Tales from the peloton Down Under, January 20, 2005
Accepting a generous offer to travel in the United Water - Australia U23 team car driven by team manager Paul Brosnan, Cyclingnews got to see the race from another side on the third stage of the Jacob's Creek Tour Down Under. Anthony Tan enjoyed every minute.
09:10 Adelaide Hilton
Walking down the steps and across the road towards the Tour Village, I was sure my eyes caught a glimpse of Paris Hilton, daughter of the famous family empire that made high-class hotels their forte and which our place of residency this week was eponymously named. Oh well, maybe it was a podium girl...
(note to self: must not get distracted; eyes on the job)
09:12 Tour Village
I'm introduced to Paul Brosnan by the publisher of Cyclingnews, Gerard Knapp. 'Broso', born and bred on the Gold Coast but now based in Launceston, is normally head cycling coach for the Tasmanian Institute of Sport (T.I.S.), a position made vacant after his predecessor, Kevin Tabotta, accepted a position as the Australian national cycling team's high performance manager.
Including myself, there's two others travelling with us, and before I can shout "Shotgun!", Broso preempts my thoughts by saying: "Anthony, you can have the front." Yeah.
09:13 Leave for Strathalbyn
As we leave the Hilton, I learn that a few times a year, the various state coaches accept 'satellite' roles as national coaches at various races, which is how Brosnan got this gig.
Broso was in fact a former top rider himself with the Australian Institute of Sport (A.I.S.), a contemporary of riders like Discovery's Matt White and Davitamon-Lotto's Nick Gates. Showing you how difficult it still is to turn pro, Broso stopped racing quite young at 24 years-old in 1997, and began working in various capacities in sports administration before landing a role as A.I.S. scholarship coach in 2004. Now 32, he took up his current position at the T.I.S. in May last year. (Paul was too modest to add his extremely promising career was cut short by a terrible accident in South Africa. Ed.)
It's a good hour's drive on our way out to the start in Strathalbyn with the race starting at 11:00am. So I get the conversation rolling, asking Broso about their star rider Will Walker, who won the Australian U23 title in dramatic fashion less than a week ago and is currently in fourth overall.
CN: You said it's not hard to manage a team when you've got a superstar, but still, there's the weight of expectation on a rider so young...
Broso: Yeah, I think that's true, but you have to put it into perspective. It's true - he's something special - but if you've got everyone telling him that, and there is that expectation... you know, it's not a given that he's going to crack it in the top end. It would take a tragedy for it not to happen - everything indicates that it will - but at the same time, you've got to play it down a bit, keep him level headed, and also be realistic and remind yourself that he is still a kid.
CN: Are the media playing too much on what Robbie McEwen said at the Bay Crits, that he could become Australian cycling's biggest thing a few years from now?
PB: Oh.. no, that's all great - it's similar to how Lance Armstrong praises Michael Rogers' abilities. Lance has come out and said Michael Rogers is going to be the next Tour de France star; he still has to live up to the expectation - he's already super successful - but it's still only an opinion, as great as it is. You've still got to do the hard yards and get the runs on the board. He's not the sort of guy to blow out on the remarks of Robbie McEwen, but also, you've got to remind him when he does ride well.
Like the other day on the first stage, where he finished fourth - it was a super ride. He went across after the break had gone, and it was incredible he got there and put himself in that move after the race had effectively gone down the road. Then to be there at the crunch time in that group of four... that was phenomenal.
He was actually a bit down on himself and looking for answers on why he didn't win, but that's what makes him special. But look, you've got to live and learn and these [other] guys are seasoned professionals; he's still learning about his body and his capabilities, and if he can learn from his experience and improve on that, he's heading in the right direction.
Bloody hell it's hot - they reckon it's going to be at least 41 today. I find some shade on a sandstone verandah, taking a few pics, including one of my colleague Les Clarke getting some pre-race quotes from Robbie McEwen (see photo), and write down a few more questions I want to ask Broso once we get going again. Willy Walker's stretching his hammies in preparation for a fast start to the 154 kilometre stage. A question I often ask myself is: "How can blokes that little pump out so much power?" Both Will and Robbie epitomise the term 'Pocket Rocket'.
10:50 10 minutes before start time
Les and I feast our eyes on some natural beauty, of which there is plenty. It's a tough job but somebody's gotta do it... might as well be us.
Broso starts the car - cue for me to get jump in right now.
(second note to self: must not get distracted; eyes on the job)
We're off, and the stage begins for real. And as the peloton rolls out of Strathalbyn, our United Water - Australia car assumes its position in the team cars' peloton - number four - if you can call it that; placement is based on the individual general classification at the start of the day.
CN: Few more questions for you, Paul.
PB: Fire away.
CN: There's been a little talk about Will being a little cocky - is that warranted?
PB: My dealing with Will, I would say he's nothing but a gentleman and a worthy ambassador for the sport. In time, he'll shape into a different athlete, and learn to shape himself. You've got to have that air... it's not arrogance, but you have to have that air of confidence - that's what makes him special as well. I wouldn't support those comments... it's someone's opinion, and all I can say is that my dealings with him have been quite the opposite.
CN: It comes with maturity, too, learning what to say and what not to say to certain people...
PB: It's funny... you see successful athletes, not just cyclists, where they may not be talking to the right people or say things at appropriate times, but at the end of the day, they're human - they can be nervous and shy, they may not be someone that really flourishes in pressure situations in front of the media as well. Like you say, it's a development process and it's just another feather he needs to put in his cap, dealing with the media.
The race radio crackles to life: "Eight riders in the lead group: numbers 3, 13, 33, 38, 65, 77, 96, 103."
It's early, but this looks dangerous. I scan the start list... Barredo (Liberty Seguros), Botcharov (AG2R - Prevoyance), Evans (Davitamon - Lotto), Jerome (Bouyges Telecom), Pauwels (Chocolade Jacques), Clarke (SA.com - AIS), Hayman (UniSA - Australia) - 7 out of 12 teams are represented, and United Water aren't there. Time for a question.
CN: Everyone's talking about tomorrow being 'the' day, but today's stage is looking just as dangerous on paper...
PB: With Willunga Hill towards the end of [tomorrow's] stage, I think it's quite clear that it's going to decide the general classification, aside from time bonuses.
Having said that, today is really an opportunity for the likes of Liberty to really put themselves back in the bike race - it's easy to follow wheels, but I think they need to be on the front foot to secure the tour and they won't leave an opportunity unturned. At the moment, Ag2r are controlling the Tour well, but Liberty have come here in form - Sanchez is in great form and it won't surprise me at all if they really try to get a few seconds back today.
Already after 13 kilometres, the eight have now become 11, approximately 50 seconds in front of the peloton. In the break are: Barredo, Rojas Gil (Liberty Seguros), Botcharov (AG2R - Prevoyance), Evans (Davitamon - Lotto), Becke, Gobbi (Milram), Jerome (Bouyges Telecom), Pauwels (Chocolade Jacques), Chadwick (Navigators), Day, Hayman (UniSA - Australia).
Still no-one from United Water. Brosnan's not looking too happy.
He picks up the mic to talk to his charges: "C'mon guys, look for the counter - if we can get one or two guys in the break, that'd be awesome," he says encouragingly.
CN: When do you have your team meetings?
PB: We generally have them the evening before, just after dinner; we review what happened on the day and discuss the next stage, so they can go to bed and think about it and if we need to talk further in the morning, at least they've had a chance to absorb it.
CN: So what was the plan for today?
PB: We lost two guys on the first stage [Richard Moffatt and Sam Lee], so we're down on a couple of numbers, but having said that, these guys, they don't need to be forcing the pace - they need to be putting themselves in good position and putting themselves in the bike race, so they can have an opportunity of winning a stage but obviously protecting Willy's overall position. Come crunch time, when the GC is decided, he needs to be in the right place.
Broso relays info from race radio to the three members who are hooked up. "1'52 is the time gap; Cadel Evans is the highest placed at 12 minutes."
At few minutes later at the 23 kilometre mark, we learn the gap is now 2 minutes and 25 seconds. Game over if you're in the peloton.
United Water rider #117, Josh Wilson, comes back to the team car. Looks like he's having a few mechanical problems: "I'm having trouble with the beer, I mean, the gears," he says. Geez, you wouldn't want to admit it if you had trouble with drinking beer on a stinking hot day like this...
"What's wrong?" asks James, the mechanic.
"When I'm in the big ring and I'm changing gears, the chain tries to come off."
"That's sounds like a problem with your cable tension; just be careful when changing gears, and hold your hand on the lever when you do," James advises.
Race radio: "Rider number 86 has been dropped from the break. Time gap is 3 minutes 33 after 32 kilometres." That's Navigators rider Hilton Clarke, who rode for Team Cyclingnews in 2004 before getting picked up by the American Pro Continental team. He's shown good early season form by winning the overall title at the Bay Series Criteriums, but with the quality of the field, race distance and heat, the Jacob's Creek Tour Down Under is another level above that.
Obviously United Water would liked to have someone in the break, so I ask Brosnan what sort of scenario has the day presented to his team.
"It's not ideal. It's nice to have someone in the move so you're represented and takes the pressure off a bit; now, not having someone in there, all our eggs are in one basket. It'll go crunch later in the stage - we just have to be prepared for that."
Although unimportant to the team, I'm interested to hear Broso's thoughts on the break - does he see it getting a lot of time up the road?
"Oh look, the highest-placed in the break is at 12 minutes, so Ag2R won't allow it to go out further than half that time, maybe six minutes or so," explains Brosnan. "When there's a crosswind section at the 60k mark, the bigger teams will try and break it up there, so we just need to make sure our guys are riding good position and looking after Will, to ensure he does make that split if it does come about."
We're passing through an area called Currency Creek (ker-ching!), roughly 10 clicks from the first sprint at Goolwa, which comes after 60 kilometres. Broso gets on the radio.
"We're coming up to the coast now, so make sure you get good position and keep Will up front."
Race radio: "Time gap 3 minutes 56," we hear, before it's repeated slowly, "3 minutes 5-6."
Broso's on the mic again; this time he's determined no-one misses the move.
"Five kilometres to Goolwa and here's the wind, so ride in good position and look after Will."
Interestingly, although the sea breeze is blowing the riders into a strong headwind, the attacks don't eventuate and the bunch stays together. "Time gap: 4 minutes 27 seconds," we hear from race radio.
Still a dangerous section before the second sprint in Port Elliot, Brosnan receives a call from T.I.S. rider Belinda Goss.
Belinda was attempting to qualify for the national track endurance squad for the Commonwealth Games - the criteria was to do a flying kilometre - equal to four laps of the Adelaide Superdrome - and two flying lap sprints. Unfortunately, she made the time for the kilometre and first sprint, but narrowly missed out on the second.
"Bugger eh, but chin up, good attempt," Brosnan says, empathising with her near-miss.
"She'll have another crack - she's got until the end of this month to register the times," he tells me. "You have two attempts, so she's got one more opportunity."
Asked how she was feeling, Brosnan says Belinda wasn't too bad, just disappointed she got so close. "But she's still quietly confident she can meet the criteria," he adds. "We'll look at doing it next weekend maybe, so we'll just have to re-assess things."
12:56 Port Elliot
Race radio: "Time gap 4 minutes 40 seconds, 4 minutes 4-0 seconds."
13:05 Victor Harbor
We're five kilometres from the KOM and approximately 70k from the finish. The attacks from Liberty Seguros along the coast didn't happen - so far Broso isn't getting too many predictions about the attacks right, but better to be safe than sorry, I guess, after missing the early break.
"Do you have a reason why nothing happened back there, mate?" I ask.
"I think Ag2R are just controlling it well again today," Brosnan responds. "They're riding good tempo on the front, and the bigger teams haven't had a go yet; I think the climb might show something a bit different though."
"So Liberty Seguros attacking up the Victor Harbor climb?"
"I think they'll take the opportunity on the climb because it's the logical place for it to happen," he says. "Whether the split goes there, or not, I don't know - it could well be after that. Definitely, the race is going to hot up from that climb onwards, I'd imagine."
Well, we've passed the KOM and back in the peloton, it's all quiet on the Liberty front.
"Another uneventful day so far, isn't it?" is all Broso can say.
With 50k to go, attacks start happening from the break, Vincent Jerome and Mathew Hayman first to take flight, before the two become six: Barredo (Liberty Seguros), Botcharov (Credit Agricole), Becke (Milram), Jerome (Bouyges Telecom), Pauwels (Chocolade Jacques) and Hayman (UniSA-Australia).
Shortly after the announcement, Broso says confidently, "Matt Hayman will win this."
It's another stinker of a day; this tour, it just keeps getting hotter. So most of what goes on in the peloton over the next 40k or so is feeding of the liquid kind, as our United Water car hands out bottle after bottle until we're out of everything bar four Powerades, which they'll save for the boys on the drive home. No one in their right mind would pedal back today.
Thirty-five kilometres to go for the bunch as the time gap's gone out again, now to 5'50.
After a brief regrouping, the front group has broken into two bunches, with the first group of seven riders exactly eight minutes ahead of the peloton, and 1'48 ahead of four chasers.
We're inside the final 20 kilometres. I hit Broso with another question as Ag2R mysteriously begin chasing hard again at the front of the peloton.
"Why is an eight-minute break considered dangerous and a six-minute lead isn't, when the highest-placed rider (Cadel Evans) is 12 minutes down on GC?"
Broso's quick off the mark: "They just want to keep it to a more manageable time. A stage like tomorrow will suit Cadel, they don't want to give away time unnecessarily. It's just a precaution; it's unlikely he'd get that time, but then again, if there's a mishap or whatever, it's just good to have a bit more of a buffer."
Rider #3, Carlos Barredo, attacks and with his breakaway companions stalling, it looks like it will be the second Liberty win in as many days.
Yep, Barredo gets it - lucky Broso ain't a betting man with that last call on Matty Hayman! Seriously, it's only logical it's all about tomorrow now, which he confirms.
"Everyone was represented in the break today - when I say everyone I mean everyone bar three teams," Broso begins by saying.
"The team that was going to gain most today was Liberty, and they had a rider in that front group, so there was no point for them to attack; so they've effectively ridden as a day off, and it'll all come down to Willunga [Hill]. Whether it's over Willunga or earlier, tomorrow's going to be a hard stage - it's the final opportunity to sort the GC out."
As searing temperatures melt the road to a thick tar in Yankalilla, I thank Broso for his time and comments, and begin to understand just how all-encompassing the role of team manager is, particularly with a young crew. On the way back home, I sit in the back next to their young gun and Australian cycling's next big thing, Will Walker, where he graciously allowed me time for what turned out to be an intriguing interview.
But you'll have to come back to hear that story...