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
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’