In this extract from Domestique: The Real-life Ups and Downs of a Tour Pro, Charly Wegelius recalls his Tour de France debut in 2007.
Despite a few requests for interviews from the home press, the build-up to the Tour felt remarkably similar to every other race I had ridden. Even selection for the 2007 Tour had been relatively low key. In a lot of teams, the Tour is such a focal point of the year that making the Tour selection is a really big deal. Typically, though, for a rider like me in a team like mine, selection came in an off-hand way. My directeur sportif, Stefano Zanatta, casually informed me over the phone in May – before the start of the Giro – that I was going to the Tour. There was no room for discussion, and certainly no allusion to the fact that I was any kind of outstanding athlete who’d been selected to go to one of the greatest sporting events on the planet. I just simply fitted the mould of the generic type of rider that was needed at the time.
This disappointingly mundane feeling was exacerbated by the blasé attitude of my Liquigas team. In the aftermath of Di Luca’s Giro win there was no buzz of excitement about doing the Tour; after the emotional high we had all felt there it was as if no one could really muster any more energy. We were just there. To make matters worse we had Dario Mariuzzo as our manager, who, in my opinion, was the worst manager I ever had as a rider. He lacked the necessary language skills, and sometimes seemed only to be able to communicate by swearing in a Venetian dialect. This made the entire build-up to the race feel incredibly trying, but it wasn’t only him.
I had learnt by now that, for many Italians, being outside of their comfort zone was a big challenge. Unfortunately in this case, because I was English, everything was my fault, and every Italian rider in the peloton thought it worthwhile to let me know this. If the coffee was no good, then someone had to tell me. If they didn’t like the hotel breakfast, then it was worth asking me, ‘Does the Queen have to eat beans in tomato sauce for breakfast?’ If the cars were suddenly coming at them on the left-hand side of the road then it was worth yelling at me about out the stupidity of driving on ‘the other side of the road, cazzo!’
At the Tour de France the team was looking to do something to merit their inclusion and please their American bike sponsor, Cannondale – and it didn’t really matter what that was. The strategy they decided on for the race was quite simple: they would send a group of riders from the Classics squad who could try for a stage early on, and pad the team out with guys who were consistent enough to keep Liquigas in the running for the team classification by finishing close to the front on the big mountain stages.
The team classification is something that no one in their right mind pays attention to; it is of zero interest to the public, because all eyes are fixed on the overall winners. To a company looking to show off its ethic of ‘cohesive teamwork’, however, it is an acceptable consolation prize.
Liquigas’ whole outlook on the race was more like something you’d expect on the B-programme: we even had a rented team bus (hired from Manolo Sainz, the disgraced former manager of the ONCE team). The night before the race I watched completely impassively as the mechanics decided it was a good time to stick our sponsor’s transfers on the side of the bus, so people could actually recognise the team.
I laughed aloud at the thought that the next day cycling fans would be gazing in awe as the bus pulled into the car park covered in exotic-looking logos and sponsors, which had just been slapped on by two uninterested mechanics the night before. It was typical of a professional cycling team, and even more so of the Tour: gleaming and shiny on the outside, but chaotic and unnerving on the inside.
By the time the start of the race came around, the emotional high of seeing my family felt like such a warm and happy contrast that I didn’t want to leave them. But in no time at all I received a tap on the shoulder from a team soigneur who wanted to know what drink I would like on my bike, which was being set up on the Turbo trainer waiting for me to begin my warm-up. I suddenly remembered it was nearly time to go to work and, after I thanked everyone for coming, I went back to shutting the world out of my mind to allow myself to prepare for the TT effort.