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Tanel Kangert: the view from the inside

Mark Bailey
20 Jul 2016

After three gruelling weeks at the Tour de France, Astana domestique Tanel Kangert tells us what life is really like at the Tour.

On the sweltering 18km climb to Chamrousse at the end of stage 13 of the 2014 Tour de France, Tanel Kangert, an Estonian domestique making his Tour de France debut, glanced over his shoulder and realised he was the only remaining Astana rider who could help his team-mate and yellow jersey holder Vincenzo Nibali. The lead group was nearing the end of a 197.5km Alpine stage from Saint-Étienne, the temperature was nudging 36°C, and team-mates Jakob Fuglsang and Michele Scarponi had been tailed off further down the mountain. 

As the tension grew, the Movistar team, scenting an opportunity, cranked up the pace in support of Alejandro Valverde. It was then that Kangert – lips parched, unzipped jersey flapping in the breeze, and with a motorbike cameraman up ahead beaming live footage of the drama to 190 countries around the globe – did what was expected of him: he moved to the front of the group and cranked it up some more. 

With the blistering pace and ferocious heat, soon Team Sky’s Richie Porte was dropping off the back. By the time Valverde made his attack, Nibali was ready to take charge: the Italian hunted him down, overtook the other escapees and surged uphill to a memorable stage victory. 

This brutal effort was just one of many contributions Kangert made during Nibali’s victorious 2014 Tour, though it was far from his most spectacular – the work he did in the Pyrenees was more prolonged and decisive. But it’s the kind of supporting effort that the Estonian, who finished 20th in the general classification, ahead of Porte, Geraint Thomas and other experienced riders, remembers when reflecting on his Tour de France debut.  

Highs and lows

‘Stage 13 was a very good day for us because Vincenzo won, but it was bittersweet because Jakob crashed and I knew I was the only one who could try to do something for Vincenzo,’ says 27-year-old Kangert, who lives in the cycling mecca of Girona with his girlfriend Silvia. ‘When the final climb started, Movistar went full gas and managed to break the group up, but when there were 20 riders I started to work. My goal was to make sure nobody attacked and to let Vincenzo stay on my wheel and catch his breath so he could choose his time to attack.’ 

Not even Kangert gets a whisper in his ear from Nibali before a big move. ‘It is not in Vincenzo’s style to say when he is going to go because he likes to improvise, to look at the situation and to attack. But I have to thank Vincenzo because so many times he attacked so early I didn’t have to work so much. I think I had the easiest role in our team.’

It’s a comment that underlines the sort of modesty and humility we expect from a loyal domestique – the GC winner is supposed to thank his team-mates, not the other way round – but Nibali clearly knows the value of his support crew. ‘When you do a good job, Vincenzo gives you a clap on the shoulder or a “well done”, but I don’t think he has to thank us every day because it’s our job,’ says Kangert.

With his lean 5ft 10in, 65kg physique and fearsome climbing power, Kangert is an ideal lieutenant for the mountain stages of Grand Tours, but many riders can be intimidated on their Tour de France debuts. Geraint Thomas admitted, ‘Every day I was on my knees.’ Mark Cavendish realised his first Tour was 5kmh faster than any race he’d done before. Bradley Wiggins confessed he just wanted to ‘keep my head down, do my job for the team and get around’. But having arrived in France on the back of stellar support roles in the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a Espana last year, in which he finished 13th and 11th respectively, Kangert was more battle-hardened than most newbies. 

‘Really the Tour de France isn’t so different to other Grand Tours – it’s the media attention and the fans that make it so big,’ he says. ‘I do think the speed is definitely a bit quicker, though. In the Giro nobody wants to go on a breakaway but some guys have to show their jersey or get points for the mountain classification. In the Tour, if anybody is in the breakaway it’s because they want to be there, so the tempo is always higher. The other thing is everyone has timed their training to be in perfect shape for the Tour so everyone is a little bit faster.’

Kangert derives this opinion from scientific analysis of how many books he completes on a Grand Tour. ‘This year at the Tour I got through one book, The Rosie Project [by Graeme Simsion], but on the Giro I finished three books. There is definitely a correlation between tiredness and book-reading.’

However, the Estonian knew his Tour de France experience would be tough when Astana coach Paolo Slongo first sent him Nibali’s training plans and he was ordered to match them. ‘I spent much more time in training camps and much more time at altitude before the Tour,’ he says. ‘We were in Tenerife for two weeks before the Dauphiné, then again for 10 days after the Dauphiné, plus some time in the Dolomites, and I spent time sleeping in a hypoxic [altitude] tent at home too.’

Despite his physical preparation, Kangert was still worried when Nibali took the yellow jersey on stage two in Sheffield. Astana would ultimately go on to defend the jersey every single day, except stage nine when Lotto Belisol’s Tony Gallopin wore yellow. ‘I was expecting we would have to ride hard to protect the jersey but I didn’t expect that to be after the second stage,’ he says. ‘It was like we were at the Vuelta again. Last year we were protecting the jersey for the whole race [13 of the first 18 stages] but then lost it right at the end [to Radioshack’s Chris Horner]. We felt very bitter. But I knew Vincenzo was strong so I felt confident.’

The Grand Départ in Yorkshire and London provided Kangert with some unique memories from his first Tour. ‘It was spectacular,’ he says. ‘I have never seen such big crowds. On the first stage it was shocking, even. Especially when we saw the Royal Family. On the climbs in Yorkshire people were standing in 10 lines just to see the peloton pass for 40 seconds. It was hard to find a free place to stop for a piss. London was amazing too. I met with my sister Elen, who lives there, and to ride past all the monuments on closed roads was a very special experience.’

Kangert was at times amazed and bewildered by the lunacy of Tour de France spectators. ‘I saw more Estonian flags than in any other race I have done,’ he says. ‘Or maybe they were the same group travelling around? Sometimes you do see the funny costumes and the horses riding next to us and it’s fantastic. But when people in silly costumes run on the road we might really need those five centimetres. Or when a guy just pulls his pants down it is not fun anymore.’

Many riders suffer from the daily grind of long bus transfers, uncomfortable hotel beds and relentless carb-loading, but Kangert was surprisingly content with his first Tour experience. ‘Apart from the performance side it is pretty stress free,’ he says, chuckling. ‘Everything is done for you. You don’t wash your clothes. You don’t cook your food. You don’t carry your suitcase. You don’t plan. The only thing I have to do is wake up in the morning,
eat a little breakfast and ride my bike.’

Riding 3,664km over 21 stages is no doubt more gruelling than Kangert calmly suggests, but successful riders need this blend of emotional equanimity and perspective to get through each day. ‘I don’t like to get stressed. It is better to be calm,’ he says. Small details are prepared well in advance to smooth the journey – like sharing with the right room-mate. ‘I shared with Jakob and it is important that the riders get on. If one guy wakes up at 7.30am and I want to sleep until 9am it is no good.’ 

Away from the action on the road, Kangert’s daily doses of normality came from browsing the internet, speaking to his girlfriend, or chatting to his soigneur. ‘The soigneurs know the riders – some want to talk about cycling, others about music, family or anything else,’ he says.  

His biggest irritation was the threat of early-morning doping controls. ‘You go to bed and think: if I have doping control, please don’t let it be too early because I need sleep.’ Over time the aches and pains began to mount up. ‘In the end I didn’t feel completely empty but I had quite a few minor injuries, and a few pains in my Achilles and knee. I crashed on stage seven and had pain in my sides too. But when your legs hurt you just remind yourself that the other guys in your team are suffering too.’ 

Kangert remains most proud of the stages in which the team worked well as a unit. ‘I will always remember stage 18 in the Pyrenees, which Vincenzo won,’ he says. ‘We had a plan and at the end we all thought, “Wow, everything worked exactly as we planned.” We knew everything: how many minutes can a breakaway have at the start of the final climb? How many guys can we let get away and who? It was a great team effort and we finished it perfectly.’ 

The cobbles on stage five provided a new challenge for Kangert but the Astana team were suitably prepared – they used 28mm tyres and had recced the route before. ‘The pavé was fine. You have to think about the crowd – this is a circus and they want a good show,’ he says. Although Chris Froome crashed out on stage five and Alberto Contador would later tumble out on stage 10, Kangert believes the cobbled stage proved Nibali was the best. ‘You have to be a complete bike rider to win: good bike-handling, good bunch position, strong attacks, good climbing and an ability to suffer. We saw that day that Vincenzo is the complete bike rider.’

Kangert says the Pyrenean climbs were hard work, and the 237.5km stage 16 from Carcassonne to Bagnères-de-Luchon was intensified by cross winds, but believes the time-trial (stage 20) was his toughest challenge. ‘I completely destroyed myself. I was in pain already but on that stage I really hurt myself. It was hot and it was long [54km]. I have never had cramps in a time-trial before. I would have liked a top 10 finish but was happy with 18th.’

It’s hard to imagine the emotions a Tour debutant must feel when he crosses the finish line for the first time, after 3,664km of pain and suffering. Kangert finished in a time of 90 hours, 51 minutes and 17 seconds. But with an insight into the unique spirit that makes domestiques indispensable to team leaders such as Nibali, Kangert says he felt underwhelmed. ‘If I am honest, before the final stage I was thinking what would it be like on the Champs Élysées? Will I have one moment when I think, “Wow, we have really won, and all that hard work paid off”? In the end I thought, “This is very nice; I am very proud; we are done. What next?”’ 

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