Sleepovers, Romain Bardet drinking 8% IPAs and parking problems: the life of a sports director at four consecutive Grand Tours

For every six weeks of the year so far, DSM's sports director Matt Winston has spent only one at home

Matt Winston
(Image credit: Patrick Brunt | Keep Challenging | Team DSM)

On the face of it, the life of a sports director is a pretty cushty one.

It's stressful and long hours, of course, but it's also an all expenses paid-for trip around Europe and sometimes further away, driving cars up and down mountains and through tiny villages, managing a team as you try to win bike races and develop new talents.

There is another side to it, though, a side that involves very few nights in your own home, and sometimes even having to forgo your bed in a hotel during a race, as happened to DSM's Matt Winston at the Tour de France

"One night we had a rider who was a little bit ill so we split him up, away from the rest of the group," says Winston, who has been a DS with the Dutch team since 2019.

"We had no more rooms and the hotel was fully booked so I said that the rider could go in my room. We had three coaches at the Tour - myself, Phil West and Pim Ligthart - and we were rotating who was sharing rooms. Because I gave up my room, I slept on the mattress in the floor in the same room as the other two coaches.

"It was literally like a sleepover, one night in the middle of the Tour, three of us having a laugh, all having a beer in bed, talking away until 1am, talking s**t. I think we were the only WorldTour team to do that! But we had a really good laugh and it's stuff like that you remember, the fun parts and trying to have a bit of fun. It's serious most of the day but when we get those moments it's nice to enjoy it."

Winston is currently directing at the Vuelta a España, his fourth consecutive Grand Tour, and has spent four weeks at home in the last four months, offering him very little time to enjoy watching his beloved Lancashire Cricket Club. In between January and the Giro, however, he was at home for even less time - just two weeks.

All that time on the road means that it's little wonder that from time to time Winston needs to unwind, like he does at the end of every Grand Tour. "On the last stage of the Giro we had a cool box full of Italian beer and I tweeted about it," he says. "I have a friend who runs a beer company and he said I needed to fix it and have better beer. His beers cost about £6 a can so I said I'd keep him to it.

"[Because of Brexit red-tape] three of them came out to the Champs-Élysées so they could come with the legal customs allowance. I think they flew with 60 beers, maybe even more, and we had a nice evening on the Champs-Élysées. Romain [Bardet, who finished sixth overall] drank two 8% IPAs so that was something to watch! I think he quite enjoyed them!"

The reason for Winston directing at four successive three-weeks races is that he leads the team's general classification project of trying to keep Bardet in contention for podiums and developing younger riders, including Thymen Arensman at the Vuelta.

Bardet had a strong Tour, but that came off the back of disappointment in the Giro when illness forced his abandonment on stage 13. "That was a really s**t moment," Winston confesses. "I think he would have been in contention, for sure."

Matt Winston

(Image credit: Patrick Brunt | Keep Challenging | Team DSM)

Every stage of a race is different to the one before it, and Winston has learned that every Grand Tour is unlike any other. "At the Tour, everyone is stressed all day - it's full intensity even if you're not going for the GC; everyone is on edge all the time," he explains.

"The Giro is a midway point and then the Vuelta is definitely more relaxed. All three Grand Tours are totally different and totally different to work on."

They do all share one similarity though: hotel troubles. "What I've learned is that what I consider a good hotel on a race is very different to what I would consider good on a holiday," he says.

"When you can park all your vehicles that's nice. When we came to Spain [after the start in the Netherlands], we stayed in a truck stop for three nights which was actually great.

"Ok, the room was basic, but the bed was no problem. But what was great was that there was loads of parking so everyone was happy. You go to a four star hotel and there's no parking and the police are there telling you every two minutes you have to move the vehicles. The riders don't deal with any of this as they sleep on their own mattresses and have their own chef so they don't care, but for us staff parking is a big thing."

Winston was never a rider himself, but has been a coach since he was 19, working at British Cycling and then One Pro Cycling before DSM came calling. "I'm still not old at 35 but I'm always learning about different situations," he says. "We have a changing and evolving world with Covid, but we've also had a really hot summer and a lot of racing is 35-plus degrees temperatures so how do we properly use ice socks? 

"Each day becomes about making sure we have staff at every point, and every day is different. There's always something."

Yet though Winston is eyeing up a post-season break and admits to having days "where you just feel a little fatigued", working on back-to-back-to-back-to-back Grand Tours is a privilege that he enjoys, rather than a chore to endure.

He concludes: "When I discussed with the team last year about doing three Grand Tours, we said it was a lot but that we could do it. It was then a case of going for it and taking it on.

"I wouldn't do it if I didn't enjoy it. When I stop enjoying it and stop having the motivation to do it, I'll stop, do something else and change. But for now it's good."

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