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Inside the race with Team Giant-Alpecin

Josh Cunningham
19 Oct 2016

We were invited to spend a day with Team Giant-Alpecin at the Tour of Britain to find out what makes a pro team tick on race day…

One of cycling’s biggest draws is the freedom it affords, and escape it allows, with majestic mountains and tranquil meadows often providing the backdrop to stories from the saddle. But that’s not always the case. This morning, we’re in a hotel car park on an industrial estate on the fringes of Exeter, with a foreboding grey sky looming above and rain forecast for the day ahead. Luckily, though, it’s not us who’ll be doing the riding. 

It’s the morning of the 149.9km-long stage 6 of the 2016 Tour of Britain, and we've been invited to spend the day with Team Giant-Alpecin, the German World Tour outfit that’s home to Tom Dumoulin, the double Tour de France stage winner and Olympic silver medallist at Rio 2016. It’s he that the team is riding for today, with the Dutchman sitting in 8th overall, 1 minute 12 seconds down on the yellow jersey as the race enters the final decisive few stages, and we’re here to find out exactly how a team operates in order to get him - and their other riders - over the finish line in as good a position as possible. 

We bump into Marc Reef the team’s Directeur Sportif (DS) for the week as he’s paying up for the team at reception, and he directs us around the side of the hotel where we find a whole host of vehicles from a multitude of teams. As well as Team Giant-Alpecin, there are the entourages from Movistar, BMC, Trek, Bardiani-CSF, NFTO and Cannondale-Drapac, making for a crammed car park, alive with the early morning activity of team crews preparing for the day ahead. 

Preparation is key

We poke our heads through the door of the Team Giant-Alpecin truck and find Joost Oldenburg, one of the team’s soigneurs adding the finishing touches to the musettes - the bags due to be handed up to the riders in the feed zone. ‘The riders obviously need to keep fuelling themselves throughout the stage,’ says Joost, ‘and it’s important to have some variety of food while you’re riding – not just for nutritional reasons, but for the head as well.’ Indeed, while energy gels are all well and good, too many they can be unappetising. ‘So inside the musette we have two gels, one salty or savoury bar, four energy bars, an energy shot, two rice cakes, one piece of solid food, a coke, and two bidons.’ 

We take a peek. The rice cakes aren’t the stale, puffy things people on a diet live off, they’re a nutritious parcel of goodness that have long been used by the pro peloton. Team Giant-Alpecin cook theirs in a miniature rice cooker on board the team bus, using sushi rice to keep the cakes intact, and flavouring them with anything from Nutella to peanut butter. Also going into the musette today for alternative sustenance is a portion of cake – walnut, from what we could tell – neatly packaged up in some foil paper.

Into the bidons is stirred a mixture of either electrolyte or energy powder, with the two differentiated by a mark on the lid so the soigneurs know which they’re handing out during the race. ‘We also add a bit of protein to the bidons that the riders have towards the end of the race, to start the active recovery process,’ says Joost. 

Around the back of truck we find Felipe and Ed, the team’s designated mechanics for the race, making final preparations. On the walls of the truck are hung the bikes, wheels and necessary accoutrements of all the riders on the race, and as there are road, time trial, and circuit races included in this year’s Tour of Britain, that amounts to a lot of stuff. ‘There’s 25 sets of Shimano C50s and 25 sets of C35s, as well as a few sets of C75s,’ says Ed in reference to the wall of carbon and rubber to our right, before loading up eight bikes – one race bike and one spare – for each of the four Team Giant-Alpecin riders left in the race.

Meanwhile, Felipe has one such wheel in the truing stand and is applying some glue to the rim on which to stick the tubular tyre. ‘We always use tubulars,’ he says, ‘and these need to be replaced if they get worn, or if there’s a puncture, so that they're ready to go again.’ The minimum drying time that Team Giant-Alpecin allow for the tubular glue to set is one day, which would sound like too little for some, but Felipe explains, as he squints through one eye and rotates the wheel to check that the tub’s been glued on straight, that they take special care to sand down the old glue before applying the new stuff. ‘That’s very important,’ he emphasises.

As for pressure, Ed explains that they will pump up the tyres to 8 bar (120 psi) as a standard for tubulars (being more supple than conventional tyres, and therefore able to carry more pressure for the same rolling resistance). This is then adjusted depending on weather and road conditions. 

Into the action

Sure enough, rain greets us at the start town of Sidmouth, in Devon, and Felipe applies a thin layer of grease to the chains of the bikes as an extra barrier against the wet conditions. Some medical tape with a rough route guide scribbled on it is stuck to the stem of every rider’s bike so that they’re aware of when important points like climbs and feed stations are due. The head units of the team-issue Pioneer power meters are then attached. 

Back inside the team bus, the riders are getting kitted up for the racing ahead. Roy Curvers, a core member of the team who has spent his entire pro career with Team Giant-Alpecin and its earlier incarnations, is fiddling with his sunglasses. ‘It’s an extra protection against the weather,’ he says, noticing us staring inquisitively as he applies a small stick of wax – almost like a pen – to his lenses before buffing them off. ‘You cover your lenses with this so they don’t fog up, and the rain runs off easier.’

One of the trainee riders, or stagiaires, Martijn Tusveld, is coincidentally enjoying his birthday today, and back outside the rest of the team are cajoled by the podium MC into a recital of Happy Birthday when the team are on stage signing on. It cheers the crowd up no end as they stand in the rain. The joviality doesn’t last long, though, as soon enough the time comes to start, and we’re bundled into the team car along with Felipe the mechanic and Marc the DS as the riders depart, and we find ourselves in a convoy racing through the crowd-lined streets. 

‘What’s the plan for today then, Marc?’ we ask as the breakaway forms with no Team Giant-Alpecin riders represented. 

‘Today we wait for the last climb,’ he reveals, referring to the brutal summit finish at Haytor in Dartmoor, where the team hope Tom Dumoulin will be able to gain some time and move up in the classification, and with the waiting game in operation, the race begins to unfold. 

In the first half of the stage there are a couple of ‘nature breaks’, whereby the peloton opts en masse to take a roadside leak before making their way back to the bunch. The buzz is electric as riders swoop past the car windows, negotiating blind corners far faster than any motorist could manage and picking a way through the busy procession with incredible bike-handling precision. 

A little later after the rain stops we pull up and a bundle of gilets is thrown in through an open window as 23-year-old rider Jochem Hoekstra runs up to the car – a stash of energy bars is thrust back at his open hand in replacement, ready for him to distribute to the rest of the team once he returns to the peloton. 

The stage profile is peppered with nasty, steep climbs, but it isn’t until the second to last, Dunchideock, that DS Marc’s tone on the radio turns more serious. ‘Start to move up now, guys,’ he says, explaining that once over the top of the climb, the descent and intervening kilometres will be too fast for the riders to move up without counter-productive energy consumption. 

At the top of the climb, Joost stands at the roadside empty handed having handing out his special part-protein bidons. He gives us a thumbs up as we speed past. The small TV screen mounted on the car’s dashboard is playing back live pictures from just a few hundred metres in front of us, and we watch as the breakaway is reeled in and Tom Dumoulin, sheltered by team-mates Tusveld and Hoekstra, is seen at the front of the peloton. 

We speed past dozens of dropped riders, until the start of the last climb eventually begins. ‘Kom op é, Tom!’ (‘Come on, eh, Tom!) cries Marc as Team BMC’s Rohan Dennis attacks and Dumoulin follows, while the splintered, bedraggled peloton crawls up behind. ‘Alles of nichts!’ (‘All or nothing!’) he cries. 

Recovery time

Minutes later and the stage is decided.  Team Sky’s Wout Poels finishes just ahead of Dennis and Dumoulin, in an effort that propels the Giant-Alpecin rider into 2nd, where he’d go on to finish on the final podium in London. The result leaves the team in good spirits as they regroup back at the bus. 

‘When those fast guys go, there’s nothing you can do to stop them,’ Jochem tells us with a smile as he warms down on his turbo trainer at the back of the bus while star of the show Dumoulin poses for selfies with fans behind him. The recovery process has already begun, and the riders are spinning their legs – low gear, high revs – on their turbos, while swigging on protein shakes in order to get over the day’s exertions. After about 10-15 minutes they dismount, everything is quickly packed up and the bus driver, David, begins the journey to the next hotel. The riders make the most of the shower built into the back of the bus, so that by the time they get to that night’s digs there’s one less job to do. 

The drive from Haytor to Bristol – where stages 7a and 7b will  be held the next day – takes two hours. ‘Long transfers on this race,’ says Felipe the mechanic, who’s driving the car we grab a lift in. 

At the hotel we once again arrive to witness a clutch of other teams jostling for space in the car park and tired riders dragging suitacses to their rooms, while all manner of team personnel scurry about. Their day isn’t over yet. ‘Always we clean the bikes first,’ says mechanic Ed as he blasts one of the team-issue Giant Propels with a power hose, ‘especially after a day like this with rain and dirty roads. Degrease the chain, rinse, scrub the bike with a sponge, rinse, then re-lubricate all of the moving parts.’

Meanwhile the soigneurs are busy cleaning the vehicles, putting all the day’s used kit into the washing machines aboard the team truck, or setting up the massage tables back in the hotel rooms. It’s an impressive operation.

‘Massage is super important for recovery,’ says Dumoulin as he reclines on the table while soigneur Joost goes to work on his legs. ‘I’ll be here for 45 minutes or so after every stage, maybe do some stretching as well, then we go for dinner, sometimes have a team meeting to debrief from the day, and then it’s time for bed.’ 

Tom pulls out his portable speaker set, puts on Brothers in Arms by Dire Straits and taps away on his phone in the ambient, early evening light of the hotel room in which this make-shift physio room has been constructed. It’s a tranquil scene – a far cry from the blaring horns, screaming fans and extreme physical pain endured earlier in the day. We make our exit and let Dumoulin and the rest of the team finish their day in peace, knowing they’ve got to do it all again tomorrow…


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