Classic Race: The 1990 Tour de France

Thursday, 9 February 2017

This article first appeared in Cycle Sport magazine in 2010.

No one was expecting a repeat of the one-off drama of the previous year, when the Tour de France was decided in the final metres on the Champs-Elysèes.

But the 1990 Tour was just as gripping, albeit in a completely different way. Instead of a final-day showdown between two riders in the time trial, there was a three-week pursuit around France. It was all because the riders wanted to save their legs on the first Sunday. With a team time trial to come in the afternoon, four riders gained 10 minutes during the morning’s road stage.

The Tour began at Futuroscope, a futuristic theme park in the middle of the countryside near Poitiers, intended to showcase the best of French technology and innovation. This being a late-1980s vision of the future, it had a surreal feel that wasn’t eased by the fact it was stuck out in the middle of nowhere. It was the sort of place that probably looked a lot better during the design phase but the finished park ended up as a vision of the future restricted by the realities of the present. It was like Disneyland without the cartoon characters.

Futuroscope had hosted a time trial stage in the 1987 Tour de France, shortly after the park opened. Now the owners had paid £500,000 to stage the opening weekend. ‘It was like something from space,’ says Frans Maassen, the Dutch rider with the Buckler team. ‘It was strange and there were bits of it that were still like a building site but the opening weekend of the Tour is special wherever they hold it. We could have been on the moon but it’s still the Tour.’

Before the race, the French newspaper L’Equipe was anticipating another showdown between Greg LeMond and Laurent Fignon, the two men separated by just eight seconds in Paris the year before. LeMond, although the reigning world champion, had not won a race since taking the rainbow jersey in Chambery the previous August, while Fignon was horribly out of form. Before the race the two adversaries had been sniping at one another. Fignon said: ‘Whether his team is weak like last year or strong like four years ago, Greg’s tactics don’t change. He always bases his race on following the most dangerous rider on general classification, never attacks and saves himself for the time trials.’ LeMond countered. ‘Fignon has ridden three bad Tours recently. If I’d been second last year I’d have said nothing but since then they’ve done nothing but criticise me.’ The other two firm favourites for the race were Pedro Delgado, the 1988 champion and Erik Breukink of Holland, although the long list also included Andy Hampsten, Stephen Roche, Fabio Parra, Raul Alcala, Steven Rooks and Charly Mottet.

Thierry Marie, the French rider and a team-mate of Fignon’s on the Castorama squad, won the prologue. There’s always a sense of relief to finally get started after all the build-up and, with the time trial out of the way, the favourites just wanted to settle down and negotiate the dangers of a flat, potentially windy opening week before the first serious battle came in the time trial at Epinal. As it turned out, the race was to take an unusual twist perfectly in keeping with the alien surroundings.

On the first Sunday there were two stages, as was common at the time. In the morning was a 138-kilometre loop through the open, exposed countryside, followed by a 45-kilometre team time trial in the afternoon. Most of the riders disliked the split stages because there was very little time to recover and eat before having to ride what was always a hard, specialist discipline. For Steve Bauer, this presented an opportunity.

‘When you have a team time trial in the afternoon, you don’t have the same commitment from the teams in the morning,’ said the Canadian, who rode for 7-Eleven. ‘Everyone knows that if you have a bad team time trial you can lose a couple of minutes, so no one really wants to go into it feeling tired already. My tactic was simple: to attack and hope that there wasn’t the stomach for a big chase. I did exactly the same thing in 1988 when I attacked in the morning stage, before the team time trial, won and got the yellow jersey. So I wanted to use it to my advantage again. I told myself that from the gun I had to be in every break because one of them is going to stick. You don’t want to miss the one that eventually goes.’

Claudio Chiappucci, a 27-year-old Italian rider with the Carrera team, was virtually unknown outside his home country but, after a solid Giro d’Italia, he had his eyes on an early spell in the king of the mountains jersey. ‘The beautiful thing was we planned the escape,’ he says. ‘When we arrived in France we examined the [route] book and I saw there was a chance to get away, win the points for the king of mountains and get on the podium on the first day.’

As soon as the flag dropped at the end of the neutralised zone, the attacks started. Even with the team time trial looming, everyone was eager and fresh. Bauer had positioned himself right at the front on the start line so he could see everything happening in front of him. There’s a touch of alchemy in the way a successful break forms. It takes boldness and persistence and a stroke of luck to be in the right place at the right time. But not until the combination of riders is perfect will the break turn to gold.

Chiappucci and Bauer were joined by Maassen, and Frenchman Ronan Pensec, a team-mate of LeMond’s in the Z squad. Immediately they worked together. The gap was small to start with, just 30 seconds or so, and it stayed like that for 20 or 30 kilometres. The bunch could see the riders up ahead but couldn’t bring them back.

Maassen rode for Buckler, run by Jan Raas, the great dictator. ‘We did the Tour of Sweden just before the Tour,’ says Maassen. “We won four stages but we made a silly tactical mistake and lost the race overall to an amateur rider [Dimitri Zhadnov of Russia]. Raas was very angry about that. He was often angry about things. Sweden was not a really important race for us so maybe he was angry about it to motivate us for the Tour. In any case, before the race he kept saying how important it was for us to have a good start. We had a new sponsor [Buckler, a brewer of non-alcholic beer] and Raas wanted to impress them.’

The chase was disorganised and the gap was just big enough to discourage anyone from trying to bridge across alone or in a small group, the effect of which would have been to drag the whole peloton up. In the escape group, no one dared look back for fear of seeing the bunch upon them. It became a case of willpower. Could the escapees keep the pace up until the bunch got bored and sat up? ‘We were drilling it but we knew in our minds we couldn’t keep that pace up for ever,’ says Bauer. ‘I guess it became a case of who was going to break first? Us, or the peloton? We didn’t want to give up but it was getting to the point where we were pushing very hard and getting nowhere. I don’t know what was happening behind but eventually they stopped chasing and suddenly, boom, we had five, six, seven minutes.’

Back in the bunch, no one wanted to work for fear of compromising their team time trial effort. LeMond’s Z team had the perfect excuse – they had Pensec in the lead. Castorama, who were supposed to be defending Marie’s yellow jersey, had their minds on the afternoon stage. Panasonic, run by Peter Post, who was Raas’ nemesis, hated the fact a Buckler rider was up the road. But they, too, were saving themselves. That left PDM, who had Breukink and Raul Alcala as their leaders. They took on the bulk of the work but only once the gap had reached 15 minutes, by which time it was damage-limitation time.

‘I was really worried Panasonic would chase,’ says Maassen. ‘I was sure they wouldn’t let me get away because we always had big bells [ding-dong battles] with them. In those days it was always Post against Raas. It cost me a lot of races. I heard from some guys afterwards that Post was very angry with them that I had been allowed to get away.’

Chiappucci achieved his goal, winning both of the climbs to take the lead in the king of the mountains competition. Bauer knew he had ridden the best prologue time trial of the four. However, Maassen won the time bonus at the first intermediate sprint and Bauer knew that if the Dutchman won the stage, he’d also take the yellow jersey. ‘I made sure I won the last bonus sprint because then I just had to finish in the same time as Maassen and I’d get the jersey,’ he says. ‘My main goal was to get the yellow jersey but once I’d made pretty sure of it I did start to think about the stage as well.’

On the run-in, Pensec stopped working. Even for Z the lead had grown a little uncomfortable. By now Maassen felt the pressure to win. ‘I was very worried about Bauer,’ he says. ‘Chiappucci I knew nothing about. I hadn’t heard of him but I thought “well, he’s Italian, he’s a little guy, I think I’m going to be faster”.’

‘Frans and I had a little cahoose together,’ says Bauer. ‘I felt he was the strongest. I didn’t think Pensec was going to try to pull a sprint after he’d sat on the back for the last bit. I said to Frans that if he attacked I wouldn’t chase him.’ Bauer hoped that Maassen would attack first, forcing Chiappucci to close the gap and giving him the chance to spring past. It didn’t quite work out. Instead Maassen waited, forcing Bauer to lead it out, and then the Dutchman came past to win the stage.

The bunch came in 10 minutes and 35 seconds later. It was a huge gap and however much the likes of LeMond tried to play it down, it was to shape the entire race.

‘People these days wonder why we were so stupid to let a four-man break with Chiappucci and the rest go up the road,’ say Delgado. ‘But, frankly, things like that happened all the time in the Tour in those days. It wasn’t so finely calculated as it is now. Also, in 1990, there wasn’t a clear ‘patron’ and each team played its own game. We all sat around, as it were, waiting for somebody else to start doing the hard work. And nobody did.’

Bauer, who had finished fourth overall in 1988, was suddenly being talked of as a contender for the Tour. He certainly wasn’t the sort of rider you could allow such a head start to. Pensec was also a danger, having been seventh in 1988 and was a reasonable climber. Maassen was not a danger. He would be the first to slip backwards because he couldn’t climb or time trial well enough. But no one paid much heed to Chiappucci. Just a small name. An Italian rider on a Carrera team that had seen better days.

No one suspected it would take the best part of three weeks to reel him in.

As he tried to grab some lunch and freshen up for the afternoon’s time trial, Bauer was concerned that the tiny, two-second advantage he held over Maassen would not be enough. On paper, Buckler should have been faster than Bauer’s 7-Eleven that afternoon. Like the other Dutch teams, Panasonic and PDM, they had made team time trialling a speciality. ‘I was convinced I would take the yellow jersey in the afternoon,’ says Maassen. ‘The gap was only two seconds. I knew 7-Eleven were strong but I thought we were stronger.’

Powered by Sean Yates, 7-Eleven finished sixth, eight seconds in front of Buckler. ‘Sean could go toe-to-toe with anyone in the world in the team time trial,’ says Bauer. ‘I certainly didn’t have the full sharpness after the morning stage but I am not one to skip turns. The inspiration of riding in the yellow jersey and knowing you have to go very fast otherwise someone is going to take it from you meant we gave it everything we had.’

Maassen was devastated. ‘Peter Winnen had been hit by a car in training before the Tour and was still a little sore. He was not so good and we were waiting for him a little bit. I was tired but I wasn’t the worst in the team. Maybe that was the problem.

‘That evening I didn’t celebrate at all. No Champagne, nothing. Yes, it was special to be in the break and win the stage but at the time I was so upset not to get the yellow jersey. You know the chance to wear it maybe comes only once in your career. That was my chance.’ Maassen never did wear the yellow jersey. To make matters worse, Panasonic won the team time trial. You could say the match ended one-one between Panasonic and Buckler but for Raas it felt felt like they’d led for 90 minutes before conceding a last-minute equaliser.

The first week was long and difficult. Fignon crashed on the stage to Nantes, prompting Robert Millar to say: ‘He’s going badly. He’s always at the back when it gets hard. First possible excuse he gets, he’ll pack.’ There were crashes on the run-in to the stage that finished on the spectacular rocky island of Mont-Saint-Michel, off the coast of Normandy and then the riders braced themselves for a 301-kilometre stage from Avranches to Rouen. In the rain. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back for Fignon. He went home.

At Epinal, LeMond had did not do as well as expected. Alcala, the Mexican, won the 61-kilometre time trial by almost a minute-and-a-half from Miguel Indurain. It was an immense performance and had people touting him as the man to beat. LeMond was only fifth, only 15 seconds quicker than his team-mate Pensec. ‘I was surprised how well Pensec did,’ says Bauer, who retained the yellow jersey by just 17 seconds. ‘He did a brilliant ride. After I’d finished I was a bit disappointed. I was a bit too conservative that day. I wasn’t really super, certainly not as good as I was in 1988, but I felt I could have squeezed a bit more out of myself.’

Alcala may have been more than seven minutes behind Bauer, but he was now 2-50 ahead of LeMond. However, suddenly being in such a strong position may have been his downfall. Alcala liked to be the underdog, suddenly his position as the outright favourite began to weigh heavily on him.

As the race reached the Alps, Bauer faded. ‘Maybe the mountains were too tall for me that year,’ he says. ‘Holding the jersey for so long definitely took some snap out of me for the mountains. I wasn’t following the best guys. I’m not like a top, top climber. I could hold my own when I was absolutely super but I wasn’t quite there.’ At Mont Blanc, Bauer was dropped and saw the lead pass to Pensec. ‘I found it most interesting, that shift of attention when you’ve lost the jersey, it’s quite dramatic,’ he says. ‘People always ask what wearing the yellow jersey is like and it’s incredible but I don’t think you realise until you lose it what it means. It’s an icon and people are drawn to it. When you have it, you have no time to yourself. Everyone wants a photo or an interview but the morning after you’ve lost it you can cruise around the start village and no one gives a shit. It’s nice that you can go for a piss before the start without people bothering you. I remember really reflecting on that difference very vividly.’

Pensec took the yellow jersey on his 27th birthday but was under no illusions that he was now the Z team’s best chance of winning the Tour, despite what the French press said. ‘It was a thrill but I also knew my place. I knew I could never win and that Greg was always the team leader,’ he says. However, for a couple of days, the Z team had split responsibilities. Most of the team remained assigned to LeMond, but Robert Millar looked after Pensec, pacing him on Alpe d’Huez to defend the jersey. ‘He worked especially hard for me that day, encouraging me, and I hope he knows how much that means to me.’

As those who knew him suspected he might, Alcala blew up spectacularly on the stage to Alpe d’Huez. A dangerous move went clear on the Col du Glandon. LeMond, Delgado, Miguel Indurain and Gianni Bugno broke away and PDM missed it. They gave chase on the descent and then Sean Kelly put in a huge stint to drag Alcala and Breukink to within striking distance of the leaders. Whereas Breukink remained calm, Alcala was all fidgety and nervous, worrying that his chance to win the Tour was slipping away. When it came to the lower slopes of the Alpe, Alcala was spent and he lost more than five minutes. ‘In a way it helped me that we were behind,’ says Breukink. ‘I knew the leaders were not too far ahead and I didn’t panic. It meant I could ride the climb at my own rhythm. I was passing people all the way and that gives you a lot more confidence.’

When Breukink won the mountain time trial to Villard-de-Lans the following day, he became the favourite. ‘The climb was good for me, not too steep, and I knew I was climbing well. When I won, I thought I could win the Tour, especially when I saw that I’d beaten LeMond by a minute.’

The ride of the day was by Chiappucci, who finished just nine seconds behind LeMond and took the yellow jersey. Time was running out for Breukink and LeMond to close the seven-minute gap.

No one could guarantee Chiappucci would crack. While it was true he was an unknown quantity, he had shown in the Alps that he could limit his losses effectively. There as just one summit finish remaining, at Luz-Ardiden in the Pyrenees, and the final time trial at Lac-de-Vassivière, on a very demanding course that LeMond knew well, having won there in 1985.

Even if LeMond and Breukink could be confident of taking three minutes in the time trial – and that was far from a certainty – it still left a lot of time to make up, and few opportunities to do it.

After the rest day came the 13th stage, from Villard-de-Lans to Saint-Etienne. It was not long, just 149 kilometres, and it featured just a second-category climb, the Col de la Croix de Chaubouret, but LeMond and his team-mates decided to pile pressure on Chiappucci and hope to catch him cold.

‘The stage is one I feel goes unnoticed when people write about the 1990 Tour,’ says Pensec, who was now second overall. ‘I attacked straight away and got a breakaway going which meant that Chiappucci’s team had to chase the whole time.’

It wasn’t until the foot of the Col de la Croix de Chaubouret that Pensec’s group was caught. Chiappucci’s team were tired and the Italian was left exposed. He’d been worked over good and proper. ‘I lacked experience and friends in the peloton,’ he says. LeMond attacked, Breukink and a few others followed and they quickly gained time. For long spells Chiappucci was all by himself. At the finish Eduardo Chozas of Spain won the stage but Breukink and LeMond were more interested in the time gap. By the time Chiappucci arrived in a group of a dozen or so riders, almost five minutes had elapsed.

‘That was a super fast stage,’ says Breukink. ‘I knew I had to be aware because LeMond’s team were attacking from the start, including LeMond himself. People say LeMond was a defensive rider, that he didn’t attack but he was very intelligent. He was strong but he didn’t waste it. Instead he waited for the moment. The stages around St Etienne are always hard, especially when it’s hot like that, but if you want to defend something you can follow. Chiappucci would have been expecting an attack in the Pyrenees but we had to try to get some time when he wasn’t expecting it.’

Delgado says: ‘LeMond was a great strategist. He just waited and waited for his moment throughout the entire Tour and then pounced. His rivals were far less experienced than him, or plain unlucky, like I was. Bugno and Indurain were on the point of breaking into the big-time but hadn’t quite made it. Breukink couldn’t handle the heat. At the same time, LeMond had all the luck in the world. If it hadn’t been for that stage to St Etienne, I’m still convinced Chiappucci would have won the Tour. It was a good attack but I sat there, waiting for Chiappucci to go for it. And he didn’t react. I couldn’t understand it. That was the beginning of the end – he missed a move he shouldn’t have.’

Although severely compromised, Chiappucci refused to lie down. The crucial stage was going to be a Pyrenean monster, 215 kilometres from Blagnac to Luz-Ardiden, crossing the Aspin and the Tourmalet. With just two minutes’ lead, he was now vulnerable. More or less everyone now accepted that the Tour was either LeMond’s or Breukink’s. It would be close but there was no way Chiappucci would defend that lead in the time trial.

So Chiappucci decided to attack on the Col d’Aspin, breaking clear with a group and turning the spotlight on LeMond instead. It was insouciant riding and the French fans loved him for it.

Breukink suffered a disastrous day. He punctured before the Aspin got going and had to change his bike twice. Because of the aggressive racing up ahead, he struggled to get back in touch and five kilometres from the top of the Tourmalet, he blew.

By now Chiappucci was becoming more than a minor irritation to LeMond but was an outright menace. Although the gap was never more than a minute-and-a-half, it was seriously harming LeMond’s chances. It wasn’t until the town of Luz-St-Sauveur, at the foot of Luz-Ardiden, that LeMond’s group caught Chiappucci’s. On the climb, Fabio Parra attacked, LeMond and Indurain went clear and the American seemed, at long last, deep into the final week, to be on his way to the yellow jersey.

However, Chiappucci was dogged and clung on to the lead by his fingertips. It had taken 15 stages for LeMond to recover ten-and-a-half-minutes. He now had five days to get the final five seconds.

Breukink was now out of it. ‘On Luz-Ardiden I felt a bit better but by then it was too late. The problem was they were racing full gas when I was trying to get back. To me, that was the day I lost the Tour de France.’

Delgado too, was no longer a factor. Towards the end of the second week he began to suffer with an upset stomach, restricting what he could do in the Pyrenees. At Millau, he attacked towards the finish but admits: ‘I attacked more so I could get to the finish line as quickly as possible than because I was trying to drop my rivals. At the end of the stage, one of Spain’s top journalists kept asking me for a few quotes and I kept yelling at him that it wasn’t possible. When I rushed off into a field next to the finish and started doing what I had to do, I think he finally realised why.’

LeMond was now on course for his third Tour de France title but it was Chiappucci who had prolonged the suspense. Even with his lead hack away to almost nothing, he was still upbeat. Max Sciandri, his team-mate, was riding his first Tour. ‘Every night we were having Champagne and people said “Hey, it’s not always like this, you know”. For me, it was strange. I was just trying to survive the Tour and although I tried to help him where I could, there was a limit to what I could do. People loved him in France that year. They love it when the yellow jersey attacks. He was a very optimistic guy. Although they were really taking it one day at a time, and he probably knew he wasn’t going to win, he wasn’t going to give up.’

Chiappucci was not universally popular in the peloton later in his career. During the final stage in the Pyrenees, he angered LeMond with a piece of riding that was a violation of the unwritten rules.

Even though it wasn’t strictly necessary, with the time trial still to come, LeMond wanted to gain some more time and take the yellow jersey if he possibly could. The 17th stage from Lourdes to Pau went over the Aubisque and the Marie-Blanque but there was a long descent and flat run-in to the finish. The plan was to put a couple of Z riders – Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle and Atle Kvalsvoll – in the early break, then for LeMond to attack Chiappucci on the climb, make contact with his team-mates and pull out some more time on the flat.

As they reached the Marie-Blanque, Duclos-Lassalle and Kvalsvoll were in a group that was more than seven minutes ahead. They were over the top and on the way down the other side when LeMond punctured on the climb. At that moment, Chiappucci, together with several Carrera team-mates, accelerated.

LeMond had just two men with him – Eric Boyer and Jerome Simon – so Roger Legeay, the Z manager in the team car behind LeMond radioed ahead to Serge Beucherie, who was following the lead group and told him to get Duclos-Lassalle and Kvalsvoll to stop and wait.

‘At first we turned round and started to ride back up the course, but they stopped us from doing that because it was against the rules,’ says the Norwegian Kvalsvoll. ‘So we had to wait, for seven minutes. We saw Chiappucci’s group come past and then a minute-and-a-half later Greg was approaching. There were five of us chasing and we all worked, including Greg. It wasn’t just Chiappucci. Breukink and Delgado were up there too but they had more fair play. They didn’t work with Chiappucci. It took us quite a while to catch then and Greg was so angry. I’d never seen him so mad. When we caught them, he wanted to attack straight away but we managed to calm him down.’

LeMond was livid that Chiappucci had sought to exploit his misfortune although Breukink is willing to give the Italian the benefit of the doubt. ‘Maybe Claudio already had it in his mind to attack at that moment,’ he says. ‘It was the last difficult mountain of the race and even though there were still 50 kilometres to go afterwards he was entitled to attack if that was his plan, I guess.’ But would Breukink have done the same? “I don’t think I’d want to win the Tour like that. I knew LeMond had punctured. Of course there was no way we were going to wait with LeMond, we had to follow Chiappucci’s team, but we didn’t work.’

Greg LeMond became the first rider to win the Tour de France without taking a stage victory since Lucian Aimar in 1966. There were some who cited that as evidence of the negative riding Fignon talked about but that is to ignore the evidence of the race that unfolded. For three weeks, he was racing to catch up with someone who had been allowed a ten-minute lead.

Breukink won the Lac-de-Vassivière time trial to take third place. ‘Maybe I could have won but the big break changed everything in the race. Instead of racing against LeMond and Delgado and the others, we were always calculating how to catch them, first Pensec, then Chiappucci. It changed the dimension of the race and it’s impossible to say what would have happened if it had been more normal. It’s annoying to finish third when I was the second best in the Tour. We gave Chiappucci a present of 10 minutes. That’s what it was, a present.’

Inside the team car at Ghent-Wevelgem

Sunday, 29 March 2015

In April 2009, I covered Ghent-Wevelgem from the Columbia-Highroad team car, which was driven by the sports director Brian Holm. Mark Cavendish was Columbia-Highroad’s main hope for victory that day but the rain, the crosswinds, punctures and an extremely aggressive opening hour of racing meant a bunch sprint finish was unlikely. Instead, Edvald Bassoon Hagen got clear with Aleksandr Kuschynski and suddenly I found myself in the thick of the action.

It was an incredibly eye-opening day. From ten years of covering bike races, I already knew that there were so many untold stories from the first hour of racing and that by the time the television cameras came on things had usually settled into a pattern. But that day at Ghent-Wevelgem showed me the chaos and danger at the back of the race as the crosswinds cut the peloton to pieces and riders passed the team car I was in on both sides, or sat just a centimetre from the rear bumper as they chased back to the main bunch. The confusion was total and I had incredible admiration for the sports directors driving the team cars because even as a passenger my nerves were frayed. It also dispelled my impression that the riders’ tactics were in some way being micro-managed by their sports directors. Yes, advice and information was conveyed to the riders over the radios but the noise and chaos meant that it was not possible to to add much of significance.

I wrote this piece for Cycle Sport magazine about my day in the team car after the 2009 Ghent-Wevelgem.

Within five minutes of leaving the neutralised zone, there is total chaos at the back of the race. Many riders are already off the back of the bunch, battling on in ones and twos, their day over before it’s even begun.

A few are wrestling with their rain capes, paying the price for getting their clothing decision wrong. Up ahead, the pressure is on at the front of the peloton, and those who have lost contact so early, like the Bouygues Telecom rider alongside us, who is breathing heavily, hands on the drops in full race position, are already out of contention for this year’s Ghent-Wevelgem.

I look out of the rear window and there are two or three riders close to the bumper, taking some shelter before moving out into the wind again and hoping to move up enough to regain the back of the bunch. We’re only just out of Deinze’s suburbs, the pre-race commentator’s words still echoing in our ears but the race is already a battle for survival back here. Pained expressions and panic. It’s a real eye-opener. This is the part of bike racing you don’t see on television.

I’m in the Columbia-Highroad team car, squeezed into the back seat behind the driver, Brian Holm, wedged in among the expensive carbon-fibre wheels and lunch bags. Erik Zabel is in the front passenger seat, to my right is Nick, the mechanic. The laughter and light-hearted atmosphere of a few moments ago has given way to one of serious-minded concentration. They’re at work now. This is their office.

The radio cracks and hisses, but it is not the feedback that sparks Holm into life, but news of a puncture for the team leader, Mark Cavendish.

Holm accelerates, moves out into the left-hand side of the road, passes the other team cars, honks his horn at the riders who are spread in desperation across the road, weaves between them. It’s an impressive manoeuvre, particularly when you realise he’s driving with one hand on the steering wheel, the other on the radio handset.

His Scandinavian-accented English is calm, precise. “Okay Mark, don’t panic, we be with you soon. Who’s with Mark?”

A voice comes over the radio. An indistinguishable buzz of feedback, the wind blowing a gale into the microphone, nothing more than a noise, but Holm understands from it that Mark Renshaw is with Cavendish, donating his wheel.

“The rest of you, stay in the front. Mark, don’t panic, stay on the right.”

We see two figures on the right-hand side of the road, their yellow, white and black Columbia jersey instantly recognisable. Much as you want to criticise its lack of sartorial charm, there’s no denying it stands out now, when it needs to. The wind is howling, the rain is spitting. Before we’ve even slowed to walking pace, Nick has the rear door open and is out, with wheels in hand. The change is swift and Nick pushes Cavendish on his way, then replaces Renshaw’s wheel and gives him a running shove.

Back in the car, Holm accelerates, pausing only to let Renshaw get a little shelter on the rear bumper, then we move back up the convoy to our position in line, number four. From there, Renshaw pushes on.

The radio bursts into life again, with the commissaire reporting that the bunch has split. Thirty or so riders have a 30-second lead, behind is another group of 40 or so, after that it’s a series of echelons. I crane my neck to look through the window of the car and up ahead I can see the echelons, groups of a dozen or so riders spread all across the road, an invisible barrier separating them from the next group. For all but the front group, the race is over. They’ve been racing for less than 20 minutes.

Zabel and the mechanic, Nick, note down the numbers as they’re read out. Columbia-Highroad has four in the front group, but not Cavendish, who made contact with the back part of the peloton just as it split at the front under sustained pressure from the Cervelo team.

Although I’d secured an invitation to travel in the Columbia-Highroad team car for Ghent-Wevelgem and had confirmation the previous day from Brian Holm that I still had my place, I was nervous about being bumped to make way for one of Rolf Aldag’s relatives, or a minor marketing exec from one of the team’s sponsors. Arriving in Deinze a good hour and a half before the start, I said hello to Brian, bracing myself for the words: “Oh, there’s been a change of plan…”

Fortunately, there is no change of plan. I’m in. So, mindful of a previous near-disastrous journey in a team car when I thought my bladder was going to explode, I visit the lavatory for the umpteenth time this morning.

Back at the car, I clear a little space and wedge myself in, then wait for Brian, Erik Zabel and Nick the mechanic to get in. The space around my feet is filled with bags containing their lunches. Damn, I forgot to bring any lunch. The arm rest has the start list taped to it, then Nick and his wheels get in and the quick release skewer from a rear wheel is wedged under my elbow.

“Okay? Comfortable back there?” asks Brian.

“Sure,” I lie.

Nick shoots me a glance and suddenly I realise that I’m sitting in the space where his wheels should be, and were it not for me, he’d be stretching out in luxury. Instead, he’s packed in tightly too.

As we roll towards the start line, a few riders knock on the window to say hello to Brian. These pre-race chats are always brief, full of nerves, but are a merciful few seconds in which to divert the brain away from task ahead. The wind has got up and the rain, though light, is piercing, like being pelted with handfuls of uncooked rice.

“Don’t you just wish you were racing today?” Holm asks Zabel.

“No way,” he laughs. “I hated it when it was like this. It’s gonna be a hard day.”

“It’s gonna split up very early, I told the guys,” says Holm.

“I hope you’re right, or you’ll have zero credibility,” replies Zabel.

“They gotta be near the front, but not on the front, for the first hour,” adds the Dane.

We sit and wait at the start line for a while, windows up tight to keep out the rain and the drone of the commentator. Holm fiddles with the air-conditioning, settling on an agreeable 21 degrees Celsius, then he checks the radios are working.

“Okay gentlemen, can you let me know you can hear me,” he says. In quick succession the team’s eight riders call out their names. It’s working.

Holm says: “I remember a couple of years ago in this race the radio didn’t work for the first hundred kilometres but we didn’t know. I told Roger [Hammond] it was too early to attack and he should sit up, but he never heard the message. Good thing too, because he was second that day,” says Holm. “After 100 kilometres we realised the radio was on the wrong channel and [Tristan] Hoffman said, totally deadpan ‘Okay, guys, just to recap, the first 100 kilometres, the wind was from the right, there was a roundabout…’”

Zabel adds another anecdote. “In the Tour of Majorca the riders don’t have to ride every day, you can sit out a stage and then come back the next day. One day we were trying to set up the sprint and we said on the radio ‘Okay Sieby [Marcel Sieberg] go to the front, wind it up, prepare the sprint for Edvald [Boasson Hagen]’.

“After a few kilometres, I was like ‘Good job Sieby, nice work Sieby’. Little did we realise Sieby didn’t start that day. He was back in the hotel.”

We drive out of Deinze and head out on the main road. Zabel glances at the treetops and realises the wind is coming from the right. He draws an arrow on the route map. It means the riders will have a crosswind for the first 50 kilometres, before turning into it. Crucially, there will be a long tailwind section from Koksijde until they get to the hills near Poperinge.

Holm just about has time to give the riders some brief information before Cavendish punctures. By the time Cavendish is back in the bunch, it has splintered. Holm’s reaction is measured and delivered in an extremely reassuring tone. “Gentlemen, we have four riders in the front. Don’t do too much, just go through, don’t do any work because we have Mark behind if it comes back together. Keep eating and drinking, it’s gonna be a hard day.”

I’d expected the instructions to be a lot more detailed, but in fact Holm never gave anything other than the sort of basic information the riders needed to make their own decisions, such as the distance to the next section of cobbles or the next hill, or the time gap.

He told the riders where the team car was in relation to them, so they’d know whether to wait for him or whether to use the neutral service vehicle in the event of a mechanical problem. There was no detailed tactical plan, those strategies were left to the riders to make among themselves on the road.

“Five kilometres to the first section of cobblestones,” says Holm over the radio. “We’re gonna do a left turn onto the cobblestones.”

“Are you sure it’s not a right turn?” Zabel says.

“No, it’s definitely a left,” says Holm.

They disagree for a moment, but it’s light-hearted. “Hey, I rode this race two years ago, I think it’s a right turn,” says the German.

“Definitely left.”

A few kilometres on and we turn left onto the cobbles. Holm turns and grins at Zabel.

“Well, I think there’s a right-turn coming up soon,” says the German.

“Sure, Erik, I think at some point today we’re gonna do a right turn,” Holm deadpans.

After a frenetic opening hour, during which the peloton was sliced to ribbons by the wind, the Columbia-Highroad car dealt with three mechanical problems and we passed group after group of riders who’d all but been eliminated, the race settled down into a pursuit between two sizeable groups.

There were 30 or so riders up front, with a similar number about a minute and a half back. Tom Boonen had been the only Quick Step rider in the first group, until he punctured. “Quick Step’s gonna chase now, so gentlemen in the front group, don’t work at all in case it comes back,” says Holm.

After almost an hour of chasing, Quick Step had failed to make any significant inroads as Cervelo kept the pressure on at the front. In fact, the gap is up to two minutes. Even with 130 kilometres to go, Zabel has decided the race is done.

With this lull, lunch is declared. Brian takes pity on me and offers me a team issue ham and salad baguette. Then we stop to answer the call of nature, but I don’t need to go, before racing at breakneck speed to regain our position as fourth car in the convoy.

Shortly after that, we hit a bump in the road and one of the bikes on the roof slips out of its clamp. The front wheel slides down over the windscreen, so we stop and Nick fixes it again.

When we regain our place behind the front group there’s been a crash. Two Rabobank riders, Mat Hayman and Graeme Brown, are down, as is Bradley Wiggins of Garmin. As we inch past, there are bikes and bodies in the mud at the side of the road. Wiggins looks hurt, trapped beneath his own Felt bike and one of the Rabobank Giants.

Now we’re with the front group, the Columbia riders take turns to drop back to the team car to take bottles, energy gels, a fresh, dry jacket, and have a brief chat about how things are going.

We round a left-hand corner and there’s the slap of a hand on the back of the car’s boot. It’s Wiggins, letting us know he’s there, after his chase back to the leaders.

At two o’clock the television coverage begins on the Belgian station Sporza. Brian turns on the television set mounted on the dashboard and tunes in. To the viewer, it looks an ordinary race. The front group now has a lead of almost four minutes, the second group containing Cavendish and Boonen is just going through the motions, with no chance to get back in contention. But all the racing happened in the first hour, when there were no cameras to witness the carnage.

For Columbia-Highroad, Marcus Burghardt looks very strong as they go over the Kemmelberg for the first time. “Nice, Boogie, nice. Very nice work,” Holm says over the radio. After the climb the front group splits in two and for 20 kilometres there is a pursuit match going on. As they approach the Kemmelberg for the second time it is about to come back together when the Belorussian Aleksandr Kuschynski attacks.

“This is a good move,” says Zabel. “Edvald could go with this. Kuschynski’s a good rider to be with. Super-strong but not that clever.” He means in a tactical sense.

Holm speaks over the radio. “If you feel like it, Eddie, go now.”

Boasson Hagen attacks from the group and rides across to Kuschynski. “Nice work Eddie, very nice work. Okay gentlemen, we have a rider in the front, so don’t do anything now.”

Once the gap is over a minute, we get permission from the commissaire to overtake the chasing group and settle in behind the two leaders.

As we go past the group, Holm slows to have a word with Burghardt and Hincapie. He offers them each a bottle. The gap is one minute 20.

Wiggins is setting the pace at the front, trying to drag it back together for his Garmin team-mate Chris Sutton. Holm can’t resist the chance to plant a seed of doubt. “Two minutes, Wiggo, two minutes,” he says mischievously before winding up the window and haring ahead to join Boasson Hagen, Kuschynski and the Liquigas team car.

Suddenly the tension in the car is palpable. This is a great opportunity, but Boasson Hagen is young, inexperienced. We’re absolutely flying on the flat thanks to the tailwind. The digital display on the dashboard says 62 kilometres an hour. Holm and Zabel give Boasson Hagen a little bit of information over the radio. “It’s flat from now on, stay on the left to make the most of the wind.”

Holm is fidgety for the first time today. Zabel and Nick the mechanic lean forwards to watch the TV. Inside the final five kilometres, the commissaire pulls us over as three chasers, Hayman, Andreas Klier and Matt Goss try to close the gap.

Under the kilometre-to-go kite and the car is silent. Holm is driving on autopilot, eyes fixed on the screen. Boasson Hagen opens up the sprint early, very early. It seems Holm and Zabel hold their breath for the final 500 metres.

Then the Norwegian begins to pull clear and it’s clear he’s got it, sending the pair into raptures. The car rocks, the cheers ring out, there are high-fives all round, even for me.

“I think he went a little early there,” says Zabel. “But he was so strong. It’s becoming a problem for Bob [Stapleton]. All his riders are becoming expensive!”

Holm gets on the radio. “Gentlemen, we won the bike race with Edvald. Good job everyone, good job.”

We pull up next to the team’s huge bus and the other cars. Soigneurs and other team staff congratulate Holm. They’re all smiles. Holm looks shattered. “The level of concentration all day…” he says softly, almost unable to finish the sentence. “When I was a rider, I used to think ‘How hard can it be, just driving a car,’ you know? But it’s a long day. You have to think of the riders, make sure they get everything they need, every bottle…”

With that, he is interrupted by a number of journalists, all wanting to be put in the picture. They’ve seen the race on television but will struggle to understand the significance of that opening hour, when the race was lost by three-quarters of the peloton as the wind ripped across them.

Holm explains how the day panned out, but it’s difficult to convey the importance of that first hour in the context of the race. The truth is that Boasson Hagen’s win owed just as much to being alert and in the right place right at the start as it did to chasing down Kuschynski later in the afternoon. The front group opened a gap, worked hard to maintain it and force the chasers into submission. The tactical point of the day was that might does not always equal right. Cervelo had almost their entire team in the first group, but lost out because the onus always fell on their shoulders. They had to do the bulk of the work to keep the group away, then had nothing left to give when the attacks started. Columbia and a couple of other teams had strength in depth without the same responsibility.

As I walked away, I saw a fellow journalist. “Pretty dull race in the end, wasn’t it,” he said.

“Hmmm, yeah,” I said. I wanted to explain the scale of the fight that took place in the second half of the bunch right at the start. I wanted to pay tribute to the poor souls who found themselves on the wrong side of that invisible line created by a savage wind. I wanted to describe the anguish written on the faces of those who found themselves engaged in a pointless, demoralising, almost demeaning chase right from the off. There they were, seeking a pitiful shelter in among the team cars, probably already thinking about how far they’d have to ride before it would be acceptable to stop and climb off, formulating their excuses.

I wanted to explain that often there’s a lot more to a day’s racing than the bit you see on the TV. I wanted to talk about the level of trust and respect that exists between the riders and their team managers, a subtle relationship in which the manager has the experience and authority, but is also at the riders’ beck and call, fetching drinks and jackets and food, offering support, advice and understanding. I wanted to explain how reassuring Holm’s management style must be. Hands-off, yet decisive. Laid back, but professional. In management speak, they’d describe it as ‘facilitating’.

He did everything he could to enable Columbia to win the bike race, without issuing orders or ultimatums, without once raising his voice or losing his calm.

“I was in the Columbia team car,” I said.

“Really? Cool. Did you have a good day?”

“Yeah. I pinched this Columbia hat.”

My view of Boasson Hagen from the HTC-Columbia team car.

My view of Boasson Hagen from the HTC-Columbia team car.


All alone at Nice versus Guingamp

Friday, 20 March 2015

It was when the taxi driver asked where we wanted to be dropped off that I noticed how quiet the roads around the Allianz Riviera were.

‘À la billetterie, s’il vous plaît,’ I said.

‘Oooh-la-laaaa,’ he said, which seemed to suggest we had no chance whatsoever of buying any tickets for the Nice versus Guingamp match. This was disappointing not just because my colleague Simon the photographer and I had driven down from Rasteau as soon as the day’s stage of Paris-Nice had finished and hoped to watch the Ligue 1 game, but because the taxi’s meter read 48 euros and so the evening was in danger of being an expensive washout.

Surely this – mid-table Nice versus mid-table Guingamp on a Friday night – could not be a sell-out fixture. I’d even researched in advance the average attendances at Nice’s home games and figured there’d be around 12,000 empty seats for us to choose from. Besides, the visitors were from a small Breton village with a population of around 7,500 people. They had taken only 600 supporters with them when they played what passed for their local derby, against Lorient, so they were unlikely to bring more than a couple of dozen fans all the way to the Côte d’Azur.

As we got out of the taxi the driver asked if we wanted to book him to pick us up later. ‘Perhaps,’ I said, partly because I felt 48 euros for a 20-minute journey from Cagnes-sur-Mer to be staggeringly poor value for money, partly because I thought we might watch the match and emerge from the station to see a line of cheap buses ready to take us back to the coast.

‘Peut-être?!’ he said with incredulity.

When I got out of the cab and walked away, I realised what he had meant. The Allianz Riviera is undoubtedly a smart modern stadium but it’s also in the middle of nowhere, stuck next to a motorway junction and surrounded by car parks and not much else. There was no sign of a bus stop or a taxi rank. Our hopes of getting back to our hotel hinged on ringing monsieur and handing him another 50 euros and he knew it.

‘It’s very quiet, isn’t it?’ said Simon, who went on to bemoan the lack of atmosphere around these modern stadia. I agreed it was a shame that Nice no longer played at the Stade du Ray, their old stadium in the centre of the city which was hemmed in by sun-bleached apartment blocks.

‘Perhaps we’ve missed kick-off?’ I said, although we dismissed this possibility because there was no noise coming from the ground at all.

‘It’s off, isn’t it?’ he said as we walked round the stadium.

A motorbike roared past on the autoroute next to us.

‘How are we going to get back to our hotel?’ I said in a small voice, suddenly very aware of how unfriendly the surrounding area seemed towards pedestrians.

Then we glimpsed an open gate, a coach parked in the bland concrete concourse and a flash of bright green. Some players were warming up on the pitch, which made it all the more puzzling how deserted the area was. Something was definitely happening.

The ticket office was closed and as we walked round to the far side of the stadium, we noticed that police cars were parked at 100-yard intervals.

‘Perhaps there’s been a bomb scare, or something?’ I said.

I decided we should walk up the steps to the gate and see what we could see but as I did so one of the police cars honked a horn and an officer got out and gestured at me to stop. ‘Non, non, non,’ he said.

The policeman explained that the game was going ahead but that no spectators were allowed in because Nice had been ordered to play the match behind closed doors after fans had let off flares during the game against Olympique Marseille. I told him that we were British journalists who were covering the Paris-Nice bike race and had hoped to watch the game. I wondered whether an exception might be made.

He didn’t offer any hope. Even the police had been issued with permits to allow them into the ground. No permit, no entry. But he said we could walk round to the official entrance and try our luck.

We walked up to the gate and I told the man there the same thing I’d told the policeman. ‘We’re British journalists who are covering Paris-Nice and we hoped to see the game.’

‘Journalists?’ he said. ‘Do you have a press card?’

‘Yes,’ I said, pulling my card from my wallet.

‘Okay,’ he said. ‘Just keep your card with you when you go inside.’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘We are covering Paris-Nice and we thought we’d come here too.’

‘Yes, yes, that’s fine.’

‘But then we saw the ground was deserted and…’ I was speaking too much and was in danger of talking myself out of being let in.

By now, Simon had walked past me and was on his way in. When I caught up to him, he said: ‘Drop the Paris-Nice bike race stuff. He thinks you mean Paris versus Nice.’ The key to a successful blag is to be confident and concise rather than to blather on, something I’ve never really learned.

We took the lift up to the press box, helped ourself to some of the buffet and settled in to watch the game, which turned out to be an entertaining, if surreal, experience. The match ended 2-1, with all three goals being scored in the first quarter of an hour of the second half. Every now and then, a motorbike could be heard whizzing past on the autoroute. The shouts from the players and the thwack of the ball were piercingly sharp and echoed around the empty stadium.

At half-time we avoided the glances of the Nice press box regulars who probably wondered who the two chancers were. I pulled out the taxi driver’s card, dialled and asked him to pick us up after the game.

We walked briskly across the car park, knowing the taxi’s meter would already be running, and got into the back seat.

‘Good match?’ he asked, with a bit of a smirk.

‘Two-one to Guingamp,’ I said.

‘Really?’ he said.

‘Really,’ I said.

I’m not entirely sure he believed that we had got in and watched the game. I suspect he chuckled to himself at the thought of rinsing two British blokes for almost 100 euros, thinking we’d stood outside the stadium in the cold for 90 minutes just to save face.

To be honest, had we not got in, that’s exactly what I would have done.

The view from the press box at a deserted Allianz Riviera

The view from the press box at a deserted Allianz Riviera