The Racer - Flanders Extract - Part III

The Racer - Flanders Extract - Part III

To celebrate the Tour of Flanders we'll be running three excerpts from The Racer about the great race. The book focuses on the 2014 season but thanks to the legend that is Graham Watson, we've been given a hand-selected set of images from the last 40 years to bring these stories to life. Graham's ability to bring life to a race from a still image are unrivalled and we're incredibly grateful for him sharing his archive with us. You can visit Graham's site to browse more incredible stills or even buy yourself a print.

See more of Graham Watson's photography.

Tour of Flanders

Ghent–Wevelgem was full of these stupid crashes. Coming into the final obstacle of the day, the Kemmelberg, I was caught up behind one such nonsensical crash. We were on a big straight road going slightly uphill, so not exactly a high-risk zone. One minute I was racing along, the next I was in a pile on the floor. I wasn’t even hurt. I just lay there on the floor thinking, ‘I’m too old for this shit.’ By the time I was up and rolling again the race was long gone. I rode over the Kemmelberg and stopped at the top, where I saw one of our team staff and told him I was done for the day. The Australian Matt Goss, who rides for Orica-GreenEDGE, pulled over with me and asked,‘How you getting back, Dave?’ I told him, ‘I’m not riding back, that’s for sure. We have a team car here, you need a lift?’ This was an unnecessary question as it was obvious he needed a lift back to the finish. So the two of us cruised to where all team cars were parked and loaded our bikes on to the roof and sat on the bumper and whinged about how many stupid crashes there are these days in pro cycling.

We must have been a sorry sight. The fans kept double- taking as they walked past, returning to their own cars, seeing us perched there in full race kit, not exactly radiating excellence. We didn’t care by that point, we just wanted out of there.

It’s an interesting phenomenon in the Flanders races that when you’re dropped out of the front groups you may as well be completely out of the race. Due to the crazy nature of the race routes there are rolling road closures, meaning it doesn’t take long before you find yourself back on open roads with traffic. When the weather is bad, which it often is, you risk being abandoned in Flanders farmland – wet, cold, exhausted and with no idea of where you are or where you need to go, like a wounded animal left behind by the herd.

It’s for this reason the Flandrian fans are accustomed to rescuing random stray pro racers and piling them into their cars to drive them back to the finish. The fact that this process is so normal for them is always a little unnerving – being such avid fans they often know more about you than you do yourself, so it’s actually like being picked up by an old friend. Well, if that old friend knew everything about your cycling career and also had strident opinions about every other cyclist, team or manager and wanted to share them with you and ascertain your opinion on each matter. Reminds me of the film Misery. Only in Belgium.

After Ghent–Wevelgem we get our first real rest since before Tirreno–Adriatico. It’s not long, only six days, but it’s needed in preparation for one of the biggest races of the year, the Tour of Flanders. This is the race that all the smaller Flanders Classics have been building towards, the results of which will be dictating each team’s leaders and tactics, as well as the journalists’ and fans’ expectations.

It’s a race like no other. The word epic gets bandied about way too much in cycling these days, but Flanders deserves that description. Every pro racer who takes part in it is left with a sense of awe. It’s the second Monument of the year, and couldn’t be more different from the first. The only thing Milan–San Remo and the Tour of Flanders have in common is the fact they both start and finish in different towns. A map of the route for Milan– San Remo it pretty straightforward, easy to understand; the route map for the Tour of Flanders, on the other hand, looks like a two-year-old has been left alone in a dark room with some paper and a pen.

We have our team meeting in the conference room at the Europa Hotel. We’ve turned it into our communal room for the duration of our stay. It has sofas, and two tables filled with healthy snacks – biscuits and Nutella, etc., were banned a couple of years ago after a rider put on five kilogrammes during the Classics campaign; that’s what happens when a pro cyclist’s addictive personality uses food for comfort – and boxes of cereal, protein powders, recovery drinks, a coffee machine, and a fridge with yoghurt, milk and pomegranate juice or whatever else is the latest trend. It’s where we go to sit and nibble on nuts or dried fruit or bowls of cereal when the cabin fever of our hotel rooms becomes too much.

We sit there in silence looking at our phone or the computer we’ve brought down with us. Maybe while we’re doing that one of our teammates will come in and quietly mull over what to eat or drink, trying to decide whether they are actually hungry or not. They come to the conclusion they’re not, so have a yoghurt and make a coffee before sitting down to stare at their phone. Then one of us will get up and return to the sanctuary of our hotel room, realising solitary confinement is preferable to what feels like a communal prison. By the end of the Classics campaign we are institutionalised: our hotel rooms have become our homes; the communal food area becomes a dangerous place, the risk too big that you might actually have to talk to someone.

The team meetings are the only time the communal room has any sense of actual community. It’s certainly the only time all the riders are in there at once. Andreas Klier and Geert Van Bondt are our directeurs. They have two different roles: Andreas dictates tactics, while Geert directs logistics. Both are ex-professional racers, as is almost always the case with directeur sportifs in cycling. There are two principal reasons for this: the first being that it would be very difficult to make tactical plans for a race that you have never actually competed in, and, secondly, bike racers don’t like being told what to do in a bike race by somebody who has never done a bike race. We’re a bit small-minded in that regard.

Andreas has become a good friend since he arrived on the team in 2011. He’s German (although he’ll correct that quickly to Bavarian), now lives in Mallorca and has more of a Spanish than Germanic attitude to life. He was a Classics specialist, to the degree that when he first turned professional he decided he would move to Flanders in order to completely immerse himself in the region, to become a true Flandrian. He learnt Flemish and got to know all the roads so well he ended up being nicknamed ‘the Human GPS’. As for the races themselves, he has done them so many times he can predict outcomes in advance: depending on the weather, the course design and the teams and riders present he will be able to deduce incredibly closely how the race will unfold.

He retired in 2013 after Paris–Roubaix, which, being a Classics specialist, he considered to be the end of the season anyway. I think it’s for this reason that, although Andreas and I had been professionals in the same era, we’d never actually said a word to each other until he arrived at Garmin. I’d usually be starting my season properly just as he was winding his down; we were on different teams racing different programmes and we didn’t have much in common apart from being called profes- sional cyclists. That is quite normal: it’s possible to go through a decade of racing against guys you’ve never spoken to.

It is Andreas’ job to select the teams for the Classics and decide on the tactics. Without fail, no matter what my physical condition, he makes me road captain, trusting me to action his plan and keep everybody on a tight leash and lead by example by always doing what he asks. Almost as importantly, he can rely on me to report back to him objectively when we debrief a day’s race over a pre-dinner beer. I always tell him exactly how I was, good or bad, and I can also tell him how the rest of the team were, because, no matter how much experience Andreas has or how perceptive he is, he can’t see much from a car in a convoy behind the race, and he certainly can’t completely trust what each rider will tell him. Some guys would rather blatantly lie about their day’s racing than admit they’ve had a shocker. Others are so delusional they will be convinced they had a great day when they were at best average. Then there are the guys who are amazing and are totally oblivious to it – the Ramūnus Navardauskases of this world.

Our team is not very stacked when it comes to leaders. This is both good and bad. Obviously the more great riders a team has the more chance there is of success, but this is a two- edged sword, because a team with all chiefs and no Indians can potentially be its own worst enemy. Domestiques are a necessity in cycling. Domestiques shape the race, controlling the situation by neutralising threats, or tiring the peloton until their leader is ready to do battle with the other leaders in the finale, when it becomes mano a mano. Some teams are powerful enough to have super-domestiques or loyal lieutenants to chaperone their leaders, even in this final stage of the race. This isn’t as common as you’d think, though, because the likelihood of having two riders from the same team make it into the finale is small, no matter how strong they are. The simple laws of probability reduce the numbers; for this reason it’s all the more remarkable that the same riders are racing for the win without fail year after year. Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara are the kings of this. By the time Fabian finished his 2014 Classics campaign he had the ridiculous stat of having been on the podium in the previous eleven Monuments he had finished. That was a phenomeral feat.

Our team for 2014, with roles allocated by Andreas, is as follows:

 Sebastian Langeveld, Leader (Netherlands) Johan Vansummeren, Protected Rider (Belgium) Tyler Farrar, Protected Rider (USA)

Dylan van Baarle, Protected Rider (Netherlands) Jack Bauer, Domestique (New Zealand)

Raymond Kreder, Domestique (Netherlands) Steele Von Hoff, Domestique (Australia)

Me, Road Captain (GB)

 It is Raymond and Steele’s job to cover the first fifty kilo- metres of the Tour of Flanders. This is where attacking will take place, with certain teams trying to get in a break while others are more concerned about preventing a dangerous group slipping away. We fall into the latter category. This means choosing two or three important teams and marking them. We choose Quickstep and Lotto, so if one of their riders attacks off the front of the race we go with them. We know that if those two teams aren’t in the break then at some point later in the race they will assume respon- sibility to chase it down. With both teams being from Belgium it is their most important race of the year, and we’ll play on that fact.

We have been using a similar tactic in the Classics leading up to the Tour of Flanders. I’ve been teaching Steele the art of covering attacks in this manner, something he has never done before. It’s pretty simple: all you have to do is switch your brain to a defensive style of attacking, which means always reacting and never acting. You surf the peloton, flowing from one wheel to another without ever actually putting your nose in the wind, yet always being near enough to the front to have open road to launch off if required. If you relax a bit you’ll find yourself sucked further back in the bunch, surrounded by riders, unable to react when you see one of your targets move. By keeping it to two prominent teams it is relatively simple: you stop thinking about individual riders and only concentrate on the jerseys of those teams. If a Lotto jumps, you jump; similarly with a Quickstep. The most important part of this is never to hesitate, because if you hesitate the gap will open and you’ll have to work harder to close it down. The faster you react, the easier it is. It takes a few races to get good at this, and it hurts like hell at first, but if you’re fit it doesn’t take long for your body to adapt to the repeated sprint efforts.

The majority of big teams will be employing a similar tactic. They’ll have two, or maximum three, riders assigned for early duty, and each big team will have identified teams to neutralise. Lotto will be marking Quickstep, and vice versa; both of these teams will be marking Team Sky and Trek. Team Sky and Trek will both be marking Quickstep and Lotto and each other. So it will end up being quite a protracted shoot-out until finally a move ‘slips’ away, minus the key teams and of the right size. That will be another order given to the domestiques on this early shift: do NOT let a group of more than ten riders go, no matter what team is in it. Anything over ten riders can become difficult to bring back – like a team time trial, the more riders in a group working together the more recovery time they get, which will make it easier for them to ride faster for longer and stand more chance of making it to the finish.

It’s fair to say that the majority of riders in this initial battle will not be interested in actually escaping; their job is to make sure the right breakaway goes. On average, after forty-five minutes, they’re all quite fucked from marking each other out, and an invisible white flag is flown and the perfect small group will get its gap and begin its long day out, destined to be reeled back in before the finish. It’s because of this inevitability that the last order for the domestiques will have been not to be in a break of five riders or less, because of it having almost zero chance of success. The team would rather have that domestique back in the peloton working for his teammates than up the road on a hiding to nothing.

While Raymond and Steele are covering this first part of the race it’s mine and Jack’s job to look after our four protected riders. We are split into two groups of three; it’s my responsi- bility to look after Sebastian and Dylan, while Jack has Tyler and Johan. Groups of three are easier for us to manage, as the start is always frantic. Three of us makes for a tighter and more organ- ised group; it’s also less demanding mentally in this early part of the race, as we can flow easily within the peloton. The first feedzone comes at 100 kilometres, and from that moment we’re to ride as one united team.

Our first danger point comes at 109 kilometres – the Oude Kwaremont, one of the most famous climbs in cycling. It’s only two kilometres long but is cobbled the whole way, and is as iconic in Belgium as l’Alpe d’Huez is in France. Approaching the Kwaremont, Raymond and Steele join Jack and me to protect our four other riders. This, like the Turchino in Milan–San Remo, is a moment when we try to avoid incidents and accidents rather than expect action.

Like all Flandrian races the focus is on positioning. We have grown accustomed to this in the Classics leading up to the Ronde, but then it becomes even more extreme on this: the big day. This is due to the climbs being cordoned off to prevent the vast number of fans at the side of the road infringing on the racers. So the smooth gutters at the edge of the road that we’ve used when racing the same hellingen in the weeks before no longer exist. Now the peloton is bigger, the pressure higher, the rewards greater, and the roads narrower. For this reason it’s of even greater importance than normal to be well placed into each and every key moment.

When Andreas was racing he was the absolute master of being in the right place at the right time. Nobody thought of him as the strongest, yet everybody considered him to be the smartest. His was the wheel to have – that is, if you could get it. Some riders and teams would base their race on marking Klier; he was the ultimate guide through the bedlam. This skill was the fruit of his Flemish labours – he had taught himself to be more of a Flandrian than any other, born or bred.

Unlike many, he has always shared his knowledge with teammates. To the degree that in the second half of his career, and while still a rider, he found himself effectively leading team meetings and calling the shots. Everyone bowed to his knowledge. When it came to the Flanders Classics he was constantly the smartest guy in the room. The reason he was allowed to lead team meetings while still a rider was because he never posed a threat to anybody. This was due to him being a lovely man: there is little to no ego and he genuinely cares about people which, considering the domain he excels in, is something of an exception.

Most directeur sportifs forget within a matter of months of retirement from racing what it was like to be a rider. I’ve only known two who have remained truly empathetic to what it’s like to be out there doing it: Matt White and Andreas Klier.

This is what makes Whitey and Klier so much better than everybody else out there: they remain fully aware of the difficul- ties involved in being a pro bike racer during the race. As racers we always joke about how easy it must be to make decisions in the team car – some directeurs order us to act as if it’s a computer game, oblivious to the fact that’s the easiest way to lose the respect of your riders. Whitey and Klier are, suitably, the only two direct- eurs I know who we’ve given nicknames to: ‘Whitey’ because he’s Aussie; and ‘Klier’ because we needed to give him a nickname and the only thing we could think of was his surname, which makes him sound hard and German, which mostly he isn’t.

Yet when it comes to strategy Andreas is so German. He’ll break the race up into sections and give them different levels of difficulty. He’ll allow us moments to relax and others where we have no choice but to be fully engaged at the very front of the race. There are even moments in the first 100 kilometres where we congregate at the front as a team at a relatively non- stressful moment, preventing us from slipping into complacency or switching off completely in the calm before the storm, and so reminding us of what’s coming. This is where both Whitey and Klier are different from all other directeurs: they remember we can’t be switched on all the time; they remember what it was like to be out there on the bike, in the race.

We have moments in the race that Andreas refers to as ‘red alarms’. He doesn’t use yellow or orange: it’s straight to red. These are pivotal moments where the race won’t be won, but it could most certainly be lost. We have had three red alarms before we get to the holy mother of moments: the Taaienberg cobbled climb at 223 kilometres. This is crunch time. Being such an important moment it can be called only one thing on Planet Andreas Klier: a dark red alarm.

Unfortunately, before even getting there we already have our own dark red alarm. Sebastian has been caught up behind a crash just as the final phase of the race is beginning. I wait for him and call on Steele to do the same. Eventually we get him going again, and I start to bring him back in as controlled a manner as I can. The nature of the Flanders roads means we’re already losing sight of the front group we’re chasing. Then things get worse when Sebastian’s rear derailleur snaps. It has obviously been hit in the crash, but not enough to break at that moment: now it gives way under the load. He raises his arm and starts to pull over, all three of us slowing to a stop. I look behind and can’t even see the lead following car coming up in the distance – that could at least give me some hope of the team cars arriving before long. All I can see are random stragglers from the crash scattered along the road, some chasing desperately while others have clearly given up, almost thankful to be out of it.

It seems the race is over for Sebastian – all the support cars are still clogged up behind the crash and, being single-track roads, have no way past. We have no idea how long it will take for the car to get up to us. I look at Steele, then I look at Sebastian. I realise they’re a fairly similar size. I shout, ‘Give him your bike, Steele!’ Steele doesn’t hesitate, he hands it over. Sebastian doesn’t really know what to do, so I tell him, ‘Seba, you have to take his bike or the race is over. We’ll get your spare when we can.’ His head is clearly shot. He must be thinking, ‘That’s it, my race is done.’

He throws his bike in the ditch and jumps on Steele’s. Steele gives him a running push-off and Sebastian and I set off again, with Steele shouting, ‘Seba, my brakes are the other way around!’ We leave Steele to walk back to fetch the broken bike out of the ditch and wait for the team car, his race now finished.

We have a fairly long chase, mainly due to me wanting to pace it as steadily as possible in order to stop Sebastian making too much of an effort on my wheel – but also to show that I am calm and in control, knowing this will rub off on him and allow him to get his head back in the game. Eventually we make it back to what is left of the peloton – then, just as we join the back, there is another crash. Neither of us are involved but it blocks the road in front of us. I make it through on the grass but Sebastian is well and truly blocked behind. I continue to roll along, waiting for him to pick his way through and catch up so we can begin the chase anew.

It’s like Milan–San Remo all over again. I’m off the back doing an effort that would have taken me off the front of the peloton. Once we make it back on I wait until our team car is behind us and then drop back to explain what is going on. In these circumstances I always prefer to speak to Andreas directly rather than over the radio, and tell him we’ll change the bike as soon as the moment is right. This means the next big road, and when it’s clear the peloton is grouped and in a steady state. Sure enough, the moment comes and I tell Sebastian to stop, and we change his bike. Then, out of the blue, the peloton starts stretching out again, making it a total bastard to get him back on and up to the front. I drop Sebastian off a handful of kilometres before the second time up the Kwaremont. I’m deep in the red from the repeated chasing. I watch the race disappear up the road before we’ve even reached the dark red alarm. I’ve done my job; I can’t be too upset that my last Flanders is ending this way.

It’s quite an experience riding the next ten kilometres with my head disengaged from the race, because I get to look around and take in the carnage. There are riders everywhere. I catch up with guys who’ve had mechanicals, others who are injured from crashes. I see two riders who’ve missed a fast corner on a descent and are now sprawled in an adjacent field. Then there are guys flying by me, chasing like I was not long before. The motorbikes and official cars are screeching and honking, squeezing by all of us, while the whole time the buzz of overhead helicopters and nearby screaming fans fills our ears. I haven’t really paid attention to any of these things while in the race.

Before long there’s a little group of us riding along. When we get to the bottom of the next climb, the Koppenberg, there isn’t any hesitation: we all file left instead of right. I didn’t even know there was a short cut back to the finish. I look right, think about it, then go left with the others. I don’t need to finish. I’d rather keep the memory of the good times at Flanders than a long, lonely, sad slog to the finish. That isn’t necessary.

At the finish Finlay and Martin are waiting to film me as I cross the line. They follow me back to the bus. They aren’t expecting me so soon, but fortunately they get me arriving at the bus, so all isn’t lost. They then film a fair amount of footage of me sitting out the front of the team bus in my tracksuit, talking to fans and getting my photo taken a lot. Which is better than nothing, I suppose. Sebastian ends up finishing tenth, a brilliant result in the circumstances. It makes me feel like my final Flanders hasn’t been entirely wasted.