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Behind the scenes with Le Col-Wahoo at the Women’s Tour

In-depth
20 Jul 2022
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This weekend sees the inaugural Tour de France Femmes, and British team Le Col-Wahoo will be on the startline in Paris. Cyclist goes behind the scenes with the team at the Women’s Tour

Words Robyn Davidson Photography Honor Elliott

‘Staff wake up at 6:30 in the morning,’ says team manager Tom Varney with a look that only barely disguises the weariness that comes with stage racing. As if to highlight the point, rain begins to drop from the clouds above Wrexham.

‘Then breakfast is at 7am. It can certainly be early mornings and late nights; yesterday we finished at 10pm. Which is also why we like to have two mechanics, two directeurs sportif and two soigneurs.’

This week is the Women’s Tour, which means the Le Col-Wahoo team faces 734.1km of racing around Britain, spread over six stages. The team is formed of six riders, overseen by the two sports directors, Julia Soek and Nico Marche.

A DS since 2016, Marche has an abundance of experience to complement Soek, who retired from racing last year and is learning her new role on the job with the Le Col-Wahoo team.

‘Julia is looking after the performance side, since Nico is managing the logistics part of the Women’s Tour,’ says Varney. ‘Julia manages the riders, talking with them about tactics, how they feel the racing has gone each day and getting feedback.

‘Nico looks after where the feeds are and staff workload: when they do the bike wash, car wash, lunches and so on. We have a strict schedule each day.’

Today is Stage 4, 144.7km from Wrexham to Welshpool. It will be a busy one for the riders because the route boasts more climbing than any other stage, totalling 2,108m of elevation.

More importantly, the first sprint point of the stage arrives a mere 15km into the day, and Le Col-Wahoo are currently protecting the sprint jersey, which rests on the back of Dutch rider Maike van der Duin, who will also be looking to star for the team at the Tour de France Femmes. Positioning will be key.

‘Normally we arrive at the start two hours before the race begins,’ says Varney. ‘Our second mechanic, Alan, is also the camper driver, so he arrives first and sets up the area with bikes and Wahoo Kickr trainers.

‘We don’t warm up every day, but today the sprint is so close to the start and we have the sprint jersey to think about.’

True to his word, the Le Col-Wahoo team arrives in Wrexham two hours before the official race start. It gives them time to warm up, have another cup of coffee and go over race plans.

Riders begin to disperse from the campervan and towards the podium for the team presentation. There’s a crowd of schoolchildren waiting to cheer on the cyclists as the rain gets heavier.

Proper preparation prevents…

Once all the riders have left the comfort of the campervan, mechanic Alan drives it directly to the finish at Welshpool to set up a post-race feed and warm-down zone with the Wahoo Kickrs.

Meanwhile, the two sports directors climb into the team car to follow the race. So far this week Marche hasn’t been in the car, but he’s going in for the last three stages.

As Varney explains, ‘With two directors in the car, one can drive and one can do the radio. Safety is a big thing now. I think it’s the way things will go in the future – a lot of the teams always have two directors in the car.’

Responsibility for feed zone planning also falls to Marche, who coordinates the soigneurs along the route of the Women’s Tour.

‘Nico sends a pin with the feed zone locations,’ Varney says. ‘I have also been doing feeds and it’s all planned out for us. For example, as the sprint is early on today, the preparation of when they have their gels and caffeine is different. That also varies within the team itself.

‘If someone is planning to be on the attack from the beginning, they need to be prepared. If the plan is to sit in and ride with the main GC leaders and follow them for a little while, they have a different nutrition plan.

The girls know when they want to take a bottle, some food or gels, and whether they should go back to the car or take it from the side of the road.’

Watching soigneurs handing over bottles at the side of the road is a task fraught with danger – one wrong move and half the peloton could be down.

How often does the team practise to get the hand-off right? How do they know the point at which to let go when riders shoot past?

‘It’s actually quite easy when you get the process right,’ says Varney. ‘Handing over the bottles takes one or two goes to get used to it. The key is to be relaxed and let them take it from you.’

We’ll take his word for it.

Making a point

An early attack by Jumbo-Visma’s Teuntje Beekhuis means she takes maximum points at the first sprint at the 15km mark in Chirk, leaving only two and one points available for the rest of the pack to fight for.

Le Col-Wahoo’s Van der Duin manages to snatch a point to add to her tally and extend her lead in the sprint classification.

The front group of four riders is swept up by the peloton after just 25km, but Van der Duin has already done her job for the day. She just needs to stay upright until the finish, which she succeeds in doing.

The stage is eventually won by Australian Grace Brown of FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope. Le Col-Wahoo’s first rider home is Brit Elizabeth Holden, 1min 16sec down on the winner. The racing may be over, but there’s still work to be done.

The scene beyond the finish line looks chaotic but there is a well-oiled machine at work. As the exhausted riders drift to a stop, soigneurs materialise to hand over bottles of recovery drink and packets of Haribos.

Then they gently escort their team to the campervan, or to the podium in the case of Van der Duin.

After that it’s a case of getting on the road as quickly as possible. Transfers are regularly around three hours in length, and that is what the team is facing this evening to get to the south coast of Wales for the start of Stage 5 in the morning.

‘The key is to get to the hotel quickly,’ Varney says. ‘As soon as the race is finished, two cars leave straight away with three riders and one mechanic in. We have a truck here too. One soigneur has already gone to the next hotel with all the luggage to get set up.

‘They’ll put all the bags and cases in each room and set up the massage tables so that when the girls arrive, everything can happen as efficiently as possible.

‘Riders can have a quick wash here, then get a proper shower with a massage straight away at the next hotel. It’s all about prioritising the riders,’ he adds. ‘We debrief as soon as possible after they have a massage so they can have their dinner.’

Also during this time, the mechanics will work on the bikes. One will focus on washing; the other will make final preparations for the following stage.

‘We had riders on new aero bikes for the first two stages, and now they’ve switched back to their Ribble Endurance SL R bikes,’ says Varney. ‘There was some prep for that last night [after Stage 3] in terms of things that riders can choose to be different, like chainrings.

‘After the bikes are prepared they go in the van, and while that’s all happening, the two soigneurs prepare the food, clean the camper up and make sure everything is ready for the following day.’

Stepping up

At the beginning of the season, Le Col-Wahoo stated their target was to build towards WorldTour status. They have come a long way from almost folding and needing to be saved by a crowdfunding campaign at the end of 2018, but the journey to the WorldTour isn’t an easy one. There is only one spot remaining for 2023.

‘Multiple teams are going after the one licence,’ Varney says. ‘We are in the conversation, but it’s ultimately down to team ranking.

‘It doesn’t matter if a team has £5 million or £1 million – as long as they can meet the minimum requirements the deciding factor will be where they are in the ranking come the end of the year.’

The sport’s governing body, the UCI, grants WorldTour licences on four criteria: ethical, financial, administrative and organisational. 

‘It is clear [Italian team] Valcar-Travel & Service are way ahead among the Continental teams. So the question for them is, do they want to go to the WorldTour?

‘Then you look at the rest of the teams one by one. At the moment there are three or four teams similar to us in the ranking. We really have to wait and see.

‘It will soon be similar to the men’s, in that a conversation about promotion, relegation and points-chasing will come into women’s cycling. That will be the next development and it will probably even start this year with some of the teams that are trying to step up to the WorldTour.

‘You still have the best two Continental teams being automatically invited to WorldTour races next year so we’re quite relaxed about that. And hopefully we can be at least in the top three to either take the WorldTour licence or receive automatic invites.’

All of that remains to be seen. For now, there is still racing to be done.

At the end of the week, the Women’s Tour culminates in victory for Trek-Segafredo’s Elisa Longo Borghini, who also won Paris-Roubaix this year.

Le Col-Wahoo’s Van der Duin holds onto the sprint jersey to give the British team a place on the final podium. Next on the agenda for the team are the various national championship races.

‘We have a little break of a week before we go,’ says Varney. ‘Later we have the Lotto Belgium Tour and the Tour de France Femmes.’

The British squad is one of ten UCI Continental teams to receive an invite to the inaugural Tour de France Femmes beginning this weekend, which has the potential to be a game-changer for the women’s sport. Le Col-Wahoo will be in the thick of it.