Professional sport is usually seen as a ruthless endeavour, with no room for compassion or empathy. It sometimes is: less than 15km into stage four of the Tour of Britain, Red Walters was left behind by his Ribble Weldtite team car, who were now concentrating on their two riders left in the peloton — a harsh but easy choice. Walters later abandoned the race.
However, it is not always so hard-nosed. After the day's decisive action had taken place, and a large number of riders had formed the grupetto, there was room for understanding. When Calum Johnston (Caja Rural Seguros) punctured, with his team car not in sight, presumably up the road, Ribble helped him out, providing him with a replacement wheel.
These are two sides of cycling, one showing the brutal reality of what happens when a top level rider cannot keep up with the peloton, while the other shows the help that happens, almost automatically, between people of different teams when it's needed. There was no need for Ribble's directeur sportif, Colin Sturgess, to give Johnston a wheel, but if he hadn't, another rider would have been out of the race because of misfortune.
One rarely sees a race from behind, 22 minutes behind the day's eventual winner Gonzalo Serrano (Movistar), in the end. Television pictures are almost exclusively concentrated on the business end of proceedings, understandably, while the riders out the back are left to cling onto the race almost invisibly.
Not that they aren't riding hard. Just because a sprinter can't hack it with the lighter riders at the front of the race, does not mean they are not trying hard. The 24 riders in the grupetto still managed an average speed of about 38km/h, only slightly less than the 40.656km.h averaged by Serrano, over 149.5km with 2,223 metres of climbing.
Ribble started the day at the back of the race, with its four extant riders at the bottom of the team's classification. This means lining up at the very end of the convoy and riders forced to wait the longest should they need servicing — this is the prize for their lack of performance so far in the Tour of Britain.
Being right at the back of the race is fascinating, seeing the spectators confused as to whether they should still be applauding or filming — who is going to watch your Granny's badly shot video of the whole cavalcade of vehicles flying through Whitby? — and it gives an insight into the chaos of a race.
There are cars everywhere. This might not sound too surprising, but it is a bike race remember, and with every team having at least one car, plus the emergency services, invited guests, commissaires and other assorted vehicles, it's a bit of a pile up. The climbs are particularly painful as the last car in the convoy with the clutch taking more than a bit of a pounding.
This pile up does cause problems. A moment of inattention while chatting to a commissaire led to the Ribble car bumping into one of Saint Piran's team cars. As this happened at low speed on an innocuous stretch of road, no one was harmed, but it added to the tension.
This rather summed up Ribble's morning, with Walters and Charlie Tanfield abandoning. Stage four had been billed as the home stage for Tanfield, along with his brother Harry, but with Harry forced out of the race due to injury on stage three, and then Charlie leaving the race early on, it did not materialise.
The remainder of the day was largely calm, however, with the two remaining Ribble riders, Ross Lamb and Zeb Kyffin, attempting to get up the road but being forced off the back instead. With the pair in the grupetto, it largely became a case of servicing them and making sure they stayed in the race.
The snatches of conversation Lamb and Kyffin got with Sturgess while grabbing bottles were the only chances for the team to take stock, to have a breather, to update the riders on the state of the clutch (not good). These were little vignettes of what it is to be a professional cyclist, something most will never see.
The unique perspective gained from sitting in a team car, one away from the action, gave me other opportunities to see things that would not usually be seen as someone at a bike race, or someone watching on television.
Stage four went through the North York Moors, a stunning, truly wild part of Britain that demands to be seen, and the views of Whitby Abbey alone made the whole day worth it. The Moors are so wild that on three separate occasions the roadbook warned of sheep roaming, something that almost brought down multiple riders on separate occasions. How the Human Powered Health car missed a sheep at one point, I do not know. The warning over race radio "sheep on the road in a kilometre" is something surely special to the Tour of Britain.
It gave me insight into how hard it can be to stay in a race, pushed hard from the gun, but also how seemingly calm it can be once you have accepted your fate with a day in the grupetto. There is a race within a race — one is to be good enough to finish, they other is to compete for the win.
It also made me appreciate just how hard the job of a directeur sportif is. Not only do they have to drive the car, in itself a difficult task in the chaos of the race convoy, but they have to coach their riders in the race, give warnings of upcoming hazards and feed their athletes should they need it. Maybe driverless cars will help this, but I doubt it.
There is so much going on in the team car it feels almost as tiring as the undulating 150km on a bike. With less calories burned, obviously.
Ultimately, though, I'll take away that moment of kindness, that didn't need to be done, just to save someone from losing out due to misfortune. Empathy has a place in cycling.
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