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Inside Canyon-Sram at the Women's Tour

In-depth
9 Jan 2019
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This article was originally published in issue 77 of Cyclist magazine

Words Hannah Troop Photography Lisa Stonehouse

There are rumours of hauntings in the Brownsover Hall Hotel in Warwickshire. It’s the evening before the third stage of the 2018 Women’s Tour – 151km from Atherstone to Royal Leamington Spa – and when I mention the spooky reputation of the grand Victorian mansion hotel to Beth Duryea, co-owner of women’s racing team Canyon-Sram, she raises an eyebrow.

‘Really?’ she responds, before requesting that I don’t mention it to the riders on the team. The night is needed for sleep and recovery, she says, not for anxiety over unwanted ghostly visitors.

It’s not quite time for bed yet so, while the riders recuperate after Stage 2, Cyclist heads out to the hotel courtyard, which seems to be where all the action is happening.

Mechanics and soigneurs roam around, busying themselves with their post-race routines. They are the unseen worker bees of the team, always the first up and the last to bed.

Mechanics Joe and Falk are washing and checking bikes while soigneurs Alessandra and Lars are prepping and washing bottles in the team camper before heading off to do three hours of massage with the riders.

For them this is the business end of the day, hence the strong espressos being handed out at 5pm. It can be the start of a gruelling evening shift, especially if there has been a long transfer after the stage.

Sometimes Joe and Falk will still be tending bikes at 10pm, quite often not eating at all or devouring plates of hotel buffet food – if the soigneurs have time to get it for them.

The atmosphere in the courtyard this evening is relaxed, even though the day’s stage didn’t go exactly to plan.

Canyon-Sram failed to make an impact at the sprint into Daventry, with Pauline Ferrand-Prevot their top-placed rider in sixth.

Dealing with the frustrations of the riders is another job the soigneurs perform.

‘Alessandra is a good soul – she tries to make the riders happy,’ Lars says, looking up from his bottles.

And does it work? ‘Pah, you’re dealing with women,’ he laughs, as Alessandra rolls her eyes.

Luckily this evening there has only been an hour’s transfer from the finish of the stage.

In a world where many women’s races are poorly organised and poorly supported, the British-based Women’s Tour is gaining a reputation as the benchmark for how a women’s race should be run.

Growing pains

Now in its fifth year, but already punching above its weight in terms of how it’s perceived, the Women’s Tour is a five-day stage race that is constantly pushing against cycling’s governing bodies for permission to expand further. As yet to no avail.

Prior to this year’s event there was talk about the lack of ‘big names’ showing up, with the likes of Anna van der Breggen, Ashleigh Moolman Pasio and Annemiek van Vleuten absent. But does that make it any easier to win?

Not according to defending champion Kasia Niewiadoma, who joined Canyon-Sram at the start of this season.

‘A few years ago I would have said, “OK, there is no Anna, no Ashleigh”, but that just means every other rider has more potential to win, especially in the UK where you have a lot of opportunities to make a break.

‘It’s not just stages aimed at sprinters or climbers. There are equal chances for everyone.’

Despite her victory last year, Niewiadoma isn’t Canyon-Sram’s team leader here but will instead work for teammates Ferrand-Prevot and Hannah Barnes.

Ferrand-Prevot has been chosen for her breakaway threat, while Barnes has been picked for her sprint, which means hypothetically the team has all bases covered.

Before its current incarnation, Canyon-Sram went through several guises, having been known at various points as HTC-Highroad Women, Specialized Lululemon and most recently Velocio-Sram.

It was only after the demise of that team that manager and part-owner Ronny Lauke secured backing from Canyon and Rapha to launch his new team in 2016.

The impact was immediate, leading many people in the sport to sit up and take note of how much potential there is for women’s cycling to grow.

Rapha did what it does best – produce a team kit that made all the other teams jealous.

After the kit was revealed, men were tweeting the team demanding to know why there was no men’s version. Surely this was plain sexism?

For this year’s Women’s Tour, Rapha has done it again by designing a whole new kit to publicise its Women’s 100, a celebration event that will encourage more women to get out on their bikes.

Canyon has also got on board and made a new set of bike frames – some of which are women-specific – with paintwork to match. 

Partners in climb

As well as attracting big hitters such as Canyon, Sram and Rapha, the team has also broken new ground with its recruitment programme thanks to another of its partners: Zwift.

The online training platform has provided a new way for Canyon-Sram to spot talent. ‘We wanted to use modern thinking and try different things,’ says Duryea.

‘The Zwift Academy was based on a similar concept in Formula 1 – they had a gaming system and there was someone who was amazing at it, who was then put on a development programme.

‘I think Ronny had heard about that and thought why couldn’t we do something along the same lines with Zwift?

‘Ronny had a conversation with [Zwift CEO] Eric Min about doing a talent identification programme through Zwift, and Eric loved the idea – he’d actually already had the idea of doing something similar but hadn’t been able to convince a men’s pro team to get on board.’

In 2016 Zwift hosted a competition between 1,200 talented amateurs and the winner, 37-year-old American Leah Thorvilson, found herself on the Canyon-Sram roster despite having never raced a bike before.

It was a bold move, and one that wasn’t universally well received elsewhere in the peloton.

‘I think Leah herself said that there was some “feedback” from other riders,’ says Duryea diplomatically.

‘But at the same time there was also a huge amount of positive backing and motivation for her.’

Now into its third year, the Zwift talent programme is still going strong, with Canyon-Sram signing German rider Tanja Erath in 2017.

For Duryea, the programme is exciting not just for the opportunity to find new riders, but for the wider impact on women’s cycling.

‘The number of women who made it to the finals having had no previous ambitions to race was incredible,' she says.

‘To give them a programme to follow for the six weeks, and see how they reacted, was phenomenal and inspiring to see.’ 

By the numbers

In the hotel dining hall the riders are sat together at one table, tucking into the buffet of meats and pasta.

On the opposite side of the room, former multiple world champion Marianne Vos is doing likewise with her team, Woaw Deals.

There’s little interaction between the rival outfits. They mainly keep themselves to themselves – riders, soigneurs and mechanics alike.

After dinner there’s a talk from Ben Samuels of SiS, the team’s nutrition sponsor. He seems happy to have given the riders a platform to discuss their eating strategies.

‘Just getting them to talk about it and really think about what they’re putting inside their bodies is sometimes the biggest challenge,’ he says.

By 9pm the riders have retired to their rooms to relax. The rest of the team is in the hotel bar, scavenging leftovers of Ceasar salads while watching the highlights from the day’s stage on TV.

Barry Austin, Canyon-Sram’s directeur sportif, is doing his rounds, speaking to the riders about performance and tactics for the following day, making sure everyone is happy with what they’ve got to do.

Eventually he makes it down to the bar at 9.45pm and conducts a quick staff meeting before settling down for a chat with Cyclist.

He expands on his unusual approach to measuring the best efforts of his riders without using technology, teaching them instead how to better communicate with their bodies.

‘I try not to use a power meter to restrict someone,’ he says. ‘I try to use a power meter to show someone what has happened.

‘I say, “Don’t let it rule you, let it inform you.” I would never find interest in knowing everyone’s numbers during the race.

‘I get personal satisfaction when we look back at a rider’s race and they already know how they’ve done without having to really look at the data.

‘Numbers and science are justification for feelings or inklings that I have,’ he adds.

‘I was motor-pacing an athlete last week and I was looking at her face. I hadn’t even seen her numbers and I said, “You went past your best there,” and she had done.’

In Austin’s mind, the use of technology isn’t in making life easier, it’s in freeing up more brain space so you can focus and have time to dig deeper into other things.

But what those other things are will have to wait till another time. We have an early start in the morning and it’s getting late. Time to retire. 

Race day

The next morning we’re in the team car rolling out behind the race at the start of Stage 3.

Fans line the streets of Atherstone, and it’s the same in all the Warwickshire villages and towns we pass through – crowds of supporters cheering on the riders.

‘Where are the sandwiches?’ Joe the team mechanic asks from the back seat, where he sits surrounded by bike wheels.

Mild panic ensues at the perceived lack of a lunch. There is relief when the musette is eventually found buried under bags, but it’s short lived when the sandwich offering is revealed.

‘Prawn again!’ comes the groan from the back seat.

In the early stages of the race there’s little to occupy the support team, so a certain amount of innovation is required to fight off the boredom and fatigue of long days spent in the team car.

‘Lars buys three coffees and places them in different locations around the car,’ Austin says. ‘He just keeps sipping from them all because he says it makes the experience last longer.’

Once the important topics of sandwiches and coffee are exhausted, conversation moves on to the growth of the women’s sport, which Austin believes is at a pivotal moment.

‘If we work it really well we won’t be controlled by just one event,’ he says. ‘Men’s cycling is controlled by one event.

‘The alpha and omega is the Tour de France and whether you get a budget or not is down to whether you race the Tour or not.

‘That’s it. That’s the business concept, and it just doesn’t make sense. Whereas women’s cycling, proper elite women’s cycling, is only 20 years old, which means there’s more opportunity to shape it.’

It’s clear, though, that the people responsible for developing women’s cycling aren’t all on the same page.

There’s a tug-of-war between those who want the same as the men have, and those who want to create something unique.

‘People say we need to make the races longer, and when you ask why, no one knows,’ says Austin. ‘It’s just because that’s the way it’s done with the men.

‘My hope is that not everyone falls into that trap. As a team, we have quite a lot to do with mountain biking [Ferrand-Prevot is a former mountain biking world champion], and because it’s a young sport they are constantly trying new things.

‘You’re able to ask the athletes what they want, what they want to see, instead of just following what the men do.’

As we get towards the pointy end of the race, the last few climbs split the bunch into several groups.

We’re quite far back in the convoy and Austin isn’t sure if his radio communications are getting through to the riders.

‘We could be out of radio range we’re so far back. They need to let us past.’ He gestures agitatedly at the commissaire’s car.

‘Eventually, after some tough negotiation, the commissaires allow us to drive past the group of riders towards the back of the race.

Austin is on the radio: ‘Stay together. Find security in each other,’ he tells his riders.

The attacks for the Queen of the Mountain points are causing erratic behaviour in the bunch and the finish line is in view.

But today, like yesterday, isn’t their day. The stage comes down to a bunch sprint, with Sarah Roy of Mitchelton-Scott taking the win.

The best placed of the Canyon-Sram team, Alice Barnes, can only manage 15th place.

‘It was quite messy and there was a bit of poor communication between us I guess,’ says Barnes back at the camper.

‘We need to get better at it. It’s something that’s happening a bit too much. Hopefully we can speak about it and improve it and get the results I think we deserve.’

It feels as though Canyon-Sram is a team that really does deserve to get the results.

It’s one that Niewiadoma commends as being multinational and not ‘judgey’; one that Ferrand-Prevot credits for helping bring her back from the edge of quitting her cycling career.

It’s a team where sponsors strive to do things differently, which in the minds of the management and riders is key to the future growth and success of women’s cycling.