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Crashes, rain jackets and words of wisdom: Riding with Total Direct Energie at the Tour de Yorkshire

Maria David
8 May 2019

Sitting in the team car on Stage 3 of the Tour de Yorkshire with the aspiring French squad

The bikes are all set, thanks to Nicholas and Vincent, the mechanics who have set everything in place for what is likely to be a challenging 132km ride from Bridlington to Scarborough.

With five categorised climbs on Yorkshire roads the stage will be testing, to say the least. Things are further compounded by the meteorological conditions.

Gale force winds and driving rain have been the order of the day, and the wind shows no sign of relenting as we line up in the convoy ready to follow the race.

An oil slick on the route at Silpho has led to a 15 minute delay to the start time, while the surface is being cleaned up. The same incident earlier saw the women's race neutralised and re-routed.

I join Nicolas Sourice, the mechanic, and team DS Benoit Genauzeau in the car and with a friendly 'bonjour' and we are finally ready to roll out of Bridlington.

In the last minute before the roll-out Jonathan Hivert is already riding back to the team car for assistance – a rain jacket is needed as the heavens have opened it is now bucketing down.

The weather has been an issue for the team. For Benoit, on his first visit to the Tour de Yorkshire, his overall impression of the race so far can be summed as 'la pluie' – rain.

Local assistance

Teams at the Tour de Yorkshire are offered a chaperone to assist with any additional needs, particularly when they are not familiar with the area or if language may be a barrier and they need subtle things explaining in a restaurant, like the difference between a Yorkshire pudding and chocolate pudding – though I am not sure if that forms part of an elite racing team’s diet.

Total Direct Energie took up the offer and have been helped by Graham, a Yorkshireman who is fluent in French. One of his tasks was to obtain more rain jackets, after the riders were completely soaked to the skin after the first day’s deluge. He also had to find extra massage beds for the team when they were caught short.

Nico hands Jonathan Hivert a rain jacket and a neck warmer, and the rider speeds off to join the rest of the pack. Meanwhile we head under the start gantry that volunteers are propping up with long umbrellas as it is about to cave in following the assault by the weather.

Multi-tasking at speed

The first thing that strikes me about being in the team car is the speed at which we race through the narrow streets of Bridlington old town to keep in synch with the convoy and to keep up with the riders. We round the corners at over 60kmh, passing the hardy crowds of spectators in the torrential rain.

I wave back at them, but at that speed they are a blur to me, and I am slightly concerned that I might get car sick – something that I have never experienced before.

'Have you been a guest in a team car before?' Benoit asks me. Maybe it’s the slightly anxious look on my face, and the way I am holding onto my seat that gives away my unfamiliarity with the situation.

The team car is equipped with three screens – the built-in Sat Nav, a tablet displaying the race route and another tablet showing ITV4 which is broadcasting the race. Plus there is race radio and the two-way radio to the riders.

There is a lot to do. Of course for Benoit, DS for 15 years now, multi-tasking across all devices while driving and passing team instructions is all second nature. He is not completely alone in carrying out the task. A second team car behind is being driven by the assistant sports director, Alexandre Bousseau.

Throughout the stage the two cars swap places as the race develops, and at times Nico and fellow mechanic Vincent, in team car number two throw the supply bag between the cars.

Tough times for Total Direct Energie

Things have not been so easy for Total Direct Energie lately. Team leader Niki Terpstra suffered severe concussion following a crash at the Tour of Flanders, and according to team doctor Hubert Long, has been making a good recovery. Currently training in Spain, the Dutchman hopes to restart racing at Les Quatre Jours de Dunkerque.

This week the team lost Axel Journiaux on the first day of the Tour de Yorkshire when he crashed on a speed bump and hurt his wrist, while on the previous day, on the stage into Bedale, Bryan Nauleau crashed in the rain and suffered multiple abrasions.

'We don’t really have a leader as such today, and our team is a little reduced,' points out Benoit. 'Romain Sicard and Paul Ourselin are our strongest riders and we will just take our chances and see what we can do,' he explains.

Conditions today are not dissimilar to those the previous week at Liege-Bastogne-Liege when, from a squad of seven riders, only Romain Sicard managed to reach the finish line, while the others abandoned for a variety of reasons, not least the cold having taken its toll on them. That was very much a day to forget.

Hopefully this week will not see a repeat of those circumstances.

Hard for riders and just as difficult for mechanics

For Nico, who has been with the team since 2012 (including with the development team) his job is to keep the bikes on the road and make sure the riders have what they need – which has been challenging.

'This week has been quite tough as we have had so much rain to deal with, and the roads are quite difficult. We have had to deal with a few crashes especially when getting through very narrow roads. It’s like a Classics race but harder because this is over a few days, where a Classic is just for one day.

'We also have to watch out and be mindful that in this weather lots of stones and debris can lead to more punctures.' Fitted with Hutchinson tyres on their Wilier bikes there should hopefully not be too many issues.

Team work and motivation

Benoit encourages his riders, advising them to take great care on the roads, stating what the terrain will be like, where the road will bend, go up or down, and from which direction there will be wind. He also gives them updates on where other riders are along the road, as well as instructions on tactics.

Very quickly we are into the countryside, going up the Cote de Silpho, where huge crowds line the hairpins, much like on an alpine climb.

At this point Romain Sicard is in the breakaway and Benoit enthusiastically encourages him to hang in there, while in turn imploring the other team members to work hard in their group to support their teammate who is up the road.

As the rain has now stopped Fabien Grellier is ready to remove his jacket, and we accelerate up to reach the rider and relieve him of his clothing. Benoit also takes the opportunity to motivate him. 'You must fight for this. Think about your teammate, Romain, who is really working hard at the front.'

Accelerating through these narrow roads and squeezing past other team cars, neutral service vehicles, media motorbikes and other riders at speed is quite a skill, and I have a lot of admiration for Benoit’s ability to get to where he needs to be quickly without any mishap.

Asked if he finds it any tougher driving Yorkshire roads, he says not at all. The main issue is just remembering to stay on the left – which isn’t an issue when the road is barely three metres wide.

Appreciating Yorkshire

We later have to do a wheel change as Alexandre Pichot suffers a puncture at East Ayton. Nico is able to remain calm under pressure and get the task done without delay.

In between these flurries of activity we are able to chat a little, while being alert and ready to respond to the constant information that comes over race radio.

Nico has come well stocked with refreshments for the guests, including a big box of cakes baked by his colleague, Vincent. 'He went to all the effort to bake those, so you’ve got to eat them all today,' jokes Benoit. I give it my best shot, but can only manage three.

The guys chat about friends of the team who get mentioned on the radio, notably former team members from when they were sponsored by Europcar such as Pierre Rolland, Kevin Reza and Thomas Voeckler, who joins the television commentary team.

As well as marvelling at the countryside, which the guys find spectacular and for which I give a mini guided tour from my knowledge as a Northerner, now turned Southerner, they comment on the huge crowds out in the street.

'We would never see this many people on the street for an equivalent level race in France,' Benoit comments. Although he is familiar with the Tour de Yorkshire, having followed it on television in the past, it is even more impressive to witness the crowds in the flesh, on this first visit to the race.

'It’s also good varied countryside so there is something for all the different types of rider.'

Ambitions and rumours

Being a French team, Total Direct Energie are more focused on the big races in their home country, notably the Tour de France, for which they have received a wildcard entry for this year’s edition. Furthermore, now being sponsored by one of the biggest corporations in France, Total, the team may well have bigger ambitions.

However, for Nico and Benoit, who have worked for this team under its various sponsors over the years as part of development teams as well as the ProContinental team, it is business as usual and nothing has changed. Benoit was keen to dispel any rumours around the team looking to sign Julian Alaphilippe.

'This is just a rumour mill. We get on with our work as normal, but I guess journalists are just looking for something to write about!' comments Benoit.

In terms of supporting riders there’s only a certain amount that a sports director can do, and sadly Romain Sicard and his fellow breakaway riders, including John Archibald (Ribble Pro Cycling), are caught by the big group, and Sicard is later dropped as the race begins to hot up after Whitby.

All Benoit can do is to give him a metaphorical pat on the back and encourage him to recover in the group behind and get ready for the final challenges over the climbs at Grosmont and Ugglebarnby before the final run into Scarborough.

The support doesn’t come without a mad dash through the lanes, with Benoit effing and blinding when trying to get past other vehicles, flinging his car around the corners and throwing it over the rises in the road to reach his riders and provide a final gel and encouraging words after Grosmont.

Subdued stage finish

It is part of Benoit’s remit to motivate his riders, but in the car the disappointment at not having anyone to contest the stage is apparent. The mood was slightly subdued, and the driving was more tame. On the plus side, my pulse lowered, and I was glad to have got through the lanes without feeling sick.

Back into Scarborough we hear the winner of the race announced as Alexander Kamp (Riwal-Readynez), with the combativity prize going to Romain Sicard’s erstwhile breakaway teamie John Archibald. Romain Sicard finishes in 40th place, behind Paul Ourselin who was 32nd.

As for Benoit’s summary of the day, 'Well, it wasn’t a good day at the office as Romain wasn’t able to stay with the front group. We have had some good results this year, but in recent weeks things haven’t gone so well.'

So after a late finish in Scarborough the guys have an early start the following morning to make the 140km transfer to the start of the final stage. The team have had someone in a breakaway on every stage and tomorrow is their last chance to see if they can get something from this last tango in Halifax.

It was interesting to get an insight into this team, which has had strong and popular riders over the years like Voeckler, Rolland and Sylvain Chavanel and I look forward to seeing how they get on in their coming races, notably the Tour of Madrid, the Les Quatre Jours de Dunkerque and of course the Tour de France.

Thanks

Thanks to Total Direct Energie for welcoming Maria as a guest for Stage 3 of the Tour de Yorkshire, and also to Hutchinson Tires for arranging it: hutchinsontires.com

Photos: Total Direct Energie website, Maria David

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