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Tour de France diaries: The Press Officer

James Witts
24 Feb 2016

Cyclist hangs out with Tim Vanderjeugd. Trek's story teller and communication coach.

Gap, France, 22nd July 2015. Outside the Ibis hotel, Trek Factory Racing fans gather to observe mechanics tweaking, soigneurs packing and directeurs sportif cogitating. Fatigued riders, now 16 stages into one of the hottest Tours of recent times, are being encouraged and escorted onto the team bus for the short drive to Digne-Les-Bains. Ahead lies the mountainous 161km battle to the Alpine resort of Pra Loup. 

All of them are being stage managed by press officer Tim Vanderjeugd (pronounced Vonderyoukt). The French would proclaim this situation ‘un autocuiseur’ – a pressure cooker – but for Vanderjeugd it’s all in a day’s work at the maddest race on the planet.

‘My temperament suits the role – I’m not very moody,’ he says in an accent that blends his native Belgian with an American twang from time spent living in Colorado. ‘The job demands that you’re organised but you must be ready to think on your feet. If your mindset allows for changes and doesn’t become frustrated when it doesn’t work out ideally – which it never does – it’s much more relaxing.’

Tim Vanderjeugd relaxing

Noted psychologist Carol Dweck would term Vanderjeugd as having a ‘growth mindset’. Features of a growth mindset include not stressing about seeking perfection and not measuring your worth on one-off events. Anything can happen on the Tour, changing the team’s narrative in the time it takes to shift a gear. 

‘I learned when I began the job in 2011 that there’s no manual for press officers,’ Vanderjeugd says as we chat on the emptied team bus en route to the Pra Loup finish. 

The press officer is a cycling chameleon, seamlessly morphing between the hunted and hunter. Vanderjeugd was the point of contact to set up Cyclist shadowing the team at the Tour. That was us hounding him, however he is also proactive in seeking out media opportunities. He let the Chinese media loose on a £10,000 team Madone – ‘not usually allowed but they do have an audience in the millions’ – and got South American broadcasters together to interview Colombian climber Julián Arredondo. That introduces the final skill Vanderjeugd cites as essential for a WorldTour team’s press officer…

Talking the talk

Tim Vanderjeugd phonecall

‘I speak several languages,’ says Vanderjeugd, thankfully in English for this slightly ashamed sole-linguist writer. By several he means Dutch, English, French, Italian, Spanish, German and some Arabic. Come Pra Loup, after a disappointing day for the team in their search for a top seven GC spot (which they will achieve come Paris), Bauke Mollema crosses the line for his daily catch-up with the Dutch press. There, Vanderjeugd scribbles frantically: ‘Because it’s in Dutch, I am translating and shorthanding at the same time,’ he says afterwards.

It’s an essential skill for the frenetic theatre that is pro cycling’s press conferences and media scrums after each stage, where journalists from around the globe seek out a comment, a line, anything that will deliver the headlines their editors are after. 

It’s Vanderjeugd’s job to manage these often-fraught situations – swearing in multiple languages – which he admits haven’t been too manic at this Tour since Fabian Cancellara’s exit on Stage 3 while dressed in yellow. Mollema took on the team’s GC goals but, apart from Bob Jungels’ fourth on Stage 18, the team hasn’t threatened a stage victory. 

Tim Vanderjeugd phone

That meant the headlines and many of the global press have been elsewhere. It’s a far cry from the cobbled Classics. ‘When Fabian’s in Belgium the spectators and press jump on him. It took both of us a while to get used to that.’ 

Vanderjeugd also has to edit the conference highlights. ‘When Fabian won yellow [on Stage 2], he took 10 minutes to answer the first question. Even the journalist was like, “Wow, we don’t need a second question!” 

‘His press conferences also take longer because Fabian speaks so many languages [a pitiful five compared to Vanderjeugd’s seven]. Swiss TV has three interviews with him: one in French, one in Italian, one in German. Now, when we’re on the way to a press conference, I’ll throw questions at him I think the journalists will ask… and insist on a short answer.’

Deflecting doping

To manage press conferences, a band of press officers from different teams have set up a WhatsApp group ensuring, where possible, timings don’t clash. At the Classics, this has meant Trek avoiding the likes of, say, Quick-Step and Tom Boonen. At this Tour, as the race unfolds, every team avoids their conference clashing with Team Sky – especially in week three when cheating accusations are attracting an ever-growing and hungry news pack.

Tim Vanderjeugd chat

‘The press officer at Sky must have to shelter their riders a lot,’ says Vanderjeugd, not jealous of Sky’s perpetual requirement to fend off questions around doping. It’s a sad but sadly understandable state of affairs that today’s riders suffer from nefarious actions of the past. Respected journalists helped to elevate riders to godlike status, only to discover that they achieved it through cheating. It’s not hard to see why they eventually become cynics.

Vanderjeugd experienced his own taste of accusation and rhetoric in September 2013 when Chris Horner, racing for the RadioShack-Leopard team that evolved into Trek Factory Racing, became the oldest person to win a Grand Tour, claiming the Vuelta title a month before he turned 42. The result attracted suspicion, which grew into full-blown allegations just one day after victory when he missed an out-of-competition drug test.  

‘I had some work to do that morning,’ Vanderjeugd says with notable understatement. ‘Basically, Horner’s wife flew over to Madrid so he moved from the team hotel to stay with her. That’s fine – you just need to update your ADAMS.’ 

ADAMS – aka Anti-Doping Administration and Management System – is a computer program pro riders use to notify drug testers of their whereabouts. Riders must nominate a 60-minute slot between 5am and 11pm each day where testing can take place, which they can do online or via an app. They can alert testers to a change of venue up to one minute before the specified time slot, though only in emergencies. 

Tim Vanderjeugd meeting

‘Chris had done that but the Spanish doping controller hadn’t refreshed his ADAMS to see where Chris would be, so he looked at a version from a couple of days earlier and turned up at the team hotel. Of course, Chris wasn’t there. I knew what was coming so immediately I called him. By now, he was at Madrid airport preparing to fly back to America. Thankfully he sent a screenshot of the ADAMS just before he boarded, which was perfect as he was then offline for eight hours. 

‘Unfortunately, by then the tester had called a Spanish newspaper. That guy made a huge ethical mistake and I presume he was fired. Once we presented to the media what Chris had sent us, it cooled pretty quickly. It was a matter of activating journalistic reflex.’

Gentleman of the press

Vanderjeugd understands the mind of a journalist as he used to be one. He studied a Masters in Romantic Linguistics and Literature and undertook a post-graduate degree in journalism. Travel writing nurtured his love of languages, although he dabbled with cycling writing across numerous international magazines, notably interviewing Miguel Indurain and Cancellara. ‘That was probably how Trek caught up with me. I interviewed Fabian a couple of times, as well as the Schlecks.’ 

Tim Vanderjeugd soigneur

Vanderjeugd was ‘working’ in Lapland, staying in a cabin by a frozen lake and dog sledding when he noticed a missed call from Trek. ‘It was interesting because I hadn’t ever thought about becoming a press officer. I’ve always thought you won’t achieve much in life if you say no to things. Still, I won’t be doing this for the next 20 years [which would take him up to 53 years old]. You’re away from home for 200 days a year. I’m getting married soon and, when I look around, I see a lot of divorced men. 

‘A lot of these guys have always been in cycling so popping out of that bubble is understandably frightening. This is my fifth year but I wasn’t a racer so I have a different perspective. Still, I enjoy the freedom. You don’t have office hours and, for a week after the Tour, we all avoid each other, but it soon picks up again with phone calls, emails and texts.’

Communication is key to the role. Vanderjeugd starts the day by downloading the international press cuttings, including the staples of L’Équipe and La Gazzetta dello Sport, to catch up on the Tour’s coverage, particularly TFR’s column inches. 

Daan Luijkx, team manager of the now-defunct Vacansoleil-DCM, once told me that the Tour accounted for 90% of their annual media coverage. Vanderjeugd puts it more romantically. ‘A day in yellow is a day in gold,’ he says. That gold translated into a huge surge in Twitter, Facebook and website hits for the team. ‘Sadly, when Fabian crashed out, those numbers dropped.’ 

That’s despite Vanderjeugd and the press team’s best efforts. Vanderjeugd spends a lot of time on Twitter – unlike a distracted teenager, for work purposes – and has programmed it to search for keywords such as ‘Trek’, ‘Mollema’ and ‘Cancellara’ to see if the TFR community is growing. Which is all well and good but, in this digital age, the internet coverage at the world’s biggest event is sketchy at best, especially once the riders reach the Pyrenees and Alps. 

Tim Vanderjeugd laptop

On our drive to Pra Loup, we were hoping to watch live footage of the stage. Sadly, we were greeted with a pixellated streak of colour and not much else. It’s not ideal for watching, let alone when looking to provide social-media updates. It’s why many of the updates come from… Colorado. 

‘My colleague Anne Samplonius writes many of the race reports and tweets, while I’ll take images and get rider quotes and send them through. We hope to have a good report up within 45 minutes of the stage finish.’

Vanderjeugd also becomes part of the team’s physical narrative, working with the soigneur to deliver recovery drinks and gilets to the riders. And then it’s back to the team bus, back to the hotel, and back to managing media and promoting the team. For the team’s many followers, his efforts are appreciated. That sentiment doesn’t ring true a touch closer to home. 

‘Many of the team don’t think you’re working if you’re not sweating,’ he says with a smile. ‘But they know where I’m coming from. I provide a balance between getting them coverage but not hounding them. Ultimately, I love stories and this job is all about storytelling.
That and the 200 emails a day.’

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