In an excerpt from David Millar's book, The Racer, we get to experience what it's like to be in an echelon at the highest level of bike racing and the chaos and carnage it creates...
2014 Vuelta Espana - Stage 5
We ride up into the village on a big, gentle, rising road, the pace lifting a little as we do so, which is normal. It certainly doesn’t feel like the beginning of something bad. As we enter the village everything slows down, the width of the modern road disappearing as we pass narrowly between the centuries- old buildings on either side of the main street that takes up through the village. Then the road turns an abrupt right-angle and begins to climb rather than rise, and with it the tarmac turns to cobblestones. In that moment the peloton loses all semblance it previously had of a wandering desert caravan and all of a sudden becomes a stretched and breaking piece of string.
I catch a glimpse of the front of the bunch. It’s yellow, and they are moving with conviction. It’s Alberto Contador’s team. What the fuck are they doing racing on a sprinters’ stage? Oh shit. They know something we don’t.
I think I manage to reach my radio microphone to shout, ‘MOVE UP! MOVE UP! SAXO ARE GOING!’, then move out of the line and sprint as hard as I can up the outside, trying to move up as many places as I can before we get to the exit of the village, because Saxo will only be doing this if they know there’s something awaiting us on the exit.
There’s only one thing it can be: crosswind.
And that means trouble. Crosswinds rip the peloton to pieces, forming scattered echelons of riders. If you’re not in an echelon, you’re in the gutter, because instead of the slipstream being directly behind the racer, it is slightly to the side. If the wind is coming from the right, you’ll find the slipstream to the left of the racer you’re following, and vice versa. You’ll position your front wheel next to their back wheel, instead of directly in line behind as you would in normal conditions. This means that the number of riders in each echelon is dictated by the width of the road. A road can only accommodate so many riders racing in this diagonal formation until it reaches the gutter, then unless you manage to make it back into the rotating formation you will be spat out the back where there is no protection from the wind. Very rarely can one rider match the speed of an echelon, so once spat out into the no man’s land between echelons you simply bide your time and wait to jump into the rotation of the echelon that is inevitably chasing behind. If you can, that is. I’ve never let Christian Vande Velde forget his own Day of Shame in one particular Paris–Nice where he got spat through three echelons.
All of us have experienced it in one form or another at some point in our careers. Stuck out there in no man’s land watching your previous group disappear up the road into the distance before switching your attention to what’s coming up from behind; repeatedly looking over your shoulder at the rapidly approaching group; getting psyched up while trying to recover from your very recent explosion; then giving another glance over the shoulder in order to perfectly time your sprint up to their speed only to realise you’re actually going a lot slower than you thought you were and they’re already right there on top of you and it’s too late to scrap your way in. You’re bashed about the road as that group shouts and dodges or pushes you out of their way and then, all of a sudden, the stampede is over and you’re left out there in the windy, lonely badlands watching that group disappear up the road ahead into the distance, and you begin the whole process again. That was Christian. Three times on one Paris–Nice stage.
So, at moments like this, you can’t think, you just have to go. It doesn’t matter that I’m looking after our general classification leaders – they have to be acting in exactly the same way as I am, because if any of us hesitates now, when we are clearly too far back and scattered, then we don’t stand a chance. The first few minutes of entry into crosswinds are about self- preservation: you have to try and make it . . . have-to-have-to-have-to. The more experienced we are the more we recognise the action required and the decimation that’s coming, all the time hoping beyond hope that when it does happen it happens behind us.
The beginning of it is brutal. It’s a flat-out effort that continues until you blow up, unless you make it into the echelon; the closer you are to the front the shorter the effort because it will take you less time to find yourself in the sanctuary of slipstreams. The team, or riders, that have created the echelon will be turning like machines on the front of the peloton, protecting each other in their echelon. Behind, it’s chaos: nobody helps anybody until they have to. Which is normally provoked by the realisation that they can’t do it on their own.
If you’re strong and you’ve been caught out you find yourself dodging the riders in front of you who can’t hold the wheel and so let the gap open. There’s no point in teaming up with them because they’ve blown up and are slowing down, so you give everything you have to try to make it to the wheel they just got dropped from. It’s double or nothing, full commitment to make it, deep into the red, in the knowledge that if you don’t make it you’re going to have destroyed yourself in the process. If that happens you’ll have no choice but to slow down to give yourself time to recover, by which time you’ll be in a group of similarly exploded guys who didn’t make it, with the front of the race disappearing over the horizon.
This all starts to happen as we leave the village. Saxo have had the intelligence and confidence to surprise the peloton; they’ve strung us out before we’ve even left the village, meaning that when we hit the crosswinds (that we don’t even know about) we are like lambs to the slaughter. Almost nobody in the peloton has considered crosswinds affecting the race. Contador’s team must have had an intelligent ex-racer (Andreas Klier-style) in a recon car in front of the race. They must have seen that village and the conditions on the exit and realised that if done with full commitment they could, on this calmest of days, create a storm.
I watch it all unfold. We exit the village strung out into a long, straight, descending road, the speed constantly increasing to the point where I enter the Suck, only focusing on the wheel in front of me, everything else blurring. I sense the wheel I’m concentrating on losing speed. I glance up and see they are losing the wheel in front of them. FUCK. Thankfully the rider knows to move over to give me a chance to try to close it myself – that move in itself is what every pro should do. It gives me a chance, and it totally ends his chances, because as soon as he does it he knows he will be getting pushed and shoved and refused entry back into the rapidly disintegrating line out. He is no longer moving forwards, only backwards.
Eventually groups start to form, the gaps between riders being too big to close individually, and that’s when the echelons form. It goes back to game theory: you have to make friends, lose alone or stand a chance together. It’s at this moment that I start to figure out where I am, and, more importantly, where Ryder and Dan are.
The only teammate I have near me is Talansky. He asks me what we should do. I say, ‘Where are they?’ He knows who I mean and replies,‘I think Dan’s here.’
I get on the radio, ‘Dan, are you here? Can you see me?’ I’m near the front so can see all the riders ahead of me in the group. He isn’t there, so it is up to him to spot me because I can’t keep looking behind as it’s too dangerous amid the chaos and stress; everybody is so cross-eyed from the effort that their spatial awareness can’t be trusted. Everything is strung out and in pieces; even if I did trust the battered riders around me, looking behind won’t help because it’s impossible to see who is where, everybody has their head down trying to hide from the wind, tucked as closely to the wheel in front of them as they can be.
There’s no answer. Ryder comes on the radio: ‘FUCK! Where are you?’ Oh shit.
‘Ryder, we’re in the second group. Where are you?’ I fear the worse.
‘I’m behind you guys. Where are you?’ I don’t respond directly. Instead I try to confirm that Dan is here. Dan has to be here. He’s Stephen Roche’s nephew; he’s not called Crosswinds Dan for nothing, for fuck’s sake. (The name has stuck since Dan’s first race with Garmin the previous year, battling through the mistral in Provence where Dan, fresh on the team and improbably team leader, had announced to Whitey – Matt White, the directeur sportif – with all the nonchalance in the world, that no one need worry about him, he was ‘one of the best in crosswinds’, something of a specialist in fact. Sure enough, within the first hour of racing, Dan was out the back in the first crosswind section, face covered in spit and snot, with his saddle halfway up his arse and his nose on the handlebars. The peloton up the road ahead was oblivious to the fact that the Garmin team leader had already been dropped. Whitey pulled up next to him, rolled down the window and shouted in his cheery Aussie manner, ‘Crosswinds Dan! How ya doin’, mate?’) Anyhow, now I’m losing my cool at his lack of response, especially as Ryder is clear as day on the radio, and he isn’t even in our group. ‘DAN, JUST TELL ME YOU’RE FUCKING HERE.’ I can’t understand why he isn’t answering.
Then the directeur sportif comes on the radio: ‘David! Dan is with you, Ryder is behind.’ Thank God, now I know we have no choice. I find Talansky, ‘Gotta close the gap. I’ll get it as close as I can. When we hit the hill you go with Dan.’ I know from the profile that we have a ten-kilometre gradual climb coming up – what had been an insignificant element to the profile now becomes the saviour of our race. There is no point in both of us riding as we have limited resources, and other teams are in the same mess. I was one of the fastest bike riders in the world on the flat: I figure I may as well give everything I have on my terrain. I’m not alone: Trek are in the same boat, their general classification rider is in our group and he only has one teammate with him. Fortunately he is a weapon, Fabian Cancellara.
So, unlike in the past when we always raced against each other, Fabian and I find ourselves in a two-up time trial chasing down the front group, urging each other on, pushing each other when we have to. We go so deep. Others start to join us, but not for long. In one of the respites I look behind and still can’t see Dan and still haven’t heard anything from him on the radio. I lose my shit, and drop back looking for him. He has to be sitting up near the front to be ready to counter with Talansky when we get close.
I have to go so far back to find him, everything is so strung out, and when I do find him I shout, ‘Fuck sake, Dan! You have to be at the front. Come on, let’s go.’ I battle my way back up to the front with him on my wheel. When we get there I tell him, ‘Stay with Talansky, you two go on the climb.’ I then go back to chasing. At the same time Ryder comes on the radio again: ‘Guys, I need help back here!’
I hate having to tell him over the radio, ‘Ryder, we can’t wait.’ He is one of my best friends and I am the one having to tell him we aren’t going to help him. What is bad for Ryder is good for Dan, because I know at that moment we have no choice but to fix it. I can’t get to the finish, having sacrificed Ryder for a failed attempt to save Dan. I ride out of my skin the next kilometres; everybody starts giving up, and before long I am on my own on the front slowly bringing the group back. I am so far over my limit I know I only have a few minutes left till I nuke and will be incapable of helping myself let alone anybody else, but the gap is closing and I know that if I get it to within a handful of seconds when we hit the climb Talansky and Dan can do the rest on their own.
I peel off when we hit the climb, the group in front within reaching distance. As I peel off, Talansky and Dan set off in pursuit, Talansky giving everything he has, ultimately exploding himself, just as I’ve done, but only when he’s got Dan back to where he has to be.
Ryder never makes it back. He passes me (an empty shell by then) not long after I’ve peeled off and come to a near stand- still. I’m incapable of giving him the slightest bit of help. Talansky, on the other hand, has recovered enough from his effort helping Dan that when Ryder gets up to him he is able to help him to the finish. It is a seminal moment for Andrew; he shows what he is capable of as a loyal teammate when the chips are down. That is something we haven’t been sure of until now. He gains more respect from us this day than any victory could bring.