From the pressure of the Tour de France to LeMond's 'stolen bikes'
And that doesn’t just apply to the the riders. The best and worst thing about the Tour de France for a team is the pressure of it all, the size of the Tour organisation, the attention from the media and the spectators, the expectations and the responsibilities of each team member, be they rider or the bus driver, means they will all be pushed to their limits at some stage in the three weeks touring France. Those pressures become all the more intense the further up the ladder you to go, not because the decisions are fundamentally different for a wild card selection compared to Sky or BMC, it's just everything is analysed to nth degree when you are in a contender's team .
For the riders sometimes the race is the easy bit, you only have to do the job, so if you are a Wiggins or an Evans that means being in the right place in the peloton at the right time, keeping position, always having two or three teammates round about you just in case of a mechanical or heavens forbid a fall, eating right, drinking enough, not taking any wind when you don't have to. The designated helpers for each day have to be attentive, where's their leader, what's happening in the race, do they need to do anything, Is there a danger coming up, on bottle duties do they go back on request or at roughly set points?
It's all stuff they've done before during the year but at the Tour it becomes more stressful because the race is faster, there are more cars, motorbikes and people to negotiate. Basically the circus is bigger.
And the show doesn't stop when the line is crossed, in fact in some ways this is the most challenging part. Usually after a normal race only the main protagonists get questions but the Tour de France isn't a normal race. It's THE race. So everyone gets questions, all kind of questions from the mundane, like how did you feel, to the frankly ridiculous stuff like are black socks faster than white? Everything matters and you can't give any old answer because, say the wrong thing and it might turn into a scandal. Team leaders are used to this stuff as they get it most days but even they get overwhelmed by the sheer number of people with a question, a theory or an opinion. When the number-one rider can't be reached for a sound bite or a photo then it goes down the line to the other riders, the directeur sportifs, the mechanics, the masseurs, the press officers all suddenly find themselves under more scrutiny than they thought possible. How did they feel, how did the rivals look, why did they do that, what did they eat, drink, read, it all becomes a point of speculation and conjecture.
I've seen it all up close with Greg LeMond when on the Z team, the sheer demands on his time shocked me and it's in those situations you realise not everyone can cope with the stresses that go with being a Tour de France favourite and that stress gets passed onto everyone in that team. The racing was hard enough but most days things got fraught enough that he had to rely on his minders to rescue him from situations just so he could get some kind of time to himself and it's not like a bit of humour will lighten the mood every time like it usually does.
Picture the scene, typical hotel after a typical TdF stage, it's hot, the mechanics have finished for the evening, the masseurs have finished the massages for all the riders except Greg who is last because he's being doing interviews. Down in the bar the DS's are relaxing, fending off questions and chewing the fat with the guests of the day. Monsiuer LeMond decides to play a trick on his friend, mechanic and confidant Juilian by sneaking into the room where the bikes are being kept and removing his bikes, carefully sneaking them into his bathroom before retiring for the night. He thinks it'll be hilarious in the morning when there's a panic and Julian will be running about like the proverbial blue fly. But it all goes wrong when one of the mechanics decides to check on something before he goes to bed and he discovers the theft of LeMond's machines. There is panic just as Greg expected but the guys don’t wake him up to tell him because it's late, he needs his sleep and the added stress won#t be good.
So quick thinking decides there's only one solution to the theft, the youngest mechanic will have to drive back to Paris and fetch new frames from the team HQ and when he gets back they'll build up two bikes before the next stage. It's almost 400 kilometres to Paris and the same back again and it's almost midnight when the unfortunate lad is sent on his way, speeding fines will be dealt with later.
The hotel manager is beside himself, the mechanics are almost crying, the directeurs are trying to keep it all together and of course the Gendarmes are called. The commotion eventually wakes everyone, Greg included, at two o'clock in the morning, and he sheepishly admits that he's got the bikes in his bathroom. Thanks to the recent invention of the mobile phone the flat-out team car is eventually intercepted on the outskirts of Paris and told to come back and everyone breathes a sigh of relief but no one thinks it's funny in the morning, or the next day or the next after that. It is vaguely funny now though.
Mistakes will be made, dramas will occur and people will fall out with each other and by the end of the three weeks everyone will look and feel ten years old older.
Evans and BMC have been there before but it’s something Wiggins and Sky will have to get used to.
What's the Japanese for ‘in five minutes’?
- Robert Millar
Robert Millar was one of the last pure climbers of the Tour de France, winning several stages in the mountain stages and finishing fourth overall in 1984. He is also the only English speaker to have ever won the prestigious polka-dot jersey climber's competition jersey. Millar retired in 1995 but has continued to follow the sport closely. He was often critical of the media and quickly cuts through the excuses and spin to understand why and how riders win and lose.
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