.

Brew­ster is cy­cling’s ver­sion of the Grim Reaper. He’s been driv­ing the broom wagon in the UK’S big­gest pro­fes­sional road races since the Kel­logg’s Tour of Bri­tain in 1992. Back then it was a 13-seater Ford Tran­sit minibus; these days it’s a VW Trans­porter with enough room for six riders and their bikes.

The most vi­tal piece of equip­ment he car­ries is blan­kets. ‘A lot of riders just want to sleep when they get on board,’ he says, de­scrib­ing his job as part coun­sel­lor, part diplo­mat.

‘You need a lot of em­pa­thy,’ Brew­ster says. ‘You need to be able to ap­pre­ci­ate ex­actly what they’ve been through. I’ve seen their suf­fer­ing close up. I’ll talk to them, but I’ll never be pa­tro­n­is­ing, I’ll never say, “Well done.” These are pro­fes­sional riders.’

The broom wagon made its first ap­pear­ance at the 1910 Tour de France, the year the Pyre­nees were in­cluded in the race route for the first time. Or­gan­iser Henri Des­grange feared the worst, and he was right to: only 41 of the 110 starters made it to Paris.

Fa­mous names rang­ing from Ba­ha­montes to Bäck­st­edt have oc­cu­pied the broom wagon’s seats over the years, though these days the big stars will usu­ally be res­cued by their team cars.

The broom wagon is cy­cling’s ul­ti­mate hu­mil­i­a­tion, a pub­lic ad­mis­sion that your body or mind just isn’t strong enough. Five-time Tour rider Gra­ham Jones de­scribes it as ‘an ex­pe­ri­ence that you will never for­get’. He wrote in a blog for the BBC: ‘I’ve been there. I defy any rider to say he hasn’t shed a tear at climb­ing into the Tour broom wagon. Maybe not im­me­di­ately but at some time in that jour­ney to the fin­ish, be­hind the race at the back of the con­voy, the re­al­ity will hit home. You would rather be any­where in the world than in that bus.’

Brew­ster, who drives the broom wagon at the Pru­den­tial Ride­lon­don-Sur­rey Classic as well as the OVO En­ergy Tour of Bri­tain and Women’s Tour, says he has noth­ing but ad­mi­ra­tion for the riders he ‘sweeps up’.

‘I’ve seen them get up a hill like Rosedale Chim­ney – 30% – at ridicu­lous speeds, when the rest of the con­voy is burn­ing clutches. So you know it’s taken a lot to get them to a point where they want to give up,’ he says.

‘I’ll pull along­side the last rider. I’ve got a GPS so know how far be­hind the pelo­ton we are and if they’re out­side the cut-off times or not. If they’re on the limit, I’ll en­cour­age them to try to keep go­ing, but if they’re out­side, I’ll ask if they want to get in. Most will say “no”, oth­ers will just ig­nore me. You can clearly see how frus­trated they are.

‘If the race is stretched and we are strug­gling for po­lice cover, the po­lice will tell me the rider has to get in. They

don’t al­ways like it. In the Women’s Tour, a well-known Bel­gian rider had to get in af­ter she was in­volved in a crash with a younger, in­ex­pe­ri­enced rider. You should have heard her lan­guage for the first five min­utes. I just kept quiet. Af­ter she’d calmed down, she was with me for the next 90 min­utes and hardly said a word.’

Brew­ster also re­counts the tale of a rider dropped at the Ride­lon­don-sur­rey Classic who re­fused to get in. ‘We were a long way be­hind the pelo­ton, and I told him I had to take his race num­bers. He said “fine”, but that he would carry on rid­ing on his own, out­side the race con­voy. He said he would fol­low the di­rec­tion ar­rows back to Lon­don. I heard that he got lost.’

When a rider does agree to get in the broom wagon, con­ver­sa­tion is of­ten the last thing on their mind. ‘They are ab­so­lutely knack­ered, and they just want to sleep,’ says Brew­ster. ‘You might try to make con­ver­sa­tion with them, but they’re not in­ter­ested.’

He re­calls a stage of the Kel­logg’s Tour when 16 riders were wait­ing for him at the foot of a long climb. ‘I had a 17-seater minibus back then, but I al­ready had two riders in the back with me. I pulled over and had to walk up the hill to get a sig­nal on my phone so I could ask for some team cars to col­lect their riders. When I got back, all 16 had man­aged to squeeze them­selves and their bikes into the van, that’s how des­per­ate they were.’

Tact and un­der­stand­ing are cru­cial re­quire­ments, es­pe­cially when the de­mands of na­ture take their toll. Brew­ster once saw a bike ly­ing unat­tended at the side of a coun­try lane. Fur­ther in­ves­ti­ga­tion re­vealed the rider was ‘semi-naked in a state of dis­tress’ on the other side of a hedge suf­fer­ing a se­vere bout of di­ar­rhoea. He man­aged to climb back on his bike but af­ter a few miles – with Brew­ster on his shoul­der like some aveng­ing an­gel of san­i­ta­tion – had to stop for med­i­cal treat­ment from the am­bu­lance.

‘I got a call on the ra­dio ask­ing for me to take him,’ re­calls Brew­ster, ‘but I didn’t want him smelling up my van, and the am­bu­lance didn’t want him smelling up their ve­hi­cle. In the end, the am­bu­lance crew told me I had to take him and handed me a toi­let roll.’

Brew­ster, a re­tired po­lice mo­tor­cy­clist, is too much of a gentle­man to re­veal if he’s had any fa­mous riders as pas­sen­gers, though there is one name he is happy to men­tion: in 2005 Eddy Mer­ckx pre­sented him with a spe­cial award in recog­ni­tion of his services to the Tour of Bri­tain.

Praise in­deed for a race tra­di­tion the riders love to hate.

The broom wagon first ap­peared on the 1910 Tour – the first year the race tack­led the Pyre­nees. Just as well too, as only 41 of the 110 starters made it all the way to Paris

Five-time Tour rider Gra­ham Jones says climb­ing into the broom wagon is an ex­pe­ri­ence a rider never for­gets. ‘You would rather be any­where in the world than in that bus’

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