By: Stan Smith
Have you ever wondered what a Sports Director does for all of those hours driving behind the peloton of a bicycle race? Well, let me tell you, it is more than just handing out water bottles! Here is a glimpse of what it is like to be Director for a day.
Stage 3 start: The T-Mobile-mobile. Photo: Stan Smith / PezCycling News
Nice Work If You Can Get It
The Sport Director is a multifaceted position. The Director’s most valuable skill is being able to several things at once. This is also known as multi-tasking. The DS is constantly doing at least three things at any one time… driving, talking, following the map to name just a few. So it is a must that he’s alert.
The wagon is loaded with the day’s provisions, and we are ready to start the race. I call “shotgun” and ride up front with Brian. I was immediately assigned the task of navigator for the day. In the back riding clean-up was T-Mobile mechanic Stefan “Stefanovic” Ullrich, now in his sixth year as a mechanic with the squad. In case you were wondering… yes, Stefan is the brother of none other than Jan Ullrich,
Stage 3 start: Eric Baumann and Stefan Ullrich. Photo: Stan Smith / PezCycling News
Stage 3 start: Brian Holm. Director Sportif (T-Mobile). Photo: Stan Smith / PezCycling News
Stage 3: Andreas Blum – Team Doctor (T-Mobile). Stefan Ullrich – Mechanic (T-Mobile). Photo: Stan Smith / PezCycling News
And we’re off! First business of the day… “Where are we going?” I quickly locate our position of the race map taped onto the dash of the super slick Audi A4 T-Mobile team car. Never mind that the Audi was tricked out with built-in on board GPS navigation system and 2-way radio system to keep in touch with the riders and rest of the support crew. We are headed to a town called Odense. The route looks, well… like a route! It is a blue line on the map that starts in the town of Kolding and darts down along the coast before heading inland again towards Odense in the last quarter of the race.
Stage 3: Route card. Photo: Stan Smith / PezCycling News
I asked Brian when I’m not navigating for him who is usually doing the job. “Well, I usually do it myself, I have a little table that I set up in the seat where you’re sitting and I have all of my papers there. Stefan (the mechanic) helps me sometimes, but mostly he’s just eating and sleeping” he laughs.
My job was to point out all of the important points on the route card like narrow roads and bonus sprints etc. This was not such a heavy task, and my high school math skills finally became useful as I added and subtracted kilometers between these various points and relayed them to Brian. This was done to give the T-Mobile riders plenty of advanced warning, and also to help Brian strategize and fine tune or adapt the race plan as the race developed.
Stage 3 Start list: Brian Holm. Photo: Stan Smith / PezCycling News
Everyone in the peloton knows everybody else in the peloton, and there are a lot of “hellos” and “good mornings” and small chat from riders and other Director Sportifs at the T-Mobile car as the race and caravan move down the road at speed.
The first 25 km were upon us fairly quickly and the first technical of the day for T-Mobile came shortly after. Bernard Kohl had a puncture and needed a new wheel. As we were the second car in the following order of support vehicles for the day, we spotted our rider quickly and pulled up behind him. Stefan quickly hopped out armed with a rear wheel. Kohl was off again in the blink of an eye.
Stage 3: Bernard Kohl (T-Mobile) gets a push from mechanic Stefan Ullrich. Photo: Stan Smith / PezCycling News
We blast down the road to catch Kohl who has caught the draft of the Barloworld team car. Brian honks the horn, and Bernard drops back and moves to the left side of the car and picks up 3 “Flaschen” (or water bottles for all you Pez Anglophones out there).
Stage 3: Bernard Kohl (T-Mobile) chases back up to field after a wheel change. Photo: Stan Smith / PezCycling News
Stage 3: Bernard Kohl (T-Mobile) loaded down with fresh bottles. Alex Rasmussen (#151 Danish National Team) paces up to the peloton. Photo: Stan Smith / PezCycling News
The official language of the T-Mobile team is English but Brian speaks fluid German and accommodates the German riders by speaking German. He has no problems switching back and forth between Danish, German, English, and a bit of Flemmish. But on the radio everything is in English. Every now and then Flemmish comes over the radio from the other T-Mobile support vehicles (there were three T-Mobile vehicles total).
The Bottle Hand-Off
When giving bottles to the riders, the bottles are being handed to the driver from the mechanic sitting in back. When the last bottle is handed, the driver and the rider while talking, will stiffen arms and hang on to the bottles, the car throttles up to 60+ kph and the DS slings the rider forward (similar to the rider sling seen in track racing). The team car slows just inches away from the car in front of it. This is definitely a skill and requires some nerves.
Needless to say, driving skills are a must. How can I describe it? Following a professional bicycle race is like driving Formula 1, Dakar Rally, and NASCAR all at the same time! We darted in and out of the riders who were constantly dropping back for water bottles or other reasons, and dodged team cars, camera men on motorcycles, and obstacles continuously. Most of the Directors are former professional racers, so they know what the riders are thinking and can anticipate their next move. We were constantly changing position.
Open Shortest Path First!
After a wheel change, the entire caravan is in front of you, so it is balls to the wall to get up to the race again… passing riders all over the place. A call comes over the radio from a rider and that means getting to the front.. by any means necessary! But the preferred method however is OSPF… Open Shortest Path First! (you computer network nerds know what I’m talking about). Almost all of the team cars bear the marks of race battle in some form or another. We even managed to clip one of the Liquigas cars as we cut in to the caravan to take our position.
There is constant radio chatter as we cruise along behind the peloton. The race officials give all kinds of information about the race over the radio. This was done in English (with a very strong accent) and in French. We received information on things such as road conditions and coming obstacles, current breakaways, and winners of the sprint bonuses. We also received information on who had dropped back to the support vehicles for water and materials.
They tell who is having mechanical problems and who is off to the side of the road with a puncture and where they are located on the road. The support vehicles also get information on those who stop for medical attention at the official Medical Staff vehicle which is always at the front of the support vehicles and just behind the lead Race Official. The Official is then always the first car behind the peloton. The support vehicles must never pass this lead vehicle!
Stage 3: View from the team car just behind the Lead Official (black Opel). Photo: Stan Smith / PezCycling News
At the 50 km mark, we receive another visitor. It’s Bas Giling (T-Mobile), who has dropped back to the team car. He’s smiling. I think to myself “maybe the race is not hard enough for him?” We have been “Haulin’ A” – if you know what I mean – up until that point. He picks up 3 “Flaschen” (or water bottles for all you Pez Anglophones out there), and asks if there is a race plan. Brian responds “we will stay with CSC, but pay attention, the road coming up is a bit tricky”.
After about 60 kms of racing, the peloton takes a break and slows, we are the first team car behind the peloton and Lars Bak (Team CSC) drops back for a quick chit-chat with Brian. He comments on all of the attacks so early in the race, and helps us with our radio antennae that has somehow fallen over and is pointing dangerously off to the driver’s side of the car. He straightens it and tightens the lug nut to keep it up-right, as Brian pushes him along with one hand while steering with the other. After he’s done, Brian thanks him and tells him that he has just earned himself an official T-Mobile cycling cap as he gives him a brisk push back up to back of the peloton. Bak laughs as he disappears into the peloton again.
Stage 3: A view from the team car. Photo: Stan Smith / PezCycling News
So when did we eat and pee you ask. We ate the same lunch that the riders received in the feed zone. On the menu was a very nice ham sandwich with veggies on a seasoned garlic roll. A Powerbar, banana, and “Atlanta water” aka Coca Cola.
Sometimes the peloton agrees to take an unofficial pee break. The Team vehicles do the same – with all pulling over to the side of the road at the same point and time. You have to pee fast though, even when nature calls, the race doesn’t stop. So its hammer down to get back up to the race.
Paul Watson Rings
A mobile phone rings. Brian opens up the middle dash that also doubles as and arm rest and pencil case. “This is Brian” “heyyyyyyy Paul. I’m in the middle of a bicycle race, I’ll call you later.” It’s former English pro Paul Watson calling from England. He was in town a few weeks ago, and said that he really liked the PEZ Story.
Barloworld’s Danish Director Sportif Christian Andersen drives up along side and asks to “borrow” two Coca Colas. He promises to repay them in the form of two beers at the hotel that evening!
Some moments later CSC pulls along side and there is some chit-chat in Danish.
All of a sudden Cadel Evans is riding just beside us and Brian loudly gives some false T-Mobile race plans to Scottie Davis over the radio. Cadel looks over and smiles. Brian says “we are going to attack so you’d better get to front if you don’t want to miss the break!”
There was a little comedy at kilometer 135. At the start of the day, I was introduced by Brian to a few of the riders as Wesley Snipes of “Passenger 57” fame. So the first time Scott Davis drops back to the car for bottles, he leans in “ hey Brian, hey Wesley” as he stuffs 4 water bottles and two colas in his jersey. He comments that the speed has been high and asks “what‘s the plan?”
Brian – “ it gets windy a bit later, we will ride from that point. Stay close to the front.
Scott – “okay” before shooting back up to the peloton to distribute his stash.
Approaching the 55km to go mark, the road is narrow and difficult to pass. Over the radio we are suddenly bombarded “crash. crash” as the caravan comes to a stop. We are just behind it. Over the radio we hear “riders down” “number 123, 38, 102, 56, 95, 98, number this, number that”. 25 – 30 riders go down. But no T-Mobile riders are involved. In the meantime we are stuck in a traffic jam as team cars and mechanics rush to the scene waving wheels and bicycles. The Race Doctor also on the scene. But I can’t see what is going on. Horns are honking constantly.
Suddenly, the bottleneck begins to open. As we come past ground zero, a rider is still on the ground. Another is up, blood streaming down his right arm and leg. Yet others straightened their machines and begin the long chase back up to the peloton. The downed rider is Aitor Alonso (Panaria). He looks to be hurt pretty badly. The riders have hit a full gravel pit that covered two thirds of the roadway at 40+ kph. It’s a construction site.
The peloton has now been split into three sizable groups, with many stragglers. They are chasing hard. The road opens up again and we make our way. We get the news on the radio that most of the riders have rejoined the peloton.
A few meters up the road we get stuck again behind a Designer Kшkken vehicle who is doing a wheel change. A few team vehicles and riders come past, coast is clear..not.. we hear a scream.. “Heyyyyyy” and some muffled Italian curse words as the ghostly rider swerves past us and accelerates. It’s Liguigas’s Manuel Quinziato who almost gets taken out by Auto Union’s finest. We catch up to the lone rider, now in chase mode trying to get back up to the peloton. We slow along side him. Brian rolls the window down further and musters up his best Itlaian.. “Escusa.” Quinziato says something in Italian and rolls past. Brian comments “ you don’t make friends in the peloton that way”.
With 45 km of racing left on the day, we pull over to side of the road and reload with water bottles and colas from the second T-Mobile team car. We get news over the radio on the condition of Alonso. He has a broken bone in his hand and is struggling but has made it up to the peloton again. He is thinking of retiring from the race.
Brian says “tell me when we get to Sшby (a town on the route)” It takes me a moment to locate it on the map. I tell him that it is around kilometer 184 and that here will be 20km to the finish.
Brian – “Okay. It is usually windy there, but it is a bit difficult to tell if it will be today.”
Unibet comes to the front and begins to pull hard. They are joined by CSC. T-Mobile gets the order to also help at the front. Pollack and Baumann are ordered to take it easy.
Brian tells over the radio that “this is the last chance for drinks” But the radio is silent… there is no time for drinking…
The speed has increased and we make a hard right hand turn and almost hit the center divider, as the Audi wheels screech trying to hang onto the pavement. We are now entering the finishing 4km circuit in Odense. With the increased speed, we see the first casualties of day including Fast Freddy Rodriguez (Davitamin Lotto) among others.
On the finishing circuit there are lots of turns and it feels like a roller coaster ride. We hear the bell which signals the last lap. The speed of the peloton is incredibly high. Frank Hшj (Gerolsteiner) attacks with 2 kilometers to go. A kilometer before the finish, the caravan gets waved off to a side street that takes us around the course to the vehicle staging area. (this is probably the worst thing about being in the team car – you never get to see the finish).
The T-Mobile bus and staff were already there. We park along side and there are hundreds of people crowded around the car. I feel like a rock star. Immediately, people surrounded Brian (who is very popular in Denmark) taking pictures and asking for autographs. I walk over to Brian and we shake hands on a job well done and I run down to the finish to get more great Pez photos of the day’s podium placings. ·
Dieter “the Owl” Ruthenberg, or just Eule – Jack-of-all-trades (T-Mobile). He’s been doing this for more than 30 years.. almost half of em’ with the Telekom/T-Mobile squad. Photo: Stan Smith / PezCycling News
I’ve followed bicycle racing for 20 years now, and I’ve ridden in Team cars before in my old amateur days in Holland and Belgium, and even once wayyyy behind the other Team cars in a pro circuit race in the US, but never for an entire stage. What an experience.
Stage 3 finish: A tired Stan Smith (Pez), Brian Holm (T-Mobile), and an unknown supporter. Photo: Stan Smith / PezCycling News