On the Tour de France's second rest day Allan Peiper sat his UAE Team Emirates squad down and told them that winning the race was within their grasp. All they had to do, he said, was stick to the plan and believe.
When Peiper spoke there were more than a few individuals left looking around and scratching their heads. Was this guy for real? At that point in the race, Tadej Pogačar has ridden back towards the top of the standings, having made up for his slip-up in the crosswinds to win a stage and head into the rest-day second overall and just 40 seconds off Primož Roglič's race lead, but Jumbo Visma looked unbreakable, and the yellow jersey looked destined for the Dutch team.
At the same time, UAE Team Emirates – as a collective at least – were on their knees. The two best climbing domestiques on the team, Fabio Aru and Davide Formolo, had gone home, while David de la Cruz was limping through with his own injuries. Marco Marcato had a bladder infection, and only Jan Polanc was able to offer up additional support in the mountains. They didn't look like a team capable of taking the race to Roglič.
But if anyone could dream big it was Peiper. After all, here he was a year on from his second brush with cancer and directing a team at the Tour de France. Just over twelve months ago he barely had the strength to watch a race, let alone conduct a squad at home. His hair had fallen out and his reflexes and eyesight were shot, but after a long a difficult recovery he was back. He'd had a plan. He'd believed and he'd come through.
"When I got to the teams' meeting at the start of the race in Nice I had tears in my eyes because I thought that I was nailed to the ground a year ago," Peiper told Cyclingnews. "But here I was, back at the Tour as first director and with a kid that had a shot.
"When we got to the end of the time trial and had yellow, white, and the mountains jersey I had to ask myself what had just happened. From where I was a year before you could never write a movie scene that was like it."
But before that epic final time trial up La Planche des Belles Filles on stage 20, Peiper still had the task of convincing those around him at the team that Pogačar had more than a fighting chance of usurping Roglič at the top of the standings.
The Australian drew parallels between UAE's situation and his previous experience at Jonathan Vaughter's Garmin-Barracuda team when the American team came through with a late surge to win the 2012 Giro d'Italia with Ryder Hesjedal, despite being such overwhelming underdogs at the start of the race.
"I gave this analogy to the team on the second rest day of Tour this year. I told them that back in 2012 we went to the Giro d'Italia with a half-cocked team that included two helpful climbers in Vande Velde and Stetina and then five fat arses," Peiper said.
"But we stuck to the plan. We didn't sprint, we didn't go in breakaways and we didn't do anything more than we needed to do. We waited and waited and then somehow a miracle happened and we pulled it off. On the last day in Milan.
"I gave that analogy to our riders on the rest day because before the Tour our objective was top five, with a little dream of the podium but on the rest day I could see the parallels between the Garmin team and these guys.
"I said to them, 'I'm not saying you're not good bike riders, but we don't have the firepower. I told them that they needed to stick to the plan and stay together and that if it all came together then we'd be able to set things up for the final time trial."
UAE stuck to Peiper's message. Pogačar and his squad watched on as Jumbo-Visma and Bahrain McLaren controlled the race, and even when Pogačar shipped 17 seconds on the Col de la Loze on stage 17, the team remained resolute with all their chips placed on the final time trial in the Vosges.
Preparing for La Planche
Going into that stage, the deficit was 57 seconds in the overall standings and when Roglič rolled down the start ramp the mood almost felt like the next hour would be a procession. Surely the Jumbo-Visma rider, among the world's top time trialists, wouldn't stumble at such a late hurdle?
The world watched on as over the 36.2km course Roglič's race unraveled in the most spectacular of fashions. What few people saw, however, was the meticulous planning that Peiper had put in months before the race had even reached this point.
"I went down to La Planche des Belles Filles in June for two days. I rode the course once, picked out the gears we'd use, and then did it again. We went down with Tadej and [three-time U23 world time trial champion] Mikkel Berg came.
"He gave Tadej advice and we did a full simulation, going full gas with the TT bike, helmet and bike change. It was in open traffic and Bjerg started 2:30 ahead and by the finish he was 100m behind Tadej. We did our homework, and yes he did a fantastic ride, but what that preparation gave us was piece of mind. It meant that after we got to the hotel on the Friday night we already had the basic plan."
On the day of the all-important time trial Pogačar didn't rise until 10am and was still able to accommodate two naps before his effort. He drove the start, relaxed in the knowledge that he and Peiper had done their homework, and with Peiper feeding the rider information from the team car, the Slovenian was in the best possible care.
Once the first time check announced that Pogačar was eating into Roglič's lead, the dominoes quickly began to tumble.
"I said to the guys on the last night 'I don't think that any of you believed in what I was saying'. Maybe Tadej did, but I think they thought that I was going to pull a rabbit out of my arse or something. But I really felt that the time trial was going to be the final showdown. That's why I was so disappointed with the Col de la Loze because it felt at that point as if sand was slipping between our fingers."
In the end, Pogačar – riding without a power meter or computer on the climb – pulled off a jaw-dropping ride, the likes of which we've scarcely seen for decades in the sport. For Peiper, that result was the culmination of a long process and one that started weeks, if not months before as Pogačar began his Tour de France build-up.
"Obviously he's got huge talent. You can't do it without that," Peiper said. "Secondly, I was at the Tour de l'Ain and Critérium du Dauphiné and I saw how good Primož was. His team were in utter control in those races. They were playing with the field, but I always questioned whether some people would time things right going into the Tour.
"Primož and his team were primed for the Tour, whereas Tadej did Strade Bianche, Milan-San Remo and then he came to the Dauphiné, and on the second day he lost a minute. I asked him if he was disappointed and he just told me that things were going to get better. I was worried during the Dauphiné whether he was going to be ready for the Tour but he improved every day.
"On the final day, he ripped into the race and he broke up the field. He wasn't good enough to go with Kuss but if he had been he would have won the race. In some ways that was a blessing in disguise, in the same way that losing time in the crosswinds was also a blessing in disguise, but by that last day in the Dauphiné, I knew that he would be ready for the Tour."
Some will interpret Pogačar's dominance in the time trial as a sign of something else, an element that has remained within cycling despite the overtures of ethical and scientific change. Peiper recognizes that but believes that Pogačar's ride didn't raise any suspicions.
"Some are going to make assumptions if they want to but I think that Tadej has shown on the scoreboard at U23 level. He won the Tour de l'Avenir when there were so many champions there and they put him on the ropes and he survived. He won in Algarve, in California and then took those stages in the Vuelta a España.
"He's such a pure kid and such an enourmous talent. I've never seen someone with the ability to recuperate as he does. I don't think that there's anything that you could say that would remove doubt for some people but the only thing that I would say is when people do superman efforts they can put up red flags, but I don't see that Tadej has done that. Of course he's in fantastic shape, and of course he did the great TT ride, but we prepared for that time trial merticulously."
While it's Pogačar who stood on the podium, resplendent in yellow, and with the mountains and white jersey neatly packed into his suitcase for the journey home, a huge amount of credit for UAE's success should go to Peiper and how he has helped transform this team.
"Tadej's win adds to the whole emotional dimension for me. I have this history that's embedded in my hard drive of the pain that I went through with chemotherapy last year. I partially lost my eyesight and my reflexes and I was left wondering if I would have the stamina to do these races again," he said.
"I got through the winter and I went to the Tour Down Under and that was a real test, to see if my eyesight and reflexes were good enough. I took confidence from that.
"We had the Tour de l'Ain and the Dauphiné, but they were only five days so at the start of this Tour I had questions in myself over whether I could make it. The DS can't just go home and I wondered if I would have the energy for the last week or the last ten days."
Peiper came through not just ten days but the entire race and thanks to his plan and his unwavering belief we saw one of the most dramatic Tour endings in history.
💛 “Tadej , Yellow jersey this is for the @letourdefrance !" Dramatic scenes from an unforgettable day for the team. #TDF2020 #UAETeamEmirates #RideTogether pic.twitter.com/6lRpiz2GpjSeptember 19, 2020
💛💛💛 ”You won the stage and all.” A hug between our Sport director @AllanPeiper and @TamauPogi after today’s stage #TDF2020. Well done mate!#UAETeamEmirates #RideTogether pic.twitter.com/DoWyDm6sHVSeptember 19, 2020
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