Our man in the bunch 2: race programmes

Cycle Sport’s Our Man in the Bunch series ran through the 2012 season, to popular acclaim. An anonymous professional rider sent us a series of dispatches from the peloton, covering all subjects from money, through media to management and more. We reproduce the series here.

Words by Our Man in the Bunch

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Illustration by Simon Scarsbrook

There are races which get my heart racing with excitement, and others I’d do anything to avoid. A seven-hour turbo session would be preferable to going to the Brixia Tour again: swelteringly hot, a load of smaller Italian teams going impossibly fast and hard climbs that didn’t suit me.

It’s obvious which events most riders want to race. Grand Tours and Classics are the pinnacles of the sport, but other preferences can be more individual. Home tours are important to riders who want to shine in front of their friends, family and press, but there are also races which are close to your heart simply because of previous experiences or even just the region.

Conversely, small French races, for example, are often avoided by foreign riders: the typical experience involves below-average accommodation and the notorious ‘pasta soup’, so-called because of the 45 minutes or so that the chefs seem to boil it for. It’s as far from al dente as Paris is from Roubaix.

The Tour of Beijing hasn’t stoked up much passion from the riders (nor from the locals or TV audience): WorldTour points were the only enticement. I’ve only done a small number of Eastern races in my career, and my preference now is to steer clear.

One race I did there was well-organised and on good roads, but every morning on the start line there was a handful of riders with the bibs of their shorts around their waists, obviously pre-empting a likely scenario some way down the road, having eaten something dodgy the previous night. I’m not saying that foreign food is weird, just that professional cyclists’ digestive systems can be conservative in their tastes.

Initial race programmes are decided by the team management in November or December preceding the season. Of course, there is a hierarchy in every team, with the stars able to dictate the calendar that suits them, and in some cases the riders they want with them, while at the other end of the scale, the neos are flung headfirst into a random series of smaller races, and, if they are lucky (or maybe unlucky), a couple of the big events.

Watching the riders come out of that meeting, highlighted race calendar in hand, is always amusing. For every rider that comes out all smiles, with their dream programme, there is another who looks like they’ve just come out of court with a guilty verdict, with almost none of the races they’d been hoping to do. There are eight poor saps at Euskaltel who have to ride Paris-Roubaix every year, for example.

The format of my meetings has been similar at all the teams I’ve raced for. You report to a room at the hotel, greeted by all of the team’s directors and sometimes the general manager, then exchange a few niceties before being handed your race programme. While the head director talks, you frantically scan over the paper — a spreadsheet of all the races on the team’s schedule with your own races highlighted. Seconds later, a feeling of excitement or disappointment ensues, and you are then told which races they really want you to perform at.

Some teams are more open than others regarding negotiation, but sometimes it
is set in stone.

It doesn’t take long before the riders have found out everyone else’s programme, mainly because we have very little to do apart from gossip all day like mothers outside a school. Sometimes I’ve felt jealous when I’ve found out that a rider I feel is inferior to me has been selected for a race I want to do, and other times I’ve felt guilty, being selected for a race ahead of riders who were more deserving.

The problems begin when teams are top-heavy with specialists. In these cases, the majority — if not all — of these riders will have their names pencilled onto a ‘long list’, and will spend the run-up to their goals doing everything they can to convince the team that they warrant a start.

I have been in that situation myself. As a supporting rider, I spent the months between my meeting and the race doing everything I could to get into top condition and impress the management. My idea was always to let the legs do the talking and hope that management was informed of my hard work by the team leaders.

On the other hand, some riders prefer their mouths to do the talking, constantly reminding the directors how strong they feel (whether true or not), while looking up something in their book of excuses as to why that didn’t translate into a worthy performance on the road. More often than not, the directors could see straight through it, but it didn’t half annoy me when it worked.

During the run-up to my objective, I also secretly harboured hopes that my competition within the team would fall short of the mark, or even pick up injury or illness. One year, I caught a bad cold just two weeks before the event, thus spending a week doing everything I could to appear fit and healthy. This involved racing when it probably wasn’t a good idea to do so, and spending as little time as possible around the staff, hoping they wouldn’t notice my cough and constantly running nose.

The flip side of this coin is the situation where riders feign illness or injury in order to get out of a race that they don’t want to do, usually in the second half of the season when motivation is waning and the prospect of packing your bags for the umpteenth time seems far from enticing.

I’ve only used this tactic once, and it was quite effective, but I’ve seen a team-mate who used it a few too many times; tendonitis, a relative’s wedding and even a car breaking down on the way to the airport were all part of his repertoire of excuses. The team management became wise to the situation and his contract wasn’t renewed. Luckily for him, he’d already signed somewhere else.

On one occasion, my room-mate at a Grand Tour was told at short notice that he would be replacing a rider at another stage race, starting only a few days later. He didn’t want to go. He had a three-month-old baby at home and felt that a Grand Tour was enough time away, but he couldn’t wriggle out of it. A few days later, I noticed that he was a DNF on the first stage.

When I called him, he explained that he’d been just behind a crash in the first 50 kilometres. He could have avoided it completely, but instead took dramatically evasive action, careering off the road onto the grass. By the time the team car arrived, he was covered in mud and giving a potentially Oscar-winning act of concussion — it did the trick, as he went home directly that evening.

Setting riders’ schedules in the second half of the season is much easier. More than half of the peloton have completed their major objectives by the end of the Tour, leaving riders who have had injuries, or are still unsigned for the following year, or are preparing to race the Worlds, free to do what they want. A role reversal occurs around this point, as teams often struggle to field a full team of fit and healthy riders. The motivated riders won’t struggle to get the racing they want.

Transfer window of opportunity
These days, rider transfers and signings occur earlier in the season. While this might not seem to be relevant to the setting of race programmes, it certainly influences them. Although the official transfer window is not until August, top riders can be in advanced negotiations with other teams even before the Spring Classics are over, particularly if they are coming to the end of a contract.

This situation is particularly prevalent when large new teams such as Sky or GreenEdge come in. They don’t want to wait until the last minute to decide on an entirely new 25 to 30-man roster, and so go in search of their chosen talent as soon as they can.

In the relatively small community of cycling, it’s never long before the current team catches wind of the situation, and they can handle it in one of two ways. On one hand, the team may decide to race the rider into the ground, effectively getting their money’s worth out of him for the season. On the other, they may take the opposite approach, blocking the rider from doing their favoured races and leaving them to train at home. This prevents a rider from accumulating WorldTour points, which would then be taken to his new team the following year.

Don’t get me wrong — professional racers like racing, and most aren’t too fussy where they do it. But just remember that beyond the nine riders in the Tour team, there will be a handful who are devastated not to be there. And that at the Brixia Tour, some poor rider will be getting his backside kicked by the locals when he’d rather be anywhere but there.

This article first appeared in Cycle Sport May 2012

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