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Team insider: Bora-Hansgrohe at the Tour de France

18 Jan 2019

This article was originally published in issue 80 of Cyclist magazine

Words James Witts Photography Juan Trujillo Andrades

‘We still have our full quota of eight riders, and not many teams can say that,’ says Jan-Niklas Droste, doctor to Germany’s one and only WorldTour team. It’s 11am on Wednesday 25th July 2018 and Cyclist is embedded with Bora-Hansgrohe at Stage 17 of the Tour de France.

Today’s stage is a short one, only 65km, but it includes a lot of climbing. ‘So far we’ve been lucky with crashes,’ Droste adds as we jump into a team car to follow the race. ‘Let’s hope that carries on until Paris.’

Fast forward to 3.38pm, and a voice crackles over the in-car radio: ‘Peter has crashed. Peter has crashed…’ The team’s star rider, Peter Sagan, has gone down hard on the sketchy descent of the Col de Val Louron-Azet.

It seems Droste had tempted fate, but the Slovakian World Champion is made of hard stuff. He’s bruised, scarred and his kit is ripped to shreds, but he’s riding on.

Still, every cloud – Sagan’s fall will turn out to provide a free taxi ride for Cyclist later in the day…

Building a reputation

Bora-Hansgrohe, as we now know them, appeared on the WorldTour in 2017, but the seeds for the team were sown more than 15 years ago.

‘Back in 2001, we were a mountain bike team,’ says team manager Ralph Denk. And a good one – Denk’s Giant Racing team won the 2006 World Cup.

‘But then I stopped the team and started a junior road team in 2007 with sponsorship from the federation,’ he adds.

‘Although road cycling, especially in Germany, was having a bad time of it I had a feeling, like you would with the stock exchange, that it was worth investing in the bad times to benefit when the good times return. But it’s been hard.’

Hard, but not impossible. Denk persuaded US IT company NetApp to support his dream. ‘The increased resources saw us race Continental in 2010, moving to ProContinental a year later.’

In 2012 Team NetApp completed their first Grand Tour, the Giro d’Italia, and also won a stage of the Tour of Britain thanks to Leopold Konig.

The upward trajectory continued at the 2013 Vuelta a España, where they justified a wildcard slot with a stage victory by Konig.

‘But it was 2015 where things moved on apace thanks to Bora [cookers] replacing NetApp,’ says Denk. ‘Then, in 2017, Hansgrohe [showers and taps] joined our project. That gave us the resources to achieve WorldTour status.’

That ‘project’ is about putting Germany back on the cycling map after a series of doping scandals, including that of Jan Ullrich, left the sport if not in terminal decline then at least in need of CPR. But despite its Teutonic roots, it’s arguably thanks to a Russian that Bora’s progress accelerated so rapidly.

‘F*** all of them!’ Oleg Tinkov exclaimed after his frustration with cycling’s sponsorship-heavy business model saw him withdraw from the sport.

That was December 2015. His Tinkoff team would cease to exist 10 months later. It meant that nearly 30 world-class riders hit the market at the end of 2016, including Sagan.

Denk, buoyed by millions from Bora, snapped up the Slovakian and climber Rafal Majka, as well as Tinkoff teammates Maciej Bodnar, Michael Kolar, Erik Baska plus Sagan’s brother Juraj.

Action not talk

The 2018 Tour de France is the team’s second, and has been far more successful than 2017. Twelve months earlier, Sagan had been thrown out of the Tour after a clash with Mark Cavendish during the final sprint on Stage 4, and that was followed by Majka crashing out on Stage 9.

But things are different this year, and by Stage 17 Sagan has an unassailable lead in the points classification and has won three stages.

Not that he’s shouting about it. While the Slovakian may be big on entertainment, he’s low on words. In response to the question, ‘Can you tell us one highlight from your career?’ he replies, ‘I have many highlights.’

We try again with, ‘Have you undergone scientific bike fitting to acclimatise to your bike?’ He replies, ‘It’s just a bike at the end of the day.’ In desperation: ‘Favourite foods?’ ‘I have no favourite foods.’

‘Yes, people complain about his short answers but he’s an unbelievable professional,’ says the team’s press officer, Ralph Scherzer.

‘You just need to understand his position. He’s travelling 300 days a year; fans run at him for his autograph; even yesterday people were knocking on his hotel door.

‘So to cope with the constant attention of media and fans – especially after racing hard for 200km – sometimes he’ll just answer yes or no. People must understand that.’

Kitchen envy

Sagan’s conciseness is initially matched by team chef Silvio Clinker – understandably so as the team’s kitchen truck is a magnet for curious onlookers.

Back when they were Bora-Argon 18, the kitchen was a glass cube where fans could view the chef – and, importantly, the Bora air extractor – producing the riders’ meals.

It was a little too zoo-like, so the team’s new kitchen truck is lower in profile but still sumptuously appointed with a designer wooden dining table.

‘The founder of Bora [Willi Bruckbauer] is a carpenter by trade and designed this truck,’ says Clinker. ‘It’s magnificent.’

Clinker is one of three chefs employed by the team. ‘I ran my own restaurant in Switzerland for a few years before moving to London,’ he says.

‘I then went to cooking for Audi in motorsport before working with Bora. I’m freelance, though, so recently worked for the Foo Fighters on their European tour.’

The Foo’s leader, Dave Grohl, reportedly loves sausages and beans. That won’t work for professional cyclists, however.

Instead, the team’s nutritionist advises red meat for iron and its oxygen-carrying capabilities – useful at altitude – while cow’s milk is replaced by rice and almond milk.

‘Because of today’s late start, in essence they’re having two breakfasts – one at the normal time and one at 12 o’clock,’ says Clinker.

‘It’s a short, intense day in the mountains so it’s all about the carbs: rice and pasta with some parmesan thrown in.

‘At this point in the race it’s arguably more important to focus on hygiene. Your body’s on the limit and the immune system is suppressed. You can also easily pass on infections as we’re so close to each other.’

Taking Sagan’s seat

For Bora-Hansgrohe, on paper the day should be about Majka. In actual fact the spotlight fixes on Sagan once again. The descent of Col de Val Louron-Azet is steep and frightening enough for those of us in a car, but for the riders it’s potentially lethal.

Despite his renowned bike-skills, Sagan overcooks one of the corners and goes off the road and into the trees.

‘I made a mistake,’ a bruised Sagan tells the scrum of reporters at the finish. ‘I flew through the forest and hit a big rock with my ass.’

Sagan’s loss proves to be Cyclist’s gain. His injuries are severe enough to require an X-ray at the local hospital, so he’s whisked off in a team car, opening up a Sagan-sized space on the team bus.

With shuttle buses cancelled and no taxis available, we have no way of getting back to our hotel – unless some kind soul offers us a lift.

After much badgering, press officer Scherzer agrees we can ride in the team bus and they will drop us in Tarbes on the way to their own hotel.

‘That’s where Sagan usually sits,’ Scherzer says, pointing to my seat. I acknowledge the privilege bestowed upon me, and remain respectfully quiet so as not to break the silence. No one speaks as we drive through the Pyrenees. The riders are plainly exhausted.

Eventually domestique Pawel Poljanski recovers enough to tell us about the day. ‘It was a tough stage from start to finish,’ he says.

‘We really tried and Rafal was close but we didn’t create a large enough gap. Nairo [Quintana] caught him with around 5km to go and caught the others with 2km left.

‘I just hope all of us – and Peter – can recover for tomorrow.’

The silence descends again, and my mind drifts to a conversation I’d had with founder Denk earlier in the day about the age-old problem of instability in cycling.

‘Bora is with us until the end of 2021 and Hansgrohe the end of 2020, so we’re not in a bad place, but this sport remains too reliant on sponsorship,’ he said.

‘Around 95% of our income comes from sponsors but, if we’re to develop, that needs to drop to 50%.

‘If we want to create a real culture and real story – run an amateur club and development team, have a permanent base like a football club – we need a new business model.

‘The current model means money is always focused on the present rather than the future – you’d rather spend millions on a rider to win races than invest in a wind-tunnel or find out more about altitude training.

‘If I have a 10-year project, I can invest more into that. It’s partly why Team Sky are so successful.’

It’s a subject that’s playing on the minds of a growing number of team managers.

‘For now, though,’ says Denk, ‘this team is all about improving the image of road cycling in Germany. I feel it’s something we are achieving.’